Volcan Atitlán

Visit number eight. That’s right, this is the eighth time we have ventured down to Guatemala and settled into our “white studio with a view”, and the arrival at Lake Atitlán into the welcoming arms of the looming volcanoes is still just as exciting as the very first time. Maybe more so now, as we know exactly how enjoyable the next few months will be, thanks to many years of experience and this amazing place having never having failed us yet. The journey in is inevitably long-ish and rather tiresome, whether taking the slow, traffic-laden route from the city, or a day-long chicken-bus-hopping ordeal overland from Mexico. On the bright side, if it was easy to get to everyone would be here. Not just a few hundred in-the-know expats, a few dozen backpackers whose journey stalled amid the beauty and value of this wonderful place, and a rotating cast of about a hundred era-displaced hippies desperately trying to re-create the Summer of Love in a conservative Mayan village and achieve enlightenment using hallucinogenic drugs and woefully dated fashion choices. Anyway, having spent much time and many blog entries describing the day-to-day pleasures and peculiarities of life on the lake in the past (for the bored and/or curious, endless hours of lake info and volcano photos await in the depths of my website), this year I will only be posting stories about very specific experiences that are, more or less, different from those I’ve babbled on about in the past. Which brings me to our recent ascent of Volcán Atitlán, the tallest of the three volcanoes on the lake, and eighth in all of Guatemala.

Santiago Atitlán

This whole adventure was organized by our friend, Leigh, who had come up with it as farewell treat for another friend, Katie, who has been working near us at the lake for the last three years but is moving on to hotter, sandier pastures in Costa Rica at the end of the month. Her friend, Tracy, would also be joining us, to complete our manageable group of 4 (Laynni doesn’t “climb up things just to climb back down”). In order to get an early morning start we needed to spend the night in Santiago Atitlán, the relatively large town directly across the lake from where we stay, nestled snugly in the hollow between volcanoes San Pedro, Atitlán and Tolimán. From our distant vantage point it always appears shrouded in haze – some depressing mix of fog, low-lying clouds, and smoke from thousands of wood fires. It makes for some atmospheric photos for us, but presumably chilly, dismal nights for them. And us, for one night, anyway.

The last – and only – time I had visited Santiago (the short form we use, although the locals apparently call it Atitlán, rather confusingly in my opinion) was seven or eight years ago, and then only because we somehow managed to get ourselves on the wrong bus following the wrong highway taking us to completely the wrong side of the volcanoes. I didn’t love it back then, and I can’t say I was any more enthralled with it this time around. Kind of grubby and loud, with a dilapidated, partially sinking dock and a messy jumble of crowded stalls selling the usual tourist crap. All the way up the main street from the dock you pass virtual replicas of the same shop, selling the same stuff, mostly using the same riveting sales pitch: “Hola! Quiere mirar?” (Hi! You want to look?). As you continue along, however, the tourist shtick gives way to local shops, interesting little restaurants and typical Guatemalan life. Our hotel was basic, but decent and friendly, and with an entire afternoon and evening to kill and no particular plan I/we spent several hours wandering the streets aimlessly, eventually giving me a certain appreciation for the place. Away from the dock the town is refreshingly authentic, meaning not so geared toward tourism as places like Panajachel, San Marcos and San Pedro. Sure, “authentic” in Guatemala tends to involve a whole lot of loud tuk-tuks, smoke-belching chicken buses, barking dogs and fast-fried-chicken joints, but the people are invariably restrained but friendly, and their tendency to live their lives on the streets make every night feel like a festival night. That, and the unquenchable thirst every Guatemalan man feels about constantly lighting cheap firecrackers. Among the other highlights:

The town plaza featuring what we expected to be a tepid, stagnant pool but actually turned out to be a rather fascinating and informative relief version of the lake.

With Leigh and I having come in on an earlier boat, I eventually found myself having a beer near the dock waiting for Katie and Tracy to arrive, sharing the only table with the vendor herself, an venerable old fossil of a woman placidly knitting while I quietly drank my large Gallo, occasionally making expressionless eye contact, sometimes accompanied by a companionable smile, sometimes not.

I excitedly bought a bag of popcorn for 2Q (about 35 cents) and enthusiastically dug in, only to realize that the beatifically smiling – but apparently also cagey and shifty – woman who sold it to me had cleverly pushed the bottom of the bag up inside itself so that it only held less than half the amount outward appearances suggested. Still, just 2Q…

We fell asleep to the soothing sounds of drunks cavorting outside our hotel, then woke a couple hours later to the unmelodic squalling of a couple chronologically challenged roosters which, by all accounts, were living somewhere right inside the hotel.

The Hike

Up early in the depressing darkness, our guide, Antonio, and his driver picked us up promptly at 6 am in a little pickup of the sort routinely packed with a couple dozen passengers who crowd into the back standing and clinging desperately to a central rack as the rickety old truck careens around the standard Guatemalan hairpin turns. In our case, though, we chivalrously allowed both girls to stuff themselves into the front while Leigh and Antonio I had the entire box to ourselves, the frigid early morning (frigid by Guatemalan standards, meaning around 12C, not Canadian standards) and speed-induced wind leading to me huddled down in the front corner, trying to minimize back and ass bruising while dejectedly forcing down my breakfast of a day-old peanut butter sandwich and a pair of noticeably worse-for-wear boiled eggs. It still beat Katie and Tracy’s sorry excuse for trail mix, however.

