Volcano Bagging in Guatemala

Guatemala sits above the junction of three of the world’s tectonic plates. As a result, it’s a country of considerable seismic activity, with frequent earthquakes and regular volcanic eruptions. A chain of over 30 volcanoes extends in an arc across the southern half of the country, from Mexico to El Salvador, and includes the 4200-metre Volcán Tajumulco (the highest point in Central America). Three of these volcanoes (Santiaguito, Fuego, and Pacaya) are highly active, regularly spewing smoke, ash, and lava.

Having lived in Belize, where the highest point is 1000 metres above sea level (and where there are no volcanoes), one of the many things I wanted to do in Guatemala is climb some of these beasts. And so it is that I find myself trudging up the side of the symmetrical cone of Volcán Santa Maria, south of Quetzaltenango (Xela), early one December morning. Even though the volcano tops out at 3800 metres, Xela is at 2400 metres, and the trailhead village of Llanos del Pinal is even higher. So it’s about 1300 metres or so uphill. And then downhill, of course. Even though I’m sin guia, it’s easy to follow the one path up, constantly trying not to slip on the frost and the mud, and occasionally meeting hikers coming downhill (who’ve either trekked up yesterday and camped overnight on the freezing summit, or who’ve left Xela at the crack of dawn today and hiked up in the dark – neither of which I find to be particularly attractive options). After four hours, I’m at the top. And I can see why people want to be here at sunrise. Even though the view to the north is clear, the vista to the south is already clouding over. The warm air from the Pacific coast hits the mountains, rises, cools, and condenses – so I immediately realise that I’m going to have to get up earlier in future for the best views. Bugger. Despite the clouds, I can make out the grey, lava-scarred cone of Santiaguito to the immediate south of Santa Maria. This volcano formed after Santa Maria erupted violently in 1902, sending most of its southern half crashing onto various nearby villages and killing 6000 people. Santiaguito has been growing ever since, is now 600 metres tall, and is in a constant state of eruption – in the hour or two that I’m there, it spouts several huge clouds of ash hundreds of metres into the air, before they’re dispersed by the wind. To the west, in the distance, I can see the massive volcanoes of Tajumulco and Tacaná, on the Mexican border. To the north is the city of Xela, on the largest piece of flat land among all the mountains. And to the east are the three volcanoes around Lake Atitlán (and on a clear day, you can even see beyond the lake to two of the three volcanoes near Antigua). And it’s not just walkers who are at the top. Guatemala’s volcanoes are sacred to many of the Maya, and there’s a local family on the summit, performing some kind of ceremony, which involves the burning of much incense and the chanting of many prayers.

Also near Xela is the beautiful Laguna Chicabal, in the crater of Volcán Chicabal, a place so spiritually-important to the local Maya that it’s off limits to outsiders for weeks at a time when various ceremonies are performed. At 2700 metres, it’s one of the country’s smallest volcanoes (you can hike up from the nearest town of San Martin Sacatepéquez in two hours); but it’s also one of the most beautiful, with thick forest leading all the way up (and then down) to a clear, circular crater lake (which is often dramatically-shrouded in mist).

Lake Atitlán has three extinct volcanoes around its shore – Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro. The lake itself was formed by a humungous eruption 85,000 years ago, when a ginormous volcano blew its top, sending ash all over Central America. Rainwater filled the empty crater, and over time, three more volcanoes grew out of the southern edge of the lake. In the north-west corner of the lake, a hill called Indian Nose gives the best view of the lake and its volcanic embellishments. Having to get up at dawn to climb the hill is mandatory in my case, as I see it as part of a 3-day-trek from Xela to San Pedro. Waking up at 5:30 AM and walking uphill in the dark (weighed down by several papaya and a large watermelon, which our party will have for breakfast at the top, and which I foolishly offered to carry for the overstocked guide) isn’t my idea of a good time. But breakfast overlooking the lake, as sunrise illuminates the water and the volcanoes, and the view extends to the volcanoes around Antigua, definitely is. Due to their height (and the danger from delinquent local youths – at least that’s what everyone warns me about), Atitlán (3500m) and Tolimán (3200m) aren’t popular with tourists. But San Pedro is an easy day hike from the nearest village (also called San Pedro). And, once you’ve paid your entrance fee to the national park surrounding the mountain, you get a guide included in the price. The volcano is 3000m above sea level, but the lake is at 1600m, so, like Santa Maria, it’s another 1300m or so uphill (but unlike Santa Maria, the horizontal distance is less, so I make it to the top in just three hours). Obviously, I can’t see all three volcanoes from the top (as I’m standing on one of them); but the view of the two remaining volcanoes (covered in green forest), the lake (with tiny boats skimming across the blue water), and the northern shore (with tiny villages clinging precipitously to the land) is well worth the effort.

And if those weren’t enough, Guatemala’s ground-zero of tourism, the lovely colonial town of Antigua, has three volcanoes looming over its cobbled streets and ruined churches. Agua and Acatenango are extinct, but the appropriately-named Fuego is constantly active – it can regularly be seen (and heard) from Antigua, rumbling away and belching smoke. And during the month I’m here, studying Spanish at one of the many language schools, Fuego erupts with such force that the day turns dark grey (at 3 PM), and within an hour, a rain of ash covers Antigua and everything in it (the ash cloud even extends as far as the capital, closing the airport for the first time since an eruption in 2010). Like the local people around Atitlán, the Antigüeños consider the mountains surrounding them to be crawling with thieves from nearby cities, waiting in the bushes to pounce on any unsuspecting tourists, hack them to pieces with a machete, and steal their iPhones (how true this is, I don’t know, but it’s what everyone tells me). So all the volcano trips are arranged through travel agencies and with guides. Not wanting to get too close to Fuego while it’s particularly bellicose (and not wanting to camp overnight on Acatenango at 3900m in February, or hike up at 5 in the morning), I act efficiently (or cheat, depending on your point of view) – I take a tour of Agua, with a company that drives me in a 4X4 to the end of a dirt road, well past the normal trailhead village of Santa Maria de Jesús, and from where the summit is only two hours’ walk away (as opposed to five hours from Santa Maria village). From the top of Agua (at 3800m), Antigua, Acatenango, the smoking Fuego, and the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlán are all in view, along with the many other nameless mountains and hills that make up the twisting landscape. I can see the rift in the north side of Agua that opened up after an earthquake in 1541, which then released a mudslide from the volcano’s water-filled crater, and which buried the Spanish capital of Cuidad Vieja, prompting the Spanish to move to Antigua, where it became the capital of Spanish Central America (and from where the volcano gets its name). And to east, I can see Pacaya, the country’s third active volcano.

Pacaya is technically closer to Guatemala City than to Antigua, but everyone seems to go on a tour from the latter town (and with the awful reputation that ‘Guate’ has, very few tourists even stay there, going from the capital’s airport straight to Antigua). At 2300m, Pacaya is an easy half-day climb. But like Santiaguito, what it lacks in size it makes up for in activity, constantly belching sulphurous fumes and lava. After an hour’s climb up through the forest, we emerge at the edge of a lake of cooled lava. In front of us is the cone, a jet-black triangle that’s often obscured by clouds of smoke. We then follow the guide, picking our way across the lava field to a spot where the air is rippling due to the heat from underground. The obligatory marshmallows are handed out, and I finish my Guatemalan volcanoes experience by toasting myself a snack, above a red-hot vent in the Earth’s crust.

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