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Trevor Stone's Journal
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A Tale of Two Volcanoes 
13th-Jun-2009 10:34 am
xkcd don quixote
In addition to fresh fruit, Spanish speakers, colorful fabric, ancient stone religious sites, and aquatic marvels Guatemala attracts active travelers with 37 (más o menos) volcanoes. So far I've climbed two, with very different experiences.

Volcán San Pedro is the third highest mountain at Lago Atitlan. Though most hikers start at 6 AM, I thought I'd complain a lot less if we started at 7, and thus was it agreed. Had I realized I'd have a restless night of sleep, waking up regularly due to drunks by the lake, celebratory canon explosions, worry about missing an alarm, and vague awareness of a gorgeous sunset I would've agreed to 6.

With rain gear, water, a camera, and some fruit and bread in our backpacks, a guy met us in front of our hotel (5100 feet) and led us through the quiet Sunday morning streets of San Pedro La Laguna and up the highway to the volcano park entrance (around 6000 feet, if I recall) around 8 AM. There we met our real guide, Pedro de San Pedro. The trail is pretty clear all the way up, but we'd read that hikers are occasionally attacked on the route, so we were glad to accept a guide. Not that he'd overpower an attacker with his machete, but because he knows the locals, which adds a lot more risk to a potential attacker. Pedro didn't seem to understand this role ("I'm not security, the police on the mountain are security" / "What are the police going to do halfway up the mountain?") and several times strayed out of eyesight and later suggested we summit on our own while he rested below. He also made some rude comments while chatting with Molly, but at other times he was an entertaining guy to chat with.

The San Pedro hike is intense, mostly a straight 45° path up the mountain with at least a dozen stair sections. It starts through coffee, corn, and sweet potato fields. After an hour (and a half?) or so we reached the mirador (scenic overlook) and took a rest and pictures of the northeast corner of Lake Atitlan. Pedro assured us that we were allowed to turn around there, but we insisted that we were in for the long haul, even though we walk at a slow pace. We continued through the cloud forest, admiring the bulky mossy trees, trying to spot calling tucans, and breathing hard as our thighs complained about the incline. Around an hour from the summit, we passed some folks heading down who assured us we were a half hour away. Did I mention we hike slowly? We finally summitted -- 9850 feet -- around a quarter to noon and collapsed into a mandarin orange and coconut bread lunch. From the top, we could see most of the picturesque lake, its small towns, its striking mountains, the clouds building in the valley behind the Indian's Nose. Our view further afield was occluded by clouds, the lake's higher volcanoes, and San Pedro's other peak.

After half an hour or so at the top, we headed down the mountain. As a kid, I did a lot of growing up in the mountains, so my Year of the Goat nature gets a big thrill whenever I run down a mountain. With Pedro's steep and sturdy trail, I felt free and safe sailing over roots and whipping around trees. I was also in the odd condition where running was a lot less painful than walking. Yet I didn't want to build up too much momentum, so I'd run for half a minute and then pause for two, meaning Molly's slow walk far outpaced my downhill run. Pedro was getting rather annoyed at his delayed lunch. What kind of mountain guide doesn't carry food and water? We finally reached the base camp at quarter to 3 PM, drinking the rest of our water and massaging our thighs. We caught a pickup back to town and walked gingerly down the steep streets until we found ladies selling jugo de naranja and licuados de piña y mango. MMMM.

So... San Pedro. Listed as 3 hours up, 2.5 down. From our hotel, it was nearly 5 hours up and 2.5 hours down to the base. Total ascent around 4700 feet. Photos: A couple dozen. Legs: extremely sore (full recovery took about five days).

Fast forward past a disappointing "horseback ride" and some gastrointestinal distress to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second city. At the beginning of our trip, we ran into Jason, a cool guy who volunteers for Quetzaltrekkers, an all-volunteer hiking organization whose profits go to two charities to help street kids in Xela. He noted they're not in our version of Lonely Planet Guatemala (known affectionately to many as "The Bible") due to a bad experience the author had, but he convinced us the organization was awesome nonetheless, so we tracked them down at Casa Argentina. Although the challenge and beauty of a six day hike from Nebaj to Todos Santos sounded like a great experience, our plane tickets ruled out that option. But what sounded most enticing was a (mostly) full moon hike up Volcán Santa María.

