Lake Ilopango: Diving Another Central American Volcanic Lake

EL SALVADOR–Pacific Paradise dive boat on the shores of Lake Ilopango. Fuji X100f.

By Andrew J. Tonn

SAN SALVADOR – Sometimes it is hard to get a sense of terrain and space while driving.  You know you are on a road, in the desert, or mountains, or a forest.  You know you are going somewhere, but the overall picture is indistinct, at least until later when you look at the map, your photos, your memories, and piece the whole thing together.

This is not the case for the road between San Salvador and Guatemala City.  I had never driven the route in my own car but had taken it several times in a bus, from one city to the other and back again.  Leaving Guatemala City you travel up and over the mountains through a misty zone of pines and hardwood, crossing the rim of mountains separating the two Central American countries.  When you crest the mountains, you drop down to a hot plain that calls to mind parts of Texas and Mexico, distinct from the cool Mayan highlands.  The highway is not straight but somehow feels that way.  Up and over the mountains, across the plains and valleys, a stop at the border, across a river, and into El Salvador.  The road continues on, close to the coast but never so close as to see the ocean, until you join the sprawl of San Salvador or turn off somewhere along the way.

We turned off along the way, west towards the ocean, until finally the deep blue Pacific appeared like a lake hovering between a gap in the mountains.  There were signs for La Libertad and Surf City and I rolled down the windows, turned off the AC, and the heat and smell of the sea and the land flowed through the car.  I was traveling with two friends who both worked at La Iguana Perdida on the shores of Lake Atitlan: Danny from Switzerland and Giada from Italy.  Danny was one of the Dive Instructors who I had been training with.  In a few weeks he was pulling up stakes and moving on to Indonesia.  Giada was the hotel manager, not a diver, and just wanted to see El Salvador.  Over the last months I had been researching different places to dive in the region.  My own dive experience is somewhat unusual.  I had been certified at Lake Atitlan some 15 years ago and had recently completed my Advanced and Rescue Diver courses on the way to beginning my Dive Master.  While I have been underwater in the Caribbean and elsewhere, a huge part of my diving has been at that curious, cold, beautiful, and murky Mayan lake.  Danny was about to finish up the better part of a year leading nearly daily dives in Atitlan and had been underwater there several hundred times.

Not that freshwater diving is that unusual an activity, but many, if not most recreational divers get their certificates somewhere tropical and salty.  They might, if traveling through, do a dive or two in Atitlan out of curiosity and, according to the instructors, even experienced divers sometimes struggle with the cold fresh water where it’s hard to see, the air is thinner, and buoyancy more difficult.

EL SALVADOR — On dive site Cerro Quemado in Lake Ilopango. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

Danny and I were both fascinated by the prospect of diving in another Central American volcanic lake and we were signed up to do two dives in Lake Ilopango.  Ilopango, like Attitlan, is a caldera, the result of a massive volcanic explosion.  Both lakes are quite deep, with Atitlan at about 1,120 feet and Ilopango at around 755 feet.  Atitlan’s massive eruption occurred some 80,000 years ago but Ilopango only between 410 and 535 AD which would have a great effect on life in the region and perhaps affecting the climate around the world.  Atitlan is in a rural part of Guatemala, is surrounded by three massive volcanic cones, and stands at 5,125 feet at lake level.  Ilopango, at only 1,480 feet, feels peaceful and remote at lakeside, but is basically within San Salvador.  Both are beautiful places though nothing I have ever seen can compare to Atitlan and its phantasmagoric clouds, mountains, and colors.  Another difference is that Ilopango has both islands and rock formations piercing the surface of the lake.  Atitlan had at least one island in the distant past, submerged a millennia or more ago.  But that’s all on the surface.  We were interested in what lay below.

EL SALVADOR — Down in Lake Ilopango. GoPro Hero 8 Black.

We were staying on the coast at the Pelicano Surf Camp, a two-story shack, open to the heat, breeze, and mosquitoes and full of backpackers, surfers, and the sound of waves.  Longboards lined the rafters, and the sand floor of the downstairs bar and common area was a menagerie of dogs, cats, and chickens.  There were tents pitched on the floors and people lounged in hammocks.  Giada had a bed in a dorm room.  Danny and I shared a private room, made private by the addition of a bedsheet strung on cord.  I was reminded of the line from many an action movie about being too old for this, but I took off my sandals, put on my bathing suit and found an empty hammock.  I opened a book.  A chicken was staring at me.  Life could be worse.

