Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Climbing Atitlan: Take Two

Although I had climbed Volcan de Atitlan (the highest of the three volcanoes at Lake Atitlan), two years ago, the fact that Rachel and Christy and I planned last weekend’s trip to do it again all on our own made it seem like a brand new adventure. 

Our first order of business was to decide how exactly to arrive at San Lucas Toliman, the town we’d hike from.  We decided to drive directly to the town, rather than driving to Panajachel and taking a boat across the lake, and therefore, we had to gamble on which roads leading to the lake would be least full of potholes.  After much deliberation, and after getting the opinions of multiple people, we took the way the app Waze said would be half an hour shorter than the other two options.  This southern route meant no winding through the mountains, no traffic jam passing through Chimaltenango, and best of all—a brand new landscape that none of us had seen before.  And we lucked out—only about a 3km stretch of the road we took had any potholes or bumpiness. 

We arrived without a problem at our hotel, a nondescript place called Hotel Emanuel, just after noon on Saturday.  Shortly after we got there, our guide for the volcano trek stopped by to meet us and iron out a few details.

San Lucas Toliman central square, as seen from the hotel patio 


We met Luis, our guide-to-be, in the hotel’s garden.  After introductions, we agreed to leave for the hike at 4am (a compromise between his suggestion of 3am and ours of 5am). 
Hotel garden
Then, after reminding us to bring snacks and plenty of water, Luis asked us for a favor.  It turns out he gives private English lessons to a few local kids on the weekends.  He asked if we would be willing to come to his class that afternoon to give his students a chance to hear correct pronunciation, practice with native speakers, and answer any questions they might have.  We readily agreed to meet him at the house where he gave lessons at 4pm.


English lessons with Luis and his students that afternoon ended up being one of the unexpected treats of the weekend.  For the first hour, we worked with two younger students (a boy and a girl, ages 8 and 11), teaching vocabulary and practicing basic questions and answers.  The second hour, two older boys (ages 15 and 17) switched places with the younger kids, and Rachel and I spent that hour going over a recent test the boys had taken, making corrections and working on pronunciation and comprehension. 

In the end, I’m not sure whether any of the four students will retain anything from the hour we spent with them.  But it was so refreshing to work with kids who love learning, who understand that education (including English skills) could mean the difference between poverty and a job that pays well.  I don’t even know how long it’s been since I worked with a kid who truly loves learning like these boys do.  When I asked Pablo his favorite subject in school, he answered proudly, “Matematicas.”  And when I asked him his least favorite class, I was met with a look of confusion, and then, “Ninguna.”  None.  He likes all of his classes, because he loves school.  Amazing.

4:00am the next morning came quickly, and soon we were throwing on our daypacks, turning on headlamps, and setting off through the quiet town with Luis and his cousin, Alex, who would also accompany us up the volcano. 

4am was early, and we left in full dark, but with a clear sky dotted with stars and a brilliant nearly-full moon overhead to light the way.  We were also graced with a magnificent sunrise over the distant Acatenango and Fuego at around 6:00am. 



The route up the volcano seemed much longer than I’d remembered it. 


 By the time we reached the point in the woods that I remembered as “halfway,” we’d been walking a full three hours.  It was at that clearing that Luis spotted an injured bird near the base of a tree and scooped it into his hands.  We admired the pretty little thing, then wondered what to do with it.  Luis said he was going to take it home with him until it healed enough for him to release it back to the wild.  I thought that sounded more traumatic for the bird than letting nature take its course (whatever that might be) in the woods, and I think I must have made my disdain pretty clear, because eventually Luis was asking each of us in turn what we’d do in his place.  Eventually he let the bird flutter off to hide in the underbrush once again. 



After the bird clearing, the path becomes much steeper, and each of us settled into our own pace.  My first time up Atitlan, two years ago, I struggled to keep up with Amy and Will, who set the pace, and my legs burned with each step I took.  This year, I was able to follow behind Luis without stopping (he was still faster than me, and would wait for me to catch up to him every few steps or so—but would start moving again as soon as I reached him).  Luis and I reached the summit a few minutes ahead of Rachel, Christy, and Alex (who was acting as rear guide at that point), and I soaked in the view while waiting for our friends to join us.



The summit of Volcan Atitlan was just as wonderful as I remembered it.  There’s a breathtaking 360 view of Lake Atitlan on one side, the volcanos Fuego and Acatenango on another, and the rolling plains of southern Guatemala stretching out on the other side.  The view is completely unobstructed, and this weekend, the skies were clear—hardly a cloud in sight. 



We spent a little over an hour at the top of the volcano, eating lunch and exploring the summit, the crater, and the steaming fumaroles.  Laying on the ground next to one of the vents turned out to be the perfect spot for a nap; though the wind was chilly, the ground itself was heated to a perfect temperature, making the soft moss a perfect resting place. 

My favorite fumarole.  (I am such a dork). 

A little after 11:00am, we grudgingly decided we’d better begin our descent.  We still had a long hike and a long drive to the city ahead of us. 

The first hour down the mountain was torture.  The sand and rocks were loose, and Christy and I slipped repeatedly.  I felt like my legs weren’t working properly to help me balance, and I got more frustrated than I normally do on descents.  Thankfully, none of my falls resulted in an injury more serious than a faint bruise on one hand. 
After that first hour down, thankfully, the path leveled just enough to make the walk passable.  Unfortunately, it was about that time that Christy pulled something in her knee, making the rest of the walk more painful for her.  Talk about a good sport, though—she completed the next three hours with no complaints and no limping. 

Pausing for a rest on the way down

We finally reached the main road again around 3pm, and we hopped into a tuk tuk to take us back to our hotel (because that last 30 minutes of walking just wasn’t necessary). 

The drive back to the city was uneventful, and Rachel did a great job of keeping me awake with conversation and offers of snacks and water.  We pulled in just after 7pm, and after a shower, I fell into bed and was asleep in minutes.  My muscles didn’t feel overworked, but my body certainly was tired after twelve hours on a volcano and three driving home. 


As always, the hike was completely worth it, though.   


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