You’ll never guess where I am… surprise surprise… I’m still in Xela! Cycling around Honduras never happened as my chance to start working as a hiking guide was brought forward a few weeks. More plans were formed around this new date which again, perhaps unsurprisingly, fell by the wayside as I battled with the boring efforts of renewing my passport. Then, just as I was starting to get my head around leaving town, a group of us decided to go for a hike up to Santiaguito, a very active volcano that smolders and splutters in the southern shadow of Volcan Santa Maria. I’ve since given up making plans, there seems little point right now, I’ll be staying in Xela until around June anyway.
An ash cloud rises from a small Santiaguito morning eruption
The passport situation has been a nuisance but no doubt some would consider there to have been upsides (namely my Mum). Having had a series of photos taken for the thing it transpired that not only did I look nothing like my self of ten years previous, my face also appeared to scream ‘Taliban Taliban Taliban’. Still scarred from a strip searching ordeal I suffered when entering Dubai a few years ago and with the story of John Walker Lindh shadowing my future hopes of returning to the USA, I thought it best to sharpen up my appearance. Although the mega mullet remains, the big bushy beard is gone (enjoy it while its lasts Mum) and I find myself fast, light and streamlined for some serious hiking.
I probably don’t look too different to you but its a big change for me to have lost the big beard
Our crew of nine formed naturally from friendships forged during our time in Xela. Here we are, each crew member able to boast a fair depth of experience in the outdoors. From left to right:
Team Santiaguito enjoying a lazy morning in camp
Santi (local Guatemaltecan hiking guide with the most infectious smile imaginable), Pete (UK, ex-hiking guide whose been on the road a few years), Brent (USA, current hiking guide and experienced hobo), Alex (USA, ex-hiking guide, bush firefighter, raft guide, etc, etc… you know the type), Ian (USA, bush firefighter, perennial traveler and a friend from a few Guatemalan hikes), Anne (Ireland, ex-hiking guide with the dubious honor of being Pete’s lady friend), Ben (Canada, professional hiking guide and trip leader, academic and all round sporting genius), Josh (Canada, fearless hiking guide) and me (UK, future hiking guide and (these days) part-time intercontinental cycle tourist).
Here are a few pictures that tell the story of this exhausting little trek into an alien landscape:
The approximate course of our out-and-back route up Volcan Santiaguito
A = Volcan Santiaguito, B = Our bivy site, C = Volcan Santa Maria
Approximate elevation graph for the Santiaguito out-and-back route (distance in miles)
Having assembled at Casa Argentina, at about 9am we head off to catch a bus to the base of Santa Maria. It’s Mardi Gras so the streets of Xela are filled with markets and amusements.
The start of the route over to Santiaguito is a familiar climb up towards Santa Maria.
But before starting to ascend Santa Maria proper our course hangs right, skirting the huge dormant volcano to the north-west
The trail takes us through small-scale farmlands, light forest…
… over gates and…
… into dense bush. The first half of the descent down off Santa Maria is a steep and slightly gruelling battle through thick vegetation. You might just be able to make out the path in this shot.
Periodically our heads pop out the top of the vegetation and…
…a cloudy valley is revealed below.
By now everything is colored light grey by a thick layer of volcanic ash.
It’s a relief when we force our way out of the hot and dusty bush and into the comparative comfort of this rock channel.
Where we catch our breath for a few minutes. Anne enjoys the sun shine…
… as do Brent and Josh.
But we’re only half way down into the valley. Fortunately the rest of the descent is on slippery but still much easier rock.
And we’re soon down and relaxing again. Alex is in his element…
…Pete is still looking really fresh…
…Ben has the knowing smile of someone whose been here a few times before…
…while Santi and Ian are just happy to enjoy the moment.
Break over and water stashed for the return journey, we head up, edging closer to the distant rumblings of Santiaguito.
A landscape at once fascinating, bleak and exciting falls away behind us.
As we climb higher the volcanic scree gives way to steeper grades covered in a thick layer of ash and moss.
Our efforts are rewarded by the first of numerous ash beaches that fill these old dormant craters. Here we settle down for a relaxing lunch.
Re-energizing for the short sharp dash up to the nights bivy site.
It’s 3pm by the time we’re at camp. The clouds are in so Santiaguito can be heard but not seen.
A bit of exploring, a few games of cards, dinner and some whiskey and the clouds finally clear. We wait patiently for Santiaguito to erupt for us and are treated to an enormous explosion. This is periodically followed by lesser eruptions that continue through the night. the larger ones wake us up, occasionally prompting spontaneous whoops of surprise and awe.
After a fitful night we failed to get up as early as intended…
…but the days still young enough to get the best of the sunrise.
And as the sun rises we’re treated to our first clear views of Santiaguito…
…and the slopes we witnessed lava flow and heard rocks tumble down during the night.
The view west towards the Pacific ocean reveals our position at the very edge of the Guatemalan highlands.
With the sun in the sky we briefly return to camp (the blue patch) before heading off to hike closer to the active crater.
The route takes us up through remarkable rock formations…
…and over more volcanic beaches.
As Ian and I close in on Santiaguito he erupts, sending a huge volcanic cloud into the fresh morning sky. The closer we get the larger the pieces of debris that fall out of these clouds.
After the cloud disperses we continue up.
Eventually popping out onto a ridge adjoined to Santiaguito by a small saddle.
Steam is venting all over the place, adding even more weight to the otherworldly feeling of the place.
Looking west from our vantage point, Pete and Anne are just visible on the beach below.
Santiaguito can erupt at any time and gives little warning… the suspense has us all captivated.
By now the sun is up and hot…
…it’s a glorious morning.
When you’re up in such a bizarre landscape its easy to forget how close Xela is.
Santa Maria towers over us to the north-east.
After a while of little activity from a few of us decide to descend down onto the saddle…
…from which Santiaguito menacingly rises.
From the saddle the collapsed third of Santa Maria is clearly visible.
Climbing up slightly from the saddle, Santiaguito’s active crater looks and feels like a time bomb. The ground around us is littered with rocks of frightening size, all of which have been blown out of the crater.
By about 9:30am the clouds have rolled in again and we descend back the way we came…
…down the rocky climbs and across the volcanic beaches back to camp and breakfast.
With no particular urgency the morning disappears. We leave camp at about 11am and start the retreat.
It’s an out-and-back hike so we have to climb back up the gnarly route we took down Santa Maria. It’s an incredibly challenging haul that had us leaving the thick brush at about 2pm, drenched in sweat, tired and hungry. Wet shirts come off and the ‘Bushmans Boyband’ is formed. Enjoy ladies (and Dante).
It was late afternoon by the time we eventually arrived back in Xela. I think every one of us (with the probable exception of Santi who has a reputation for superhuman fitness) came away from the hike feeling beaten down by our exertions. We are all of relatively good fitness so that feeling carries a fair bit of weight in exclaiming the nature of the route. However, the experience of getting up close to an active and potentially lethal volcano is one that I reckon will stick in the mind. The sheer explosive majesty and force of the first mighty eruption we witnessed, the mystical personality of the volcanic landscapes we trod, the sensation of having particles of rock periodically rain on you, and humbling energy of the sounds emerging from Mother Earth, all combine to make this a hike of immense reward. In my mind I think I’m already committed to hiking this route again before I leave Xela, but as I said at the start of this post… I’m done with making plans.