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Volcanarchy EP01: Santiaguito

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Aug 12 2016
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Volcanarchy EP01: Santiaguito

Baptism By Fire

 

Volcán Santiaguito 2550 msnm

Hiding on the backside of Volcán Santa Maria is a fuming monster: Santiaguito. The irksome baby brother of Santa Maria has been tormenting neighboring Quetzaltenango with regular eruptions, sending shockwaves through the city and showing the streets with ash. Just before our trip Santiaguito had its largest eruption in a long while –  with tremors felt a hundred miles away. I was curious to see this beast in person.

Although not the highest volcano in Guatemala Volcán Santiaguito is by far the toughest to reach. Nobody goes there. Well, some people do. We talked with Denise Lim who runs Esquina Asiatica in Xela (home of the best thai food in Guate BTW).  Denise is an avid rock climber and has visited Santiaguito before with her climbing buddies.  “You guys aren’t going to make it with bikes,” she told us. “The approach is terrible, and then when you get to the cone it’s hand- over-hand climbing – you’re never going to make it.”

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Just how close you want to get to this exploding monster of a mountain is up to you.

Although not the highest volcano in Guatemala Volcán Santiaguito is by far the toughest to reach. Nobody goes there. Well some people do. We talked with Dinese Lim who runs Esquina Asiatica in Xela (home of the best thai food in Guate BTW)  Denise is an avid rock climber and has visited Santiaguito before with her climbing buddies.  “You guys aren’t going to make it with bikes” she told us. “the approach is terrible, and then when you get to the cone its hand- over-hand climbing – your never going to make it“.

1000m straight down

Liz and I pored over a vague gpx file that I found online that illustrated the way – it had no track – only way points. We plotted the way points on a graph and checked out the elevation: 1000m drop over 1000m – the angle of repose. In 1902 Santa María Volcano had one of the three largest eruptions of the 20th century, blowing off half of the mountain in an tremendous landslide. Santiaguito has been growing off the side of Santa Maria ever since.

To reach the volcanic terrain we would need to descend the landslide on the backside of Santa Maria (now overgrown after 100 years).  From there I figured we could bike on the cone of Santiaguito and perhaps get some shots riding with the volcano erupting near us. The entire mission would be an inverse hike – 1000m down then 1000m up – this was not going to be a straight forward volcano.  I thought to myself: “It’s only a thousand meters, how hard could it be?”

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A logistical quagmire

Volcan Santiaguito was our first attempt in this expedition, and it would prove to be the most difficult. We had no beta on the route besides the vague waypoints and Denise’s information that the route hadn’t been attempted in the past two years, it was overgrown, and there was nowhere to supply food and water. Neither of us had any idea of what we were about to endure on this volcano, and the only thing I think we really proved through this is that we are both crazy.

We expected the expedition would take three days and four nights: one day to approach camp at the Mirador, one day to descend into the canyon, up Santiaguito, and back to the Mirador, and one day to ride out.

We brought enough to stretch our food to four days just to be safe- still a sizeable load for 8-10 hours per day of movement. We each had around 12 liters of water, a conservative estimate for all our efforts, but all we could carry. There was no resupply. We would have to ration.

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Liz giving the bike a heft outside Hostel Nim Sut : “How am I going to do this?”

The Journey Begins

Quezaltenango, or Xela is about 2 hours away from Panajachel by chickenbus. We packed up everything (checking twice) before heading out in the evening. We were staying at Hostel Nim Sut, our favorite, modestly priced hostel in Xela. For about $10 a night we got our own room, which didn’t matter because the place was completely empty. The owner complained about how “Americans don’t travel anymore.”

While we were going over the bikes in the courtyard an older Danish couple arrived and immediately began talking to us enthusiastically about the fatbikes. “Where do you take the bike?” the older gentleman asked. We told him we were going to Santiaguito. His face grew long. He said he had gone to the volcano the last time he was in Guatemala – some 10 years ago. “You will not succeed with the bicycles” he said, holding his hands out as if he had a handlebar. “There are many small trees, your bikes will not fit!” … Great, more encouraging news…

Oh man. Nothing about this is going to be easy.

After packing and repacking throughout the morning we finally got on the road – following the cobblestone roads out of Xela changing into the dump-truck battered roads of the highway. We crossed the plains getting ever closer towards our goal: the flanks of Volcan Santa Maria.

We had only been riding for an hour, and I (Liz) was starting to get a bit nervous. Because my bike frame was so small I had to carry quite a bit of the weight on my back, and after only an hour of moderate climbing my back was starting to ache and the pack was grinding on my sacrum. I knew this expedition was going to require a level of toughness and creativity that I hadn’t tapped into before.

As we climbed higher and Brendan charged ahead, I glanced around at the steep imposing ridgelines and the canyons growing ever deeper. What am I doing here? I thought to myself. These are the steepest roads on the planet. I could have chosen someplace EASIER to do an expedition.

The road changed from pavement to cobblestones to gravel. I was off my bike pushing when the pain in my back became unbearable. When the grade eased up on top of a plateau, I took the pack off my back and put it lengthwise across my handlebars, balancing it between my arms as I rode. Ah, much better.

