A Little Risk, Stunning Reward in El Salvador

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 22, 2009

I want to tell you about climbing a volcano in El Salvador. More specifically, I want to tell you about this one particular volcano, a perfect cone called Izalco, which rises above green fields of corn and coffee looking dark and primeval and slightly otherworldly. I want to tell you how, in the crater, you can stand among fumaroles that surround you with steam, and how it feels like a natural sauna in the clouds. But before I tell you about all that, I must confess to breaking one of my personal rules of travel. The rule is this: Never climb a volcano in El Salvador.

Yes, it's a little particular. But 10 years ago, I interned at a tiny magazine in Costa Rica. While there, I kept meeting travelers who had passed through El Salvador. They all told versions of the same story: guns everywhere, lots of crime, robbed at machete-point while climbing a volcano. Seriously, just like that, and almost always with the machete detail, which is the sort of thing you remember. Central America's civil wars were drawing to a close in the 1990s, but El Salvador always seemed like the one destination that still didn't justify the risk.

But do you know the great thing about self-imposed rules? They are really easy to break. The gratification quickly proved substantial: At 6,398 feet, Izalco sits in stunning Volcanoes National Park, which includes two taller volcanoes and sweeping views. My hike to the top had led through a tropical forest, up a slope of black lava rocks and through cool, misty clouds. Near the top, steam hissed from the ground and stained the rocks a sulfuric yellow. At one corner of the crater, it fogged my glasses and hid the cumulus clouds lumbering past.

I felt exhilarated and totally safe: not a machete in sight.

Of course, my sense of safety had something to do with the police officers perched on a nearby rock. As all climbers must, my group had ascended with a police escort, two men with holstered guns and neat uniforms. The police are now mandatory, government-provided security, and their cost is included in a few dollars of park entry fees. I mainly ignored them up top, spending 30 minutes hiking Izalco's rim and imagining the country spread out below. I knew it had top-tier surf breaks, a handful of small nature preserves and mountain trails guided by former guerrilla fighters. My worries had not disappeared, but they were fading into excitement and anticipation.

Finally, the officers yelled that it was time to head down.

I wasn't ready to leave, but I wasn't about to argue. This is a rule you should keep: Always listen to your guides, especially if they're packing heat.

* * *

A bit smaller than Massachusetts, El Salvador is Central America's smallest and most densely populated country. It sits on the region's Pacific underbelly, offering 200 miles of tropical coastline, more than 20 volcanoes and a reputation for violence that has discouraged tourists for decades.

From 1980 to 1992, the country suffered through a vicious civil war that sent tens of thousands of refugees to the United States and elsewhere. Many came to the D.C. area, where the Salvadoran population eventually swelled to an estimated 500,000. Salvadorans are now the area's largest immigrant group and part of Washington's social fabric.

Unfortunately, problems have persisted in the country they left behind. When the war ended, Salvadorans barely had time to breathe before the arrival of powerful gangs, notably Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. Originally formed among refugee communities in Los Angeles, the gangs spread south via deportations. They bear much responsibility for El Salvador's murder rate, which is one of the highest in the world.

Okay, now take a deep breath. I felt safer in El Salvador than in many parts of neighboring Guatemala, a country that positively swarms with tourists despite similar crime and gang problems. El Salvador is also working on the issue: The government has significantly expanded its tourist police in the past few years, and if the escorts on my volcano hike are any indication, its officers are helpful and trustworthy.

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