Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

April 1, 2009

Guatemala (Around the World Trip)

April 1 - Chicago

I know Chicago isn´t in Guatemala, ok? But we did go through there, and it was, well, on the way to Guatemala. Close enough.

It felt kind of odd to leave the USA by crossing the border in our rental car, just to fly back into it for a layover in Chicago. And with that last flight, we had now made it officially all the way around the world, even if we still had a drooping circle of South America left to travel. I must confess that when our wheels touched down in the Midwest, I had a moment of wondering whether it might be great to stop there and just go back to the farm for a nice break. Perhaps I only felt that way because I knew we had an overnight layover at the airport, which never sounds fun. At any rate, we did continue on to the second half, and what a great start it has been already, so well worth it. But first, we had that overnight layover in Chicago, made even longer by the fact that in Montreal they had moved us up to an even earlier flight. We did the only rational thing and took the train into downtown for the evening, wondering if our chances of getting mugged or finding a nice restaurant could be about even. In fact, we did neither, because Chicago on a Monday night was so quiet there was nothing happening at all except a few Broadway shows. The weather cooperated and didn't freeze our ears off, so we wandered for hours around the skyscrapers before heading back to the airport.

April 2-3 - Antigua

We arrived in Guatemala City very early in the morning, and immediately took a shuttle to the magical city of Antigua. On our way in, we were surprised to realize that Easter was just a week away, and that we would be in the city for Palm Sunday at least. Since Antigua has probably the biggest Easter celebration in the entire world (more on that later), we then started wondering if there would be any hotel rooms left. Luckily for us, we did find one, and we picked up a schedule of the Easter parades that were starting just the next day.

Antigua is not a typical town in Guatemala, I guess you could describe it as what the country would look like if Europeans had moved in for a couple of years, cleaned up the place, and built a lot of churches. Which is possibly what happened. In any case, the streets are all nicely cobble-stoned with good sidewalks, each square block is the same size as every other one, trash is swept up immediately, and all advertising is demure and hard to see. Most of the buildings are just one or two stories tall, and the town has more foreigners in it than perhaps the entire country of Laos. Even fast food joints like Burger King or Subway have just a tiny sign by the door, or none at all, maybe relying on your sense of smell to sniff them out. In short, each block in town looks just like any other block, and it´s quite easy to get lost even with the volcanoes looming as orientation aids. Interspersed in the limited decor are many churches, some of them in spectacular ruins. When the capital of Guatemala was moved from here to Guatemala City, the funds to maintain all of the structures took a dip, so many were left to fall into ruin, which was further helped by some specular earthquakes over the years. Many of the cathedrals are missing ceilings (and boarded up, of course), and huge sections and boulders from the walls can be seen though gaping windows...modern ruins, in the sense that the Pyramids are old ruins.

But it was the people that fascinated us the most on our first walk through town. Conditioned as we were to hordes of people trying to talk us into their hotel, their restaurant, their shop, and their needs for money, we were surprised and relieved to walk through the town as though we were invisible, getting only a greeting and a smile once in a while from the locals. In fact, the people, their accents, and their actions were so much like the people in Tinum that I started almost recognizing faces in the crowds. We shouldn´t have been surprised at that of course, since the Mayas of the Yucatan have more in common with this area than with the rest of Mexico, but it was a shock and a welcome relief to hear the same speech patterns and see familiar faces. It didn´t take long to relax and shake off the dread we felt on the streets of Egypt. Rob was soon joking with the locals that we talked to, and feeling right at home speaking Spanish.

