Lost in a Volcano Crater

| by Jason | 8 Comments » | Adventures, Central America, El Salvador

Laguna de Alegría

Laguna de Alegría

While staying in Alegría, El Salvador it’s necessary to visit Laguna de Alegría, a green hot spring fed sulfur lake inside the crater of volcano Tecapa that exudes mysticism.  From Alegría’s town center you can easily walk 45 minutes in sandals along a cobblestone road or hire a guide to take you on a 2-hour hike up and over the crater’s ridge then down to the lakes edge.  Of course, Aracely and I opted for the hike.  Our hostel recommended a local 21 year old to guide us with complete confidence.

We woke up the next morning and ate pupusas for breakfast, packed 2 liters of water and met our guide Tulio outside the hostel at 9:00am.  The hostel owner advised us that we could trek in sandals since the hike was brief and easy.  We didn’t wear boots, but we did choose something sturdier than sandals.  Aracely and I both strapped on our Teva hiking sandals instead and dressed in shorts and t-shirts.  We were told that at the foot of the lake was a tienda selling snacks and drinks, so it wasn’t necessary to pack any food.

As we walked away from the hostel, Tulio, our guide, began educating us on the history of Volcano Tecapa.  Coffee farms were plenty and we sucked on a few of the red ripe beans for energy, similar to the ways of the coffee harvesters.  The hike began slowly on easily traversed trails through coffee farms and then prairie landscapes as we neared the top of the volcano.  One of the most beautiful sites along the trail was the constant bright color from flower bushes and trees.  Once along the crater’s ridge we had several views down on the town of Alegría.  We crossed a radio tower patrolled by several military men and then turned left down into the crater via a vague trail.  It was 10:30am and our journey was about to begin.

Flowers on Volcano Tecapa

Flowers on Volcano Tecapa

We seemed to be following a trail for the first 30 minutes down the lush crater walls.  After that we were literally skiing down steep dirt slopes.  It was peculiar considering we were told we could hike in sandals.  A few slips on our butts and hands and the leisurely stroll quickly turned into an extremely difficult hike with no trails.  Our guide led the way with his dull wailing machete.  I laughed a few times and Aracely smiled; we were thrilled by the idea that this was a more challenging hike than we initially imagined.

An hour after we descended into the crater Tulio alerts us that we are off the trail we intended to take.  He explained that the farmers must have covered the trail with brush or the trail had naturally overgrown.  I guess it’s not traveled much during the low season.  No worries, we were with a local guide.  We moved on searching for the trail that would lead us to the crater lake.  All volcano craters aren’t created equal and this one was covered in thick forest, steep rock walls and was of significant size.  The crater walls were filled with v-shaped valleys, so in order to traverse around the crater in a circle you needed to hike large ‘W’ patterns along the crater walls to avoid the steep cliffs.  During our search we passed grazing horses and cows.  It’s hard to image how thick the forest was considering I just mentioned animals were grazing, but I assure you, I was as stunned as you are reading this.  We continued hiking and it soon became apparent to Aracely and I that Tulio was lost.  Our smiles disappeared, our stomachs growled of hunger and we began to question our guides’ next steps.

It was 12:30pm; we should have arrived at the lake at 11:00am.  We had finished 1 liter of water already, not expecting to hike long.  The trek had become so dangerous that for the first time I was scared not only for Aracely, but for myself.  I couldn’t handle the feeling of being scared and I started to become very frustrated.  Tulio climbed 10 meters up a tree to orient himself with the crater.  He was wearing a pair of jeans and worn through Vans and only carried 1 liter of water.  Looking for the power lines from the radio station that stood atop the crater, Tulio shouted to us that it was only 30 minutes to the power lines and then we can start over on the correct trail.  We faithfully followed his lead, traversing the crater’s walls to the power lines.

