I headed to Zacatecoluca from El Tunco unsure exactly how I would climb San Vincente volcano (2182 metres). I knew it was possible from the north side but since I was approaching from the south I was looking for an alternate route. Google maps shows a road leading north from Zacatecoluca that passes to the west of the main peaks over a saddle that sits 1000 metres lower. My plan was to cycle up this road and stay in Guadalupe the night before, hiking the remaining altitude to the summit the next day. My plans changed after talking to the locals in Zacatecoluca, armed robbery was common on this road. I headed to the local police station to find out more; amazingly they agreed to escort me up the mountain. (Side note: Zacatecoluca sits at only 149 metres above sea level so the next day was going to be over 2 km of vertical climbing; a fair amount of effort.)
The next morning I found myself climbing by bicycle a rough / cobble-stoned road for over one and half hours to the village of El Chile, being followed by two armed policeman on a motorbike. Aware of my considerably low speed on such gradients I pushed myself hard so as to hold them up as little as possible. By the time it reached 7 am the temperature was rocketing and my hands were slipping all over the handlebars covered in sweat. At one point they paused and forcefully waved me on to continue when another motorbike passed. This was the crime hotspot and they stood there waiting to see if anyone was following, rifles ready.
Once we reached El Chile, another couple of armed policemen replaced the first two and I left my bike in the station to continue on foot. After a few hours of scrambling through partially trackless overgrown bush and steep terrain we arrived at the top, on one of the lower San Vincente peaks. This was disappointing since the highest peak looked about two hours hiking through dense forest and we were out of food and water. I had known there were multiple peaks but trusted that we were climbing the higher one after checking with the first two policemen. After such enormous effort to get there we left unsatisfied gambling on an alternate route that didn’t pay off. It ended up being a 5 hour hike to San Lucia and we arrived 11 hours after I started cycling that morning. The chief of police and about 6 armed policemen picked us up and we headed up 1 hour to El Chile pick up my bike and they dropped me back in Zacatecoluca.
After a certain amount of time considering whether or not to re-climb San Vincente I left the next day pretty disappointed to have made so much effort and not have climbed the highest peak. It was boiling and before long started to rain hard and I ended up camping on a farm after a short distance.
The next day I continued on, still disappointed about not having reached the highest peak of San Vincente. Several kilometres down the road, I crossed a wide river with nice views of the proceeding volcano chain and I turned round for a last glimpse of San Vincente. It’s prominence from the surrounding landscape astounded me. An immense cone shaped volcano with a twin peak dwarfing the surrounding landscape by up to 2 kilometres. I was gripped by it’s beauty and vastness. My brain told me to continue but my heart so desperately wanted to turn back, cycle round the entire volcano and ascend from the other side. I continued on, I had 14000 kms to go to Patagonia, there’d be other volcanoes.
My zig-zagging through El Salvador continued as I climbing up to Alegria through San Augustin and Berlin following a well maintained dirt track. A very pleasant route with virtually no traffic, it took my mind off San Vincente for a while. In San Augustin a passing policeman warned me of the perils of going this way: ‘hay ladrones, van a asaltarle’ – ‘there are thieves, they’re going to assault you’ . Any fears rapidly vanished however after I headed to the police station and the chief of police said it was very remote but assaults were not prevalent. As I reached the top, I stopped at the vista point and admired the impressive view. I could identify the twin peaks of San Vincente, now over 50 kilometres away and once more I agonized over what it would have been like to cycle round the other side and stand on its mighty peak.
Alegria is a quaint town with friendly locals and I’m told is completely untouched by the ‘delincuencia’ that troubles so much of El Salvador. The parents guard their children from being absorbed into the national gangs thus avoiding a life of crime and potentially prison.
There is a short hike up to the beautiful Laguna de Alegría that sits inside the crater of Tecapa volcano. The local kids were playing football there outside the school. It must be one of the most scenic locations in the world to have a school.
None of this healed me from my burning desire to climb San Vincente, how did something have such a strong pull over me? Finally I decided I’d return to climb it. The next day I headed down the steep hill from Alegria via an alternate route; after suffering significantly in the powerful sun I hitched the remainder of the way back to Zacatecoluca. I was picked up immediately after reaching out to a passing pick-up truck with bicycles in it. After filling up with supplies I headed round the mountain clockwise, hitching to Santiago Nonualco then cycling to Verapaz via San Pedro Nonualco. A quiet road with some nice views of the peaks on reaching the other side. It was dark by the time I arrived at the police station. The tourist police had connected me with them to escort me up the mountain (a free service). I slept on the floor and at 5am four policeman picked me up and we drove to Tepetitan and halfway up the volcano. As we started ascending on foot I could see already wispy clouds appearing on the top, a view would be unlikely by the time we arrived. Unfortunately the two policeman that were escorting me were immensely unfit reducing our chances of a view to virtually zero since the clouds nearly always move in late morning.
Sure enough it was cloudy when we reached the top, although occasionally we were teased by short gaps between the clouds. But I descended San Vincente yet again disappointed. I considered climbing it again (!) but decided I had spent enough time on the volcano. There was so much more ahead of me. I headed towards San Miguel, my next volcano and the third highest in El Salvador which turned out to be one of the hardest nights of my trip so far after being hit by lightning (next post).