In the dark days of the early 1980s, anyone brave enough to ascend the volcanoes of El Salvador would have been accompanied by mortar fire and army helicopters. Although today the volcanic landscape is the most turbulent feature of El Salvador, and the bloodshed of the civil war finished over 15 years ago, even today it’s only intrepid travellers who find their way to the spectacular and little known country of El Salvador.
Lying on the Pacific Ring of Fire and with over 20 volcanoes in its small territory, El Salvador is in constant threat of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In this programme, host Brianna Barnes treks across the country's dramatic volcanic landscape, learning along the way that some volcanoes were used as guerrilla hideouts during the civil war.
Brianna starts her journey in El Salvador's vibrant capital, San Salvador. The city, built on the flanks of the San Salvador volcano, is in an area of great seismic activity. Few historic landmarks have survived as a result of regular earthquakes which have hit the city since it was established by the Spanish in 1525. She visits one of the sites where the scars left by the 2001 earthquake, in which 500 people died, are still visible.
Leaving the capital behind, Brianna heads to the National Volcano Park to climb the Izalco volcano. Once known as the Lighthouse of the Pacific, for its virtually constant eruptions which provided a night-time beacon for shipping off the coast, happily it hasn't erupted since 1966, and Brianna hopes things don’t begin to change while she’s up there!
Brianna then heads on to the spectacular El Imposible National Park, named for the perilous gorge across which coffee growers once had to transport their crop by mule from the plantations down to the coast. Here she meets up with all round action man Manolo Gonzalez, who teaches her how to jump high waterfalls and takes her on a mad mountain bike ride down to the coast.
From the coast, Brianna turns back towards the capital where she learns about the tragic history of the civil war that gripped El Salvador for over a decade. She continues on to the Guazapa volcano, which was the closest guerrilla stronghold to the capital during the civil war, to meet Marisol Galindo, a former guerrilla commander. On a horse trek, Marisol shows Brianna the remains of underground hideouts used to shelter from military attacks, bomb craters, destroyed villages and now overgrown guerrilla cemeteries.
Brianna’s final destination is the mighty Santa Ana volcano, the highest in El Salvador, which last erupted in 2005. Granted special permission to climb the still dangerous volcano, Brianna joins a team of vulcanologists climbing to the summit, who are monitoring the volcano's activity in the hope of getting prior warning in case the 7,800 feet high volcano blows its top again.
Atop Santa Ana, she ends her trip deeply affected by the beauty and power of El Salvador's majestic volcanoes, and by a people who have learned to cope with the uncertainty of living in their shadow.