Monday, February 22, 2010

We climbed a volcano, and watched one of six others erupt. In other words, a good day.

It is hard to believe we have now been in Xela for almost three weeks.  And today is, I believe, only day 41 of our trip.  School is really a time-sucker!  Friday was our last day of class, at least in Xela, I´m sure we will take more in other cities as we go along.  We both learned a ton over these two weeks (50 hours of one-on-one instruction!), and now we need a little time to absorb the information before we try and learn any more.  David especially got a crash course in conjugation, but the upshot is he learned past tense as well, so now we can practice with each other, which I think is going to be even more useful than class.

(Those teenage boys are here again tonight, and their wild giggles as they play whatever they are playing tonight makes me pee with internal laughter.)

Saturday we had made tentative plans to go climb a volcano, but Friday morning was terribly overcast, and the weather report predicted more clouds and rain for Saturday, so we cancelled the trip.  We haven´t been paying much attention to weather reports, as the weather has been rather cooperative with us, with only the occasional brief rain shower as we´ve gone along.  Trusting technology turned out to be a mistake, and Saturday morning was absolutely perfect and would have made great hiking weather.  The report for Sunday was identically poor, calling for clouds and rain, so we learned our lesson and booked the tour.

The tour company was supposed to pick us up at 5am, so we set the alarm for 4:30.  I woke up at 4 though, not sure why but sure I had heard something.  A minute later, I heard a loud explosion that echoed through the courtyard and into our room.  It went off again several more times, and then was quiet.  David was up by this time too, and we were having a hard time explaining the noise.  Was it kids playing a prank with fireworks nearby?  Then it started up again, with a bang going off every minute or so.  The other woman who is staying at our place came out of her room, and we were hoping that since she has been living here for so many months maybe she would be able to explain it, but she was just as uneasy as we were.  After a half hour we were pretty sure it wasn´t kids, because they would be moving around to avoid getting caught.  It hadn´t been a wet night, but when we´d been in Campeche, after a heavy rain we had heard a series of loud explosions when an electical box got wet and shorted out, leaving half our neighborhood without electricity for a few hours.  So then I started to worry that there was an electrical problem next door, and we would leave for our tour and come back to a burned out room.

About 4:30 I finally had had enough speculation, so we ventured out into the dark street.  There was a heavy fog (which did not bode well for our hike), but I walked out cautiously hoping to see or hear where the noises were coming from, ready to bolt back to the door if I saw any suspicious characters about.  Of course as soon as I went out it was silent, and I slowly walked up the block waiting to hear it again.  A flash lit up the sky and the noise started up again, but this time I could at least tell it was coming from at least a few blocks away, which made me feel better about my doomsday fire scenario at least.  (There had been a fire a few days earlier in a hotel just off the main square, but the fire department had been able to contain it from spreading to any of the adjoining connected buildings, so I felt good about that anyways.)  I couldn´t make out anything through the fog, it was just a white flash, but from outside we could hear the explosion echoing across the city.  We speculated that if it wasn´t an electrical problem somewhere, maybe it was some kind of weird military thing, which didn´t really make sense nor did it make us feel any better.  The explosions continued, five or six at a time, then silence of a few minutes, then another rally.  Everytime it would get quiet we would hope it had stopped, but inevitably it would start up again.  We continued to get ready, and by five were out on the porch waiting for our ride.  The fog had cleared a bit by now, and as I craned my neck to see down the street without unlocking the gate, suddenly over the buildings I saw what was clearly a firework.  Just a simple little white flash, but definitely a firework.  Our original guess had been right, someone was shooting off bottle rockets!

Turns out Catholics are totally weird in this part of the world.  We knew last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and Friday was a huge celebration with a big firework show over the main square.  But apparently Sunday morning at 4am was time to celebrate or at least be a reminder for the residents of town to get ready for church or something.  I´m probably making light of something terribly important, but after an hour of being totally freaked out I think I´m entitled.  :)

Our tour bus picked up another four people, and we headed out to the foot of Santa Maria, a huge volcano just outside of town.  [Warning, the following information was not googled and is my interpretation of what the tour guide told me in Spanish, so take it with a grain of salt.]  The volcano last erupted in about 1902, destroying the city and actually opening a new vent and starting a new volcano on the (I think) westward slopes, which is called Santiaguito.  While Santa Maria has been dormant since, Santiaguito erupts every hour or so with steam and ash, and is rated one of the world´s ten most dangerous volcanos.  We were climbling Santa Maria, but it was Santiaguito we wanted to see.

The van drove us about twenty minutes outside the city, and dropped us off literally at the end of the road.  It was still dark, with just the barest glow of the coming morning starting to push through the fog, so for the first half hour we walked with flashlights up a steep path, following behind a guy with a donkey.  As soon as we got off the bus our local tour guide showed up to join us, a remarkably attractive and healthy looking dog.  As has happened to David and I several other times along our trip, the dog attached itself to us and started following us the mountainside in the dark.

