GUATEMALA: THE RETURN
It was November 28th 2006 when I arrived in Guatemala on my 2nd visit to the country after I had stayed the night before in a Hotel on the outskirts of Houston, Texas as my stopover. This had given me the opportunity to see more of the country and have some time to explore some volcanoes. However, I did not visit Lake Atitlan this time.
THE PACAYA LAVA HIKE
The date was November 29th 2006 and I simply just had to visit Volcan Pacaya after I first climbed it the previous year. By now I had read reports and seen photos of Pacaya's new lava flows after they made their way through new fissues which had opened up on the slopes of the active MacKenney cone in January of 2006.
We arrived on Pacaya to make our way up to view the lava flows only to end up joining a tour on the upper part of the forest trail which was also intent on doing the same.
When we made it out of the forest trail I noticed the landscape had completely changed as it was almost covered with hardened lava flows. One hardened lobe of lava even managed to make it to the top of the forest. At this time we were heading in a different direction than last time I was there to hike to the lava area, and I got excited at the sight of some incandescent glows in the distance coming from gaps in the hardened lava although the active MacKenney cone itself was covered in clouds.
After hiking up the hill and passing through a barbed wire fence we finally made it to the hardened lava area where we would hike up to a source of flowing lava. The type of lava we were hiking on was called A'a Lava which is identifiable by it's rough jagged surface and texture. It was quite a dangerous terrain because hardened A'a Lava was unstable and the rocks were sharp and brittle. You could easily break a piece of A'a Lava off and you could also cut yourself on it as it was quite sharp, and I myself ended up getting cuts on my hands after trying to hold on the rocks while I was slipping due to the unstable terrain. In some places it got hot because at certain times we were near little hotspots in the hardened lava and sometimes you could see a red glow through the gaps in which the inside looked similar to burning coal.
After a while we finally made it to a hotspot in the hardened lava and the ground we was standing on was quite hot. I have to admit, but all the time I was on the hardened lava area I was moaning, stating the obvious, and being paranoid as I had mixed emotions at the time. I felt excited and anxious at the same time. A crack in the hotspot by this time showed signs of opening up due to the pressure of the lava inside.
Finally, the crack had opened and a small lava flow had seeped out much to the delight of the tourists in the group. It was like standing next to a hot oven. Everybody took their turns to take photographs before making the descent from the lava and down to the forest trail itself. At one point, the clouds had rolled in while we was still descending from the hardened lava and I felt anxious because visibility ahead was reduced but I felt relief when we reached proper land.
Down at the park entrance, I discovered that my strong hiking shoes had partially melted from being on a hotspot of the hardened lava and that a piece of lava even got embedded in one of my shoes. I then asked a local to help remove the piece of lava with his penknife which had left a hole in my shoe.
Still, I ended the day happy that I had seen some molten lava in real life and that I actually been up close to it about 3-5 yards.
CLIMBING VOLCAN SANTA MARIA
After just over a week later it was early December 2006 and we had arrived in Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela) with the intention of climbing the Santa Maria Volcano in order to view the active Santiaguito Lava Dome complex from the top.
Santa Maria blew it's side off in a huge explosion back in 1902 and had formed a huge crater. Since then, the Santiaguito Lava Dome complex had since filled that crater in 1922 and had been in constant eruptive activity upto today.
We booked our tour to climb Santa Maria and the next morning we were due to meet up with the guides and transport at 6AM. We met up with them 20 minutes late by a park where from there they would take us outside of the city to a Qui'che Mayan village called Llanos del Pinal. That was our starting point from which we would begin our hike up to Santa Maria.
It was a cloudy day and we couldn't see ahead up the hills so therefore I had no idea where we was going. About an hour later we apparently had not reached the actual volcanic cone until now where the trail began in some long grass that would lead up to the summit of Volcan Santa Maria.
