Volcán Santiaguito

Road trip time! Or at least it was, like, three weeks ago. Hey, I never promised these entries would be prompt. Or if I did, I lied. Either way, in late January we decided to piggyback onto a brief excursion by some of our fellow Pasajcappers to check out the active volcano of Santiaguito, organized to the letter by our lake friend and intrepid hiker, Leigh. While he, Andree, Bill and Jan were just starting their return journey from San Cristobal de las Casas across the border in Mexico, myself, Laynni and Leah set out to meet them a couple hours from the lake in the popular Guatemalan city of Xela (pronounced Shayla, and officially named Quetzaltenango). Leah is an old friend from home – old as in we’ve known her a long time, not as in, well, sort of in age, too, as she’s definitely older than me. Way older. Anyway, our annual barrage of photos and adulation for Lake Atitlán finally convinced her to make the tricky trek down here to spend a month relaxing away from winter. Her cousin, Tammy, joined her for the first week but was unfortunately no longer around for this little adventure (although her whirlwind 5 days or so are probably deserving of their own story).

Our journey got off to a somewhat inauspicious start – while only just boarding the public lancha from our dock at Pasaj-Cap I clumsily slipped and slammed both my knee and elbow hard against the side. This led, as one might imagine, to a full slate of angry glaring at no one in particular and, less predictably, apparently, as I only noticed much later, a fair bit of blood on the only pair of pants I had with me. Well, at least it wasn’t ketchup for a change.

Part of our big idea for this outing was to also give Leah her first taste of a Guatemalan chicken bus (as though her and Tammy’s epic flight-delayed, traffic-ridden, flat-tire-having, middle-of-the-night-shuttle-arrival somehow didn’t represent enough transportation adventure for one trip). Our personal experiences on chicken buses have almost always been positive, and the novelty of riding in these extravagantly decked-out old North American school buses never completely wears off, even if the discomfiting uneasiness that comes with bombing through the winding Guatemalan roads continually testing the edge of one cliff or another most certainly does. After a quick lunch we caught one of the few “direct” buses to Xela originating right in Pana, which meant it was still fairly empty and we had the unexpected luxury of our own seats. And, in fact, it never really did fill up completely despite valiant attempts by the driver to coerce every pedestrian along the way to join our happy caravan (hence the facetious use of the term “direct”), making the 2 and a bit hour ride relatively comfortable, not to mention amusing, as we got to watch the ayudante (bus helper who walks up and down the aisle collecting money) trip on the awkward metal rails oddly stored right beneath our seats in a way that stuck them out into the aisle, every single time he passed by, even though they had presumably been stored that way by said ayudante himself.

The 7 of us ended up staying in 3 different hotels in Xela, for a variety of reasons (budget, comfort, previous experience, an unquenchable thirst for alliterative medieval references), us in a cute little place called Kasa Kamelot. Upon closer inspection it was not really so medieval, but still friendly and sporting an intensely jungled lobby requiring you to duck and dodge around a greenhouse’s worth of plants and vines, but presumably making for some spectacular Easter egg-hunting expeditions. The other small oddity was that seemingly every room featured multiple beds, regardless of how many guests in each room. Since Leah was staying by herself she paid the, I’d say, rather reasonable single rate ($US11), although naturally also found herself stuck with the small room. Meaning she had a mere 4 beds to choose from. Being a couple, and paying the exorbitant double room rate of $US18, entitled us to 5 beds, naturally. All those haphazardly arranged beds, plus the one random table in the middle of the room, certainly made my nightly dark foray to the bathroom just that much more challenging and shin-tingling, but at least we weren’t plagued by Leah’s night terrors, dreaming that she suddenly woke up to find all the other beds mysteriously filled with strangers. She wouldn’t elaborate on what happened next in this borderline nightmare, although I think we can all assume things got pretty weird.

Long before those nocturnal adventures and Leah’s inappropriate dreams, however, we had some serious drinking to do. Which is pretty standard on the eve of any pre-dawn volcano hike, I feel. Before the others arrived on their much longer journey from Mexico, the three of us got started at La Bodeguita del Duende, an atmospheric little pub on the main square. Using my ever-impressive Spanish I translated the name to mean “Wine Cellar of Elves”, which was a bit puzzling but, you know, bar owners, odd dudes, am I right? Then after about 5 beer we came to the slow realization that all the signs and logos featured leprechauns, not elves, which obviously made much more sense, especially considering that in every conceivable way it was your standard Irish pub (with the minor exception of our Mayan waitress, although her miniscule height certainly had a hint of leprechaun to it). Anyway, Leigh eventually joined us, although not before Laynni and Leah drank enough to invent their own secret handshake. Rather than try to describe it I will simply let the video speak for itself. Although, if the climax requires any clarification, that is apparently their impression of cats excitedly scratching at the air. Drunk cats, clearly.

Since our ever-cultured, and repetitive, suggestion of McDonald’s was callously voted down, we eventually met up with the rest of our – for the time being – much more sober crew at El Sabor de la India, where we enjoyed excellent Indian food (great work by Leigh) while simultaneously having the honour of being by far the loudest table in the entire restaurant (great work, as always, by Laynni). This large and tasty variety of spicy Indian foods was followed by an atmospheric nightcap on the top floor of a bar terrace overlooking the square. Enter: frivolity (all), dancing (some), a few more fancy handshakes (two), and Bill finally pressured into an extremely reluctant concession to the cold, which simply meant finally agreeing to fasten the top button of his golf shirt.

