Very high

Friday, October 20th 2000

Having seen two evil saints in two days, we decided we were getting too much religion, so we decided to climb up Volcán Santamaria the next day, and camp at the top. It's 3772m tall, just south of Xela, and 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 crater in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in the crater, 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 Guatemalan students, 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 students were there, and gave us each a round of applause.

As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn't really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the students, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who were from the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They headed down at about 2pm and after that, all was quiet at the top. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so 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 deep 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.

We reached the limit of our Spanish fairly quickly, but luckily we all spoke the universal language of football. 'Manchester United!' said someone. 'Liverpool!', said another. 'David Beckham' said a third. I risked 'Watford FC', but surprisingly they'd never heard of the mighty hornets so I had to just name a few more premiership clubs.

When you're camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli from a packet, followed by potato soup so delicious it could not be described. We crashed for the night at about 7pm.

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