Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Peak to peak and the beauty in between

Well after 44 days in Guatemala which feels like it has been so much longer we have finally made it into Honduras with the promise of a return to the sun, sand and tropical islands.
Our final couple of weeks here were full of activity, mainly of a physical and sweaty variety; so here we go.

Before we got out of the classroom and back into the natural world we had to complete our last few days of Spanish school. As is always the way it was during these couple of days that I felt that I was making the most progress, which probably had an awful lot to do with the fact that we got out from behind the desk and took the lessons outdoors.
Applying the language to real life situations and activities was much more fruitful and I really enjoyed conversing with my teacher as we walked around the museums, churches, galleries and chewed the cud over 100% Guatemalan coffee in his favourite café.
Topics for conversation included drugs, religion, lady-boys and prostitution - see how far my language skills have come along!!!
I wouldn't say that we shared a tearful embrace come 1pm on Friday 21st June but he was grateful for the small gifts of organic coffee (the bag cost half of his daily wage) and some new whiteboard marker pens because I was sick of seeing him refilling his old ones with ink every other day (even though I got to sniff the pear-drop scented ink and get a little buzz).
Arancha went one better and bought her teacher some shoes that she had been saving up for and she did get a tearful embrace.
Jorge, my teacher, does have a close friend in London so one day I would like to think that we will be reunited for another chat, and maybe this time we can up it a notch and discuss sex slavery or paedophilia!

Our final school activity was to go out for a dinner on the Friday night but it was a low key affair as a few of us were down to participate in the full moon trek to Volcan Santa Maria the next evening.

With the trek in mind we did absolutely nothing on the Saturday except to eat and drink, and big up to our fellow housemates Kyle and Jenna who prepared us an energy producing home cooked dinner of bangers and mash before we headed out for the climb.

And so at the ridiculous time of 9:30pm we left the house and walked over to the trek company to complete registration and wait to begin our moonlight walk. I can't say that I was overly impressed to find that there would be over 30 of us participating but given that it is a once in a month opportunity it is not really surprising.
The plan was for us to set off at 10:30pm because the rough estimate was that it would take a ridiculous 4 - 6 hours of walking to reach the summit - always the case with a large group. Just as the lead guide announced that the weather was due to be perfect and we would be leaving shortly it began to rain heavily (of course it did) and for the next hour we were left in limbo as to whether the trek would be cancelled. In the end the rain abated and we were given a choice of whether we still wanted to go ahead or not, which 99% of the group did. To my surprise one guy from our school actually decided to quit before he even started, mainly due to the fact that he had come completely unprepared - seriously who comes to do an overnight trek to the top of a volcano in only shorts, t-shirt and trainers? Bloody English!

Like a group of Eastern European immigrants we all jumped into the back of a Luton van and with the back door still up we set off to the base of the volcano, stopping along the way to pick up our armed guard of 2 policeman - it can be a bit dangerous in these parts.
Getting ready to climb

Just over 1 hour and 45 minutes later than planned we finally got to begin our walk. Thankfully the rain had now stopped and would remain non-existent for the rest of our time on the trip but unfortunately there would be no full moon to guide us as the cloud was low and thick. It is shame because this full moon also happened to be the 'super moon'.
A mere hour into the ascent we stopped for a 30 minute break - no wonder it would take so long to summit and unbelievably another person decided that it was all a little too much for her. Surely when you decide to climb a volcano through the night you must realise it is not going to be that pleasant and if you are not fit enough you must know this in yourself before you begin?

Anyway, with the weak links gone it was time to begin the ascent proper and for the next 2.5 - 3 hours the group, although split into 3 parts, toiled and grappled with the steep, slippery and sometimes disappearing trail that was only always wide enough to be negotiated in single file.
Come 4:30am, after 4 hours of continuous climbing, the guide closely followed by a group of 7 which included myself and Arancha made it to the top.
I give Arancha a fisted salute over the heart because she was the second 'tourist' to summit and she had a chest infection. A great effort by my little mountaineer putting the others to shame.
Whoever said that it was not a race to the top is wrong - life is a competition and we are always competing against each other to win, it's fun!
However, the real heroes of the climb were the 2 dogs that apparently accompany every tour group to the top in hope of a free feed - they lightly trotted and happily made their way up waiting every now and then for us to catch up.

The first thing we did when we reached the top was to quickly get out of sweat soaked clothes and change into something warm and dry. It was freezing on the summit which topped out at just over 3,700 metres and the wind that whipped across the desolate peak cut right through us.
At 4:45am the light of the new day was beginning to creep up over the horizon so we had to make one of 2 choices:
1) Join the rest of group and watch the sunrise over the expanse of land that lay before us
2) Head away from sunrise and check out Volcan Santiguito - currently the most active volcano in Guatemala

I said that we had to choose one of two options but unbelievably some of the group chose a third option - climb into a sleeping bag to sleep missing everything that nature had on offer. Humans - some of them completely perplex me!

