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Tales from an intrepid viajero in Latin America Despite promising myself that I´d never be so self-indulgent as to write a blog that´s exactly what I´m going to do. Welcome to the blog that I´m writing while studying Spanish and travelling in Latin America over the next 8 months

Extreme Adventure (or madness) - going to the crater of Volcan Santiaguito

GUATEMALA | Monday, 2 March 2009 | Views [3223] | Comments [1]

Having just gone to the crater of one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world I think I can fairly confidently say that it is unlikely that I´ll ever undertake such an amazing and frankly mad adventure again. If you happen to be my mum, I´d probably advise you not to read the remainder of this journal entry. If you happen to be someone thinking about going to the crater of Santiaguito and you are a very strong hiker, slightly mad and have a fair bit of intrepid spirit I´d recommend it - you´ll never have such an incredible experience and it´s unlikely that it´d be legal to do it in many countries with volcanos like Santiaguito.

Over the past 36 hrs I have: a)camped barely 400m away from the volcano without a tent and watched it spit out red hot rocks when erupting (although this bit was actually pretty safe due to the way the volcano erupts) b) watched a super-active volcano erupt from about 200m away (once again fairly safe due to the direction of the wind) c) waited for an eruption and then legged it up the cone to the actual crater in 100km/hr winds and stared into it (not so safe - in fact, as we ran up the cone of the volcano, apart from our guide, we were all wondering how the hell we were going to get back down without falling to our deaths) d) walked through what can only be described as the nearest thing to moon´s landscape without actually going there

The basic story goes something like this...I´ve been dying to go to the crater of Santiaguito for some time but for various reasons (largely promises to take students on various activities) I´ve been unable to do so. Don Eduardo who owns the only hiking group that goes to the actual crater of the volcano came to the school to tell me that they were taking 3 other people this weekend and it would be a good opportunity to go as they seemed like 3 strong hikers. Mario kindly offered to release me from my obligation to take the students to Volcan Santa Maria (thanks here to Don Eduardo for providing them with an alternative guide). So all was set for the two day trip to the crater of one of the most active volcanos in the world. As Don Eduardo says, "a trip to Santiaguito is an extreme adventure. We take about 100 people are year there but only 20 or so actually make it." He actually forbids his guides from taking people right to the crater (although they ignore him) as it is apparently too dangerous.

Saturday 7am

We start the walk to the crater. This involves dropping down about 1.5km from 3000m to 1500m where the first of Santiaguito`s "five beaches" are (a beach is basically a lunar like landscape formed from the volcanic ash and rocks that the volcanoe has thrown out - check out the 2 photo galleries from the trip - thanks to Steve here for sending me some of his photos). This bit is relatively straightforward although I spend some of time thinking of the immense pain that I´m likely to suffer coming back up what is essentially like walking down a kid´s slide for 2hrs.

The first beach is actually formed of rocks rather than volcanic ash. We stare up the climb to reach the second beach and it looks a fairly intimidating 1hr scramble up a bunch of volcanic rocks. It´s not as hard as it looks if you´re a decent hiker but does require a rest when you get to the 2nd beach. The prospect of killing yourself by losing your footing and falling onto jagged rocks isn´t actually that great at this point.

We lunch at the second beach and the scene becomes more lunar like as the clouds descend. This is exactly how I imagine what the moon is like - we contemplate how cool a moon themed party would be on an active volcano and decide we could make a lot of money from it - the only problem would be getting people to the venue. From the second to fourth beach it isn´t very hard at all as we walk through some pretty surreal landscapes in the the descending clouds. A lot of groups apparently stop at the first or second beach as they can`t cope with trek, or maybe they actually have the brains to think about the prospect of how difficult/dangerous the return will be.

From the fourth to the fifth beach is the bit that does mildly worry me. When climbing up to the fifth beach the realisation sets in that if I lose my balance there is probably a 100% chance that I´m going to die as I look down into the general emptiness below. I guess that is why it is called "extreme adventure".

We set up camp at the fifth beach - "camp" is obviously a somewhat generous term to describe our base. It consists of a washing line with a sheet of nylon over the top to prevent our food getting caked with volcanic ash, 2 nylon sheets with a bunch of sleeping bags on top with front row seets to the volcanic eruption and a small tent which is completely useless for anything. Our guide tells us not to go beyond a certain point as we are likely to fall to our deaths given the drop is a few hundred metres into the exact place where the volcano emits fairly large red hot rocks.

We get lucky with the sequence of events at 4pm. The clouds clear and the volcano erupts. It is an incredible sight and the sounds are pretty amazing too (sounds like a mixture of popcorn popping, ceramics crashing into eachother and a kettle boiling over-vigoroulsy*1000). I shoot a film of the eruption from about 400m (if you want to see it, send me an email and I´ll send it to you).