After only a brief journey, however, we arrived at the trailhead, and off we went, venturing into the forest as the sky slowly began lightening. The easy incline of the first 15 minutes was just starting to foster a false sense of optimism (“you know, maybe this isn’t going to be as hard as I thought…”) when the angle changed, the path getting steeper and trickier, then a bit steeper yet, and a little trickier again, etc. A theme that would continue throughout the next 4 hours. As the difficulty increased so did the gap between us hikers of varying fitness. Thanks to the previous fall spent on a Camino and hiking in the Canary Islands I was still in relatively good hiking condition, however, diminished somewhat by three weeks of sedentary drinking and eating at home over Christmas and the fact I have learned over the years that it takes far more than a week to get used to the altitude down here (1,500 metres on the lake, 1,800 metres at the trailhead, 3,500 metres at the top). Katie is obviously acclimatized and consistently shocks me with her effortless hiking abilities but apparently hadn’t had any time for hiking in a long time and, in her words, was “in absolutely shitty shape”. Not surprisingly, we formed the back of the pack. Meanwhile, Leigh, who also lives here and whose daily hiking regimen can usually even put a determined FitBit competitor to shame, easily pulled ahead as the incline increased, and he was joined Tracy, whom we had only just met, who dazzled us with her effortless climbing ability, her daily interval training and overall fitness making this, by any reasonable standard, “incredibly tough hike” look like a stroll in the dog park.

Antonio found himself stuck in the middle, trying to keep an eye on both groups from somewhere between, himself obviously having no issue with the incline, the altitude, or the arduous terrain, having grown up in Santiago, having been a hiking guide for years and, when pressed, being unable to even hazard a guess as to how many times he has completed this particular climb.

Every now and then the trees deigned to part and offer us a glimpse of the expansive lake and volcano views that would only get better and better as we climbed. These also served as convenient excuses for me to catch my breath and give my racing heart a tiny respite, neatly disguised as photo ops. Then, as we got closer and closer to the top the slopes got steeper and slipperier. The final hour-long push to the top was fully exposed to the sun and wind, and we climbed 700 more metres of elevation on a trail of loose volcanic rock and shale, lungs burning and legs shaking. It was all worth it, however, when we finally crested that last ridge, revelling in the wonderful flatness of the wide plateau at the top. Phenomenal views as far as the eye could see, with no fewer than 10 different volcanoes in sight (not including the one we were standing on). Santa Maria, Tajamulco, Santo Tomas and Zunil off in the northwestern distance near Xela. Agua, Acatenengo, Pacaya, and steadily smoking Fuego surrounding Antigua off to the southeast. And, of course, Tolimán and San Pedro cowering directly beneath us in the foreground, these two 3,000 metre-plus monsters appearing startlingly modest from our amazing new viewpoint.

After a few brief moments gazing around in wonder, at both the unfathomable panoramic view and equally unfathomable amount of trash left scattered about by previous visitors, I flopped to the ground with all the remaining strength and balance of a well-worn stuff toy. I spent a little while quietly apologizing to my outraged legs, ate some lunch and did my best to avoid thinking about the several-hour descent that lay ahead. Thankfully, Volcán Fuego was more than happy to help distract us with new eruptions every few minutes or so, thick clouds of smoke and ash billowing into the sky followed slightly later by deep rumblings. Combined with a satisfying feeling of accomplishment, the relatively frigid temperature of the exposed air at 3,500 metres above sea level, the picturesquely sparse layer of clouds hovering just below us and, of course, debilitating exhaustion, it was a surreal and memorable hour at the top.

When we finally roused ourselves to start the reverse journey back down to Santiago, it was with somewhat heavy heart and considerably heavier legs, for myself at least. As any experienced hiker will tell you, going down is often worse than going up. Your lungs are finally off the hook, and your legs may have gravity on their side, but typically they have already been pushed to their limits by the initial climb, and now are required to remain constantly tensed and sporadically wobbly as you pick your way down, down, down. Leigh steadily and stoically, as he does, and Tracy seemingly enjoying a pleasant wander through a flowery meadow, skipping from rock to rock and bouncing around on her toes like an eager boxer. But at least Katie shared my pain and weariness, and probably even surpassed it considering her variety of ailments (sore knee, multiple blisters, recently dog-bitten calf) that led to her putting serious consideration into hijacking the bemused-looking horse we passed about halfway down.

And then, voila! We emerged back onto the highway where our modest little pickup waited to haul us back into town and the comforting embrace of some ice-cold beer and bargain-priced fried chicken. The carrot at the end of any good volcano-hiking stick.

Later this week we are off to Xela for a hike to Santiaguito Mirador, a relatively easy climb to a great viewpoint of this still-active volcano. Expect to hear all about it down the road…

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