Disclaimer: This story turned out to be longer than I expected. Please read only when you’ve got the time and interest to take a long meandering journey up and down a volcano with me!
20:18. 20-jan, 2012. Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
At 4am after staying up way-too-late on a Skype phone call, I threw myself together to catch the taxi waiting outside. Good thing I wasn’t facing this mission alone, having made friends with Nadia and Radim, an excellent Russian-Slovak couple who are touring Mexico and Central America on recumbent bicycles, and are fit for adventure. With our DIY spirits and budget-consciousness in common, we set off on an all-day hike to the top of Volcano Santa Maria, without a guide.
If this town has one thing as its backbone for tourism, it would be guides who take you up deliberately-unmarked trails to the tops of volcanos, which to me seems a big waste of $30 for a hired walking buddy. (The other source of tourist income being pricey pickup trucks, where you stand in the back holding-on for dear life, as the driver speeds along winding dirt roadways, hugging the cliff’s edge with no divider separating the cascading mudslide from the fog-covered farmland below, shuttling tourists to lofty hot springs high in the cloud forests, in lieu of the low-cost colectivo buses which take you everywhere except these places for a tenth of the price.)
The front door to the place we called home was padlocked shut from the inside, and our impatient cabby was honking outside. Through the tiny peep-window I shouted to him that we were stuck in here for the moment, and eventually our land-lady in pink nightgown surfaced to let us out. As we bumped over cobblestone streets and beyond town, our unhappy-driver declined to make even the smallest conversation, his passive-aggressive attitude evident in his maniacal driving. With little-to-no visibility in the dense early-morning fog, and our headlights blasting everything an indistinguishable white, we crashed through potholes and over speed bumps as if this was the clanking vehicle’s final mission, and its prolonged well-being was not a consideration. Climbing in altitude, we suddenly emerged from the cloud, and I finally it was clear that the road was truly more than half-gone, as if what used to be a right lane was chomped off by rock giants of the mountain. The road dwindled and eventually even the dirt path became no more, which didn’t stop our fearless driver from taking it just as fast until the very end.
Abruptly we stopped. He waited for us to get out, with only his headlights illuminating the dusty path ahead. We paid him and he sped-off. It was eerily silent and very cold. The fog below us glowed faintly of the small town within it, and being a moon-less night, only the sky twinkled from beyond the looming cone of Santa Maria ahead. I paused to layer-up, and my comrades smoked a cigarette. Nadia was uneasy, and wanted to wait for others to come and lead the way, but I wouldn’t have this, and with my head-torch on I sniffed-out the path ahead. After only 20 meters it split-off in two directions: the dried-up path of a stream to the left heading straight for the perfectly conical peak in silhouette against the starlight, and the semblance of a construction road winding around to the right but definitely upwards. Radim recalled reading that with the help of a 4×4 vehicle, one could go up a bit farther and shave an hour off the 8-hour hike, so we decided to chance the road.
This might be a good time to mention that my soy milk-making friend Nora cautioned us to travel light, meaning Don’t bring anything valuable, not even a camera or cell phone, as machete-wielding banditos have been known to rob tourists here from time to time. Another story from the very well-established Quetzal-Trekkers agency in our hostel told of an large group including two guides getting completely stripped of their possessions at knife-point. Sadly, I put my tail between my legs on this one and left the cameras at home, so no photos for you this time! (Which means more words to paint a thousand images for you!)
After 20 minutes and some steep ascents, I couldn’t imagine anything driving up here, until finally we saw the light of a campfire flickering in the trees ahead, atop a dirt wall at which the road ended, half-dug-out by an excavation of sorts. With no path to continue on and a strong sense of foreboding, my friends stopped in their tracks and wouldn’t advance any further, and by the time I noticed this I was shining my torch in a construction vehicle to see if anyone was there to talk to. The silhouette of a [short] man appeared above us, I asked him if this was the path to Santa Maria, and he replied that he thought it was possible, although it’s not the main path, but he could help us up to cut through the site if we wanted. Nadim and Nadia were almost in full retreat by this point, I politely thanked him for the info, and had to speed-walk my way out of sight to keep up with my friends.
Back down to the original split in the road, we noticed a car at the drop-off, and my buddies wanted to wait for them. I started up the dried stream, heading straight for the cone, happy to eliminate one faulty option from our game of trail and error. The Russians were dragging their feet, reverse-following the guided group, but I forged ahead. (It might be one of my greatest pleasures and assets, my drive to explore the dark unknown.) After half a kilometer of gently ascending it was clear that all our headlamps were heading the same way. As we traced the curves of the stream, filled now with volcanic rock, the blue half light of dawn began to show the details of this pretty path, lined with trees and vines hanging down. Choosing any of many narrow and fun paths upward, as the runoff trail broadened and gave way to fields and pasture, the gradient became steeper.