I stepped on a log that collapsed like a booby trap and covered my boot in termite infested wood dust.  A black scorpion grazed my hand as I cleared some dirt off a rock for gripping.  Tulio said we were lucky the snakes weren’t out today, because they are extremely poisonous; I was pleased to know that the scorpions were not.  Our Teva hiking sandals were not meant for this hike.  We constantly had to remove them to shake out the dirt and rocks caught between our feet and the sandal’s bottom.  I haven’t figured out what these overly engineered sandals are designed for, besides walking around town.  Even in rivers they seem to trap every little pebble.  Long pants would have also been a great benefit, since thorns gave us cuts and scraps on our legs.  More important than all those luxuries is the need for food and water.  My energy was draining quickly.  We hadn’t eaten in over 5 hours and we stopped drinking our remaining water for fear of not getting out of the forest before the sun set at 5:30pm.

An hour after we began to look for power lines, Tulio, using his cellular phone, called the hostel for advice.  Aracely listened in on the conversation.  He was clearly lost and they couldn’t help him much considering he didn’t know where he was.  I feared Tulio was still trying to get to the lake.  At this point, I wanted out of the forest and didn’t care about the lake at all.  Tulio knew we were upset and he was too.  He kept quiet.  Most frustrating for us was the fact that Tulio did not know this mountain.  I asked Aracely to explain to Tulio that we wanted off the mountain as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, he was still trying to get us down the crater, so we quickly switched directions and headed straight up.  After 15 minutes we ran into thick bush that we couldn’t get through.  We backtracked, then went up again in a different direction.  This time we scaled a rock wall that tested my rock climbing ability.  I made it, paused and told Aracely we are not going to do anything like that again.  It was too dangerous and getting hurt on this mountain would only make the situation worse.

We continuously ran into obstacles and couldn’t climb straight up out of the crater.  Tulio received a phone call from the hostel and they recommended he circle back around the inside of the crater, from where we began and search for a road the locals use connecting the towns of Alegría and Santiago de Maria.  That meant it would take another 2 hours possibly to go back in the same direction we came from.  We began to make the journey.  It was now 2:00pm and we were becoming mentally drained.  The hike back was just as difficult, because we couldn’t find the path we had cut initially.  I was carrying Aracely’s backpack at this point and we kept the two water bottles in the side pockets.  During a muddy ascent up a steep wall, one of the bottles fell out.  I decided to take off the backpack and attempt to recover it.  Once I reached the bottle, I realized I needed both hands to scale back up the muddy slope.  Tulio had climbed half way down to where I was so I threw him the bottle.  It was a bad choice.  I should have put the bottle in my shirt.  My throw was short and the bottle fell again, this time farther, to unknown bottom.  Tulio adamantly offered to retrieve it, but I insisted he not.  I know he felt bad about the situation, but it wasn’t worth putting our selves in danger again.  The bottle stayed.  As I climbed back up and grabbed the backpack again I realized it had an 8-inch slice through the main compartment.  The thorns must have cut right through it as it scraped the hedges we crawled under.

Merlin Edith (a local child) on Volcano Tecapa

Merlin Edith (a local child) on Volcano Tecapa

After hiking another hour we reached a road!  It was a great feeling of relief and a sure sign we weren’t spending the night on the volcano.  Confidently, we marched down the road to what I believed was going to eventually be the lake.  We came to a few crossroads and our guide hesitantly chose a direction and we went with it.  After only 30 minutes walking along the cobblestone winding road, our guide began to knock on the metals doors of some rural dwellings.  To help put it into perspective, these were extremely primitive huts where peasant families lived on the volcano surrounded by thick forest.  The doors granted access to their property and were sometimes far from the actual house.  There were no answers to our knocks.  We were still lost.

We walked for several kilometers up and down steep grades, passing locals carrying water and wood to their homes on cattle and horses.  I had reached total exhaustion and sat on the road for a rest.  It was clear to me that we needed to collect fruit for the night.  I asked Aracely to communicate to Tulio our need for food and water for the evening.  By his reaction, it appeared that Tulio still felt confident we were going to make it out before dusk.  It was 3:30pm and the sun would be setting in 2 hours.  Our guide stopped as we neared some drum playing in the distance.  Seizing the opportunity to rest, I sat on the road again.  This is not a road traveled by vehicles so there is no risk of being run over.  After speaking with some locals passing by Tulio informed us that we were close to a neighboring city of Alegría, named Santiago de Maria.  Aracely asked if there were buses in Santiago de Maria that we could take to Alegría.  The local responded yes.  This was it… a way out.  As the locals left, Aracely and I were already walking to the next town.  Tulio halted us and explained that the drums in the background came from the homes of bandits.  This was a gut wrenching feeling.  He gave us the choice of walking through the neighborhoods of bandits, risking losing our camcorder and SLR camera and our safety, or heading in the other direction towards what should be Alegría.  Aracely was willing to make the short hike to Santiago de Maria to ensure we escape the volcano before dusk, but I wasn’t comfortable risking our safety and equipment.  I would rather sleep on the volcano than knowingly risk her safety.  Tulio didn’t want to take us the route of the bandits either and was relieved we decided to return in the direction we came.