Danny had arranged the dives with San Salvador-based Pacific Paradise Divers and I was up before dawn the next morning.  The mosquitoes of El Salvador seemed to treat repellant as a delicious DEET-based sauce.  It was tropical hot even in the early hours of the morning, the bed was somehow both too hard and too soft, and there was a cat sleeping by my head.  We had to arrive at the dive shop by 0730 anyway after close to an hour drive into the city.  There was no point in sleeping in.  Sunrises on Salvadoran beaches are worth getting up for and I cleared my head jogging in the surf line.

The unfamiliar drive went better than I had hoped for, albeit with some flexible interpretation of local traffic laws.  We pulled into the lot, knocked on the door, and were greeted like old friends by Henry and Nuria.  I paid for my dives, helped load tanks into Henry’s old pickup, bought the T-shirt, chatted with some of the other divers, and we headed out following Henry to Lake Ilopango.  It took about an hour to cross the city and some more creative driving along the way, but soon enough we were on the shores of the lake.  It was a fine, sunny day with a strong breeze bringing the waves up.

The waves meant we wouldn’t be able to dive certain sites where it was difficult to get the anchor to hold.  It wasn’t a huge boat but big enough to hold our second tanks.  At Atitlan the diving is from a small, open lancha.  You enter the boat fully geared up except for fins, roll out and pull yourself back in over the low gunwale.  Being used to that rather austere experience made the day with Pacific Paradise Divers seem positively luxurious.  A ladder to get back in the boat you say?  A banana to eat after the dive?  I feel like Thurston Howell III in a wetsuit! (I mean no offence to AtiDivers at Atitlan, by the way, their style of boat diving there is exactly appropriate to the conditions!)

We loaded the tanks and gear and headed out to a jagged formation of rocks breaking through the blue water.  The site was called Cerro Quemado and there were several other dive boats nearby.  We rolled into the water and we swam a hundred feet or so to where Henry had told us we would dive.  There is always that moment of thrill and apprehension descending into a new and unknown site and I think it was particularly special for Danny and myself who had spent so much time diving in another, very special, Central American lake.  Ilopango was different and I think for divers less familiar with Atitlan, the differences might have been small but for us they were significant.  The water was clearer and there were schools of fish everywhere.  The water had a different smell and taste and was warmer.  The plants and algae growing on the rocks were different and though it was no Caribbean reef there were some subtle reds and other colors as opposed to Atitlan’s palette of greens and greys.

We descended to around 90 feet and there were a series of religious sculptures.  It was the first time I had seen manmade statues intentionally placed in the deep.  I had always thought the idea a little silly but there in the cool, dark depths of the Central American lake I found looking upon the cross, and Mary, various Saints, and the outstretched arms of the Savior curiously affecting.  There was something indescribably about kneeling on the rocky bottom, almost 100 feet below the surface, and saying a brief prayer to nothing but the sound of my own breath, that I find impossible to fully describe.  We explored the rock formations, searched for freshwater crabs, and swam through clouds of small fish until it was time to come up. 

EL SALVADOR — On the boat after the first dive, heading to our second where we circumnavigate Isla de Amor underwater.  GoPro Hero 8 Black.

The boat took us over to a small island near the shore.  The islet was perhaps 200 feet across and 100 or so feet high, a lump of tree covered stone called, “La Isla de Amor,” the island of love, accompanied by the local expression, “Two go up, and three come down.”  This turned out to be one of my favorite dives ever because of its form.

We rolled in just 15 0r 20 feet offshore in shallow water, descended to perhaps 30 feet, then swam around the Island of Love, going clockwise keeping the slope off the right shoulder.  In general, I love the idea of going around geographic features, sailing around the globe, circumnavigating bodies of water, circumambulating lakes and mountains.  It was an elegantly simple dive and great fun trying to mentally gauge how far one had come around an island one had only just seen on the surface and never before from below.  We passed the boat’s anchor line with plenty of air remaining, swam a bit farther, retracing part of the circle, then turned back and came up.

After removing our gear, several of us climbed the hill in our wetsuits, dripping lake water on the stone steps.  It didn’t seem that romantic a spot to me, but the view was nice, the sun was hot, and there was a good wind.  I thought I very much wanted to come back, to dive Ilopango again, see some of the other sites and maybe swim around the Island of Love another time. 

Central America Once Again

DEPARTAMENTO DE COPAN–While out in the backcountry of Copan Department, Honduras documenting medical brigades for a public health NGO in 2001, I found myself surrounded by a group of curious children. More and more kids gathered, wondering what the kinds inside the crowd were looking at. It was only me but I felt, just a little bit, like a camera-toting Elvis. Nikon F3, Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, Ilford HP5.