Here a spritely blond dog joined our company, walking ahead as if to guide us. I accepted his lead, and enjoyed the game of spotting him, as far ahead as he could be but within view. In a few cases, Nadim wasn’t so enthusiastic about following a dog, especially when we got to a big field, and I was off in one corner asking the dog “where to now?”, while Nadim was signaling the continuation of the trail from the other side.
We took a few short breaks to eat breakfast, bit by bit, as we were at 3000 meters above sea level and oxygen was less abundant. There were a few bands of young Guatemaltecos on the trail (it was a holiday weekend before classes resumed so we weren’t alone), as well as a party of 10 or so gringos with their guides. The trail momentarily flattened out and we came upon the groups who passed us while we sat munching our apples, (each of whom saluted us with “Buenos dias” except of course for the stodgy gringos who too often avoid eye-contact). They were playing with our dog who had since abandoned us (or was it the other way around?), pausing and bathing for a moment in the first rays of the morning’s sunlight. Here the real trail began, continuing up straight ahead towards the triangular peak. It didn’t look so far to the top, as the crow flies – boy was I wrong.
Unlike many mountain trails I’ve hiked, this one had very few switchbacks, and basically climbed straight up in a more or less direct line. Much like the steep temple staircases on the Mayan pyramids I’ve come to know over the recent months, and always wondered why did these people of small stature (forgive my liberty of saying so here) engineer such huge steps at such rigorous inclines? and how did they climb up there, especially the elders, to pay homage? I could not see Grandma-P making the pilgrimage, bless her deal soul!
We were still mainly in the shade, as the sunshine hadn’t yet crossed over to this side of the mountain, and it was fun to crunch through the ice formations which had crystallized on the path during the night, curiously thick at a couple centimeters, with long, parallel honeycomb hollows, like a delicate crystal grid extruded in 3D. The crunchy ice actually boosted our traction for the ascent; little did we know this would yield treacherous muddiness on our way back down.
Every so often I’d look out upon the town far below, and as if I’ve escalated another 20 stories in an elevator, the houses and roads soon became indistinguishable, but I could see the clusters of many small settlements scattered far and wide throughout the volcanic valley, topographically separated by other smaller volcanic mounds and some encompassed within huge craters.
Pulling ourselves up a 40-degree incline by grabbing tree roots to hoist ourselves through the most difficult parts, the subtropical forest gave way to pines, and eventually the trees gave way to only rocks and shrubs. It looked as if the town was directly below us but impossibly far down, as we rose so sharply, and I imagined falling off and tumbling right back to where we started. Finally we were in the sun, and in the final stretch. I jokingly dubbed Nadim ‘Superman’, as he literally bounded up the mountain and helped us along by lending many a hand (which is especially remarkable being as he smokes like a chimney!) At this point, after nearly five hours ascending with very few pauses, Nadia and I now however needed to catch our breath every hundred paces and honor our weary legs, which had served us well beyond their thresholds of fatigue.
At last we made it. Our reward for this effort was another fantastic panoramic view over the other side, about which was said that you could see as far out as the Caribbean Sea on a clear day, but on the horizon instead was another group of fantastic volcanoes that I imagine are responsible for creating their own weather, shrouding their peaks seductively in an undulating cloak of navy blue and sunshine-orange clouds. In time I noticed that the tallest one in this group was indeed puffing smoke, adding to its atmospheric veil. I collapsed in a pile and laid down to take-in the sky above. Superman and Nadia bounded another 150 meters to the next peak, to peer down into the smoking active volcanos just beyond, but I just couldn’t for fifteen minutes. Around me a bunch of Guatealtecos sat around, relaxing and laughing, probably wondering why I was so incapacitated. (I soon came to learn that it’s in the Guatemalan constitution to make these pilgrimages with comparative ease.)
I eventually wobbled over to my friends, where we ate a delectable lunch, while the two volcanoes below us belched thought-bubble clouds above our heads, occasionally rumbling deep and long. We attempted to count the supposed fourteen volcanoes which could be seen from this vantage, but being utterly full-bellied, happy, and thoroughly spent, we all took a nap for an hour or more, intermittently warmed by the sun and chilled when smoking volcanic cloud cover engulfed and obscured us from our solar blanket.
A particularly resonant rumble woke me from an intense dream, I got up to stretch, and noticed the fervent cries from a pair of goats on the other peak. Walking over to take in the scene, I noticed there were over a hundred indigenous Guatemalans atop Santa Maria now, nearly all of the women in traditional dress of vividly woven fabrics, long skirts, and braided hair, the men in pants and buttoned-up shirts, some with cowboy hats. One man was reading charismatically in Spanish from what sounded like the bible, while a big fire was being stoked nearby, but most of the other chatter was in a local tongue.