April 4 - Pacaya Volcano and the village of Santiago Zamora

Since we had already booked a trip down to El Salvador, our time in Antigua got a little short. With a free morning left to us, we grabbed a bus out of town to the village of Santiago Zamora. My parents had come here just a few months ago on a mission trip to the village to help with farming operations. They had brought some vegetable seeds, taught a class how to use a welder, and talked about techniques that might help crops grow better on the steep mountain fields around the village. When my mom heard we were stopping in Guatemala on our trip, she asked us to bring a few textbooks down with us and deliver them to the school that is attached the Lutheran church in town. Luckily the books didn´t weigh too much :=) in our packs. We ended up in town on a Saturday, but since it was Semana Santa (Holy Week), it didn´t matter and school was on break anyway. The church and school were closed up, and our friendly tuk-tuk driver took us around until we found the niece of the Pastor. She led us to his house, where they welcomed us with hugs and had us sit down in their kitchen. We explained our purpose there, and gave them the books and a packet of pictures that mom had printed out of the people in the village. They thanked us and invited us to stay for a while to see a presentation and meal they were preparing for another group of visitors that day. We admired all of the beautiful hand-woven goods they had displayed on the walls, but couldn´t stay because we already had booked a trip to the volcano. We left with their assurances that we were always welcome in their homes and we could come back and visit anytime!

So at 2 in the afternoon, we piled into a minivan for an 1 1/2 hour ride to the volcano. When we arrived at the base of the climb, kids came running up to us with sturdy walking sticks, so I "rented" one for $1, in the hope that I could stick it in some lava and set it on fire. Evidently, every other tourist office in Guatemala also set their trips to arrive at the same time, so a huge group of us set off up the steep track. Our guide had 16 of us following his shouts, and there were more groups ahead and behind us, plus a couple of horses in case anyone needed a "taxi". The trail wound around through what is known as a cloud forest, which is an ecosystem limited to certain isolated elevations and cut off from other places like it. Since this was the dry season, it felt more like a a dust-bowl than a forest, but we would our way through oaks and pines and a lot of dust from all the lava and ash underfoot. Our guide only spoke Spanish, and no one else in the group did, so Rob became the defacto translator at our frequent rest stops to let the group come together again.

Pacaya isn't the tallest volcano around, it only reaches an elevation of about 7,000 feet compared to the neighboring Acatenango towering at 13,000 feet. But it is the only one that consistently spews lava, which is what we had come to see. About 1000 vertical feet from the peak, the forest ended in grassland, and we could see old lava trails snaking their way down the hills. Shortly after that the grass stopped at the edge of a sea of black, tumbled, sharp lava rocks, and the trail ended as well. Our guide told us that in the last couple of hours, there had been 6 small earthquakes in the area, and that it wouldn't be safe to go to the summit or even any farther up into the lava fields. Indeed, we could hear a constant rumbling from the mountain, and puffs of sulfurous smoke were always belching out of the top. But we were disappointed that we couldn't go any farther and feel our boots melting on the hot rocks, so I poked around on the cold rocks for a while before the guide called us back. The rocks felt hollow at times when I thumped them with my stick, and there were strange shapes and deep crevasses formed from the liquid flow of the metals. It was just about then that I turned around to the shouts of everyone looking at to the higher volcanoes.

Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes; Agua to the south, and the twin peaks of Fuego and Acatenengo to the west. The lowlands were covered in smog around Guatemala City, and all we could really see were the peaks of mountains emerging from the clouds. From where we were way south of the city, the three peaks were overlapping each other, and Fuego was erupting! Rob ran excitedly to the overlook to capture the billowing ash cloud, and I wondered if perhaps the small earthquakes had been due to Fuego getting ready to spew. Now, we weren't in any danger, for those of you who might worry. It was a really small eruption and it was very far away...even people on the slopes of Fuego may not have been in much danger. Fuego kind of has a habit of burping small eruptions and sometimes bigger ones, but usually does it in a relatively consistent, safe direction. In fact we later talked to a traveler that had been camping in the saddle between the two volcanoes that night, and he said it was an amazing sight from there as well.

It was time to head down again, but instead of going back to the same trail, we headed towards a ridge that overlooked the three volcanoes, and curved around the side of our own. As we went down, Fuego erupted again, to our shouts of glee, and we all stopped to take more pictures. Then we made it over to the ridge, where to our eternal surprise, we could see lava flowing down a smaller peak of Pacaya, which had been hidden from our view before. We could see chunks of bright red rock flowing down the slopes, occasionally breaking off and really tumbling down, and the red heat got brighter as the evening came on. The sun was setting as we reached the ridge, with the three volcanoes in the background. A layer of clouds settled into the valleys, making the mountains look like great islands rising out of fog. Rob frantically went from taking pictures of the lava on one side, to snapping sunset shots of the volcanoes on the other. Fuego erupted one more time while we were standing there, so it was quite a magical place to be. I summarized our view in three words...we had seen volcanoes burping, belching, and vomiting, and Rob had time to chuckle before he ran off to another view he had to capture in his lens.