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUATEMALA CITY — There may be no place in the world more familiar to me than where I am now, here, back in Central America.  At this point I have lived abroad longer than in my hometown (at least in recent years) and anyway, my hometown isn’t my hometown.

A long time ago I wrote a story, which I will reprint here soon, called, “The Long Central American Goodbye.”  The title recalled a specific memory but in a broader sense how I was unable to say goodbye, how each trip to the region led to the next trip, each of them both expanding my explorations and revisiting places I had been before, getting to know them in a deeper, more complete way.  My experiences in Central America, centered around my work as a reporter and documentary photographer, led me directly to Sweden and Ukraine and in ways I consider those side journeys along the greater arc of my time in Central America.  As I write this I will clarify that by Central America I mean the three countries, so much in the news lately, referred to as “The Northern Triangle,”Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  I hope to visit the other countries that make up the region: Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but for the moment I am living in Guatemala and, with both Covid and work, more extensive travel is somewhere out in the future.

So it feels both strange and completely normal that I am here in Guatemala and writing about Central America.  It feels inevitable, to tell the truth, and only strange because this time I am here with my family, kids, dog, car, stuff, and a job that pays slightly better than itinerant documentary photographer.  So it is more than just me and a backpack, camera bag, and whatever organization I was working for but that feels pretty natural as well.  That was my life then and this is my life now, a life that has taken me to India and Nepal and Mexico and other places, unconnected to those previous adventures.  Those were not side trips from Central America as were Sweden and Ukraine because I had the rare grace in life to satisfactorily finish a thing.  I long had the idea that I wanted to do a photo exhibit of large format prints, a retrospective showing the best images from all my trips to Central America, not focusing on one country or one relief organization.  After I got married and was living in Columbus, Ohio I met Gina, an art agent who became a great friend and made that show happen.  I exhibited more than 40 images, blown up to 20 by 30 inches (or more) interspersed with textiles and carvings and other artifacts I acquired along the way.  I even made a last trip down, not long before the opening, to make a few images that had never been seen before.  It neatly tied the whole thing up, ended more than ten years of work and wandering.  As I said black then, that didn’t mean I will never come back here, but it meant that cycle of trips, that time in my life, was over and I could go forward to new things.  Which I did.  Not too many months later we were in India.  Two and a half years after that we were in Mexico, complete with a full Spanish language course.  Two and a half years after that and I am sitting here in Guatemala City writing these words.  Hello again and goodbye to all that.

A Single Photo: The Baba of the Cave in the Last Village in India

MANA, INDIA–The Baba of the Cave greets pilgrims and gives blessings to those who ask from an ancient cave in Mana.  Mana is a village in Uttarakhand, a few kilometers from the major pilgrimage center of Badrinath.  The small village, roughly 40 kilometers from the Tibetan Plateau, and often referred to as, “The Last Village in India,” has an outsized presence in Hindu mythology.  It is not far from the headwaters of the Alakananda River, which along with the Bhagirithi, is one of the two major tributaries that join to form the mighty Ganges.  Leica M-P 240, 50mm F/2 Zeiss Planar ZM.

Out of the Mountains and Down to the Sea

MONTERRICO, GUATEMALA–Looking out to the Pacific. The coast of Guatemala feels like an entirely different world than the highlands. Fuji X-Pro1, 7 Artisans 18mm f/6.3
UFO lens

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERRICO — The road straightens out after the turns and twists of the highlands and it feels like you are sliding towards the coast down a palm-lined slide.  The change comes on suddenly.  You have fought the traffic to get free of Guatemala City and corkscrewed down the mountain.  You are in one environment and then you are in another.  Mountain trees give way to the vegetation of Central America’s low, hot plains.  When you roll down the windows the cool, thin air is now thick with heat and water and the smells of the coast.  Slow-water mangrove swamps, fish, sweat, palms, corn, coconut, salt, oil, smoke, and the sea.  Your hands relax on the wheel and your foot comes off the gas and the sun is a different kind of bright.

There is an enervating quality to the Guatemalan highlands.  They exist in a state of semi-dreaming, a relatively vast region of transition.  There are places where the vale between worlds seems thinner, where you feel the hand of the Creator and that you might step through to somewhere else if not careful.  I have felt this in Varanasi, in parts of the Navajo Nation, in Oaxaca, and once in a strange thicket of woods in central Ohio.  But the whole of the Guatemalan Highlands has this feel of being not entirely of the physical realm, a place of smoking volcanoes, water, and clouds between two vast continent, hot and fertile, cold and rocky, crushed into a narrow isthmian land by the fist of God Almighty.