I pondered why these goats were up here… surely it wasn’t just for their adorable company. I came back to Nadim and Nadia and made a comment about how horrible it would be to suffer a fate such as this, forced on a strenuous death march to the top a volcano to be slaughtered. But I also then recalled an example from the ancient Mayans: that for those slaves who lost in the Gran Juego de Pelota – the famous ball game in which the fittest warriors were pitted against each other in teams, and, at least in the case of Chichen-Itza where the community was especially blood-crazed, the losing side was sacrificed to the gods by beheading – it was an extreme honor. In any case, it was an odd fusion of Christian and pre-Christian worship that, unfortunately, wasn’t the first time I had witnessed.
As we crossed the scene again, ready to begin our descent, I was entranced by the sweet, low singing in unison by nearly everyone scattered across the mountaintop. The song was somber and timeless, and I could imagine an expanse of history floating along the notes, sung by countless generations who participated in this very ceremony that was underway. I recoiled at hearing the pathetic, blood-curdling scream of one goat, who was indeed being held by three men while another slit the throat and suspended it to bleed dry, then proceeded to saw off the limbs straight away… As we started down I heard the second hopeless scream of a life taken by another’s will, and wondered if this could ever be acceptable for me.
It took us three hours to descend, and while my thighs were grateful not to be hiking straight up anymore, it took more agility and balance to keep from slipping down the now-muddy crystal path. Nadim practically flew down, but assisted us as usual. In contrast to my chatty self on the way up, I was mostly quiet, concentrating of my footing and budgeting my energy. Local families bounded past us, dazzling me with their Incredibles-pace, scuttling down with casual skill. While most of the males wore boots or sneakers, I was especially awestruck that the women wore either sandals or dainty slippers, sliding smoothly down the slippery paths with grace.
In the final hour, where the forest rose up around us, I was filled with energy, probably due to the surplus of oxygen-rich air, and the downward pitch was perfect for bounding. I ran for a while, my backpack light since we ate all the food and drank most of the water, and got a good sweat going. We stopped and sat in the grassy field where we lost our dog, and filled with dust and accomplishment, we giggled and joked. At nearly 3pm, eleven intense hours later, we hobbled along the dusty village road where we were dropped, past our scrappy guide dog who ignored us this time, towards the brightly decorated chicken bus that would take us back to Xela. I noticed a big white goat tied on a short rope between two cinder-block homes, standing on its hind legs and screaming, as two really young boys pelted rocks at it.
I said I’d rather die than live like that.
Back in town the next morning, I went to pick up my soy cheese from Nora, but she was out at church, and her son asked me to come back in the afternoon. I wanted to check out a colorful church in a nearby village called San Andres Xecul myself… it took me three hours, many chicken buses and two pickup trucks to get there and back, but unfortunately it closed at noon, so I only got to shoot the exterior:
Upon my return, I was wiped-out and cranky, so I trudged home and laid down to watch the end of the Bill Hicks documentary, which was truly inspiring and brought tears to my eyes. Rejuvenated, I stopped by Nora’s house again, she invited me in, and we had another nice, long chat. She told me she’s climbed Santa Maria forty times in her life, and the first time she didn’t think she’d make it, stopping to cry on the way up, overwhelmed. It gets easier with time, naturally. She also knew very well the dog who guided us, as he’s been a friend to many tourists for years, working for food. (We fed him too!) About the bonfire and the goats, she said it was most likely a ceremony, and she doubted they ate the beasts, as they were sacrificial offerings, and they likely scattered the blood around the fire. It being my last day in Xela, I waked over to the cemetery again, and spent two hours soaking it up and thinking some new thoughts about death, slipping out just before the gate swung closed.
Those ruminations I’ll leave for next time, (along with some sick photos from this most unexpectedly stupendous city of the dead.) But I was happy, and through my throbbing legs and heart I felt a strong current roaring within me, inspiring my life force to flow anew and make the most of my time in this body. I went home and brainstormed a list of things that I could do to help transform some things for the better.
In my exploration of cultures and customs wherever I go, I observe and aim to understand how people live, and continually I’m drawn to the sacred. While I never aim to criticize, or wish to disrupt that which brings spiritual fulfillment to anyone, I do feel compelled to call attention to the curious scale that places value on life, and wish to share a website that really got me thinking about animal rights issues well beyond the scope of animal agriculture. It’s not pretty (and NSFW), but please feel free to explore the ideas and images presented at evolveforanimals.org/20-20 when and if you feel ready for a jolt. Thanks for reading!