I rode along at a good clip and started to enjoy myself, looking around at the beautiful scenery and finally finding my rhythm without the heavy load on my back. Hmm, Brendan must be pretty far ahead, I thought. Well, we’re turning off this road and he’s got the GPS, so he’ll know and wait for me at the turn. I pedaled harder. I passed a turnoff that looked like the one we had marked, but no sign of Brendan, so I kept going.

I flew downhill and rounded a corner, and the sight literally stopped me in my tracks. What lied before me was a HUGE dump. Literally miles and miles of trash just lying there in giant heaps. From my position up the hill I could see wild dogs picking around, people sifting through piles, and smoke from small trash fires.

Hesitantly, I continued forward and soon found myself riding right through the spectacle. People stopped their picking and stared at me like I was an alien. With my hot pink baggy bike shorts and my bike with huge tires fully loaded down with bags, I pretty much was.

I rode slowly through a mile of burning trash on both sides of me, hoping the dogs would ignore me as I passed.

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Loaded down and on the move. Pedaling out of Xela towards the volcanoes Santa Maria and Santiaguito.

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On the approach to El Mirador, crossing the flanks of Volcan Santa Maria.

I flew downhill and rounded a corner, and the sight literally stopped me in my tracks. What lied before me was a HUGE dump. Literally miles and miles of trash just lying there in giant heaps. From my position up the hill I could see wild dogs picking around, people sifting through piles, and smoke from small trash fires.

Hesitantly, I continued forward and soon found myself riding right through the spectacle. People stopped their picking and stared at me like I was an alien. With my hot pink baggy bike shorts and my bike with huge tires fully loaded down with bags, I pretty much was.

I rode slowly through a mile of burning trash on both sides of me, hoping the dogs would ignore me as I passed.

The road came to an end after the trash, and there was still no sign of Brendan. Confused and fighting faint stirrings of panic — how did I manage to get myself lost on the first day? —  I turned around and headed back into the smoke.

A Mayan woman was standing near an intersection, and I rode over to her. “Otra ciclista pasa aqui?” (Did another cyclist pass through here?) “No, no ciclistas.” (No, no cyclists.) “El mirador por los volcanes cerca de aqui?” (Is the viewpoint for the volcanoes near here?) “No, no volcanes. Solo basura… muchos kilometros de basura. Nunca es aqui, y no ciclista.” (No, no volcanoes. Only trash… many kilometers of trash. Nothing is here, and no cyclist.)

I thanked her, and she called “suerte” (good luck) after me as I rode away.

Heading out of Xela.
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I finally spotted Brendan in the dump. He had stopped to take photos up on the plateau and in my stupor I had ridden right past him. He assumed I had seen him and didn’t call out to me, and I had been cranking along fast enough that he hadn’t been able to catch me. I wanted to be angry, but it was an honest mistake on both our parts, and it wouldn’t have helped anyone.

There are no words...

We stood, taking in the scene at the dump, saying nothing but thinking the same thing. Workers picking and hacking through piles of trash, searching for buried treasure, their happy voices talking, laughing, joking, and singing as they worked.

I thought of the many people in the US who hate their plush office jobs where they make a good living and have no thoughts about how they will feed their families. Anxiety and depression in America, such a rich country, are at an all-time high.

In contrast, these Guatemalans picking away hoping to salvage useful items from the trash heap are the happiest people in the world. In that moment I wished everyone back home could see what I was seeing.

As I looked around at the remnants of people’s lives there in the dump, I realized: it all ends up here. When we buy things, we don’t often think of where they will end up when we break them or they are no longer useful to us.

In the US, “we” have the money to send the trash away or cover it up so we don’t have to see it. In Guatemala where they don’t have the money to hide it, it is on display. It’s all the same. It still exists, and we are all guilty.

I thought about the things I’ve thrown away throughout my life. So much of the human world is disposable. What if we only brought things into our lives that were meant to endure, that we would use forever or someday pass to others?

What if each of us simply became aware of where our disposable things would end up someday, and gently reminded ourselves of this when making decisions about what to bring into our lives? What if…?

Guatemala is a land of contrast. Back on the trail to the mirador, after leaving the valley of burning trash behind, we climbed through the most beautiful cloud forest I had ever seen. We were riding on a ribbon of tacky, loamy singletrack, its dark brown color a stark contrast to the brilliant green on either side.

As darkness fell we donned our lights, and they sparkled off the dew collecting on the grasses and shrubs as we rode. In Guatemala’s dry season, where they can go for months without seeing rain, the dew serves to keep everything sustained until the rains come again.

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We finally reached the mirador, and it was stunning. The brilliant stars overhead matched the twinkling lights of the pueblos far below in the next valley. In between was the Santiaguito massif. Smoke puffed silently from the volcano itself.

Night birds began their cheerful chatter, and we watched fog swirl in and out between bushes and ridges as we cooked dinner. The smell at the mirador was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A faint tinge of sulfur mixed with the crispness of the night air and the fresh scent of juicy foliage swelling to accept the dew forming, drinking the sweet nectar of night.

If I could bottle up the scent itself, even without the view, it would be priceless.

What a crazy, incredible day.

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