After a casual rainy Wednesday using the Internet for 7 hours, eating curry, kafta, and hummus for dinner, and sitting in on Guatemala trivia night, we met the trekkers at 11 for soup, tea, and bag packing. Their selection of lender gear was impressive, providing several fitting hiking boots so Molly didn't have to wear Chaco sandals in the cold and dark. I was less impressed with my loaner backpack, barely wide enough to fit the sleeping bag, and which seemed intent on placing weight in the middle of my butt cheeks which I'd rather have used solely for walking. (As it turns out, I hadn't adjusted all the relevant straps, and half way up I got a lot more comfortable.) In contrast to Pedro de San Pedro, a local guy who knows the trail and has a machete, the six humorous young international guides (for 15 hikers) carried a first aid kit, three shit kits, three tubs of tasty trail mix, several pounds of banana bread, a tub of hummus, and a big pot for hot drinks at the top.

We rode in the back of a pickup from Xela (7700 feet or so), admiring the freshly cleared sky and lingering rain smell to the start of the trail (8100 feet), met the two dogs who love the hike, and started hiking at 20 to 1. By 2 AM we were finishing the trail mix and enjoying the rest area at 9700 feet. Looking back, we could see city lights and moonlit mountains with small clouds tentatively gathering. The steep section was thankfully full of switchbacks, limiting the angle of ascent and providing regular vistas of the cloud-cloaked valleys below. As we transitioned from bushes to trees around 10500 feet, the fog rolled in. The moon cast a disperse white glow, my headlamp's dim glow pointed out the roots and rocks in the moist trail while white flower petals marked the edge and the occasional firefly blinked in the bushes. For only the second or third time on the trip, I wished I'd brought a tripod. Oh for a 30 second exposure of the moon seeping out from behind a stolid dark tree!

I reached the cloudless rocky summit at about 4:30. Carefully minding my way through cows and their patties (would you climb a volcano if you weighed a ton?), I donned my fleece and jacket and rolled out the sleeping bag to huddle in the dark, wishing I'd brought gloves. Fifteen minutes or so later, the sky started to get interesting, and I decided my fingers were not so cold they couldn't operate a camera. To the northeast, an ocean of clouds blanketed a valley, a mountain becoming an island, a ridge becoming a cloud waterfall splashing into the town of Zunil. To the east was a photogenic sequence of mountains -- nearby peaks framed the mountains around Lake Atitlan, standing coolly in their typical blue haze, while a plume of black smoke identified Volcán Fuego and the mountains of Antigua far in the distance. A few kilometers below us to the west smoked Volcán Santiaguito, its white plume complementing the black triangular shadow cast by our own mountain. To the northwest were patchwork farm fields and green ridges. Somewhere out there in the Cuchumatanes stood Volcán Tajamulco, the highest point in Central America. It was like a view from an airplane, but with crisp cool mountain air and banana bread with hummus.

In addition to the food, first aid and sanitary supplies, the Quetzaltrekker guides had something else in their backpacks: absurd costumes. Complaining loudly as they switched from fleece to sequined spandex, they posed for several absurd vistic photos, indulging in the silliness and camaraderie that comes with three months in an intense volunteer organization. These folks are great.

At 7:20 we headed down the mountain, the dark and looming shapes revealing themselves in the light to be pleasant evergreens and verdant green bushes. The gentile incline meant I didn't feel compelled to run down; a good thing considering the recent rains. We gathered trash on the way down, making the path look more like a backpacker trail and less like a Central American road. By quarter to 11 I was relaxing in the shade, waiting for the chicken bus to take us and our trash bags back to town.

So... Santa María. Billed as about four hours up, with summit before sunrise. I took just a little under four hours up and three and a half down and arrived for the predawn light. Total ascent was 4300 feet. Photos: Over 200. Legs: not sore at all. (Knees were a bit tender for a few hours later that afternoon. No lingering effects the next day. My legs have hurt more after a night of sleep on a budget hotel bed.)

Hiking San Pedro was a good rigorous physical challenge with some nice views and lovely plants. Hiking Santa María was one of the best nights I've ever had, full of tasty food, good people, healthy but not painful exercise, and one of the most amazing views of my life. I highly recommend the hike and I highly recommend Quetzaltrekkers.
13th-Jun-2009 07:20 pm (UTC)
I've really been enjoying your travel log, but this one brought back memories. When I worked as a park ranger at Acadia National Park in Maine we used to take moonlight hikes with other park rangers. So much fun, though I wish I'd had a headlight, that would have made things easier. I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip!
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