After explaining Boxing Day to our traveling companions over breakfast, we packed up and headed south of Xela to the trailhead for Santa Maria. This 3772 meter volcano towers over Xela and is often climbed by locals who ascend it to perform prayer rituals on the summit. We arrived at the trailhead mid morning so the ascent was a warm one up until our lunch stop. The initial part of the trail was a steady climb in the sun so it didn’t take long for sweat to begin dripping from my nose.
About an hour in, we stopped at the only flat spot for lunch. We were waiting for our porters, a group of six youth and their leader from a local village. They’ve taken on a reforestation project and use the portering income to advance the project. The climb began in ernest after lunch when it steepened dramatically and stayed that way until the summit.
We dropped into a climbing rhythm of stepping and breathing and the 1200 or so metres we had to climb fell away faster than they thought they would.
About 200 metres below the top, we were joined by Maria, the mountain/volcano dog. She makes her living climbing up and down with groups and insisting they fall in love with her (which we did). She got the remaining half of my lunch, part of my dinner, and a good portion of my breakfast. Maria hung out with us and we invited her to hide from the cold night air in one of the vestibules of our tent.
The trees only gave way just before the summit so the majesty of the awaiting view was hidden until we reached the volcano’s crown. The small narrow summit afforded 360 degrees of beauty with the southern horizon occupied by a thick blanket of fluffy cumulus clouds. The clouds hid the active volcano, Santiaguito from sight but at one point in the afternoon, it erupted sending an infiltrating bank of grey smoke and ash through the cloud bank. Santiaguito, is either a separate volcano from or a sibling of Santa Maria, depending one which theory you subscribe to. We hoped the clouds would clear so we could have the famous view down into Santiaguito’s smoking crater.
Besides looking down on Santiaguito, another thrill of camping on the summit of Santa Maria is experiencing both a sunset and sunrise and neither disappointed. Watching the sky turn all shades of orange, red, and yellow while the volcanoes we had climbed and were about to climb, turned to dark silhouettes was indeed a magical moment. Fuego put on a good show by erupting at both sunset and sunrise adding its rising smoke cloud to the artistic palette in front of me. I snapped photograph after photograph as Murphy’s law of sunset photography is they keep getting better and better until they don’t.
Santiaguito erupted a few times during the night and when we finally began to associate the sound of a landing jet liner with its eruption, we jumped out of the tent and looked down on the fiery cascade of molten material Santiaguito was kicking forth. It was still dark enough to see it as red flashes rather than grey smoke and ash. Thank goodness the clouds had cleared. An hour later, the sun rose and we got our first good look at the “baby” volcano.
We packed up and started to head down. About 15 minutes below the summit, we met a group of local women ascending the volcano for prayer. As is often the case when I climb in other parts of the world, I was humbled by their strength and willpower…and their footwear. Me, I was decked out in my leather hiking boots. They, the women, were wearing flip flops, pumps, and various assorted sandals. They’d just climbed 1200 meters in footwear I couldn’t walk across the street in.
We took care of the descent in short order and made our way back to Xela for wonderfully hot showers. We took a field trip to a village at the base of Santa Maria for lunch-normally we’d have visited some hot springs for a good soak but last summer’s mudslides had closed them. Marian and I wondered around Xela a bit more hoping to take in a weaving co-operative and a indigenous dress museum but were thwarted on both counts by holiday shut-downs.
We leave tomorrow for Tajumulco and the Hat Trick of the Americas. Tajumulco is the highest peak/volcano in Guatemala and Central America. I have my hockey stick packed.
To see more photos from Santa Maria, please visit: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=590635&id=509940550&l=656ce306dd