Introducing Parque Nacional Los Volcanes
This park (admission US$1; h8am-5pm) is a natural treasure, encompassing three major volcanoes (Cerro Verde, Volcán Santa Ana and Volcán Izalco) and thousands of hectares. It's a major bird sanctuary, with many migratory species passing through, including emerald toucanets, jays, woodpeckers, motmots and 17 species of hummingbird.
Active Volcán Izalco is the youngest in the group. Its cone began forming in 1770 from a belching hole of sulfuric smoke and today stands 1910m high. Izalco erupted throughout the 20th century, spewing smoke, boulders and flames and earning its reputation as 'the lighthouse of the Pacific.' Today, this bare, perfect cone stands devoid of life in an otherwise fertile land.
Without Izalco's stark drama but 400m higher, Santa Ana (also known as Ilamatepec) is El Salvador's third highest point. Its eruption in October, 2005 triggered landslides that killed two coffee pickers and forced the evacuation of thousands. The barren and windy summit affords spectacular views of a steep drop into the crater on one side and Lago Coatepeque on the other.
Assaults used to be a major problem, but the park service has instituted a mandatory guide service. Tourist police are posted along the trails and at the summits. Crime has dropped dramatically, but you should not hike solo.
Four-hour guided hikes to either volcano (Izalco US$1; Santa Ana US$1.80) begin at 11am only so don't arrive late! This also means you can't do both in one day. Wear sturdy shoes. A short alternative is a 40-minute nature trail which offers views of the lake and Volcán Santa Ana. It starts in the parking lot.