Witnessing an eruption
Having witnessed many sunrises with many more to come only myself and Arancha ventured over to a lower part of the peak to take a look at Santiguito and hopefully catch a piece of the action. With dawn approaching in full force we sat mesmerised as streams of smoke gently rose from an actual active volcano. From the peak we had 360 degree views out across the country and whilst checking out one magnificent vista after another we suddenly heard a loud rumbling and 'boom' and quickly turned back to Santiguito to witness a real eruption. The only way I can describe our reaction was like to kids at Christmas as we stood transfixed listening to the boom and watching a huge mushroom cloud of volcanic ash and cloud spew up into the air.

We were on the peak for 3 hours and only once did that happen - how lucky were we? Everybody else was watching the sunrise or sleeping.

Xela from the top of Santa Maria
So what about the rest of the view? Well our 360 degree view was as follows:
Looking out over and past the smoking Volcan Santiguito you could see the Guatemalan Pacific coastline, also as the sun rose behind us it cast a perfect pyramid shaped shadow of Volcan Santa Maria (where we were stood) that didn't look real as it stretched out over the land below. Turning to the right we looked out over 2 other volcanos, one being Tajulmulco - the highest point in Central America, continuing around we looked down upon our home city of Xela stretching out to meet the base of the hills that formed the basin that the city sits within, before finally completing our circle with the most impressive view of all - the volcanic range starting with Volcan San Pedro that sits on the shores of Lago Atitlan and finished 6 volcanos later with Volcan Fuego close to the city of Antigua.
Chuck in a few dramatic clouds hovering between the peaks and the approaching sun into the mix and what you have is a view that will be one of the memories that I will take with me - for me it was that good.

The view over to Lake Atitlan
The highest point in Central America

After a measly breakfast, a cup of coffee and quite a few moans about how cold and tired people were (admittedly it was chilly) we finally began our ascent at 8am and by 10:30am we were all at the base lounging in the warm sun keen to get back home for a shower, some food and a kip.
That day we finally made it to bed at 3pm and by that point having completed the 1,500 metre climb up and subsequent 1,500 metre descent we had been awake for over 30 hours.

Surprisingly we were sprightly and as keen as beans the following day - our last day after a month in Xela; as we moved out of our homestay and into a hostel for the night. We completed what little bits we had tie up and this included buying small gifts for Leslie and Luis who had treated us so well and also taking them out for a thank you meal along with Jenna and Kyle.
One other final task was to show Arancha around the Xela museum which apart from being located in an old prison, having a really impressive of locally found Mayan artefacts had a 'freak' section. There was a 4 month human foetus, which seeing how developed it was makes the limit of 12 weeks for an abortion seem a bit dodgy, plus there were various Siamese animals such as a 2 headed calf and 2 bodies deer - brilliant.

Finally it was time to leave this city and once again we made our way back to the same trek company to partake in a 2.5 day, 45 kilometre trek from Xela to the shores of Lago Atitlan, renowned as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Fortunately the group for this trek was much smaller and consisted of only 7 travelers and 2 guides.
With ourselves, Jenna and Kyle was Yan from Hong Kong and 2 Israeli girls.
We departed early doors catching an 8am bus out of Xela to a nearby village that housed the start of the trek path.
It was a bright sunny day and all was well in the world. The opening part of the trek was a 1,000 metre walk straight up a rocky track to get the heart pumping but with the promise of this being the hardest part climb in the 2.5 days and also the highest point we would get to you would think that everybody would just suck it up and deal with it.
Not so! One of the Israeli's (now known as Isfail - I acknowledge you Kyle for this) decided a mere 30 minutes into the trek that she couldn't go on. Are you f*cking serious? How can you quit after only 30 minutes and then once you have met up with us later after being driven to the end point claim that smoking had nothing to do with it?
As Isfail was being evacuated back to Xela we had to sit around killing time and it was during this time that we all had to redistribute the communal food between us because the other chunky Israeli couldn't carry the weight of her bag! Carrying extra communal food is fine by me but most of us drew the line at helping her with her own gear. Yan being a gentleman helped her out as did one of the guides with her water and sleeping bag.
22 year olds should not be that unfit!

Taking a rest
A friendly local?

The remainder of that day saw us walk up mountains, amongst the multiple corn fields that litter the countryside, through little villages with their inquisitive inhabitants and lunch resting on our bags overlooking a cloud forest and its dense jungle vegetation before descending down the other side of the mountain over loose scree and slippery paths where we all danced around as though we were on ice.
7 hours later we wearily exited the countryside and joined a very hard and rough dirt road that wound around the valley and took us up to what very literally would be our humble abode for the night.

