Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Volcan Santa María and Lago de Atitlán

Last weekend I checked off two more things I wanted to do while in Guatemala. The first was to climb Volcan Santa María and the second was to visit Lago de Atitlán. Volcan Santa María is a 12,375 tall mountain with a nearly perfectly conical shape when viewed from Xela where I'm learning Spanish and working in a clinic for a month. As with every place I've ever lived I wanted to climb the tallest mountain on the horizon.

The climb up Santa Maria ended up turning into somewhat of an adventure. Originally I had figured that we would pay a local guide to take us up the mountain. But after befriending a Guatemalan medical student at church who wanted to climb and after hearing that it was easy to find and stay on the trail up the mountain we decided to do it on our own without a guide. Four of us, three Americans and our Guatemalan friend, met at 6:30AM in a park in Xela and hopped on a chicken-bus, used by the locals, to take us to a village at the base of the mountain. While on the bus our Guatemalan friend told us he would not be able to climb the mountain with us as he had an English class in the university which he had forgotten about. He helped us to find the beginning of the trail up the mountain though so we were confident that we would reach the summit without a problem. But in a half hour we were lost, asking the occasional farmer or Guatemalan collecting wood for guidance back to the right path. Having heard many tales of tourists being robbed or worse while wandering around in wilderness areas of Guatemala, getting lost was not an experience free from anxiety. But after asking three or four people we ran into for directions we finally found the correct path and after innumerable switch-backs reached the summit. As with every mountain I've climbed, reaching the summit was an extremely rewarding experience. Unfortunately it was quite cloudy by the time we were on top of the mountain so we were unable to view the very active and regularly erupting volcano, Santiaguito, which is very close to Santa Maria.
Volcan Santa María as viewed from the roof of my school and clinic in Xela.

Landscape near the base of Santa María.

At the summit of Volcan Santa María, 12,375 ft.

The second adventure of the weekend began on Sunday with a bus-ride with a fellow classmate from Loma Linda, also attending the Spanish school in Xela. After we went Bethel Evangelical Presbyterian Church, we departed Xela for the town of Panajachel on the shore of Guatemala's famous Lake Atitlán. Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central American and was formed by the collapse of an enormous volcanic caldera.

We took chicken buses from Xela to Panajachel, changing buses twice in Los Encuentros and then in Sololá. By 4:30 we were in Panajachel, a village known as a destination for hippies leaving the U.S. and called "Gringotenango" by my Spanish tutor which roughly translates, "place of the Gringo." Gringotenango would be an apt name for Panajachel as the many blond heads and the great frequency of tourists speaking German, French and English formed a surprising contrast to Xela, where I've lived for the past two weeks. After getting situated in a hotel we headed down to the lake and everything I had heard of it's beauty seemed to be true. Great, conical volcanoes rose from it's shores as the sun reflected pink and orange on thunderheads in the distance.

We decided to find a private boat operator to take us around to some of the small, mostly indigenous villages surrounding the lake. After attempting to haggle we reached a deal of paying half the price of the trip in cash that night with an agreement to pay the other half with a credit card the next morning. We hoped that as is often the case in Western Guatemala this time of year, the morning sky would be free of clouds. After arising early we were down at the boat dock waiting for the boat-operator by 6AM. By 6:20 he showed up and we were zooming across Lake Atitlán. While the lake in the early morning was a beautiful sight, the day ended up being quite hazy and cloudy with the magnificent volcanoes arising around the shores being mostly shrouded in clouds.

We first visited Santiago de Atitlán, having breakfast there at 7:30 and visiting the very old church with its shrine to the "Martyrs of Santiago Atitlán," killed during the Guatemalan civil war, including the local parish priest, Fr. Stanley Rother. We next headed to the small villages of San Antonio and Santa Catarina before returning to Panajachel. Upon our return our boat operator informed us that the credit card machine was not receiving a signal and therefore we would have to pay the rest of our fee in cash. One problem: we were almost out of cash and and neither of us brought our debit cards because of the decently high chance of being robbed. When we told the operator we didn't have enough cash he sent his friend with us to follow us around Panajachel as we tried to find a solution to our problem. After a visit to the bank where I was told that the only way I could get a cash advance from a credit card without a pin number was to withdraw 2,000 quetzales I assumed I'd be calling my dad to get him to wire me cash through Western Union. In the end my fellow classmate was able to somehow convince his credit card company to give him and emergency pin number over the phone to get a cash-advance. He got the cash and we payed for the boat-ride around the lake which had been well worth it.

Lago de Atitlán from Panachel.

The village of San Antonio on the eastern shore of Atitlán.

Near Santiago de Atitlán.

Looking out the church doors in San Antonio.

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