As the hours passed it had already got steep hiking up the slopes of the volcano which was covered in forest and rocks, and sometimes it was muddy in places on the trail going up. The clouds still showed no sign of clearing so we still couldn't see far ahead and therefore I had no idea how far we were from the summit. I was however able to see great views of the city of Quetzaltenango at one point.
As we continued hiking up the upper slopes, the higher we got the thinner the air had become and it increasingly became harder to breathe so I had to breathe deeply at times. The slopes of Santa Maria was practically steep all the way to the top and it was tiring.
After roughly 8 hours of hiking we finally made it to the summit in the mid afternoon. Everybody except me had taken a nap for nearly an hour while I wondered around the summit area. I had hoped to see the active Santiaguito lava dome and I was told you could also see Lake Atitlan and the other volcanoes from the summit, but sadly this wasn't the case as it was so full of clouds around. I had climbed Santa Maria to the top for 8 hours especially to see Santiaguito and all I saw was cloud cover, that was worth it! However, I did manage to see the nearby extinct Santo Tomas Volcano through a brief break in the clouds.
It was now time for the long descent down the steep forested slopes of Santa Maria and my legs felt dead and tired, one of the guides had to seperate from us on the way down as he received a text message from his boss. As we continued our descent I badly needed a rest but couldn't as we needed to reach the village by 6PM because at that time or after (I can't remember the exact time) the last bus departed from there. After roughly 3 hours we finally made it down to the base of Santa Maria where by then the sun had started to set and we ran out of light, and we missed our bus as we still had yet another hour to get down from the hills. Still, I was happy that we at least made it down from the worse part before nightfall.
On our descent down the hills it got dark and it was hard to see the terrain around us although I did manage even though by now my legs were dead and tired. We could see Glowworms all around us and the lights from the village of Llanos del Pinal. The nightsky outside of city lights looked amazing, I never seen so many stars in the nightsky!
Finally, we made it down to the village where we managed to arrange transport to the city with the local Mayans who charged us Q50 which I personally felt they ripped us off. I noticed one of the men didn't seem too happy with us using their transport, maybe he didn't like outsiders? who knows! Anyhow, I was happy that we made it back to the city at roughly 8PM and the first thing I was looking forward to was a bottle of water as I badly needed a drink.
Another volcano ascent achieved. It was pretty challenging but at 3772M above sea level, it has to date been the highest point on land I've ever been in my life and I had proved to myself that I had the stamina and determination to reach my goal.
IPALA VOLCANO AND IT'S CRATER LAKE
The next volcano we were to visit was Ipala, an extinct volcano in eastern Guatemala which has a summit crater lake. We headed out into the country east of the capital Guatemala City and I suspected that it was one of the least visited areas of the country by tourists. The climate was hot and dry and the landscapes mainly consisted of dry grasslands, and there were plenty of cattle ranches around. All the volcanoes in eastern Guatemala down to the El Salvador border are extinct. Our first destination was a village called Agua Blanca and on the way we had passed the Tecuamburro, Suchitan, and Chingo volcanoes.
After our break in Agua Blanca we set off for Volcan Ipala where we eventually had to turn right into a road that leads to a car park halfway up the volcano. Like Pacaya, there were kids around who you had to pay a fee to "look after your car" otherwise they would vandalise it. Here we would start our ascent, a pretty straight forward hour long hike up to the Laguna area. It was like hiking on any other hill.
When we reached the top, we had to pay a fee before proceeding to the Laguna area which was only a short walk away. At the shores of the crater lake, it was quite windy but I thought I'd spend a bit of time throwing rocks across the surface of the water making them skim. Over to the mirador now and it had offered impressive views over the crater lake with it's forested crater rim, and views into the eastern Guatemala countryside with it's volcanoes standing out in the distance.
There is a trail which you could follow from the mirador all the way around the forested crater rim though I haven't been on it.
That's all there is to it. It was just an extinct volcano but it's worth the day trip out.
CLIMBING VOLCAN AGUA
The last volcano next up we were going to was the magnificent Volcan Agua located outside of Antigua. It had not erupted during historical times but for some reason I was fascinated by it because of it's perfect conical shape.
