Sightseeing The Volcanoes of Central America

Volcanos are a fact of life in Central America, a part of the world that has seen its share of natural beauty and natural disasters. This part of the hemisphere is actually part of the Ring of Fire, since so many volcanoes dot the landscape, and number in  the 20s in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua each, while Honduras has only four and Belize has none. They are as powerful in their destructiveness over time as they are in their beauty and contribution to Central America as a vital natural resource. They are a source of beauty along the Flower Route of El Salvador, verdant greenery to die for in Nicaragua, and their soil is a source of  rich and flavorful coffee throughout all the countries in the region, from Nicaragua to Honduras. Ancient Mayans had to deal with the destruction of the volcanoes, and throughout more modern history, so have the more current residents.

Some of the volcanoes are millions of years old (eleven million years, by one account), while others were formed as the result of eruptions and are not as old in terms of geologic time. I could not find documentation on the age of all the volcanoes I am referencing in this article, but it’s safe to say that they are old enough to have witnessed significant portions of Central American cultural and political history, while simultaneously making their own geologic history in the process.   Besides the decline of the Mayan civilization, more modern times have seen these volcanoes looking onward as the Spanish settlers came into conquer Central America and try to transform the Mayan culture. They have also overseen such transformative and politically seismic events as the revolution in Nicaragua which began in Granada with  much support from the residents of Leon; the influx of Germans who both were part of  the burgeoning coffee trade as well as refugees from Hitler’s Germany; a genocide of the Mayan people in the 1960s in Guatemala; the civil war in El Salvador and the upraising and eventual death of priests, nuns, and their followers for just trying to make life better for the  people in the 1980s; and the current process of reconciliation and healing.

I first encountered active volcanic activity in Guatemala in 2012. I spent a week in Antigua on a timeshare exchange, and before leaving, 17 towns and villages very close to Antigua had been evacuated because the lava was getting too close to the town and the people living there. Nearly 33,000 people had to flee when the Volcan del Fuego, six miles Southwest of Antigua and home to 45,000 people, spewed rivers of lava and blew ash for 12 hours. I heard about this eruption when it occurred in September that year, and paid close attention since I was due there in November. All was quiet when I arrived. But it is in fact, one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes.  Its growth started about 8,500 years ago following the collapse of another volcano. So by geologic standards’ it’s quite young and possibly just in the “terrible twos.”

Last year I took the trip Route of the Maya with Overseas Adventure Travel, and part of that adventure was another week in Guatemala. I was surprised to hear my guide mention that particular volcanic eruption since I didn’t fully understand at the time the magnitude of the eruption and how many had been effected. Yet while in Guatemala, we experienced no less than four volcanic eruptions, one right there in Antigua! The same volcano erupted  again while we were standing in front of Antigua’s most famous church. Not all eruptions are so significant that they require entire villages to flee. But to experience not just one, but four on a single trip was unforgettable.

Another one occurred as we were crossing Lake Atitlan from Panajachel in the Guatemala highlands, where three volcanoes lie within or in close proximity to the caldera. Volcan Atitlan lies on the southern rim of the caldera, while Volcan San Pedro and Volcan Toliman lie within the caldera. The lake is surrounded by these three volcanoes and is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, To experience a little seismic activity while there was probably not as unusual as it seemed at the time. Volcan Atitlan was most likely the one we saw going off of the three, since it remains the most active.

In both Nicaragua and El Salvador I saw smoke all the time coming from the local volcanoes. The Masaya Volcano, formed 2,500 years ago by anther volcanic eruption, is the one that generates so much tourist attention while in Nicaragua close to Managua. Anyone can walk right up to the rim of the volcano and see ashes and flames and lava any time of the day or night. For those who go at night, a line lie of cars sit and wait with their lights turned off so people can enjoy the full effect of the volcano at night. And mighty El Salvador has Volcano National Park not that far from the city of San Salvador. This park boasts three volcanoes that be easily seen once outside the city; Volcán de Izalco (formed in 1770 as the result of another volcanic eruption), Volcán Cerro Verde (now extinct but still part of the landscape), and Volcán de Santa Ana (also known as Cerro de la Vieja and the largest in EL Salvador)

Nowhere are the reminders of volcanic and seismic after effects more apparent then Antigua, Guatemala, where ruins from volcanoes and earthquakes over the years are part of the landscape. Volcanoes are also a great backdrop while dining in any of these locations. In Antigua in particular, where there are bars and restaurants everywhere, the volcano takes center stage, and restaurants are quite famous for sharing their rooftops as part of the dining experience. I was lucky enough to enjoy this during both of my trips to Guatemala.  The Sky restaurant and bar is one such restaurant, but there are many in Antigua. In the other countries, where you are outside the city, the setting is more rural and caters more to the outdoor verdant nature of the volcanic soil and nearby lakes and trees.  In all cases however, the volcanoes serve as an ever- present reminder that our lives are but a drop in the bucket in time, and these volcanoes have beaten us at our own game. Long after we are gone, they will continue even as mountains. Their history tells us that they will generate new active volcanoes after large eruptions. And although we may be long gone while they still remain, it pays to appreciate as travelers what these volcanoes have contributed to Central America; to hike in the nearby national parks, enjoy the mountainous  lookout points, and to enjoy the scenery they have afforded us. We may not realize while seeing them for the first time that they are an integral part of what we love while visiting Central America, but in fact they are. 

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