How to explain the village that we found ourselves in for the night? Apocalyptic would go some way to capturing its appearance. Set amongst a beautiful mountain backdrop it was the sort of place where everything would disappear within seconds as the cloud descended and all you were left with was a view of the clapped our central square (which the village was built around) as we sat around waiting for the zombies to stagger out of the mist to rip out our intestines and feast upon our entrails.
Our accommodation was the Municipal Hall set on the east side of this square and it was as basic as can be. The lead guide opened up the iron door and creaking filled the ample hall that would be our communal bedroom for the night. We had free choice as to where we wanted to sleep but every spot had one thing in common - it was hard tiled floor which on threadbare sleeping mats would leave us all with bruised hips and backs.
The treat to help us recover from a hard days trekking and to assist with the uncomfortable night to come was to visit the local sweat lodges.
Essentially these hot boxes were homebuilt saunas / steam rooms super heated by pouring water over volcanic rocks which would then spew out hissing steam.
Being small units that resembled WWII bomb shelters the only way to enter was on hands and knees before crouching and trying to clean yourself.
As we visited in couples I stripped off to my birthday suit and proceeded to wash myself as best I could whilst ingesting copious amounts of volcanic steam which left everybody who visited coughing like they had just smoked a pack of 20.
Of course it was an enjoyable experience, how can getting clean in such a way in someone's back garden in the middle of nowhere not be, but I wasn't overly keen on trying to stand to wash my bits and hearing my back sizzle on the hot tin roof.
The 'hot box'
Ooh, a comfy night ahead
That night we ate an ample dinner of pasta and vegetables and settled down to sleep by 8pm as we watched the odd rat run from one end of the hall to the other.

Living the culinary dream
After an energy packed egg and rice breakfast prepared and eaten in a local villager's kitchen we were back on the trek and headed for the promise of a good dinner and comfortable night at the house of Don Pedro.
This day's trek was hard and but also really enjoyable and we tackled some really challenging uphill climbs before being rewarded for such endeavours with great views and more importantly, ice cream purchased from the village tienda (corner shop).
The first climb of the day was to take on the challenge of 'Record Hill', a seriously steep uphill climb that left your calves feeling like they were going to explode.
The hill is called 'Record Hill' because one of the local guides once smashed the walk up and completed the ascent in 9 mins and 5 secs.
Each trekkers mission, if they chose to accept it was to try and beat this time - frankly an impossible task.
Only 4 of the group decided to give it a go and being the keenest / stupidest, I set off first. 12 mins 51 secs later I made it to the top and even if I got back to peak fitness there is no way that I would be able to get anywhere close to 9 mins. Given that I beat the time of our own guide shows how insanely fast that time is.
AJ was the only girl to give it a go and she came in at 18 mins and 30 secs - coughing and spluttering with the continuing chest infection.
Standard walking time was 25 minutes, so we bitched it up.

The afternoon part of the trek mixed the walk up a little as we traversed a total of 9 creeks / brooks. Everyone keenly stood and watched the rest cross with eagle eyes secretly hoping that someone would trip and get a soaking. Unfortunately everybody made it across but if that meant that we ourselves were dry then I guess you have to just accept it.
By mid afternoon we made it to our second stop over, the house of Don Pedro, who was somewhat the main man in the community that we found ourselves in. Don's gaff was large enough to house the 9 of us plus his own family which consisted of his grown up kids and their own children.
Don and his family were also building the new church for the community and were busy shifting sand and gravel in huge quantities whilst Mrs Don got her cook on.
Dinner prepared by Don's wife contained some of the best chicken that I have ever eaten and the marshmallows cooked over the open fire in the covered yard were a much welcome addition to my hungry stomach.
The dining room also doubled as our bedroom for the night and the stench emanating from one of the guides unwashed feet soon caused some upset within the camp. I really liked the guide (an Aussie) and he has lived a life that anybody who enjoys the great outdoors would want; such as working for 12 months as a guide in Australia's red centre, driving around Australia twice and picking up odd jobs here and there, as well as working as a coffee salesman in New Zealand that left him with 4 days a week to explore the rugged South Island.
However, his feet were putrid and there is no defence for a smell like that.
The night was finished off with a little song and dance courtesy of the Don and 3 of the grandkids which was a thoroughly enjoyable affair whilst the young twins ran amuck through the house.
Don Pedro and the gang

