Hiking the Santa Maria Volcano

Volcan Santa Maria, 12,375 ft in Altitude.
Getting to the volcano is easy, a four hour drive from Guatemala City to Xelaju, Capital city of Quetzaltenango. From here it is an easy 10 or so minutes drive to the little town where one can start the hike up the volcano.
There is plenty of private parking lots, where you can leave your car overnight for a small fee of Q30, less than $4.
From this parking lot, it is an easy three kilometers hike, with a slight degree of inclination, to a small plateau where one can witness a great view of the volcano. At this plateau we found dozens of people resting from their hike down from the summit.
I saw a large group of children, maybe around 10 years old, led by three or four foreigners, they sounded like USAians. Next to them were 10 large black trash bags full of empty plastic bottles. Of course, left behind by fellow hikers. Yeah, it is one of the realities here in Guatemala, whenever you hike up a mountain, the easiest way to find your way is to follow the trash… I’m glad there are people like them who are willing to help clean up our mess. Too bad I never got to ask who they were.
Locals are mean.
When we starting the hike up the volcano from this plateau, we asked a local coming down from the summit: How long to the reach the top? He replies: about two hours. Much later we ask the police officer escorting us, how long to the summit. He says: About two hours. Great! We were not moving at all. A little later we encountered another local coming down the summit and we enquired the same: how long to the summit, he tells us about two hours. We continue hiking up on this very difficult terrain and about thirty minutes later we found a couple of local elderly men coming down from the summit and we ask them the same. Oh, you still have a long way to go, but keep a steady pace and you’ll get there. Our moral is shattered but we continue up hill.
Much later when the summit is within reach, there were three local children, no more than twelve years old, coming behind us. They were running, seemed fresh, no sweat on their faces, while we were consumed by exhaustion. They passed us and we witness them running up this very steep road like there is no tomorrow. Meanwhile we could not keep a steady pace form more than ten minutes without having to stop a few to get some rest.
Barbara Padilla
On our way up the volcano, we find this couple of Guatemalans coming down from the summit. Surprisingly, someone from our group knew who she was. She is Barbara Padilla he says, she is climbing Mount Everest month. Next day when we were returning from the summit, half way down we found the same couple again; I enquired: Are you going up again. Yes! “solo vamos a subir y bajamos de una vez.” We are just going up (the Summit) and immediately coming down.
At the summit
Our large group split in several small groups, some way behind. I remain on the leading group along two other hikers. We were exhausted but the summit was within reach and we just kept on going. We reach the summit and they stayed on the crater, while I ran up the rock that were the highest elevation! Just to please my arrogant competitive spirit. Don’t you dare doing the same! I mountain-goated (my word) up these rocks to reach the highest one and when I stand on the top one, with my backpack on, there was a very strong wind gust which almost knock me over.
Great! Another summit and it is very cloudy, one could see nothing down bellow. I was able to observe the sun, few minutes before it set, but it was of course covered by clouds the rest of the time.
I quickly went down the campsite area and set up my tent to withstand the extreme cold temperatures and the wind.
A little later I leave the comfort of my tent to see if I can do some stars photography but, once again, it was too cloudy to see any, and the cold temperatures and strong winds forced me back to my tent.
A little after ten o’clock, I peek through my tent’s window and see a very clear sky!
I get out and start to do some night photography. Nothing great came out of this session, the cold was almost unbearable, too harsh to keep handling a cold tripod and camera.
I went to small group of people who were attempting to heat up some water for soup. There was no firewood at the summit, and everyone was too cold and tired to go down and get some.
We all ended up using lukewarm water for our instant soups before going back to the tents for some much needed sleep.

Eli does not sleep much.
I getup around 3am and to my surprise, there was no wind and skies were 100% clear! I set up all my equipment and start playing with my camera and finally got some nice pictures of the dense area of the Milky Way. I saw some shooting stars and bumped into some other sleepless people like me.

Sun rise and an insolent Santiaguito Volcano

Everyone starts waking up around 5:30ish and we line up to see the sun rise. This is an splendid show: one can see a series of volcanoes on the horizon, we see a large gas cloud from the erupting Volcan de Pacaya, and closer to us; Volcan de Fuego is also giving us a great show!
After sunrise, Paul, a friend of mine, invites me to go see the Santiaguito Volcano, a tiny but powerful volcano next to the Santa Maria. We reach this cliff where one has a nice view of the volcano and we started waiting for some activity. I’ve heard the volcano is very active, with constant small eruptions. We were seated there waiting for some activity and nothing happened. We waited and waited for around 30-40 minutes and finally we hear some rumbling, some large rock rolling from up high and we start observing some gas emissions and we hear a loud Bang and there it is, the volcano erupts! I got some nice photographs during the eruption and a little later I start walking back to base camp. I’m coming up this cliff and I hear the same symptoms of the previous eruption and I tell myself: This bad boy is going to erupt again! I stopped walking and set up my tripod and camera again, and there it is, another smaller eruption of the Santiaguito! I stay there for another 15 minutes or so, just waiting to see if anything else happens. Nothing! I leave towards camp.
There is some folks boiling water with a gas stove, I approached them and asked them if I could have some of the water for my soup. Of course they say. I go back to my tent, leave my tripod and camera and grabbed a cup of instant soup. No more than two minutes later, water was ready.
And I turned my head towards the other side of the camp site (where the cliff were Santiaguito is visible is) and I see a huge, ginormous cloud. That’s from Santiaguito I tell my self. I leave my soup behind and ran to that side! Paul: you just missed it! There was an explosion ten times greater than I had seen. In fact, Paul tells me, there was some red magma at the bottom of the explosion!
I hate you Santiaguito! Couldn’t you have done it 10 minutes earlier!?

Oh, by the way: there was a Mayan Ceremony at the summit. I’ll give a better account of that later.

© 2014, Eli Orozco. All rights reserved.

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  • Isa

    Amazing!

    • Elí Orozco

      Indeed Isa, the hike is great!