“The Beauty of the Mountain is hidden for all those who try to discover it from the top, supposing that, one way or an other, one can reach this place directly. The Beauty of the Mountain reveals only to those who climbed it…” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
View of the grand Santa Maria volcano off in the distance as I was leaving Xela via shuttle on my way to Antigua.
There are things you’ll experience in Guatemala that will stay with you forever: the smell of a freshly grilled tortilla; the assault-on-all-senses of a jungle trek; the people you bump into on the road and become lifelong friends…..In the west, a volcano looms on almost every horizon, almost begging to be climbed. (Opening lines in the introduction to Guatemala, Lonely Planet 2010).
It was with these words, “almost begging to be climbed” that I joyously opted to skip my already-paid for Spanish class on Wednesday and wake up at the break of dawn to climb Guatemala’s fourth highest volcano, Santa Maria (elevation 3772 m/12,375 feet). It didn’t matter that I was utterly exhausted nor that I didn’t have the right gear. All that mattered was there was an enormously, inviting volcano begging to be climbed. There was no way I wasn’t going to climb it.
The Highlands area of Guatemala is blessed with over 30 volcanoes and represents some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. As an avid hiker who has a passion for mountains, it was out of the question that I was going to spend a week in Guatemala without climbing one. Their silhouettes lurked around every street corner and were calling my name, beckoning me to come climb them. Less than twenty-four hours after I arrived in Xela, I was at the nearest tour agency booking my tour. Spanish class would have to wait. Instead, my education would be on the road.
Volcanoes have played a significant role in the Mayan culture and religion for centuries. Volcanoes as well as other parts of Guatemala’s diverse natural environment are considered sacred and have enormously impacted the way in which the Mayans live, pray and built their communities. Even today it is common to see large groups of Mayan families trekking up the volcano where they will spend a few days, praying and chanting to the Gods in a truly mystical way. To witness it all in one short albeit somewhat strenuous hike was like a dream come true for an adventurous, active gal like me.
There are three options for climbing the Santa Maria Volcano. The first option is to depart at 11 pm and do a moonlight trek up in the cold and windy darkness. The bonus of this trek is that you can see the red lava from neighboring volcanoes glowing brilliantly off in the distance and can also watch the sun rise over the collection of volcanoes. I desperately wanted to do this but there was really no way I could make it happen given my already exhausting, jam-packed schedule. The downside to option one, however, is that it’s freezing, dark and slippery and you don’t get any sleep. The second option is to do a 2 am depart, hike up in darkness, cold and wind and then watch the sunrise in the morning and hike back. Again, this would have been fabulous if I had the time and energy. I was already going on two days of little sleep and extreme exhaustion so I reluctantly chose option three: The 5 am departure. At least I’d get some sleep and still be able to function the rest of the week.
The night before I ate out at a local Mayan restaurant being extremely careful in what I ordered and ate. I certainly didn’t want a bout of unexpected traveler’s diarrhea on the hike! I also didn’t want to wait up to eat with my host family at nine o’clock at night. Instead, I wanted a light meal, a sleeping pill and lights out so I could get up in time for my 4:30 am alarm. I hate getting up early but if it involves a day of intense hiking, then I can let it slide.
I had my third restless night of tossing and turning, despite my sleeping pill, ear plugs and three glasses of wine. I kept checking my watch to make sure I hadn’t overslept or accidentally shut the alarm off. My nerves were on fire. By 4:20, I was up and dressed There was no caffeine or breakfast that early. I would have to skip my beloved and necessary “mi gasolina” (coffee) and eat a banana instead. I was beyond tired yet excited and anxious to get on my way. Unfortunately I didn’t have the right gear on but unless it rained I’d be ok.