Awake what felt like mere minutes later at the crack of 5:30 am, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – or was it red-eyed and bushy-tongued? – I found myself valiantly fighting my grogginess while rather questionably attempting to cure my mysterious case of dry-mouth by choking down a day-old peanut butter sandwich and boiled eggs. Then it was off to meet the gang at the only coffee shop in town open at that still-black hour for their morning caffeine jolt (for me, no coffee could compare to the exquisite early morning pleasures of some room-temperature water and a couple things that actually smell exactly like they came out of the ass of a chicken). There we met our tour organizer, Josh, and our guide for the day, Carlos, and they soon whisked us off to the trailhead just as the sun was starting to timidly make a still-ineffectual appearance.

Bill had unfortunately been ruled out due to a lingering heel injury, so we were immediately reduced to 6. Ominous. But don’t read too much into this, the fact you’re reading this mostly tells you how the story ends. Unsurprisingly, the trailhead looked very similar to every other trailhead I had previously experienced around Xela – a crappy, trash-lined dirt road slowly petering out to eventually become a crappy, trash-lined dirt trail. Also like the others, however, this soon gave way to trees and an increasing slope, the trail getting more difficult, the trash slowly disappearing and the views improving (the dogs, however, remain uniformly mangy). We climbed for about an hour, followed by about 45 minutes of pleasant walking along scenic forested slopes. At one point we riled up a dog protecting her puppies, and Carlos briefly considered stealing a cabbage for some reason, then we rounded a corner to realize we had arrived at the “mirador” (viewpoint) around 8:30 am.

The mirador itself is at around 2,800 metres above sea level, which meant we were all bundled up against the cold (probably around 10C) and wind (probably around “pretty windy”) and settled in to wait for an eruption. Hopefully, anyway, since these things are never guaranteed, and we were only mildly encouraged by Carlos’ assurances that Volcán Santiaguito erupts at least 3 or 4 times a day, not bothering to elaborate on how those odds didn’t accurately reflect the broad, confident grin he was aiming at us in an attempt to buoy our spirits. Questionably distant eruptions or not, however, we were still happy to enjoy the excellent views of Santiaguito, the surrounding hills and, if not for a slight haze, apparently glimpses all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

A brief summary of our wait:

Eating snacks

Taking photos from every conceivable angle

Huddling out of the wind

Taking more photos – “try jumping in this one”, “ok, now jump over there

Wandering off to pee

Some other stuff

A bit more huddling

Another couple had already been there when we arrived, and after they eventually gave up and left we had to revisit our somewhat arbitrarily imposed one-hour waiting limit. We decided to give it another half-hour, although basically everyone found this either too long or too short, but before the time came to resume our bickering, fifteen minutes later, in fact, suddenly the show started. Kicked off with a single little warning “pedito”, as Carlos called it, (meaning “little fart”), it proceeded to huff and puff and smoke and smolder for a full 15 minutes more, all to the great delight/excitement/pleasure/elation of the crowd. Many, many photos were taken, many angles were altered, many people lined themselves up in such a way as to make it look as though the smoke from the volcano was actually coming out of their mouths. Zany, just zany! Other people (or maybe one people), made much fun of those people, for a while, then eventually gave in and decided that that was a pretty fun photo after all, and sheepishly joined the queue.

Eventually, however, old Santiaguito closed up for a rest, and off we went, jaunty and satisfied like a travelling salesman after a stretch in a vibrating airport chair. While on the way down, Carlos got word of his 23-year-old cousin having died in child birth, which was obviously a terrible thing to hear, as well as reminding us that the safety and medical expertise we enjoy at home shouldn’t be taken for granted.

After a brief wait at the bottom where we were joined by a baby goat wearing an adorable, and apparently insanely photogenic red ribbon, we shared a shuttle back to the city with 3 German girls. They had just returned from spending the night camping at the top of Volcán Santa María. This is a much more difficult hike and requires cold and uncomfortable camping but, theoretically, provides an even better viewpoint. Except that, apparently, they didn’t see a single thing, having found themselves entirely shrouded in thick grey clouds the entire time. Well, the entire time except for a single 20-second stretch where they still didn’t actually catch a glimpse of the volcano, but the sun did just barely poke through the clouds. They took a photo of it.

Back in Xela, we were finally able to convince our crew to join us at McDonald’s. Despite the fact we almost never eat there at home, for some reason a quarter-pounder literally never tastes better than at the end of a good hike in a country where we never get to eat fast food, and where we go through roughly 30 lunch tortillas per week. After that it was a quick trip back in the same private shuttle Leigh, Andree, Bill and Jan took to Mexico (chicken bus adventures are best served sporadically). Notoriously narcoleptic when it comes to otherwise uncomfortable bus journeys, my chin soon found itself nearing my chest and I spent 2 hours walking that difficult tightrope of sleeping, but remaining just alert enough to be able to sway with the corners and keep my neck from relaxing into full bobble-head and smashing it into either the window (on one side) or Laynni’s head (on the other).

In Panajachel I bought exactly 3 eggs in a small plastic bag to replenish our supplies, boarded our private lancha back to Pasaj-Cap (without incident this time), and before you could say “you look tired and don’t smell great”, I was showered and vigorously brushing my teeth.

Altogether, terrific organization on Leigh’s part, and a great time little adventure with our winter friends. And, there you have it, the story of our journey to Xela. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Andy Dick as me, and Volcán Fuego as Volcán Santiaguito.

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