We randomly ended up in a town called Zafferana. It rained heavily most of the time we were there, but we hiked a long way up the volcano anyway. We walked to a place with a view over eastern Sicily. The weather cleared up briefly, but only towards the coast. The mountain was still totally hidden. We walked on, but the clouds came in again and it was getting dark. By torchlight, we headed back down to Zafferana.
Articles tagged with "hike"
Long walk in filthy weather
Cable car to Montagnola
We got a cable car from the Rifugio Sapienza to Montagnola, not too far from the summit. It was a clear and beautiful day when we set out, but clouds were coming in and they arrived at Montagnola at the same time as we did. Reaching the craters was going to be impossible. We got the cable car back down and then got a bus back to Catania in an epic downpour.
Four years after we were there, both the Rifugio Sapienza and the Montagnola cable car station were destroyed by lava flows.
Another long walk
On our final night, the weather cleared, and from Zafferana we watched lava fountains spraying high over the summit. We stayed up all night watching the show, trying and failing to take good photos.
We saw the mountain from the plane window as we took off from Catania. We hadn’t made it to the top, but we’d seen it erupting, and we thought that was a pretty good result.
Day four, mission two. Krafla volcano is not really a volcano at all, although there is a hill with that name in the area. What in fact happens at Krafla is that the ground is pulled from both sides by continental drift. Every 200 years or so, it suddenly gives way about 10 times over a decade or two. Each time it does, vast fissures open up, sometimes over 20 miles long, and lava spurts out along the entire length of them. The last lot of eruptions at Krafla occurred between 1975 and 1984, but geologists believe that the eruptive series is not over. The ground has swollen upwards by about half a metre since the last eruption, indicating a very full magma chamber, two miles beneath the surface. Fearlessly, we set off into the heart of it all.
We first walked around the 320m wide explosion crater known as ‘Viti’, meaning Hell. A lake of very blue water fills the bottom, and it would be very tempting to go swimming, if the sides of the crater weren’t so steep and loose. We had fun starting several mini-landslides by kicking a small stone over the edge.
By the side of Viti are several mud pots. Throughout most of Iceland there is seldom a sign or a barrier to warn visitors about any danger, but here there were warning signs to say that getting too close to the mud pots would be a very bad idea because the crumbling ground might give way. We stood close enough to watch them bubbling and glooping. During the eruptions of 1724-8 in the area, they used to spurt up to 10m high, but now 10cm is about the best they do. They still look nice.
From Viti and the mudpots, we walked through the lava flows from 1984. The centrepiece here is the crater Leirhnjúkur, which is full of startlingly blue, awful-smelling water, which bubbles continuously. Brilliantly coloured mineral deposits fringe the pool, and steam rises from various hot points. The smell was unbearable, and sadly it didn’t deter the midges, so Leirhnjúkur was best appreciated in small doses.
From Leirhnjúkur, we walked through the still-hot lava from 1984. Steam was pouring from cracks in the surface, and occasionally the rocks were warm enough to heat the air into disconcerting patches of sweltering heat. From there, it was a short walk back over some cracked earth back to the car park, from where we could have got a bus back to Mývatn. We, however, fancied a walk back in the sunshine.
It was a good three-hour walk back to the campsite, but the weather and scenery were good. The only other people we saw on the way were two German cyclists. It’s a strange thing that almost every German you meet in Iceland is cycling across it, and almost every cyclist you meet is German. As they struggled up a large hill, we detoured via some hot springs at Námafjall. It was warm enough not to need hats and gloves on. Somewhere along the way my hat fell out of my pocket. I hoped that the weather would stay fine for the next three weeks…
On day 5 we went to Askja. It must be said here and now that Askja is fearsomely remote. Deep in the interior of Iceland, temperatures average below freezing for 8 months of the year, and what is laughably called the road (it’s a track scraped into the dust) is passable for only 3 months a year. We caught the penultimate tour of the year down there, and made sure that we had packed all our warm clothes. In fact, though, the weather was quite nice. The sun shone brightly, and when we stopped for lunch near Mt. Herðubreið, we had lunch in the sun on a picnic table outside the mountain hut there. After another stop at the side of the river Jökulsá á Fjöllum (the same river which plunges over Dettifoss), we got to Askja at about 2pm.