Hold on a minute, this is important so I´m gonna google.  The city of Xela sits at 7656 feet above sea level, and it has taken me the last two weeks to be able to climb around the hilly city without losing my breath.  The summit of Santa Maria sits at 12375 feet, which means we had another mile up to climb.  The tour was rated as "moderately difficult".  In the states, moderately difficult generally means not that big of a deal, at least for avid hikers like we are.  So we were mentally unprepared for just how hard this hike was going to be.

From the first steps we were climbling probably a foot with each step, so I guess you could think about it like we were climbing uneven stairs for three hours straight.  Look at that photo again, and you can see that Santa Maria is not some mountain with nice Sound-Of-Music gentle slopes.   Fortunately for the five boys that were making the hike, there was one girl along too.  Since she had no male ego to worry about, she had no problem being the slow one of the group, which I have no doubt each and every one of us boys was grateful for.  "Oh, let´s be gentleman and wait for the poor girl."  (GASP, GASP, GASP.)

The fog soon cleared and the sun shone down, and it turned into a beautiful morning marred only by the increasing difficulty of breathing.  We made more and more frequent stops, the dog panting along with us, not being pushy but clearly in favor of any handouts of food when someone opened up something from their bag.  Having learned our lesson in the past on a 20 mile hike to the Cirque of Towers in Colorado, we at least had plenty of water with us, which I´m sure helped a great deal. The cold of the morning soon wore away and our extra shirts and sweatshirts were soon tied around our waists.  Thank goodness we had to keep waiting for the girl to catch up again.

It took three hours, but suddenly the pine forest thinned and disappeared, and another 15 minutes of hard climbing got us to the peak.  There were only a couple of other local guys at the top, and we just stared all around ourselves in awe.  We could see (again, assuming I was correctly understanding my guide) seven other volcanoes, as well as other plain old mountains.  The air was thin and it took a long time for my heart to return to a normal beat, but boy was it worth it.  The clouds were all below us, but we were lucky and they didn´t really obscure the things we wanted to look at.  We made our way over to the (I think) westward side where we could see huge amounts of steam seeping out of the Santiaguito crater and rising lazily into the air.  We sat to eat, quickly putting back on all of our extra layers as the brisk wind on this side made it suddenly very cold again despite the seeming nearness of the sun.

We heard it before we saw anything.  In fact at first I ignored it as background noise, thinking I was hearing an airplane flying overhead.  But then it got louder, and our attention was quickly drawn to the crater below us as the white steam started growing and getting much darker in color.  A huge cloud of steam and ash suddenly burst through a layer of clouds that had started to obscure Santiaguito, spewing rapidly high up into the air.  It was totally awesome.  The cloud rose up and up until finally the wind caught it and blew it towards us.  Fortunately it curved around the mountain to our left, but even that was gorgeous.  At night apparently you can see the glow of the lava, but I can´t imagine making that hike in the dark the whole way.

After the eruption (I love that I just said that) we made our way around to the lee-side of the mountain.  Though we weren´t more than 20 feet away from where we had started, the lack of wind warmed us right up.  The poor dog was panting away, so David cupped his hands together and we gave it some water to drink.  I´m sure this is exactly what it counts on, but any dog that will climb a mile certainly deserves a little food and water for the effort.  We stayed up top about two hours in all, and soon droves of other people began arriving, almost all locals.  When we were ready to go, two hours after arriving, I was still short of breath in the thin atmosphere, and suddenly there are all these old grandmothers around me, having just climbed up in flip-flops.  Many gathered into groups and started having what seemed like church services, singing and praying.  One of the other guys commented to me "I know plenty of people who have a hard time getting up to go to church.  Imagine if you had to climb a volcano every Sunday morning."

After a long rest, we eventually started back down, which, as I had suspected, was practically worse than going up.  Though my heart wasn´t pounding as before, my legs were soon trembling with the effort it took to descend down such a steep and slippery trail.  You Albuquerque peeps know how the La Luz trail has those massive switchbacks that are so annoying because you walk so far to climb so little?  I was desperate for a switchback that was more than five feet in either direction.  Going up or coming down, there were exactly three places where I had the luxury of walking five or six steps of flat.  Everything else was slippery, uneven and, of course, steep.

At least the breathing got easier as we descended.  All in all, I think it was the hardest, most difficult hike I´ve ever made.  While I can´t say it was enjoyable exactly, I can certainly say it was totally, without a doubt, worth it.


  1. What GREAT pictures!!! I am so jealous but wish you all the best!!! ♥

  2. Wow. You guys are having such an incredible adventure. Thanks so much for sharing. I had a lousy day and your blog just makes my day every time. I miss you lots!