As the last light of the sunset hit us, it was time to descend, by a new route down a very steep lava scree slope. I took a step and sank down to my ankles, and a mass of lava rocks followed me down, with plenty more left for everyone else. I sank even deeper on the next step, and then watched in amazement as my guide went skating down the slope at a complete run. I tested it out, and found that the faster I moved my strides, the less I would sink into the scree, and we all descended in our own little dust clouds, whooping at the sensation of floating on the rocks yet not being in any danger of actually falling. Rob was amazing that all the rocks wouldn´t eventually end up at the bottom of the hill, but I guess groups have been doing this for years, and there are still plenty left at the top. I do know there is no way we would have walked UP that slope, that´s for sure! When we got back to the normal trail, it was quite dark, and we all fished out our flashlights, then blindly followed our guide and hoped he wasn´t as lost as us. In fact, with all the dust, it was tough to even see ground or the person in front of me. Somehow it didn´t make us cough or choke, although we all were coated in a layer of it when we got back to the van.

April 5 - Palm Sunday procession in Antigua

We woke up early, excited to see the Easter parade on Palm Sunday. We had seen a smaller version of it on Friday for the kids parade, but since it was just a smaller copy of the real thing, I will first describe the big one. The parades start on Palm Sunday and continue each day, though Good Friday, and on to Easter Sunday. This particular day, the parade was supposed to start at 11 a.m. and continue touring the streets of town until 10 p.m. Yup, 11 hours long! The parades during the big weekend would last even longer, from the early morning until the wee hours of the next morning. Now, the exciting part of the parade is watching it pass by, as you know, but almost as interesting is touring the streets along the route before it comes. We had a map of the route that each procession would take through the town, and we set off walking the cobblestones. The townspeople come out hours before the actual event and start decorating the streets with elaborate works of art, made out of pine needles, flowers, and colored sawdust, until the finished ¨carpets¨ almost look real enough to walk on (which of course you don´t).

We walked the streets for hours, detouring to a nearby town to see the figure of Jesus riding off on his donkey as per the Palm Sunday tradition. As we crossed each intersection, we would look for blocked off streets and people kneeling down making their carpets, and then head in that direction. As the hours passed, more and more carpets were started, finished, and waiting for their turn to be destroyed (more on that later), but we were mostly interested in the elaborate ones, and since these took more time (hours) to finish, we saw most of them just beginning, in the middle, and finally finished and then, well...walked on.

We came to one particular carpet that looked amazing even as it was just beginning, being created by a bunch of girls in matching black shirts. The women directing them invited us to try it out on a square or two, and so we packed a little colored sawdust over the detailed wooden molds, helping to create a (temporary) work of art. We told the group we would come back later to see the finished product, and continued touring the rest of the streets. I can´t even describe the multitude of carpet making that we saw, you will have to just look at the pictures to get the full effect. I´ll be posting them soon, I promise.

At 11, we just happened to be walking where the procession started out of the church, and almost got caught up in (and under) the main ¨float¨. The parade really is nothing more than hundreds and hundreds of people taking turns carrying two wooden barges down the streets, but it was an amazing sight. The men were all dressed in purple robes and white sashes, and lined the streets for hundreds of feet in front of the floats. The first wooden float was topped with statues of Jesus carrying the cross, and it was so huge that 80 men, 40 on each side, labored to hold up the heavy construct and carry it down the streets. In front of everyone walked a line of Roman centurions dressed in red robes carrying spears and armor, and behind the float marched a band playing sad, catchy tunes. At the intersections, the long, unwieldy float would slowly turn the corners, and often paused for a duration while all the men swapped out with new volunteers.

The crowds following the floats were so thick that it was impossible to walk along with it...after it passed us, we ran around the block to watch it pass again...and again...and again. I guess that´s why it takes 11 hours to get around town. Behind the men´s float was the women´s version, slightly smaller and only requiring 40 of them to carry it. The women were dressed in black and white dresses, skirts, and headscarves (sometimes with high heels!), and they were sweating as they shouldered even the lesser weight of their wooden monstrosity.