The first thing to do was explore the caldera. A caldera is formed when a volcano has a huge eruption, and the magma chamber underneath is emptied. The mountain above then crashes into the ground, leaving a huge crater. Askja did this in 1875, expelling enough volcanic material with enough force for some of it to land in Scotland. The volcano collapsed in on itself, leaving a 50 square kilometre crater. The former flanks of the volcano now form a ring of mountains known as the Dyngjufjoll.
The deepest part of the crater is filled with Iceland’s deepest lake, Öskjuvatn. On the day we went, the placidly shimmering reflections of the snow-capped mountains in the still waters of the lake made it hard to believe the destruction behind the beauty. A swim would be tempting but for the near-freezing temperature of the water, and also the fact that two German researchers once disappeared without a trace while out on the lake in a small boat.
More inviting is the lake inside Viti, an explosion crater formed during the most recent eruptions at Askja, in 1961. Not to be confused with the Viti at Krafla, this Viti contains a hot, opaquely blue lake, apparently ideal for swimming. However, you have to negotiate a steep and slippery slope down into the depths of the crater, and even at the top, the smell of sulphur is overwhelming. Even though there were completely naked Swiss girls in there, we gave it a miss.
The weather stayed nice for the first two days at Askja. This brought out the midges, but the magnificent desolation of the beautiful wastelands more than made up for that. A spectacular canyon cut deep in the mountain just behind where we camped, and a hill nearby afforded a stunning view all the way to the volcano Snæfell 40 miles to the east, and Herðubreið 30 miles to the north. Lava from 1961 snaked across the plains, and several ancient craters could be seen. The land for miles around was covered in light, fluffy pumice stones from the 1875 explosion. I took one large piece as a souvenir but it crumbled into dust long before it got anywhere near leaving Iceland.
We spent two days hiking about in the wild mountains, and the place left a profound impression on us. Here, we were as far from civilization as we had ever been. The nearest town, the nearest shops, the nearest help, were a gruelling 6 hour journey in a 4WD vehicle away. Within fifty miles of us, there were probably no more than a few hundred people. Within fifty miles of London, you’d find perhaps 20 million people.
On the second evening, though, the weather took a turn for the worse. Rain fell as the sun went down, getting heavier as the night went on. By one in the morning, half an inch of water had found its way into one of our two tents. By the time the bus passed by at 4pm on the third day, we were not distraught at the prospect of leaving. We passed by Herðubreið, by now enwreathed in cloud, and thanked the Norse gods for the good weather we’d had.
Onward and upward
And then it was time to leave Mývatn. Unfortunately, a slight misreading of the timetable led to us arriving at the bus stop two hours early. However, this slight mishap aside, the onward journey was trouble-free. More spectacular scenery was seen, as we passed the huge lava fields east of Mývatn, and eventually came to the valley of the glacial river Jökulsá á Dal. Like most Icelandic place-names, it sounded mysterious and evocative to me, but actually means, rather prosaically, the Glacial River with the Valley.
The usual twenty or thirty beautiful waterfalls were seen, before we stopped for lunch at Egilsstaðir, in the far east of the country. From here, the ring road follows the deeply indented coastline, so that you sometimes travel for 20 miles to make half a mile’s headway. We arrived in Höfn, in the south-east, at 8.30pm, and stayed the night there. The mighty Vatnajökull icecap oozes into the sea through several valleys here, and in the evening twilight, it looked magnificent. The cool but calm weather gave the place a very Arctic atmosphere.
The next morning, day 10, we took the bus from Höfn to Skaftafell, from where we would explore the Laki fissure. This stretch of the journey included the magnificent Jökulsárlón, a large lake filled with icebergs carving off a tongue of the Vatnajökull.
We arrived at Skaftafell at 11am in glorious sunshine, again feeling fortunate with the weather. However, sadly, by the time we had set up camp and got ourselves ready to see the sights, the clouds had come in, and it was another grey day. Nonetheless, the wonderful things we had heard about Skaftafell were true.
Svartifoss, a striking waterfall, entranced for a couple of hours. Sjonársker, a large hill, provided a superb view over the flood plains south of the icecap. It was here in 1996 that a volcanic eruption deep under the icecap released a torrent of water as great as the Amazon. Finally, an hour’s walk took us to the edge of the Vatnajökull, the world’s third largest icecap (it’s about one-hundredth the size of the Greenland icecap in second place, and the Antarctic cap is seven times as big as Greenland, but it’s third nonetheless).
