Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I'm Not Leaving Until I See That Damn Volcano

Volcano Santiaguito is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, burping out smoke and farting out gas every 20-40 minutes since 1922.

(Considering the state of my stomach in Guatemala, let's just say that I can empathize with Mother Earth's indigestion.)

Santiaguito is stuck to the southwest flank of Volcano Santa María, less than 10 km from Quetzaltenango/ Xela.  With a real, live volcano practically in our backyards, how could we leave town without seeing it?

There are two ways to see Santiaguito:  hike to an overlook/ mirador on the side of Santa María, or hike all the way to the top of Santa Maria.  Dave and I did both.

Hiking (Independently) to the Santiaguito Mirador

I put the (independently) in parentheses because you will probably get lost and might get robbed on this hike.  If that's intimidating, never fear--you can always hike with Quetzaltrekkers!

Dave and I did this hike with a few people we met through QT.  We did get lost, a bunch of times, though we didn't get robbed.  Along the way, Dave was smart enough to take some photos for trail notes to share with other independent hikers.

First, take a bus from the Iglesia El Calvario near the cementerio to the village of Llanos del Pinal, at the end of the line.  You might have to get on a bus headed into the city of Xela, toward Minerva terminal, because it seems like sometimes the buses take different routes into and out of the city.

When you get off the bus, continue up the main road in the village, toward Santa María.  At the end of the village, the road will appear to turn right--you want to continue straight, up a drainage, through agricultural fields.
go straight here, into the fields
Follow the drainage as it gently ascends, always aiming for the cone of Santa María.  After a while, you'll pass some "spiky trees."  There will be a few paths branching off to the left--these go to Santa María.  Stay straight.
spiky trees: go straight on
Within a few minutes after the spiky trees, as you pass a wooden fence on the right, the path will split.  Take the right junction.  Based on the contours of the land, it almost feels like you're going straight.  This is the only real junction on the entire hike.
wooden fence: go right, which sort of feels like going straight
From this point, you are no longer traveling directly toward the cone of Santa María, but rather traversing across her flank, always gaining altitude slowly.  Continue on the path, which will become a dirt road for a while.  When the dirt road opens into a grassy area, again continue straight through.
dirt road to grassy area: continue straight through
After this section, the trail gets overgrown and messy.  If it gets too crazy, though, consider whether you're still on the main trail.  You shouldn't feel like you're bushwhacking into a jungle.  Always follow the major herd paths.  At a few points, you'll need to cross makeshift fences of sticks.  Please don't disturb the fences, as they keep livestock in place.  We had to cross two makeshift fences, and I get the impression these fences are put up and taken down regularly.

By the time we got to the mirador (after several wrong turns and some crazy bushwhacking--remember, if it seems like you've taken a wrong turn, you have), the clouds had rolled in and there was no volcano to be seen.  We did hear it, though, rumbling like distant thunder.
no views. wahh.
Try again next time.

Climbing Volcano Santa María

In order to beat the clouds that roll in most mornings during the rainy season, we had to be up, literally and figuratively, early in the morning.  And what better way to be up and up than to climb Volcano Santa María under the light of the full moon and greeting the dawn from her summit!  We signed up for our hat-trick third hike with Quetzaltrekkers, the Santa María Full Moon hike.

The hike itself wasn't that hard.  We piled into the back of a delivery truck for the drive to the Llanos del Pinal trailhead and started hiking at 11:58 p.m.  The only less-than-agreeable part of the hike was a 45 minute break after only an hour of hiking to wait for a lone straggler, way behind the pack.  I wish the whole group didn't have to wait, because she ended up turning around at this point and we were all super cold and tired by the time we started hiking again.  Nonetheless, we had a pretty strong group and the first of us reached the summit by 3:40 a.m.  By 4:00 I was fast asleep in my sleeping bag.
Dawn brought us a decent but not spectacular sunrise.  It's always hazy and cloudy here, definitely not a great place for views.
snuggled in the sleeping bag--it's cold at 12,375 feet
But fortunately, we were able to look down directly over Santiaguito!  And we got to see two fantastic, loud, dramatic eruptions!
KA-BOOM!!! grumble rumble smash
As we turned our backs on the summit and started our descent, Dave commented that every step we took would bring us closer to home.  I liked that thought.  It reminded me of the moment during the roadtrip out West in 2011 when I turned around in California and, for the first time in a long time, started traveling east instead of west.  That time, I knew I wasn't ready to be home.

This time, I think I am.
from this point forward, every step brings us closer to home :-)

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