The procession worked down the streets so slowly that we had time to continue looking at the carpets, which were really only finished just before they were destroyed. We went back to the girls´carpet and this time stayed a while to help them out. It was getting pretty hot and sunny by midday, and they were happy to let me crouch down with them and stuff sawdust onto the forms, staining my fingers red in the process. The girls were all part of an orphanage nearby, and their leader had organized them into making a beautiful carpet. We stayed and helped until it was actually finished, and it was amazing, almost too cool to be destroyed. They continued to lightly water the sawdust until the procession arrived, so it wouldn´t dry out and fly all over, and we waited also, because we had to see what would happen to our creation. Sure enough, the parade arrived, but all of the walking centurions and purple robed men were careful to walk on either side of it and not mar the beauty of it...many of them pulled out cameras and snapped pictures as well. When the massive float arrived, preceeded by clouds of incense, finally it succumbed to the feet of the laboring men, and the marching band right behind it. Even then, it left colorful footprint whirls on the street, not unlike the giant stamp pads during the opening ceremony of the Olympics a few years back. But after the people had passed, a giant truck and loader came along, a bunch of men with brooms swept up all the color, and off it went into the dump truck. All over for the day, to be created anew the next morning.

When our minivan rolled back into Antigua from El Salvador, we couldn´t go into the town center because of the processions for Ash Wednesday. On the main square we encountered another small children´s procession, then a few blocks farther on, we got caught up (backpacks and all) in the masses surrounding the huge float and other smaller floats behind it. Afterward we were lucky to find maybe one of the last available hotel rooms in the entire city, and stayed just for the night before heading onward to Chichicastenango the next morning.

April 9-12 - Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is known far and wide as having the largest market in Central America. It is held twice a week on Thursdays and Sundays, and hotels in Antigua run day trips to the town on those days, although it is a long mountainous ride as we found. We only had a one way ticket because we were trying to avoid the worst of the crowds on the Semana Santa weekend, and because all of the hotels in Antigua and nearby popular areas were either chock full or outrageously overpriced.

It was a disappointment, then, to arrive in the center of town and realize that the famed local market had disintegrated into something little more than a tourist trap. The town itself is fairly small, and set on a hilltop, and the available area for the market is mainly just the town square. This has been filled with semi-permanent structures made from wooden poles and plastic tarps, and the vendors were mostly selling tourist-oriented hand-woven fabrics. Nowhere could we find the mountains of vegetables and fruits shown in the postcards of town.

Aside from that, Chichicastenango was a delightful small town full of friendly locals, and so few tourists that we could count them on one hand, especially on the non-market days. We ended up staying through the Easter weekend, just to avoid the masses everywhere else. For me it became a time to catch up on stories and post the latest pictures, but on Good Friday we found out that the town has its own version of the procession and carpets in Antigua, and Rob happily wandered around town all day taking more pictures of some truly beautiful carpets. The floats started their slow course around town at 4 p.m., and didn´t finished until 1 the next morning. Indeed we got out of bed to see them pass by our hotel late that evening. Both the men and women´s floats had about 50 people supporting them, but the traditional costumes of the men changed designs, and the women wore their traditional, colorful skirts, blouses, and belts.

The women in villages across Guatemala still for the most part wear designs in their clothing, given them by the Spanish conquerors to help the foreigners tell which area they were from. Today the meanings of the designs are lost, but the colorful clothing are still worn by the villagers, with the designs and patterns changing from village to village. I´m sure that many villages worth of women came into Chichi for Good Friday, because we saw many different skirt, blouse, and belt designs, but I have to do more research (i.e. ask a local) to find out which article of clothing has the village designation on it. The men for the most part have adapted to western clothing, but in a few isolated villages they also still wear traditional clothing as well.

