Because we haven’t had enough of lava and volcanoes we signed ourselves up for a full moon hike of Santa Maria, an active volcano just outside of Xela. Although it last erupted in 1922, the best part about hiking Santa Maria is being able to look down on the ever erupting Santiaguito, a vent off of the main volcano. Full moon + hiking up a volcano + potential to look down on a volcanic eruption? Clearly we had to sign up.
Fortunately our school scheduled a hike for Saturday morning up (The Molar) La Muela, a mountain formed from Santa Maria’s 1902 eruption. Overlooking Xela, La Muela was a good warm up for the overnight full moon set to begin mere hours later. Beginning our ascent, we walked up a cobblestone road before turning onto a steep path heading up the mountain. An easy climb with some fun bouldering on the exposed spires, we made it to the top only to find ourselves in the middle of an evangelical religious ceremony. Only in Guatemala. Climbing further, we sat atop the mountain listening to bits of the sermon below. “Gracias Dios por los rios!” “Gracias Dios por la tierra!” Munching on snacks, we admired the view of Quetzaltenango below before watching the indigenous women pick their way back down the mountain in traditional clothes and high heels. So much for complaining about my hiking boots!
Heading home for lunch, we took a brief nap before meeting up with some friends. At midnight we met at our outfitter and headed out in the darkness for Santa Maria. About 55 degrees Fahrenheit when we left Xela and thankfully for the first time in a week not raining, we were in good spirits with clear skies. Somewhere along the way the group split in two and we found ourselves racing up the muddy path at a rapid speed trying to keep up with the guide only to break for 20 minutes waiting for the other half. Needless to say we were sweaty and cold and having a difficult time regulating our body temperature. Not really sure what to expect at high altitude, Xela is about 7700 feet, we felt the air thin as we climbed the volcano. Both tired from our lack of sleep and from hiking uphill for several hours, it was clear that as we climbed higher and higher we were having more trouble breathing. Rising to about 12,400 feet, the top of Santa Maria has about 40% less oxygen than sea level. Although we were well acclimatized to the altitude of Xela, our ascent proved to be challenging. More challenging for Danny since he carried our pack of water and warm clothes. It’s amazing what a difference a mere 6000 feet can make, well that and several inches of mud. Although the trail was cut and well troddened up the mountain, decent switchbacks didn’t really exist so we were essentially walking vertically up the mountain. The last hour of our ascent I felt completely out of shape, it was probably the highest I’ve ever climbed and the altitude really started to affect me. Others in the group were walking erratically up the path, probably because of the lack of sleep and altitude, but we held our steady pace and eventually began to see the top.
Reaching the top, we found an incredible full moon to the west and the first signs of dawn to the east. I felt like I was literally straddling the line between day and night, which was a very incredible and powerful feeling. Our pictures don’t really do it justice. Looking to my right I tried to etch the image of the moonlight over the mountain range in my memory before sunrise. Unfortunately the change in temperature and extreme exposure ruined the moment and we quickly bundled up in sleeping bags. Like time lapsed photography, the sun rose quickly and soon we could see the entire mountain range spread out below us. Until that moment I didn’t really understand why people climb at high altitudes for enjoyment.
Walking around the top we looked down at Sanguelito, an active volcanic vent formed off the western slope of Santa Maria, just in time to see an eruption of smoke and steam. One of the most active volcanoes in all of Central America, Sanguelito erupts every few minutes, although usually only smoke and steam are visible. Sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time. You can actually hike up Sanguelito if you want. No thanks! Freezing, exhausted, and with legs trembling from exertion we headed back down the mountain at breakneck speed. Back in Xela we searched for an open restaurant at 9:30 am that was serving something besides eggs but only managed only to find Pollo Compero (fried chicken). Collapsing in our bed sometime around noon, after calling our mothers for mothers day, we slept all afternoon attempting to recover from our first all-nighter since college. Two days later we are still recovering. 🙂