Guatemala: Camping Next to Volcanoes

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Atop Temple IV at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
Atop Temple IV at the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Guatemala. Shelley Seale photo.

Camping Amidst Active Volcanoes in Xela, Guatemala

By Mateo Garcia Elizondo

A traveler atop the volcano in Guatemala. Vassilissa Ranson photos.
A traveler atop the volcano in Guatemala. Vassilissa Ranson photos.

Hiking to the top of an active volcano is not exactly something you do every day.

It hadn’t been two days since I’d crossed the border from Palenque, in Mexico, into the city of Xela, Guatemala, when someone pointed at the dormant Santa Maria volcano towering high above the city and tells me, it’s a hike, but you can actually go up there and camp out the night.

The view, they say, is unbeatable.

My guide is Juan, a 23-year old local from Xela. Although the road up to the top of the Santa Maria is marked and clearly defined, I am glad to have someone to talk to who can tell me about the place and its potential dangers.

At one point the road forks and we go right. The path to our left, says Juan, leads up the Santiaguito, Santa Maria’s active cousin. An easy way to fall into a crater.

A Chain of Volcanoes

He explains the Santa Maria is part of an active chain of volcanoes that extends through the western range of the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

In 1902, Santa Maria erupted in what is said to be one of the most brutal volcanic incidents of the last 300 years, leaving a massive scar on the map which can be seen from a satellite. Thousands died, families were displaced, and the new Xela was definitely established at a safe distance from the volcano.

A burro atop the volcano.
A burro atop the volcano.

From the ashes of this great eruption rose a host of smaller domes, one of which was dubbed Santiaguito. The Santiaguito is smaller, but it’s fierce and as active as can be.

Every twenty minutes or so, since 1922 more or less, it erupts, giving off pyroclastic flows -high pressured clouds of ash and gas-, lava outpours and minor -but from a geological point of view, continuous- explosions.

These eruptions, I am told, can be seen in all safety from the top of Santa Maria.

Expert Guide

Juan is an expert guide. He has been taking people on volcano treks since he was just an adolescent. He can take you from Xela to Lake Atitlan on foot, and back.

Just before we leave, he shows me a video of himself and some German tourists who actually wanted to climb up right near the crater of the Santiaguito, and got some very up-front footage of “minor” volcanic eruptions.

They don’t look so minor when you’re up there, Juan tells me. That time, he says, there were moments in which he really feared for his life, and he’s not planning on going back up the Santiaguito anytime soon. Better not to push one’s luck with Mother Nature.

Santa Maria

The Santa Maria, however, is up for grabs. Nowadays, the Santa Maria volcano itself is not active, and it is frequented as a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of locals, mostly of Evangelist persuasion, who hike up to the summit to give flower offerings and make prayers.

A lush forest has reclaimed the mountainside, and we climb upwards through a trail toward the top. On the way, we pass long stretches of forest and misty clearings, paved with small yellow and purple flowers, where we stop for a drink and a break. We see pilgrims passing us by, many wear traditional dresses and sing church songs in the local Mayan dialect.

Juan, the local guide.
Juan, the local guide.

The trek lasts about four hours, with the last stretch becoming an increasingly steep climb until we reach the top and are finally able to rest. We are over 3700 meters above sea level, on par with the clouds,

Strong Winds and Cold

The winds up here are strong and cold, but the view is well worth it. On the one side, we can see all of Xela from the heights.

On the other side, we have the Santiaguito below us, and far into the distance, we can see more volcanoes, spread out throughout the valley which stretches for miles as far as the eye can see.

Scattered across the summit are countless altars and offerings, as well as an astounding number of stray dogs, who seem to make their living exclusively on what they can get off the trekkers and campers who come up here.

One of them begins to follow us and sticks around our camp until the next day when he follows us down to town. Probably makes the trek every other day or so, scrounging for subsistence.

