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.
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.
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.
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.