We had set off early in the morning from Guatemala City where I rode on the back of the pickup truck. It was kinda cool but otherwise quite bumpy and uncomfortable. We had eventually arrived in Santa Maria de Jesus which was a Kak'chikel Mayan village located uphill from Antigua. Here was where the trail started for the ascent of Volcan Agua.
Whilst starting our ascent we hiked through some narrow tracks which cut through the local cornfields which were located on the bottom slopes. Eventually, we would join a road where not faraway was a little store located one third of a way up Agua where you could buy refreshments and chillout before continueing your hike up Volcan Agua or descending.
From there we would resume our hike on the track for the next couple of hours or more through the forest which was sometimes muddy in places until we reached a gorge about 2 thirds of the way up in which you had to take a narrow path down to cross into the next section onto the upper slopes. The rest of the group then decided to stay put next to the gorge where I was told to go continue on my own for an hour, and so I did.
I crossed the gorge to continue on the trail towards the upper slopes where it had got rockier and I was given an hour to get as far as I possibly could, and the landscape had changed into dead trees and grasslands. The clouds had rolled in so it was diificult to see further ahead to tell how far I had to go, but nevertheless I eventually decided to speed up to see how far I could get which was a silly thing to do because it would dehydrate you. After a while, I looked at my watch and half an hour had passed so I decided it was time to make my descent where my group were waiting for me, as much as I was tempted to just continue until I reached the crater. I also had to consider that it was mid-afternoon and we had to return to the village of Santa Maria de Jesus before nightfall.
After I reunited with the people I was with we all made our descent where we successfully reached Santa Maria de Jesus just before sunset. I was told later on that I was only an hour away from the top of Agua. It was slightly disappointing that I still didn't reach the top but at least I was on the upper slopes, so technically I climbed Volcan Agua as my 4th volcano.
THE OTHER VOLCANOES
On our journeys we passed many other volcanoes within Guatemala, they were:
Closeby to Antigua are 3 volcanoes which are Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. Fuego and Acatenango are next to each other and you can also see them from various points in the capital Guatemala City. Fuego is the active one and during my stay that time in Guatemala I had twice witnessed eruption plumes coming from it!
On our way to Quetzaltenango by bus I saw the Atitlan Volcano towering in the distance, and I saw Santo Tomas from the peak of Santa Maria during a brief break in the clouds.
On our way east towards Agua Blanca and Volcan Ipala we passed Tecuamburro, Suchitan, and seen Chingo in the distance. We also seen Chingo and Suchitan from the top of Ipala too. Chingo is nicely cone shaped Stratovolcano which marks the border between Guatemala and El Salvador. I also think I seen Ixtepeque Volcano but I'm not 100% sure if that was it.
THE OTHER ATTRACTIONS
In between our trip to Pacaya Volcano and then onto Santa Maria in Quetzaltenango, we headed north to Flores where we visited the impressive Mayan ruins of Tikal then we made a day trip into Belize as I wanted to see another country as a side trip when we visited Belize City, and I must say I wasn't at all impressed and was disappointed. Perhaps if the side trip had been better organised we could've visited a worthy place.
After we came back to Flores we moved on to Coban in central Guatemala where we had based ourselves for a trip to Semuc Champey. Semuc Champey is a beautiful place full of turquoise rock pools located within a remote valley on the Rio Cahabon. On the top end are some rapids which flow into an underground cavern right through until the bottom end of Semuc Champey. There were also some steps which take you on a strenuous walk upto the mirador where you get an impressive view of the valley around.
Another activity which was part of the tour was the Kan'ba cave located downstream from the Semuc Champey area. Admittingly, I had chickened out of it when I realised it was full of cold water.
After we left Coban, we had returned to Guatemala City soon to set off again for Volcan Santa Maria.
Should anybody be travelling to Guatemala I would highly recommend you visit Tikal and also Semuc Champey if you have the time for it.