In the fading half-light and increasing rain, it was a very eerie place. Powerful rivers rushed out from underneath, and we were surprised to find that it was very solid. It took several heavy blows from a large rock to break any off. We had brought along our whisky in the hope of having a wee dram with a few chunks of glacial ice in it, but in fact glacial ice is rather filthy. So we knocked back some bad whisky straight, appreciated the gloomy scene around us, and headed back to the campsite.
Mad Viking berserker bus driver
Early the next morning, we left for Laki, a 25km long fissure, which in 1783 unleashed the largest and most devastating lava flow known to man. Over 10 months, it covered 200 square miles of land, completely filling 2 river valleys. The huge amount of volcanic gas releases poisoned the land and the sea all over the south of Iceland. Three-quarters of the livestock perished, and in the ensuing famine, a quarter of the Icelanders died. There was talk of evacuating them all to Denmark, but they resisted.
We were getting the last bus of the season, up another road shortly to be closed for the winter. Strangely, the bus driver laughed heartily when we asked for a discount with our Circle Passes, said no, and then charged us half of what we had been expecting anyway. Once on the way, we passed by the usual spectacular scenery, this time an amazing canyon, and a beautiful waterfall, Fagrifoss (which actually means Beautiful Falls).
On arrival at the fissure, the first thing to do was climb Mt. Laki itself. At 818m high, it affords a magnificent view of the fissure stretching away into the distance front and back, and the mind-boggling expanses of lava fields. The weather was a little unpredictable, with very sombre skies giving way to bright sunshine every half hour or so. Brightly lit land beneath ominous clouds lent the place the air of menace that it deserved.
Once we were down from the mountain, we had time to quickly look inside the largest crater of the fissure, before the bus took us twenty minutes down the road to look at some other craters. This time, the driver, who couldn’t speak much English, drew some diagrams in the sand to indicate that we should follow the marked trail while he drove the bus around to another crater to meet us. And so the seven of us on the tour strode off into the wilderness.
The landscape here was incredible. Inside the first crater was a beautiful lake, very placid and calm. Everything was covered in squidgy moss, which made it feel like you were walking on air and made it look a bit like the set of the Teletubbies. The surreal rock formations all around lent it an other-worldly air.
We walked over hills and through valleys, wondering if we would ever be seen again when the path went underground, but eventually we met up with the driver again. He led us onward into a small clearing, hesitated, and then said, or gave the impression that he had said, be means of exaggerated confused facial expressions and repeated shrugs, “But where is the bus?”. Fortunately, this was merely Icelandic humour, and after just half an hour of panic, he led us around the hill to where he had parked. We headed back to Skaftafell.
Blowing hot and cold
We left the next morning for Kirkjubæjarklaustur. We hadn’t planned to go there originally, but we had heard great things about a place called Landmannalaugar from a Dutch guy at Mývatn, who said that he had been watching the Aurorae Borealis from geothermal hot pools. Also from Landmannalaugar, you can do a three day walk to þórsmörk through some of the most incredible scenery in Iceland. The whole area is volcanically active, and so we decided that we would give it a go.
So from Skaftafell, we went to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, to provision ourselves. Landmannalaugar is, like Askja, well beyond the reach of civilization. A warden lives in the mountain hut there from May to September, but it is otherwise uninhabited. We spent a terrifying amount of money on 5 days’ food, and then spent the rest of the day at Kirkjubæjarklaustur relaxing, and preparing for the approaching ordeal.
The next day, the weather was Miserable. The north Atlantic was blowing horizontally across Iceland, and, for once, the temperature had dropped below its usual 10° . We got the bus at 9am, and hoped for better in the interior. This was laughably optimistic. We stopped for an hour on the way at the volcanic fissure Eldgjá, which means fire chasm. About 20 minutes walk away from the road at Eldgjá is Ofærufoss, an impressive waterfall, which we walked to. We were all absolutely soaked, in spite of waterproofs, by the time we got back.
Another two hour’s drive took us to Landmannalaugar, where, briefly, sun had broken out. We were to learn over the next two days that the weather taunts you viciously at Landmannalaugar, by being sunny when you wake up, and in five minute spurts during the day, but raining as soon as you decide to do anything. We walked to the mountain hut, saw that the weather was going to get worse, and decided that camping was all well and good, but a mountain hut would be heavenly. So we booked in, sorted ourselves out, and then set off to find the geothermal pool.
