This was to be the first of two local volcanoes I was planning on hiking with Altiplanos Tours. Santa Maria, an active volcano in the Quetzaltenango area at an altitude of 3772m and Volcan Santiaguito which was created from an eruption of Santa Maria in 1902. Volcan Santiaguito is a currently erupting crater and a fairly dangerous hike, but I was eager to be up close and personal with an erupting volcano!
My alarm was buzzing at 4.30am allowing only a short time to be ready for the shuttle which would collect me from Casa San Bartolome. It was less than 30 minutes to the trailhead in the village of Llanos del Pinal where the hike would begin with my personal guide, Rameros. In Quetzaltenango, or Xela for short, January is the off season so trying to find others to hike these ‘difficult’ volcanoes with is not easy for the tour companies. For this reason I paid a bit extra and went alone, which was probably a good thing being that we could go as fast or slow as we wanted, and stop for as long as I wanted on the summit.
We started at 5.30am in the pitch black which was a little eerie being that I had no torch and had to rely on my guides feeble light and the guy ahead of us with a horse. The hike was apparently going to take us somewhere between two and a half to three hours which concerned me as the volcano tended to be in cloud around that time of the morning. The first hour was fairly comfortable as night turned to day, and rays of sunlight kept appearing which was definitely a positive sign for a clear morning. We stopped briefly for refueling and ploughed on up the steeper incline of the upper slopes, where we were soon surrounded by cloud – I guess the earlier positive signs were not an indication of how things would be higher up. By 7.45am we were standing on the summit with a bunch of local folk who had slept there at least for the previous night. The weather did not look promising, with cloud being blown around by the wind and a cold chill in the air. From the top of Santa Maria the view can include all the volcanoes around Lake Atitlan, the tallest volcano in Central America and the highly active Volcan Santiaguito which I planned to hike over the next couple of days.
Nothing really changed over the next hour, although blue sky did appear a few times but was quickly obscured by cloud. Each time I got a glimpse of the volcanoes around Lake Atitlan I impatiently took whatever photos I could get, even though blue skies were starting to hang around a little longer and uncover more of the view. Time seemed to be flying by, after about 1.5 hours on the summit with a cold client and guide, my luck starting changing as all around us was blue sky with the exception of the side that I really wanted to see, Santiaguito!
It was to be a perfect day as everything came into view and I got to see Santiaguito emitting gases, even though nothing too dramatic at this time. I captured what I thought were great images of a volatile mother earth. As the guide and I turned to make the short hike back to the summit to access the trail back down, what I had been waiting for finally happened, Santioguito had it’s hourly eruption and sent a huge plume of ash and gases high into the sky. Now I was very excited about hiking to that same crater to experience the eruption from much closer. I guess expecting to see lava would have been far too much to have asked for, oh well, there are plenty more active volcanoes to be explored.
We had now been on a windy and cold summit for almost two hours and I know my guide must have wanted to head down far earlier, especially after having hiked this over 100 times before, and probably having seen these types of eruptions almost every time he stood on the summit! For me it was awesome and I’m very thankful we stayed for so long to experience the views and mother nature.
After chatting with Ramero on the way back down I decided to use him privately as my guide the following night where we would leave at midnight on the same trail, but skirting all the way around Santa Maria to get to Santiaguito which is 1200m lower. The hike would take around 8 hours. We would then get a short time right next to the erupting crater before making the 8 hour journey back. I needed to discuss this with Andrea and make sure she was okay with what life insurance policies we have before confirming!
Unfortunately for me I ate something that didn’t agree with me and spent the entire next day in bed suffering. For this time I’ll have to make do with watching from above!
January 10th 2013