In Chichi we noticed the continuing trend of security throughout the houses and businesses of both towns and cities. This is the biggest cultural difference we have seen between the Maya of the Yucatan, and those farther south. Unlike the Yucatan, which has never had much political upheaval, Guatemala has only lately escaped the ravages of civil war and bandits. For safety, then, most houses and businesses are surrounded by high block walls, sturdy bars on the windows, and locked gates. There is still an aspect of danger in the country as well, so the precautions are indeed still in full use. Our guidebook warns of repeated cases of robbery, rape, and murder along some of the popular tourist routes and hikes, making the need for armed guards a good idea, and in some cases a necessity.

To get around, there is a form of local transportation that will easily be recognized by all of you as old American school buses. Once the buses have exceeded their life span in the USA, they are shipped south and refurbished. The engines are souped up, which is necessary for the steep mountain roads, and roof racks and interior racks are installed. Finally they are given a radical new paint job, and they are ready for their new role as Chicken buses, called such because of the local tendancy to travel with live animals in tow to the markets. We will learn to love and hate such prolific, crowded transportation on the rest of our journeys here.

When we woke up on Easter morning, Chichicastenango had redeemed our guidebook´s good opinion of the market there, and we were enchanted all over again. Almost every street in town was lined with vendors on both sides. Sure, most of them were still touristy type items, but since the place was packed, the crowds were gathering, and the atmosphere was exciting...we explored for a while. Guatemalen fashion seems to include the brightest colors imaginable, and I´m sure they were overjoyed when neon paint and threads were invented. The wildest thing we saw (but didn´t buy) were kids clothes that looked like they were invented after a psychedelic road trip.

Although this might be the busiest travel day of the entire year here in Guatemala, we decided to head out for our next destination. Plenty of transportation was waiting, so we crammed about 20 people into a minivan with our luggage on top, and careened back down the mountain roads to a busy intersection on two highways. There we switched to a schoolbus-turned-chicken bus, and went down to the town of Solola, where the entire town had dressed in their best clothes, and was hanging out in the main square and the market. We were fascinated by the clothing, because once again the patterns had changed with the villages. Here and there groups of women wore blue skirts and blouses, over there mostly purple, and sometimes almost rainbow colored. Even the men got into it, with embroidered colorful shirts, cowboy hat, a wide belt, and pants that looked somewhat like a faded crazy quilt.

It took one more chicken bus to get down to Lake Atitlan, and this time we sat across from a family of seven that had somehow crammed themselves into just one school bus-sized seat. The four little girls and their mother were all dressed in matching, beautiful skirts and blouses, and they stared at us with equally wide-eyed fascination. The bus got so crowded that we even scrunched over to fit another woman in with us...and for those of you who have ridden in a school bus, you know that´s hard to do. And then we were finally in Panajachel, and the bus hardly stopped moving long enough for someone to throw our backpacks off the top rack, it and continued down the road.
April 13-14 - Panajachel, Lake Atitlan

Panajachel is considered the most touristy of the villages on the lake, but that´s not always as bad as our guidebook makes it out to be. At times it´s nice to find a plethora of hotels, restaurants, internet cafes, and tourist shops without having to look too hard for them. But the lake justifies all of the popularity. Lake Atitlan is ringed by steep hills and volcanoes, and is almost 1000 feet deep. The water is a clear dark blue, and warm enough that Rob found himself swimming in it every day. Each morning, the sky is mostly clear, the water is as still as a mirror, and fishermen in their tiny dugout canoes cast nets into the lake. As the day goes on, haze covers the mountains, the water gets choppy and the wind picks up, so the view is never the same twice. This is the dry season, so in the absence of a good thunderstorm to clear out the hazy skies, we never had a really clear day to see the lake or the volcanoes. But the afternoon fog was almost chilly, and felt refreshing after the heat at the coast.