You often don’t realize you have been living in this waking dream until you leave.  The sun in Antigua is hot and bright and will burn you like Icarus, so you stay to cool shadows.  Purple flowers fall from trees like rain.  The mountain nights grow cold and sometimes you see red lava glowing on black volcanoes.  The longer you spend at Lake Atitlan, the harder it is to escape.  You are deep in the crater of an ancient volcano, with the water filling it deeper still.  Every moment the clouds change, the surface of the lake changes, the wind brings a different feeling and after long, the act of packing up and finding transport and lifting oneself out of the caldera seems just a little too hard.  It is one of my favorite places but I determined long ago I would never be fully seduced by it.  It is not my native home nor do I desire to make it so.  It is my favorite place but I always feel an almost breathless relief upon leaving it, feel the spell of suddenly broken and it is later hard to remember exactly how it felt and what kept you in thrall.

So it is leaving the mountains for the coast.  When you see the palm trees and smell the sweet bitter salt of the ocean, you are free of the mountain’s glamour.  Under the mountain’s spell you seem relaxed but you are under an unrealized tension, existing in a liminal space where maybe we are not made to spend to long, at least not without surrender.  Maybe if you eat the lotus the tension will leave and you can stay on and on, forgetting year by year what came before until you too disappear into the mist.

A Single Photo: A Bucket of Baby Sea Turtles

MONTERRICO–A local Guatemalan NGO prepares to release hundreds of baby sea turtles into the Pacific Ocean. Note, this is a color photo. The baby turtles are all black and grey. Fuji XT-4 with 35mm f/2 Fujinon.

MUDDY BUDDY JEEP JAM ’18 AND THE FUJI X100F

When I set off to any event, I bring a camera I can trust, one that I’ve extensively used in the field and know is reliable. I’ve never used the Fuji X100F in the field as a primary, actually I’ve never done anything more than shoot a few photos and toss it back in my bag. It’s the only digital camera I took with me to cover the Muddy Buddy Jeep Jam 2018.

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THE WILDS or A JEEP AMONG LAND ROVERS

It may look like deepest Africa with fields stretching over rolling hills and wide open plains that resemble the Serengeti, but it is, in fact, The Wilds of Ohio. The Wilds is a nature preserve filled with African wildlife. Every so often, this wildlife refuge was home to an off-road event exclusive to those who owned a Land Rover. We brought a Jeep.

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TOLEDO JEEP FEST 2018 & THE LEICA 28/ƒ5.6 SUMMARON M RERELEASE

This weekend, right in Jeeps hometown where the legend is created, was the Toledo Jeep Fest. Thousands of Jeeps show up for 3 days of celebration of all things Jeep. From the Friday night headliner (this year it was KC & The Sunshine Band) to the collectible and historic Jeep show at the Seagate center and the parade with over 1600 Jeeps.  The Toledo Jeep Fest is widely regarded as one of, if not the best, Jeep show in the nation. Saturday I got in my own Jeep, headed north and took the newly rereleased Leica 28/ƒ5.6 Summaron lens with the M10 along for the ride.

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QUADRATEC 5/8TH” D-RING SHACKLE

I’ve had my 2012 Jeep JK for almost 2 yrs now, and one of the first things I did was swap out the front bumper and install the D-ring shackle mounts. These mounts bolt on directly through the bumper. The bolt goes in through the rear of the bumper, forward into the shackle mount. I tossed on a couple of Quadratec D-Rings and rode off into the sunset.  Continue reading “QUADRATEC 5/8TH” D-RING SHACKLE”

THE 1959 CJ-5 RESTORE: PART 1

I’ve always wanted an old classic Jeep. Ever since I was a little boy and got my first Matchbox Jeep.  The model has changed throughout the years, it’s been a Scrambler, a CJ and even a Wagoneer, but the idea of bombing around town and trails in a proper classic Jeep has always been a dream.

In Sevierville Tenn, just a couple hours from Nashville was sitting a 1959 CJ-5, the price was right, the engine had just been rebuilt and it was surprisingly free of visible rust and damage, showing no signs of ever having lived a life off-road, it even came already equipped with manually locking hubs. This would be the perfect starting point for me to build the classic Jeep I’d always wanted….

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