Just behind the hut at Landmannalaugar is a huge lava flow from an eruption a few hundred years ago. It’s still pretty hot inside, as shown by the hot streams which flow out from underneath. They mix with a cold stream in a natural pool about 200m from the hut, forming the most perfect hot bath imaginable. On a day like the day we went, with weather precluding much else, everyone who’s staying at the hut goes to the pool. We took our bottles of whisky and some chocolate, and stayed in for about 4 hours. We would certainly have stayed in for a lot longer, if we didn’t know that the later we got out, the more horrific it would be. Finally, as night fell and our supplies of whisky and chocolate ran low, we braved the icy air and got out.
We spent a pleasant evening in the kitchen of the hut, swapping anecdotes with the other travellers there, and being amused by the warden, who was quite a character. We suspected that he’d been sipping the Svartidauð* when he began singing Icelandic folk tunes to us.
The next day was to be the day we set off into the real wilderness. We spent the morning getting advice from various people. About 20 people had set off on the hike the previous day, and about half had turned back. One of them was telling us that it would be very difficult without crampons and hiking poles, while other people were telling us it was easy, and we should go right away. The warden said that he thought it would be OK, but to expect some bad weather up high (on the first day, the walk takes you over a pass at 1200m). With a little trepidation, we set off.
* Svartidauð – Nickname for Brennivín, the Icelandic spirit. Brennivín means ‘Burning Wine’, while Svartidauð means ‘Black Death’. It’s an acquired taste.
A spot of intense rigour
The first thing to do is cross the lava flow behind the hut. This took about an hour, and led us to the foot of Brenninsteinsalda, an active volcano with many steaming craters on its slopes. One in particular, right next to the path, looked very dramatic, with brightly coloured minerals occasionally visible through the steam. We stopped to take stock of the situation, and it began to hail. We decided to walk on for half an hour, during which time sleety rain began to fall.
We were feeling somewhat dubious now, because we were some 500m below the highest point on the first day. The snowline wasn’t too far above us, and the cloud layer was coming down rapidly. We sadly decided that it would be at best very unpleasant, and at worst dangerous to continue. We sat dejectedly by the crater for a few minutes, and then picked up our packs and went back to the hut.
We were sat in the kitchen, feeling a bit disappointed, when the warden came in. “Oh, hi guys! What are you still doing here?”. We told him the story, and he nodded sympathetically. “So where are you going to stay tonight?” he asked. Here, we said, a little uncertainly. “Sorry, guys, the hut is totally booked out tonight. You’ll have to camp.” The hut was completely empty at this point. He was smiling, and so we replied in jest. He insisted, less jovially, but it was only when he had taken our money and ushered us firmly out of the door that we began to think he was serious. “And I don’t sing for campers!”, he shouted, slamming the door.
This was not good. Waves of lashing rain were now arriving every 10 minutes or so, and it was very cold. We set up our tents, and ran back to the hot pool. After about five hours, we had to face reality and admit that we couldn’t stay in there all night, and went to camp.
Fearsome wind and rain during the night had left some of us slightly damp. After a morning spent back in the hut, warming up and cursing the group of Swedes who had booked it, we decided to leave this place, and get on with the holiday. We took the bus out at 1.30pm, and went to Selfoss.
Onwards and upwards
We had spent enough time around Arenal, so the next day, we moved on to our next destination, Rincón de la Vieja. Situated in north western Costa Rica, this is another active volcano, which last erupted in 1998. We hoped to climb to the top and camp the night there. We made our way to Liberia, via the towns of Tilaran and Cañas. During the three-leg journey, the weather got ever hotter. As well as talking to a crazy young Costa Rican called Jorge, who would occasionally lean out the window and do tarzan whoops as we passed through the forest, we met two Austrian travellers, Andi and Eva, who also wanted to go to Rincón de la Vieja. We decided we’d all go up together, and decided to try and find a way there the next day.
There is no public transport to Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, but the owner of the hotel Moh and I were staying at had a 4WD, and said he’d take us to the park and pick us up the next day for $10 each. We hired him, and after we’d bought food and fuel, we set off.
It was an awesomely bumpy but beautiful drive up to the park. We arrived at about 11am, and after paying our park fees, we decided to go hiking. We left our backpacks by the ranger station and set out for Catarata de Cangreja (Crab falls), which the park ranger told us was the best of the many waterfalls in the park. It was a marvellous walk through the tropical dry forest (it’s a technical name – it really isn’t dry at all), and after about three hours we arrived. Much like the waterfall we visited near Fortuna, it was a perfect tropical cascade plunging into a shimmering blue pool.
