Wednesday, November 6, 2013

1 Down, 28 More To Go! - Climbing Santa Maria Volcano

Why are humans so attracted to tall, pointy peaks? Whether it's the amazing view from the top, the challenge of a hard climb, or bragging rights, Hubby and I were helpless to resist the magnetic pull of the volcanoes.

There are 29 volcanoes in Guatemala. If that seems like a lot, it is. Guatemala is also home to the tallest peak in Central America and the most recently active volcano in Central America. So that means if we want to climb all the peaks, we have to climb at least one a month for the two years we are here. Totally do-able. Some are active and some are hard to get to or in sketchy areas security-wise, so I doubt we'll actually get to climb all of them, but we'll check all the good ones off the list!

First on the list, Santa Maria Volcano is one of the best climbs here according to our friends who organized this trip. Easy to do in a weekend, a gorgeous hike with amazing views, and close to the city of Xela which is an easy base camp with some amazingly cheap and delicious restaurants.

After work got out on Friday we left town at about 1pm: 7 of us in 2 cars. We stopped for lunch at San Martin bakery and after a crazy, twisty, turny 3.5 hour drive pulled into Xela just as it was getting dark. Hotel Casa Manen had a reservation for us in their adorable restored house near the central plaza in old downtown Xela. After grocery shopping for trail food, a stop at a bagel shop for more trail food, and a wander through the early construction phases of a street carnival at the central plaza, we stopped at a Thai restaurant for dinner. The menu was small and the service was slow, but the food was pretty darn good and dinner for the 2 of us was around $10.

Saturday morning after a quick breakfast of hot coffee and cold tomato,onion and American cheese sandwiches, our guide Cesar met us at our hotel at 5am with a van. We picked up two policemen to accompany us on the hike and bounced down the road for about a 1/2 hour until the single lane we were following ended in deep ruts and cow pastures at the base of the volcano.

**Side note here: while Hubster and I are really not used to hiring guides to go hiking, here in Guatemala it's a must. First of all there are dozens of trails snaking up the mountain with no signage and it's never obvious which is the best trail to take or if that trail even goes to the top or goes to some drug farm... Secondly, even if we wanted to take our chances with a map, good luck, where are you going to find a trail map here? And thirdly, Guatemala's natural beauty is in critical condition so any money and support that goes into the eco-tourism industry is just a little more incentive to leave the tress standing and not let the local poachers strip the forests. We were more than happy to pay Cesar $20 each to guide us up there. Most Guatemalans make waaaaaaay less than $20 a day so guiding tourists can be a great job here in a sea of destructive or nonexistent income opportunities.

The sky was just turning from black to that smokey gray/blue of early dawn and the birds were jubilant in the misty trees all around us. The trail didn't joke around, it took a direct route straight up the volcano, no switchbacks and no steps or water bars. Thank the lord it wasn't raining or else we would have been slipping and sliding even more than we already were on the greasy mud-slicked path.

Our group of 10 passed a family of Mayans trekking up to the top with boxes and bundles of food and ceremonial items for a day at the top. They would later offer us a smile and a wave on the peak as the kids collected flowers and plants and the grownups relaxed on boulders around a smokey offering in the center of their family circle.

A 3.5 hour hike brought us to the top of the perfectly rounded peak topped with an alpine lawn of grass, wildflowers and rocks for everyone to rest on. Just below us and literally seconds before the clouds drifted in to obscure our view we saw the steam vents of baby-volcano Santiaguito. We could also see all the way out to the Pacific ocean about 60 km away, and to the north and south of us the closest peaks that form the ring of fire volcano chain.

Cesar made hot chocolate on a camp stove while the policemen checked their cell signals and made phone calls to friends below. Our bagels with cream cheese and avocado were delicious and so were all the nuts and cookies with curious names and descriptions we packed up there. Cesar carried up 3 little styrofoam plates of cold fried chicken and french fries for he and the guards to eat.

At 3,772 meters, we were all feeling the altitude. No headaches or nausea, just more out of breath than we're used to, which caused us to go pretty slow up that steep final push to the top. On the way down we kept a good pace, mostly because the rain clouds were right on our heels and no one wanted to see that trail get soaked.

Three hours later back at the trail head we found 2 drivers and a van, not the same one who dropped us off though so the policemen took down the guys names and ID info before we got on, just a precaution but you never know. Bumping our way back to town the sky opened up with loud cracks of lightning and it began to pour, we all grinned with satisfaction at having made it just in time.

 Halfway up, we can see the morning clouds still cover Xela below us

 A beautiful pine forest near the top

 Alpine flowers

 Satiaguito from above

 Our guide Cesar makes hot chocolate on the summit

Early lunch on the summit

Misty trail and sunny summit

 Central Plaza in Xela

 Pretty covered balconies at our hotel

 Our hotel, Casa Manen in Xela

 A Sunday parade around the Central Plaza

 Lightswitch in the shower... sketchy third world architecture...

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