April 15-17 - San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

After taking advantage of said tourist paraphernalia, we left Panajachel for a quieter town, and took a small speedboat across the lake to the shadow under San Pedro Volcano. The town of San Pedro is set on a steep hill. Most of the hotels and shops and Spanish schools are along a tiny, crooked street that follows the lake, but the locals live high above the water, up a steep hill into the town proper. Behind everything loomed the volcano, which was dormant but ever present.
April 17 - Santiago Atitlan, Lake Atitlan

As a day trip from San Pedro, we took a ferry boat over to the town of Santiago Atitlan, which lives in the shadow of two volcanoes, Atitlan and Toliman. We hadn`t come early enough to climb one, and in fact wandered around town for a while looking for (and not finding) a travel agency where we could hire a guide. We didn`t really want a guide, of course, but since there are no trail signs, and the danger of being mugged or robbed, we felt it might be a good idea. Finally as we were giving up on any hiking in the area, a guide found us on the street and offered his services. After a lengthy bargaining section in which he tried to charge us the price of a volcano summit instead of just a day hike, we agreed on a price and set off. Within moments he was asking us to buy him a drink from a store we were passing, and already hinting about his tip. As we reached our goal of a small viewpoint over the lake, we offered him a choice of snacks from our backpack, and he accepted everything we hadn´t eaten, then didn`t actually want to eat any of it. Instead he asked us to carry it home so he could bring it to his family. Ok, sure. At the end of the hike, we gave him his snacks and tip, yet he asked for more. Not the kind of guide that we were hoping to find. I guess we were lucky to find one at all.

Meanwhile, back to the hike itself, which was actually quite interesting. We walked out of town overlooking the lake, through the ruined town of Panabaj. In 2005, Hurricane Stan had caused a lot of destruction in Guatemala, and in Panabaj a mudslide from the volcano had buried the town and its inhabitants one night while they slept. Today, the town is rebuilding itself, but there are still abandoned houses with a layer of mud almost up to the windows. Out of town a little ways, we came to a town where the survivors moved afterward, into new cement houses built for them by the government. That, too, was half abandoned, after experts concluded that the new location was also in danger of future mudslides. Finally we walked onto a trail through farmer`s fields, and although it was the dry season, fields of corn were starting to spout. Since the fog was covering the fields as we walked through them, and we concluded that the daily cloud cover provided a little moisture for growing even if it never rained. After a short climb, we reached a viewpoint where on a clear day you could see all the way to the coast. All we could see was the mist of the fog as it blew up and over the ridge, but it felt cool and refreshing and the view didn´t matter.

April 18-25 - Quetzaltenango

As we continued west in Guatemala, the tourist numbers dropped and the local population became even more colorful, if that`s even possible. Quetzaltenango, the second biggest city in Guatemala, is nestled at the base of the mighty Santa Maria volcano. It still has a small town feel, though, and the locals call it by its Maya name of Xela (SHAY-la). We settled into a guesthouse, and ended up staying a whole week due to a lucky, accidental friendship, which I will describe later. Around Xela are villages renowned for their weekly produce markets and for their agriculture, and every day Rob went to a different village market to snap more photos of the local dress and culture. Tononipah, San Francisco el Alto, San Andres Xecul, Almolonga, and Zunil are a few of the markets and villages he explored.

Due to the volcanic activity, there are quite a few sulfur vents and springs around the area. Even places in the river collect hot water, and the women gather there to do laundry in the heated springs. Some enterprising owners have captured said steam and offer saunas in claustrophobic, dilapidated cement rooms. We bypassed the saunas for a trip to the hot springs at Fuentes Georginas. Standing in the back of a taxi-pickup truck, we careened up a a narrow road through a continuous collection of amazing hillside vegetable fields, until the smell of sulfur hit our nostrils. The hot springs were set deep into a fold of the valley, and along the road small holes vented sulfur steam, coloring the rocks yellow with bacterial growth.

We were amazed to walk into a literal jungle covering the hillside behind the hot springs. The warmth of the water and the steam vents kept the valley damp, and even a few fern trees were growing here, which we hadn`t seen except in New Zealand. But the hot springs themselves were better than the scenery around it, and we changed into bathing suits for a hot water experience. There were three pools, the hottest one being fed directly from the dripping hillside behind it, and then two other pools below which had cooled slightly due to the slow movement of the water through them. We slipped into the coolest one first, which was still as warm as most hot tubs should be, then after acclimatizing, moved to the hot pool. And it was HOT! The water was at least 105-106 degrees, and maybe even warmer, yet it was big enough to swim laps if you could possible put your head under water. Just stepping into the water was a shock, and most of the people slowly made it up to their armpits before retreating to cool off again. The temperature got even hotter as we got closer to the hillside springs, and I perched on a rock to cool off for a while.