We gladly swam, as it had been a hot and exhausting walk. By the time we set out for the return leg, the afternoon rains were approaching. The rains turned out to be light, but there was thunder so loud it made me duck. But we made it back to the ranger station OK, only to find that disaster had struck. Before we had left for the falls, a friendly racoon had wandered right up to us. He was quite an endearing little fellow, we thought, but when we got back, we found that he had opened Eva’s backpack, eaten all her bread, and just for a laugh, thrown her dried pasta everywhere.
Fortunately, Moh and I were unusually well prepared, and our contingency stocks were more than sufficient to feed us all well. We set up camp a few hundred yards into the woods, and as it got dark we cooked a marvellous meal of dried pasta and vegetables. Simple food, but when you cook it over a tiny stove in a jungle wilderness on a volcano in Costa Rica, it seems like the best food in the world.
Around the mountain
The next morning, we set out to explore the mountain. Rincón de la Vieja is at the centre of a region of great geothermal activity, and the evidence for subterranean heat is everywhere. A well-trodden trail winds past many geothermal features, and we set out along it. Before long we were temporarily out of the forest, and all around could see steam rising from the ground. It was quite a sight, and we set off in search of what was steaming.
Over the next three hours or so, we passed hot pools of water, gently simmering and glooping pools of mud, warm streams, and a steaming hole in the ground which was rumbling and groaning ominously. We also saw a fearsomely boiling pool of mud known as Volcancito. It was quite a sight, and we couldn’t help but wonder just how far below us the magma here was.
After seeing all that we could on the trail, we returned to our tents and had a magnificent pasta, tomato and tuna meal, before breaking camp. We had arranged to be picked up at the park’s other ranger station, 8km away, and we had four hours to do it in. We wanted to stop at some hot springs on the way, so we thought we’d leave plenty of time.
It was pretty hard going, though, with the first four kilometres being almost entirely uphill. Moh at one point complained that his legs weren’t working, and promptly fell over. However, we were making very reasonable time. With about an hour and a half left before our driver was to pick us up, we arrived at the trail which led to the springs. A quick kilometre and we were there, and it was truly wonderful. Hot water emerges from beneath some rocks, and flows into a cool stream, and where they mix is pure heaven. I sat with my feet in the cool water and the rest of me in the hot, and relaxed.
But all too soon we had to be on our way, and we set off renewed for the final 3km. We set a blistering pace, and arrived at the ranger station at the same time as our lift, although Moh was looking somewhat the worse for wear. ‘Bue…nos…di…as’, he said to our driver, wheezing terribly. ‘You look terrible’ replied our scrupulously honest driver. We had a great run back to Liberia in the fading light of day, and on arrival back at our hospedaje, we drank about a gallon of water each and I had the best shower ever.
Ometepe was certainly fascinating just in terms of its recent history. But it’s also a very beautiful place. Though their tops were invariably covered in cloud while we were on the island, the two volcanoes make for a great setting. The larger of the two, the active Volcán Concepción, looms right behind Altagracia, while the smaller, Maderas, can be seen far away to the south-west. Early on our second day, we set out to see what we could do about climbing Volcán Concepción.
We set out along the road south from Altagracia, looking, as our guidebook told us to, for a cemetary on the right after a mile and a half, past which ran a trail up the volcano. We walked for a good three miles before deciding we’d gone too far, and headed back. Fortunately our Spanish (well, mine at least – Moh was still trying to master the phrase for ‘I don’t speak Spanish’) was up to asking for directions, and we found the path. It was about 7am, but already I was dripping with sweat. We headed up the path, first crossing some plantations, before getting out of the cultivated land and into the forest. We climbed for about an hour and a half, occasionally getting a good view over the island, but mostly being in thick jungle. Unfortunately we hadn’t been able to buy any food, and having not eaten breakfast we were forced by hunger to turn back at about 8.30am. We were back in town by 10am, and ate a hearty breakfast.
We were staying at the Hotel Castillo, mentioned in all the guidebooks as being a great place to stay. We had good rooms for only £3 a night. The reason the hotel was so recommended was that the family who run it were said to be exceptionally accommodating, sharing their wealth of knowledge about the island with anyone who asked them. Sadly the legendary Señor Castillo, who had lived on the island for eighty-odd years, was not around when we were staying, but instead there was a friendly guy called Neftali, who worked on a banana plantation during the day, but came to the hotel most evenings to chat to the guests, practising his English and sharing his knowledge of the island. We spent a long while that evening chatting to him about the island and Nicaragua in general.
