Santiaguito – No Longer Volcano Virgins
Standing a few hundred yards from one of the top 10 most dangerous volcanoes elicits a certain thrill.
Santiaguito is a side cone of the Santa Maria volcano just outside Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, and is listed as a “decade volcano”: one that poses the greatest risk to human life. Responsible for the death of likely more than 10,000 people in the twentieth century, it’s not especially reassuring to know it’s just around the corner from your new home.
Guatemala is a hotbed of volcanoes (pun intended) and last weekend seemed like the right time to go and take a closer look at one. To date we’ve seen the archetypal cones from a distance: pointy-headed, covered in jungle, often shrouded in cloud and basically hanging around looking great in photos. Volcanoes close to Xela include Santa Maria, Santiaguito, Tajumulco and Chichabal. It’s possible to take tours to most of them, often under armed guards (many of these areas are considered bandit country).
Cut to 6 am Sunday morning: a bleary-eyed couple waiting for the shuttle to pick them up. After collecting Johanna, a fellow traveller from Germany, our guide Carlos and his charming daughter Amanda we drove to the base of Santa Maria to start our trip to the “Mirador,” a viewpoint overlooking Santiaguito. The route to the Mirador involves climbing a little way up Santa Maria, then cutting across the flank to the viewpoint. The outbound hike takes about two hours and meanders through hillside fields, meadows, cloud forest and reveals some amazing vistas of Xela and the surrounding hills. Given that Xela sits at 7000 ft above sea level, the climb starts at altitude and although not tough, the uphill parts tire unfit people like me fairly quickly. Amanda and Carlos, meanwhile, took turns to race up and downhill and do press-ups at various junctures! Throughout our hike, the peak of Santa Maria stayed resolutely in its cloud blanket, and at one point a smell of sulphur assaulted us, reminding us that this little jaunt was actually leading us toward a real fire-breathing dragon.
“One hour to go” says Carlos with a broad grin that evidently means he is winding us up … and actually we were almost there. Round the corner Santiaguito loomed into view, with a few faint puffs of smoke hanging around. The craggy ridges, cone and black lava floored valley are impressive but this day, the dragon seems to have lost its puff. Time to sit and wait. At the viewpoint, we encountered a German couple who have climbed up again, since the previous day there was too much cloud for them to see anything. They seemed pretty new to each other and exuded that touchy-feely excitement, which is so exquisite to the new couple, but just as off-putting to outsiders.
As if on cue, once sandwiches had been consumed and M&Ms handed out, we started to hear a low grumble. A column of steam and ash rose quickly half a kilometer into the air, lasting for a few minutes before subsiding and dissipating out over the plains. From here on a clear day you can see all the way to the coast, and the green lowland plains of Guatemala stretch out in a sunny haze intersected by a silver river, all of which are usually obscured by cloud as the morning expires.
Santiaguito erupts in this fashion a couple of times an hour and so we waited some more. Jumpers (i.e., “sweaters” for our US readers) came out, then jackets and just as Carlos prompted us that it’s maybe time to leave … we witnessed a second eruption, much more powerful than the first. From a distance it’s hard to place a scale on the plume that rose, suffice to say that it looked impressive but not that huge. Perspective can deceive and in reality it was possibly a few kilometers in height. A group of trekkers bringing along some local children for a day out had arrived by this point and suddenly everyone looking in awe at and chattering in semi-hyper tones about the volcano.
The return hike was much easier and as we descended into the town at the base of Santa Maria, I was lucky enough to find the hat I dropped on the way up, somebody had picked it up and set it aside. Carlos had just explained that it would almost certainly have been stolen by this point. At the bottom again, we rested on the side of the road, waiting for the shuttle as fireworks (bombas) were launched and a solitary motorcycle ice cream man wove his way through the broken mud streets, playing a Guatemalan ice cream jingle which stopped abruptly whenever he hit a bump.
All too soon the experience was over, but the vistas we encountered will remain with us for a long time!