After debating whether or not to wear hiking shoes for what we thought was a simple day hike to a laguna, Dani and I headed out front of our hostel in Alegria, El Salvador to meet our guide for the day, Walter. This bright, energetic young man with a twinkle in his eye stopped sharpening his machete long enough to shake our hands and exchange initial pleasantries, in spite of his potential weapon.
We were very excited for this hike, which was offered to us by Roberto, the friendly owner of Entre Piedras hostel in the small mountain town of Alegria. After a few rather disappointing days on El Salvador’s Costa del Sol, we had finally arrived to the village which our trusty guidebook had lauded as one of the most picturesque in the country, and home to the Alegria Volcano and Crater Lake just 2km outside of town.
At breakfast the day before, Roberto described a hike that would lead us through lush coffee plantations, high up onto the volcano ridge surrounding the laguna, and after circling the crater and catching spectacular views of nearby volcanoes, mountains and across all the way to the Pacific Coast, would lead us down into the sulfur lake with hot springs. The days we spent on the beaches had been particularly lazy, and with a great desire to get active, Roberto had us at the word ‘hike’.
This is how we found ourselves at 8am with Walter, and Roberto who decided to tag along, wondering about our judgment to head into the El Salvadorian wilderness with two men and a machete. Roberto had a fairly sharp knife clipped to his belt, too. ‘For fruits we find on the way,’ he explained. ‘And the machete?’ Somehow, this question never escaped my tongue, as Dani and I simultaneously considered being nervous for about half a minute, but instead decided to trust our gut – and Walter’s contagious grin. We set off through the streets to the base of the mountain.
The start was a steep 45 minute uphill hike through coffee plantations, and we panted like dogs through some interesting conversations about the coffee industry in El Salvador. Once at the top, we were rewarded by terrific views, as promised, and Walter showed us the route we would take around the entire crater top then down to the lake. Looking at the emerald green sulfur lake below and enjoying the breeze, the remaining walk didn’t seem too hard.
We continued easily along well worn paths, arriving after another 20 minutes to a guard station on top of a small hill. The soldiers inside, in their underwear and brushing their teeth, didn’t seem to be guarding much at all, though the bullet holes blasted into the cement on the side were reminders of the long-term civil war which ravished the country from 1979 – 1992.
Just past the guard station, the path abruptly ended. Had I asked about what the machete was actually for before we set off, we would have learned that we were the first hikers to do the walk after the winter rainy season, and that the path had disappeared under branches, trees, and overgrown plants. Walter began hacking his way through the bushes and branches, magically following a path which the three of us did not see. Luckily, we didn’t find out until after the hike that the area was filled with scorpions, snakes and other little critters.
Suddenly, instead of solid ground, we were confronted with boulders piled up in front of us, and the only way to go was to hop and scramble from boulder to boulder like professional rock climbers – or Super Mario Brothers. Good thing we chose to wear our hiking shoes that morning. What had been a fairly easy hike had now turned in to a mountaineering session, with Walter holding our hands as we ascended and descended with one hand, while whacking at thick branches and tangled bushes in front of him with the other.
Finally, after five strenuous hours and a steep slippery gravel descent, we took in the smell of the sulfur lake while eating bananas and taking a very well-deserved break. On our return to town we took a different path, through a private coffee plantation, past workers collecting beans and children picking and crushing walnuts to share with us. Though we never intended on becoming mountaineers, we both felt sure, as we nibbled our walnuts, that the adventure was well worth the challenge.