Raindrops keep falling on my head
The next morning, we got up at 4am to try and climb Volcán Maderas. Neftali had told us that it was a difficult climb, but that if we set off early and the weather was OK then getting to the summit was just a matter of persistence. But when we got up we found that the rain was beating down mightily outside. This was a change from the norm, but it was only several days later that we discovered what the cause was – Hurricane Keith was sitting just off the east coast of Nicaragua, and causing torrential rains all over Nicaragua.
So we decided not to get the 4.30am bus to Balgüe, from where a trail leads up Volcán Maderas. By 9am the rain had stopped, and so we decided to try our luck with the climb. We took the bus around the island, through many small villages and beaches on the shores of Lago de Nicaragua, and arrived at Balgüe at about 10.30am. From Balgüe, a sign saying ‘La somete – tres oras’ points up the mountain, and we set out along it. It leads after about half an hour to the Finca Magdalena, a coffee farm which acts as the base camp for the climb. Here we met two Argentinian volunteer workers, and we asked them whether the climb was still possible after the earlier rains. To our disappointment they advised against it, saying it was slippery at the best of times.
So we appreciated the fabulous views from Finca Magdalena all the way over to the other side of the lake, twenty miles away, before heading down again to Balgüe. From here, we decided, we would walk to Santo Domingo, a beach about 7km away. Though it was overcast, it was warm, and we didn’t know there was a hurricane about 200 miles away and moving closer, so we set off. We walked north along the winding road, passing a few straggling houses for the first half hour or so, but then being out of sight of civilization. There was the odd farmer walking to or from his fields, and they would always give a cheery ‘Hola!’ as they passed. After a couple of hours walking we came to a deserted beach and stopped to rest for a while.
We didn’t see anyone else in the half hour or so we sat on the beach, and it certainly felt desolate with its black sand and battered driftwood. It was incredibly hot, but I decided I was getting used to it. I was still sweating bucketloads, but I was quite OK with doing long walks in the heat of the day. Having cooled our boots in Lago de Nicaragua, we carried on.
The latter stages of the walk were less pleasant. We were terrified by swarms of huge flying beetles – they were about two inches long and very fat, and kept on flying into our faces. We were also bothered by enormous dragonflies. I don’t like insecty things even in the UK, and soon I was so traumatised that even the sudden appearance of a butterfly made me jump. And then it began spotting, then drizzling, then really raining like there was no tomorrow. We tried to carry on walking, but before long we were soaked to the skin, and took shelter under a tree. This didn’t do much good, but it was all we had, and we stayed there until a bus passed by, and we hopped squelching aboard. As it turned out we were about a hundred metres from Santo Domingo, where there is a café with a roof and cold drinks, but we didn’t know this as we stood under the tree.
So we went back to Altagracia, and made plans to visit the Salto San Ramon, a waterfall a couple of hours hike away from a village on the south end of the island. We spoke to Neftali again, and told him of our failure to climb Maderas, and our plans to go to the waterfall. “I’d say don’t go if the weather’s bad”, he told us. “It’s a really slippery trail, and the river can flood after heavy rains.”
The rain kept us awake for most of the night, and though we made a cursory attempt to get up at 5.30am, the trek to the waterfall was clearly not on. It rained more or less all day, so we spent a lot of time reading and writing our journals. For a brief time it calmed down to a light drizzle, and we went for a wander around the village, discovering its tiny museum of pre-Columbian artefacts, before the rain set in again for the evening.
In the evening, we met Adam and Song, two Americans who had been Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic for the past two years, and were making their way home overland, having flown into Panama. They were also keen to climb a mountain, and we agreed that we would try and climb Maderas again the next day.
Sadly, the rain got worse, and from about 9pm onwards it was a downpour. It continued through the night, and once again our getting up at 4am was a token effort. It was clear that we were going to have to give up on Maderas and move on. We decided to leave that very day. The rain abated as we got the ferry back across the lake, but when we reached the mainland it was coming down once again. As we boarded a bus heading for our next destination, Granada, we hoped that things would improve.
Silent cyclists and snakes
The next day we wanted to go to one of the most active volcanoes in the chain, Cerro Negro. It didn’t exist before 1850, when a steaming crack in the ground suddenly began to spout lava, but now stands 600m tall, black and steaming, above the surrounding countryside. We took a bus to the town of Malpaisillo, from where (so my guide book told me) it was a 4km walk to the base of the volcano.