There’s the immediate feeling that we are entering a hallowed grounds, a sacred site of pilgrimage. While the evangelists consider the proximity to the heavens a favorable place to conduct prayer, others seem to consider it an ideal UFO spotting site.

Locals hanging out at the top.
Locals hanging out at the top.

The more I talk to Juan, the more I realize he knows a whole lot about the local folklore surrounding the place. He says it’s not even unheard of to find the remnants of black masses up here.

There’s a little bit of everything, but the place has its juju, for sure.

As I am standing on the edge of the ravine looking into the distance, I see the Santiaguito suddenly puff out a cloud of smoke, then seconds later I hear a distant but powerful explosion.

Only then do I realize the Santiaguito has just erupted right before my very eyes.

The column of ash fumes up, and I can see the faint red trails of lava pouring out of the mouth of the volcano. The volcano erupts all throughout the night, belching clouds of smoke periodically in a life-sized, ongoing geological turmoil.

Deep Orange Glow

It’s dusk, a deep orange glow seeps through the dense clouds, some of which pass around, below and right through us, wrapping us in a dense mist which lets through a pearly-silver light, which later grows fainter and dies off into a purple sunset.

As night falls, Juan and I set camp and begin cooking a warm dinner by the fire. The clouds clear above us and the stars come out. The folk tales he was telling fascinate me and I ask him to tell me more.

He knows a whole host of local legends, most of them are about local caves and fields inhabited by dwarves and evil spirits, who set traps for human beings -mostly appealing to their lust or their greed- in order to steal their souls.

On the trail on the way up the volcano.
On the trail on the way up the volcano.

The Enormous Snake

The tale that strikes me the most, however, is what local legends hold about the 1902 eruption of the Santa Maria.

According to Juan, they say an enormous snake of fire from the underworld tried to come out to the surface of the Earth through the mouth of the Santa Maria, and an eruption was the only explanation we could find.

As the volcano belched lava and the giant snake of fire tried to wiggle through to our world, he tells me, it is said it was struck by a great bolt of lightning from the sky, which ripped it to pieces and averted a greater catastrophe.

Extraterrestrials? Who knows, Juan says. Local legend holds that a few people from the area collected portions of that giant snake, which were still kept intact until not long ago and displayed to tourists for a fee.

Whether this is the truth or an urban myth, the tale of the giant serpent of fire from the underworld, that tried to wiggle out into our plane through the Santa Maria volcano, is certainly a good expression of what the catastrophe must have felt like at that time.

The night passes to the beat of Juan’s folk tales and the periodic belching of the Santiaguito, like a natural firework show of monumental scale and geological proportions. We watch the bonfire burning before us, and earlier than we know it we’re retiring to the tent, our only cover for the cold nights in the summit of the Santa Maria.

A dramatic sunset from the heights.
A dramatic sunset from the heights

The next day is clear and begins with a warm cup of coffee. You’d think the show would be over by now, but no, the Santiaguito still belches smoke and fire every twenty minutes or so.

Leaving a Movie

On a clear day, you can see the lava splashing out, as opposed to the night, in which you only see its dim glow, pouring out of the crater.

The sight is perhaps more astounding in the daytime. When it’s time to come down, you feel like you’re leaving the movie in the middle of the show.

The thing is, this show, this fireworks parade, was going on long before we got here, and will probably last for a few hundreds or thousands of years or so.

It will still be going on when you’re gone. You have to come down from the clouds someday, and a clear, brisk day like this is perfect for a trek down the mountain, which passes-by in a jiffy, nothing nearly as excruciating as the way up.

Before you know it, you’re back down from the ride up to the volcano, taking a cab back to downtown Xela. It all feels like a strange dream. We were all sitting around a bonfire, and there were volcanoes all around, miniature, active volcanoes, exploding every half hour or so while we kept conversing under the stars, and it all seemed perfectly normal.

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Mateo Garcia


Mateo Garcia, is a freelance travel writer studying a post-graduate degree at the London School of Journalism.