Whether the floor was comfy or not, or whether Dan the Guide's feet were still giving off a serious pong was irrelevant because we were up, out and back on the road at 3:45am in order to finish off the trek in absolute style.
By 4:30am we had settled down on our sleeping mats with our backs against our bags on a lawn high above Lago Atitlan and there we sat for 2 hours watching the sun rise from behind the mountains to the east to illuminate the lake and the volcanic range we had seen a few days earlier from the peak of Santa Maria; which now sat right in front of us. Even better, one of Guatemala's other active volcanos Volcan Fuego decided to get a little excited and spout out a stream of black smoke that appeared even darker against the pinks, oranges and yellows of the morning sky.
As mentioned before Lake Atitlan is thought of as one of the most in the world and it was actually created through the volcanic activity of the 3 volcanos that sit along its southern shoreline. Over 1.8 million years ago the lava spewing out of these 3 created a basin of lava rock that created a completely watertight base that continually rises and falls during the changing of the seasons (average depth of 350 metres) - something that the westerners who built their beautiful houses along the shore didn't take into account and is the reason why they now sit under water!!
We sat at the northern end of this lake that covers a total of 130 square kilometres and ate breakfast overlooking this beauty and the numerous villages and fields that litter the landscape producing crops, most notably corn and coffee. How could anyone possibly have cause to complain???

Lake Atitlan

The last task left to us (after each and every one of us went for a poo in the woods) was to descend amongst the spectacular views down to the seemingly woman only village of San Juan to wait for our bags to arrive and to eat lunch served up by the Mayan Women's Collective.

Along with Kyle and Jenna we decided that it would be best to base ourselves in the lively town of San Pedro and so via tuk tuk we got ourselves over to the town and within 20 minutes had secured neighbourly rooms in a good part of town with a hammock and lake views. Sweet as!
Our timing couldn't have been much better as it was fiesta time and we spent our 4 days here during the annual birthday celebrations of the town. The celebrations consisted of hourly fireworks, streets lined with delicious food stalls, fair rides and best of all marquees containing loads of original arcade games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

San Pedro also had it touristy area and there were no complaints as we strolled around the laneways enjoying big juicy burgers and chocolate brownies because we had obviously earned the right to from our tough 2.5 days walk.

For me there was also the bonus of another volcano climb. The town sits at the base of its namesake volcano, Volcan San Pedro and at 5am on the morning following our arrival I found myself saying goodbye to Arancha who was sleeping soundly and I set off to make my second volcano summit within 5 days, because I was unable to rest until I had achieved my objective.
The guide book and the various agencies around town insisted that for security reasons you should only climb the volcano with a guide but because I am hard and wicked I did it on my own.
I actually did heed the warnings so only took a small amount money with me which turned out to be a bit of an issue because I didn't realise that I needed to pay a permit to be within the ecological park.
About 1 hour into my solo climb I came across a friendly guide who asked if he could see my permit slip which was how I discovered that I actually needed one. Due to safety precautions I only had 45 Quetzales of the required 100 Q on me but with a little broken Spanish, especially using 'Lo Siento' (Sorry) he let me off and wrote me a little homemade receipt that I would be able to present to the office once I returned to base.
As for the actual climb, it was tough and not exactly worth it because the peak was surrounded in thick cloud but once I descended back down to the clear skies at 2,500 metres I was rewarded with fantastic views out across the lake and the town of San Pedro.

Volcan San Pedro

Climbing Volcan San Pedro

Knowing that I hadn't fully paid for the permit and only had a crappy handwritten receipt for my 45% payment I tried to avoid the payment office completely upon my return to base and took a short cut to main road through the hedges - only to come face to face with the 'permit master'.
Oddly enough he didn't actually ask me why I had just emerged through a bush and was very kind and understanding about the half payment of the permit, nice enough that I felt like a complete tool for dragging myself through a bush to avoid contact with him.

With the volcano completed I could relax and enjoy my time along the banks of the lake and for 3 days we ate, took a boat across the lake to the hippy filled streets of San Marcos, a centre for holistic healing and yoga and also caught up with a mate from Spanish school.

On the Saturday we thought it would be wise to down a few beers so myself and Arancha got a little tipsy and ventured out to the centre of town to enjoy the fiesta festivities. Come 11:30pm I still wanted to take in what San Pedro had to offer so after walking AJ home I returned to the basketball court in the middle of town to join the hundreds of other residents to watch and dance to the local Guatemalan and guest South American bands that had come to play until the early hours of the morning.
Whilst standing off to the side a little Guatemalan guy came to keep me company and for the next couple of hours we were inseparable (because I was buying him beer) as we traded Spanish small talk and took it all in.

After 4 days around the lake it was time to leave which also meant that apart from a lay over in the already visited Antigua it was time to wave goodbye to Guatemala.
Once again I departed yet another country having fallen for its charms, people and natural wonders - how the hell I am supposed to settle in just one place in the future?


No comments:

Post a Comment