We struck out along the road from Malpaisillo. It was incredibly hot and humid, but by now we were used to it, and we enjoyed it. After about half an hour we caught sight of the volcano, its black slopes dramatically contrasting with the lush greenery surrounding it. We quickened our pace, and after a couple of hours we reached a path which looked like it was going in the right direction. We passed a guy on a bike after a short way, and asked him if we were going the right way. He said that we were, but told us it was a 10km walk to the volcano. This was a blow – to walk all the way there and back would take at least four hours, by which time it would be dark. Buses stopped running long before sunset, so we couldn’t go all the way, but we decided to walk as far as we could.
Initially our friend on the bicycle left us, but after about 10 minutes, he reappeared, and said he would walk with us. It was nice to have some company, but communication was difficult. My attempts at Spanish seemed to go down worse than usual, and the cyclist spoke no English, so we mostly walked in silence. But I managed to establish that it was always this hot here, that there were often earthquakes, the volcano had erupted two years earlier, and that there were not many snakes around, but they were big.
We walked for about an hour and a half before deciding to give up. For most of the way we couldn’t even see the volcano. We saw no snakes, thankfully, though we did see one enormous, foot-long lizard. At about 4pm we reached the main road, and waited for a bus back to León.
When the Spanish conquered Guatemala, they founded their first capital in 1527 at a site known today as Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Situated on the fertile flanks of the huge but extinct Volcán Agua, it seemed like an ideal place for a city. It lasted for just 14 years, though, before disaster struck. After weeks of heavy rains, the lake at the summit of the mountain breached the crater walls. A huge torrent of water and rock swept down the mountainside and ploughed through the city, completely obliterating it. A new capital was founded two years later, further from the volcano, and (so it was hoped) out of danger.
This city, known in full as La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, thrived as the capital for 230 years, before disaster again struck. A huge earthquake struck the region, and the city was all but flattened. The present capital was established at Guatemala City, and the old capital, now known as La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala), no longer an important place, was very slowly repopulated.
Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes. Volcán Agua towers above the city to the south, while Volcán Acatenango and Volcán Fuego stand slightly further off to the west. Volcán Fuego is one of Central America’s most active volcanoes, and had been erupting every few weeks for many years, while slightly further away from Antigua, Volcán Pacaya is another very active volcano, which made the news here in January after a particularly large eruption.
We wanted to climb Pacaya and one of the three big volcanoes, but on our first day it was overcast and much colder here in the highlands than it had been at sea level. The clouds hung low, and we could only see the stumps of the three volcanoes, so we spent the first day just exploring the town. It was a beautiful town, with its colonial architecture and lively markets.
The next day was also grey, but we wanted to do something, so we decided to climb Cerro de la Cruz. This is a hill to the north of the town which was once notorious for armed robberies. Very few people ever went there, because if you did you were almost without fail relieved of all your belongings. However, these days, the Antigua police accompany anyone who wants to go up the hill. They are well armed, and it costs nothing, so we took advantage of this service and went up the hill. Despite the clouds it was a good view of the city nestled between the volcanoes, and we took many photographs.
We climb our first volcano
Another grey day followed, but we didn’t have the time to wait for sunshine so we decided to climb Volcán Pacaya. This was another spot notorious for armed robbery, yet another legacy of Guatemala’s violent recent history. From Guatemala’s independence in 1821, the government has generally been a dictatorship. The dictators have generally been military, and have ruled in the interests of the wealthy classes. Briefly, from 1944 to 1954, Guatemala had a democracy, and elected liberal leaders, but things were soon back to the usual order.
The first democratically elected leader, Juan José Arevalo, began a modest program of social reform. This was continued and accelerated by his successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who also started a massive land reform program. Huge areas of land owned by the United Fruit Company but left fallow were to be nationalised and redistributed, and the UFC would be compensated at the value they had declared for tax purposes. This was a fraction of the true value, and the UFC was not happy. However, they had friends in high places in the American government, and in 1954, a US-backed coup forced Arbenz into exile, and the land reform out of the reckoning. The young Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was in Guatemala at the time, and later said that this was the moment he became a revolutionary.
The coup returned Guatemala to a military dictatorship, and over the next few years, laws were passed which made voting rights dependent on literacy, disenfranchising three-quarters of the population. The secret police became powerful, and opposing the government became dangerous. In the early 1960’s, guerilla groups began to form, and by the middle of the decade the country was embroiled in civil war. This continued for the next thirty years, reaching a peak of brutality in the 1980s, when the government, believing that the indigenous people were all in league with the guerrillas, simply wiped out any village where they believed the guerrillas to be. In the 1990s, dialogue between the government and the rebels finally began, and in 1996, peace accords were signed, ending 36 years of war, during which 200,000 people had been killed.