Everything seems to be going perfectly when at around 5pm it starts to rain. Apparently, the heat from the volcano creates steam etc. which creates rain mixed with volcanic ash. At this point we realise that we are completely screwed as all we have is a couple of nylone sheets on washing line to protect us - "extreme adventure" in every sense of the phrase. We reinforce the single nylon sheet on the washing line with the ones that we are going to sleep on and huddle under them waiting for the rain to pass. This is a most uncomfortable experience due to the jagged rocks under us and the fact that the nylon sheets appear to have holes in them. Luckily, all of us take this complete debacle in the right spirit and turn it into a humorous epsiode (which it obviously is if you forget that we are completely freezing and wet without the prospect of drying off under a piece nylon right next to one of the most active volcanos in the world which is providing us with ash-rain).

Our confidence in our guides prognostic abilities is beginning to wain a little as his prediction that it is "a passing shower" seems somewhat misplaced when it is still raining an hour later. From saying it is "certain" that it will clear Saul now says that there is "hope" that it will clear. An hour later and it is still raining and we are getting wetter. Now our guide says that "maybe, if we are lucky" it will clear. Suddenly, at 7pm his prediction comes true. The clouds clear, the moon and the stars in all their full glory shine down on us.

The only problem is that our sleeping bags are completely soaked and it is suddenly very cold. Time for a few swigs of rum to relieve the pain we are about to suffer. The night is more painful than we can possibly contemplate in advance. Shivering is the only way to keep warm but if you want to be an extreme adventurer, suffering is all part of the experience. I spend the night listening to the volcano erupting, other people shivering, trying various methods to warm up my feet and looking at my watch every 20 mins.

Sunday 5.15am

Time to get up and get within striking distance of the crater. We`re all freezing and it is good to get moving again. We get to a safe point (well, according to Saul anyway - it doesn´t look all that safe to me if the wind direction changes and there is an eruption) and warm ourselves with the steam that some of the rocks are emiting. We wait for an eruption. At 6.10 the volcano erupts just as the sun is starting to come up. My camera stops working due to the extreme conditions. The wind is horrendous - I´ve never experienced anything like it. The eruption finishes. At this point, Saul informs me that the wind isn`t blowing in the right direction so we might not be able to reach the crater. Oh, wait a minute, it´s changed direction. I turn around to see Saul hurtling towards the crater in the 100km/hr winds. I guess that means it is time to go...

We leg it down to the bottom of the valley where the cone of the volcano begins. We run as fast as we can up the cone of the volcano. This is truly extreme adventuring as all of us at various points are nearly blown off the edge of the cone as we scramble up. There are tiny volcanic particles being blown into our faces by the 100km/hr wind. Ouch, it seriously hurts. We get to the top. Calidad. All the pain is worth as we look down into the crater and see the steam coming out. Time to take photos quick and get the hell out of there before it erupts again. Volcan Santa Maria is in the background as the sun is rising and it is truly an awe inspiring sight. We spend 15mins at the crater before the realisation sets in that we have to go back down in the wind.

Going down is a truly terrifying experience at various points we think we might be blown away into the abyss. The wind is actually helping at this point as it is blowing us back into the surface of the side of the cone helping us keep pasted to the side of the cone rather than sliding down off it. Once near safety, our guide tells us that only once before has he been to the crater in such wind. However, we´re a strong group...

We reach safety. Mush for breakfast, except our guide has forgotten the sugar. It is rank, but all part of the extreme experience. We pack up our pitiful excuse for a camp and start to climb down. We´re all on a high and everyone agrees it is probably the most exciting, mad and amazing thing that they have done. We´re obviously not safe yet, as what comes up has to go down. We take a lot of care going down from the 5th to the 4th beach as if you slip or lose balance you´re dead. The rest of the trek down to 1st beach is relatively straightforward after the madness of what has gone before. At the first beach we realise that we now have to climb 1.5km up the "slides" in the heat to get to final safety. We manage it in a few hours. It is fairly tough but with a bit of mental fortitude we overcome the pain. We get back to Xela at 3pm fairly self satisfied. I go to the school to tell Mario about the adventure - he tells me it´ll probably be a week before the smile gets wiped off my face. He says he´ll start training so that he might be fit enough to reach the crater in a year.

In all seriousness, this trek has probably been the most exciting and rewarding that I´ve ever done. I doubt I will every doing anything quite so extreme for the rest of my life and while it sounds very dangerous (and actually is in some sections...) we were going with an expert who knows a lot about the volcano and how it erupts/ where it is safe (well, I have to say that don´t I). It is hugely satisfying doing something that very few people manage each year even though we did all have to admit that we are completely mad afterwards. Photos are up and I´d recommend you take a look of them - if some of them look dangerous, it is because what we did was pretty dangerous...

p.s. If you are still reading mum, I did tell you to stop after the first paragraph.

p.s. the good news is that I´m going to spend the next few days going with Don Eduardo and some of his guides to find a new route near the Mexican border. Marvin is there at the moment and he knows the area pretty well - apparently, there are fresh water lakes from which you can drink the water. It should be another adventure, although somewhat less dramatic.

Tags: volacanic eruptions trekking extreme adventure



I love this tale of exciting, mad and amazing adventure... can't wait to see the photos!
Community Manager, WorldNomads.com

  crustyadventures Mar 2, 2009 2:29 PM

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