Rob made instant friends with a Guatemalan family on vacation back here from their adopted life in San Francisco, USA. They offered us delicious tamales, and Rob gave them a list of beautiful places they should visit once back in California. Then we drug our pruned toes out of the springs, and took a slow walk down the mountain and through all the vegetable fields on the deserted road.

April 19 - Santa Maria and Santiaguito Volcanoes

Our first goal in Xela was to find a guide to take us up a volcano. I wanted to climb more than one, with a day or two in between for my muscles to recover, so the sooner, the better. We went around to a whole bunch of travel places to get the scoop, and discovered that it would probably be possible to climb Santa Maria on our own, and so we happily chose that option. At 5 in the morning we hired a taxi to take us to the fog-enshrouded trail-head, and started climbing in the dark, by the light of the moon. As chance had it, a man and his son showed up at the exact same time, and we followed them on the rocky, unmarked trail. The son gave up the climb within 10 minutes, mumbling "alcohol and climbing is not a good combination" as we passed him. The man ahead of us kept going, and after a while we caught up to him at a rest break. We asked if the trail was easy to follow, and he offered to walk with us so we didn`t get lost. What followed was a long conversation all the way to the top of the volcano, which gratefully let us take our minds of the pain in our legs and the shortness of air in our lungs from the almost 13,000 feet of elevation.

Eli, the construction worker, was a hiking fanatic, and said that almost every weekend, he would climb a volcano around the area. Since it took almost 3 hours of steep uphill walking to reach the summit, that is no easy feat to do every weekend. His grown kids sometimes come with him (or attempt to, at least), but I think mostly he walks alone. He carried only a bottle of Coke and a light jacket, and stopped occasionally to let our lungs catch up with our bodies again. He mentioned that next weekend he would be going to Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America, which was high (no pun intended) on my list as a place to climb. He offered to take us with him if we were still around, and we promised to call him and set up a place to meet at 3 in the morning on Saturday.

Since we were so far south, even at high elevations the pine trees still grow on the mountains, and it wasn´t until we reached the very summit of Santa Maria that the view over the valley was clear. In the distance, we could see the whole chain of volcanos in a line, including Tacana, Tajumulco, San Pedro, Zunil, Atitlan, Toliman, Acatenango, Agua, and Fuego. It wasn`t a really clear day, and a layer of haze obscured a lot of the valley and the Pacific slope, but we could see the real excitement of this summit, the active volcano Santiaguito. After Santa Maria erupted back in 1902, it has been dormant ever since, but out of the south slope sometime later, a smaller crater formed and has been continually erupting ever since. Sometimes it erupts as often as every 20 minutes. The crater is almost a vertical mile below the summit, and so we were able to look down at the volcano as it blew up soon after we arrived. The sound was that of a jumbo jet rushing over our heads, and the ash clouds blew higher than our perch above the crater, but luckily the wind pushed them away from us. This unique view of an erupting volcano is almost unparalleled on the entire earth, and we felt lucky to be sitting over it and hearing the explosions.

April 24 - Viewpoint of Santiaguito Volcano

A couple of days later, I couldn`t help myself and wanted to climb another volcano. Rob claimed his legs still hurt, so I found a group going up with a guide the next morning. It was an older French couple, and since they didn`t want to climb Santa Maria and perhaps die trying, we just went to the lookout point about one-third of the way up the mountain. Actually this lookout was closer to the Santiaguito volcano eruptions, and the skies were clear when we arrived. I immediately sat down with my camera ready, and waited for the rumbling to start. Sure enough, not even an hour later, it erupted with a vengeance, and you can see from the pictures that it was amazing!

That evening, it started to rain, and rain, and rain some more. The wet season had arrived. Our plan for the next day was to summit Volcan Tajumulco with our volcano-climbing friend, riding in his 4x4 truck to the trailhead; but after hours of rain, we canceled on the premise that everything would be muddy and impassible. Oh, well.

So instead we got an early start on our long bus ride into Mexico, which turned out to be a very short trip indeed, but that`s a story for the next section. Mexico, here we come!

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