The problem when we arrived four years after the peace accords was that there were still an awful lot of guns in Guatemala, and endemic poverty. The pace of the change since the signing of the accords had been too slow, and as the number of foreign visitors rose, the incidence of crime rose too. But when we were there, a lot of tourist excursions were accompanied by armed guards. Volcán Pacaya had been well known in the past for its armed robberies, but the tour groups were now accompanied by two armed guards, and no problems had been reported for a while.
We took the tour at 1pm, and after a dramatic two-hour drive to the base of the volcano, we set out along the trail for the top. It was not very hard going, and the weather was better than it had been. We had spectacular views of the volcanoes around Antigua and the surrounding countryside. After a couple of hours walking, we reached a shoulder about 200m below the summit. The weather was now closing in, and we were soon in thick cloud. After this point, the climb also became much more difficult. Pacaya’s frequent eruptions mean that the upper slopes are a barren cone of loose rock, and climbing the last stretch was very much a case of two steps up, one step down. The wind was fearsome as well, making it an extremely arduous final push to the top.
We got there, though, only to find that we couldn’t see more than three feet in front of us. Had we been able to see down into the crater, we would have seen lava flowing on the crater floor. All we got, though, was a scorching wind blowing out of the crater. I reached over the edge to pick up one of the sulphur-covered rocks, and I had to be quick to avoid burning my hand. All around the summit, there were steaming hot vents, and the whole area was warm to the touch. We stayed up there for about half an hour before returning to ground level.
The descent was a lot more fun than the climb, and we virtually ran down, creating landslides as we did so. This was the first summit we reached on the trip, and though the weather had let us down, we were still pleased to have made it. We decided we would try and climb Volcán Acatenango the next day.
And so long before dawn on October 14th 2000, we set out for Volcán San Pedro. We climbed in the enjoyable company of our group of 11, which consisted of me and Moh, Ashley from Australia, Mike and Aasta from Alaska, Will and Chad from Oregon, Greg from the UK, Steve from Canada, Julie from France and Julie from Germany. An almost full moon lit our way until the sun began to make its presence felt, and we reached the end of the road just as the sun rose from behind the hills across the lake. After pausing to appreciate the view, we headed into the forest and began the climb in earnest. The going was reasonable at first, but it was not long before the relentless uphill began to get tiring. Our guide, Clemente, was enthusiastic, though, and kept us all going. After about an hour, though, Julie from France dropped out, and Mike from Alaska chivalrously accompanied her back down to the village.
The rest of us carried on up. After another half-hour, self-confessed old fat guy Steve from Canada dropped out, and the eleven were now eight. Now it was down to the hard core, and we continued doggedly. The path got ever steeper and slipperier as we climbed, and the air was getting noticeably thinner. After about three hours, Julie from Germany tried to give up, but Clemente said we had ‘only’ an hour’s climb to go, and persuaded her to carry on. At 9.25am, after four hours of climbing, we emerged from the forest to find ourselves at the 3020m summit.
The view from here was almost unbelievable. The sun was shining brightly, and far below us we could see boats beginning to ply the waters between the villages around the lake. Many months before, I had discovered the music of the Afro Celt Sound System, and as I planned this trip and read about Lago de Atitlán, I had a sort of vision of myself on top of a mountain looking down on the lake, listening to a song called ‘Dark Moon, High Tide’. I had carried my walkman and the Afro Celts tape all the way from London to here without listening to it, preserving it for this moment. I listened to the awesomely atmospheric music and felt like I was tripping.
Too soon it was time to rejoin the real world and leave the summit. We picked ourselves up and began the long descent back to the village. The 45° descent down the slippery path was, as I wrote in my journal, ‘a total knee-fuck’, and we all fell over at one time or another. I got a long and bloody cut to the arm when I tried to save myself from a fall by unwisely grabbing hold of a thorny tree. After a hard three hours, we were back in the village.
We were exhausted. We spent the rest of that day, and the next as well, relaxing in the hammocks at the hotel, occasionally buying a loaf of banana bread from the Mayan children who came to sell it at the hotel, and generally waiting until we could walk normally again.
Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since.
Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.
The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.
As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.
We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.
After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.
When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.
Best sunrise ever seen
We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.
We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.
But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.
After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.
As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.