As we walked uphill heading to one of the first crossroads we encountered while hiking on the road, Aracely and I continually fell behind Tulio, struggling to maintain enough energy.  After passing fruit trees earlier in the hike, I couldn’t believe there was none to be found when we needed it most.  We arrived at the crossroad and headed down a new route; this time through a locals property with their permission.  She explained that Alegría was about 3 kilometers away and a difficult walk.  A hint of hope began to emerge amongst us.  Tulio was able to find a local to provide him some water, but unfortunately for Aracely and I, we couldn’t risk drinking the local water for fear of getting ill.  It was 4:00pm and Tulio shouts to us that we have arrived.  Arrived at what, we thought.  The area seemed no different than the last 2 hours, with no town in sight.  More specifically, he knew the road, and knew we would make it off the volcano before dusk.  Relieved, we all dropped the large rocks we had been carrying for defense.  30 minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to the crater lake and the tienda for drinks and snacks.  We ordered two sugar drinks and three waters to share between the three of us.  My body changed immediately.  You gain a strong understanding of the importance of food and water during extreme activity.  After regaining strength and mental motivation we told Tulio we had no desire to visit the lake today, we just wanted to get home.

Laguna de Alegría in Volcano Tecapa

Laguna de Alegría in Volcano Tecapa

Along the road back to Alegría, we purchased three oranges from a local girl and savored the sweetness of comfort.  Comfort knowing our challenges were done for the day and no one was injured. We arrived home at 4:45pm, 45 minutes before dusk.  We would return the next day to experience the sulfur lake, known as Laguna de Alegría, minus the 7.5-hour hike.

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Written by Jason

Co-founder of TwoBackpackers.com. Jason has been traveling, writing, taking photos and creating adventure videos since 2009, when he departed on his first year long travel backpacking journey. Jason is a full-time blogger and social marketing guru trying to find the way. Visit my website

8 Responses to “Lost in a Volcano Crater”

  1. Dave says:

    I can’t say I’ve had a getting lost experience this bad, but I do know what it is like to wonder when a supposedly quick hike will end!

    “I haven’t figured out what these overly engineered sandals are designed for, besides walking around town.”

    You just saved me $120 someday. Thanks!

    • Jason says:

      I hate that feeling of being lost and unprepared. At least we all made it out. The Teva Hiking sandals have the covered rubber toes for protection, but they always trap dirt and gravel between the sole and your foot. We are constantly taking them off to shake out the rocks. They also hold bad odors. After walking in the river, the took a long time to dry and ended up stinking for a while. They are probably good for dry rock climbing, but not much else.

  2. Shannon ODonnell says:

    That gave me goosebumps! I am so glad that you guys made it out safely.

  3. Nomadic Matt says:

    poisonous or not- I still wouldn’t want to get stung by a scorpion

  4. Brendan Kane says:

    Yo. Sounds like you two are having a great time with some “interesting” adventures! Learning the hard way that there are always a few essentials to bring along a hike isn’t fun, but you’ll never forget it! Oh, well. At least everything turned out ok in the end.~~By the way, gut used to the local alarm clocks in rural areas. (I had a rooster right outside my window in Puerto Rico. Flippin’ loud, aren’t they!)

  5. Jason says:

    I agree Brian, it’s hard to vet a guide. In this situation I blame the hostel for recommending the young guide. The hostel should take more responsibility in ensuring the safety of their clients. We communicated our concerns after the trek.

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