By 5 am, I peered out the window and a lone car was waiting in the deserted, unlit cobblestone street. My ride had arrived. I grabbed my backpack, bagged lunch (tossed the unrefrigerated yogurt) and water and was out the door into the brisk pre-dawn morning of the Guatemalan Highlands. I opened the door and realized there was only a driver and a guide. No one else was present. I asked in my broken Spanish if we would be picking anyone else up for the tour and they shock their heads, “Nope, you’re it”. Hmmm….was I the only one crazy enough to do this at 5 in the morning? I pondered briefly yet too tired to really think.
We drove in silence. I was beginning to wonder if the hike was going to be a bust. Twenty minutes later, the car slowly pulled over and my guide, Fredrico (nickname Lico) opened the door. “Here we are“, he said sleepily and I jumped out into the dark.
The first thirty minutes of the trail was not pleasant. It as cold, windy and pitch black and I didn’t have any sort of headlight or flashlight. I kept slipping and tripping over rocks as I tried to see in the darkness and follow Lico as closely as possible. I was tired and cranky and desperately missing my caffeine as well as my own language. Trying to speak another new language at five in the morning is not advised and can probably make anyone grumpy.
Finally, a pale sliver of light began to brighten the ground and land around us. Within a matter of twenty minutes, the once pitch black surroundings became daylight and we could see. I was so relieved! The birds sang, the dogs barked. Life had returned to the valley.
Here is the first picture I snapped around 6 am (no this is not the volcano, just a hill that became a landmark for us on the trek down)…..
As the sun rose, the rich fertile farmland lining the base of the volcano began to glow a warm reddish pink. It was spectacular!
The rising sun seemed to brighten both Lico and my mood. We began to chat incessantly and shortly switched over to English which was a welcome treat. I had asked Lico about the reports of some tourists hiking the volcano and not coming back. “Was it true” I asked curious. “Yes” Lico replied. “But they were stupid. They went without a guide and were never seen again”. I had heard about the dangers of solo or unaccompanied treks before in Guatemala. Many times foreigners are prime targets for armed bandits or drug traffickers trying to earn some bucks. The thought of being robbed at gunpoint on the trail petrified me and I wondered if hiking alone with an unarmed guide was even safe. Sensing my unease and sudden quietness, Lico tried to assure me by informing me he was an excellent boxer and never had a problem on the trail…..yet. I’m not sure how much he convinced me but I tried not to worry too much. I knew I’d feel a bit safer once we saw some other hikers.
The trail was loaded with beautiful wildflowers and singing birds. It was so peaceful and the air so pure.
Around 9 am we stopped at this spot to have our breakfast and take a short rest. I wasn’t hungry but enjoyed looking up at the clouds and dreaming. If only I could stay here all day….I mused.
More clouds were rolling in and we had to hurry. For if we made it to the top before the clouds settled in, we would have a spectacular view of Xela and the surrounding volcanoes. If the clouds were too thick, our view would be spoiled.
The climb up was relatively steep for someone out of hiking practice. Plus that missed cup of coffee was having an effect on my energy. Yet we kept talking and I stopped often to take photos of the gorgeous countryside and farmland below. All that seemed to boost my lacking energy.
Around 10 o’clock we saw our first group of dirty, tired looking hikers coming down from the top. Apparently they had spent the night on top of the volcano and were part of the 11 pm climb. I asked them what it was like and they said too words: “Freezing and unbelievable”. I could have kicked myself for not going the night before! But I know I’ll be back…..
Below is a view of Xela, Guatemala’s second largest town which is located in the Highlands and surrounded by volcanoes.
Finally after a good three hours of hiking up, we made it to the top of Santa Maria, at an altitude of 12,375 feet/3772 meters. I felt pretty good by then. I was alert, more awake and not too tired or hungry, especially given my lack of sleep and food.
Here was the view…..
The clouds were beginning to roll in. We had made it just in time. I was ready to sit down, take a break and relax a bit when I heard chanting and the first rumble not too far off in the distance…..
Stay tuned…part 2 is coming up next!
Note from the author: Given the enormous volume of photos from my amazing hike, I had to break this post into three parts. There was no way possible I could leave out a single picture from this day. No worries….you’ll love it! thirdeyemom