I got my first reminder that I was staying in hotspot of geological activity when my whole classroom began to shake in a little tremor one afternoon. It was just a small one, but getting to feel my first earthquake was a pretty cool experience. There’s been a couple of others since I’ve been here (and that’s in just two weeks), but I slept through both of those (one time when I’ve been a bit annoyed I’m such a heavy sleeper).
Getting to feel the earth move was a lucky experience, and one that made me all the keener to see the source of all the action – the local volcanoes. Not far from the city sits the dormant volcano of Santa Maria, which last erupted at the start of the last century, covering the city in mounds of volcanic ash, and which sits at 3,772 metres, towering over the city. There appears to be little chance of it erupting again, as a new vent has opened up just the south, forming the newer Volcano of Santiaguito, which is in a state of near constant eruption, regularly belching out big clouds of smoke.
So one Saturday I found myself getting up at the ungodly hour of 5am to hike up to the top. I’ve done a fair bit of hiking in the past, but going up a volcano was quite a different challenge – it’s not technically difficult, but it’s shape means it’s one long, even, steep climb all the way from bottom to top, with the added effect of the high altitude making it all the tougher – in fact I’d say it was the toughest hike I’ve ever done in times of energy (but all good practice for the hiking I’ll be doing to 5,000 metres and above in Peru & Bolivia this summer).
We hired a guide, but it turned out we could have probably not bothered – as two dogs from the village at the bottom were waiting for us on arrival, who then spent the morning showing us the way, always running just ahead of us (with the occasional rabbit-hunting trip to the side), all the way to the top. The early start is basically so that you can get to the top and back down again before the inevitable rainy-season clouds gather in early afternoon, and it was certainly a good decision. After all that hiking through the trees on the way up, it was spectacular to finally emerge above the treeline just short of the summit, and despite the fact that Santiaguito was covered by clouds, the views from the top were breathtaking. As if to make up for the fact I couldn’t see it, Santiaguito also kindly obliged by staging a little mini eruption for me just as I made it to the top, sending a column of brown smoke soaring above the clouds.
Standing at the top looking down on the city and valleys and clouds far below was truly incredible and made every step of the slow climb up worth it.
After a long, slow (it’s tough going down such steep slopes when they are steep, muddy, wet and slippery) descent I arrive back in Xela with pretty sore feet, but it’s made me pretty determined to complete the volcano experience by tackling the very active Volcan Pacaya near Antigua, where you can walk right up to fresh lava flows.