Sunday, Aug 19: Plan today was to meet at 6 am with the other Guateca students and head on a hike to Tajumulco–however it happened to be raining at that time and plans were cancelled. Very disappointed, especially since Transito and Carla had gotten up around 4 to make pancakes and empanadas for Brandon, Charlie, and I for our trip. By 7 the rain had stopped, and I called up Urias to see if he still wanted to go–but he said he had plans to play futbol that day. Defeated, I sat down in the kitchen to read when Henry came in and said that Urias had called him to say that he wanted to go and he’d be here in half an hour. Pinche chilero!
Threw all of the food Transito had made–enough for three people–into my backpack, along with a huge thermos full of coffee, at Transito’s insistence. Urias showed up and we managed to catch a ride in the back of Dany’s truck to San Luis at the top of the hill where we would catch the bus to the trailhead. The morning was chilly and gray clouds strectched across the sky–the perfect day for a hike! When we got on the bus and I took my backpack off, I noticed how warm it was, presumably from the thermos full of hot coffee inside. We sat down and I told Urias to check out how warm it was, so he did so and told me it felt wet, too. So I lifted the pack off my lap to find that coffee had completely soaked the bottom of the backpack and my pants since I had sat down. Apparently the glass container on the inside of the thermos had shattered and about two thirds of the liquid inside had been emptied into the pack, so I poured the remaining cocktail of coffee and broken glass out the bus window.
The bus ride took about an hour. At the trailhead we hopped off and headed to a little tienda across the street where we bought juice, both boxed and in a glass bottle, to replace all the coffee I had lost. Now, take note, at this point several poor decisions had been made, which were 1) leaving any water behind in San Pablo because I had coffee instead, 2) buying only a couple liters of juice to replace the coffee, and 3) buying anything in a glass bottle to take up the summit. Also, a note about volcan Tajumulco: it is the highest mountain in central America, at 4220 m (about 13,845 ft), although not the steepest climb around–volcan Tacana has that distinction. (I also don’t know what our starting elevation was–probably around 10,000 ft) I had also been told by many folks in San Pablo that it was a two hour hike to the summit, no big deal. Sweet, a stroll, no problem.
Tajumulco looms, kind of, from near the start of the trail. The summit is behind the hill shown here.
We finally started up the hill at 10 am. We passed by a little house near the start of the trail, where a recently pregnant skin-and-bones dog started to follow us. The trail wasn’t uncomfortably steep but it was definitely going up, and with elevation the terrain started to change. After rising above all the farmland and the last of the houses, we very quickly left any sort of tropical vegetation behind to find ourselves walking through groves of pine trees and open meadows of hardy mountain ground-covering plants, marked by deep rain-cut ravines. Totally gorgeous, even though the clouds and fog didn’t permit us a view of anything beyond the proximity of the volcano.
Coupla punks heading up the hill. Spirits are still high!
Urias hangs out with our dog
The dog convinced me that fewer clothes was the way to go. A little higher up, the temperature would soon convince me otherwise.
We enjoyed the company of our dog all the way up to the summit. As we approached the summit, we entered thick clouds and it started to rain. Views on either side of us were totally obscured by fog beyond twenty or thirty feet, and the trail continued to get steeper. We soon hiked out of the rain, though, and came upon a rocky clearing beneath a cliff, where it was obvious that most people came to party, which Urias told me was not an uncommon activity on the mountain. A building had once been there, as evidenced by the six short broken concrete columns and the mangled sheets of corrugated metal scattered around. We found a little ‘cave’ amongst broken bottles of spirits and graffiti-marked rocks to shelter us a little bit from the frigid wind, and broke out the food. As I unpacked our lunch I realized just how much food Transito had packed me and how much I had been carrying: The glass bottle of juice, two glass containers full of home-made apple sauce, a can of beans, a bag of empanadas and a bag of pancakes, a loaf of bread, and the empty, broken thermos. At least Urias was impressed: “Tienes mucha fuerza,” he told me. Time: 12 pm
Urias approaches the lunch spot
Enjoying our lunch and what would be the last drink for several hours.
The dog, for its effort, earned like four or five pieces of bread. Urias and I chowed down on the food, filling our stomachs and lightening the load in my pack, although at the end of our meal a container of apple sauce still remained full, along with about half of the can of beans and a few pancakes and empanadas. We still had a little ways to go to the summit, so we stashed our packs and headed up the ever-steepening rocky hill to the top of the volcano. At this point, I definitely noticed the thinness of the atmosphere, and we were taking lots of little breaks.
We finally made it to the rocky, ash-covered summit after about fifteen minutes of scrambling and resting, and enjoyed a view of fog and far-off clouds. We took a rest and enjoyed our accomplishment, tired and ready to head back down. We traversed around the crater a little bit, and Urias found a steep route of descent that he thought would lead us back to where we stashed our packs. Well, I didn’t think it was such a great idea, but we decided on it anyways and began a very steep descent over rocks and volcanic ash. When we reached the tree line only a few minutes later, we inspected our surroundings and Urias asked if maybe we shouldn’t go back up to the summit and return to our packs the way we ascended. I responded with something along the lines of “That ship has sailed,” not wanting at all to climb back up the 45 degree slope that we had just descended. What a joke that would turn out to be.
Almost at the summit
A couple of c-c-c-cold punks at the foggy summit of Tajumulco!
We continued to descend through the trees on the naturally terraced but still very steep slope, totally devoid of trail, for something like forty minutes in total. At many points our efforts to traverse around the hill to where we thought the trail might be were stymied by huge cliffs or valleys. At many points we stopped and discussed our situation, but neither one wanted to re-ascend the face, so we continued our downward progress. Finally, below us, we saw a herd of cows. “Is that a shepherd?” I asked Urias, and he tentatively agreed. Stoked to finally get some directions and see another person, we booked it down hill until we were almost in the midst of the cows. I realized then that I hadn’t seen a person, only another cow. Below us, in the distance, was a totally unfamiliar misty forest that went on forever into the foggy horizon.
Urias, thoroughly lost on our foggy, misguided descent
Well at this point we were pretty bummed, not to mention really tired, and the dog was still at our heels. With great reluctance, we submitted to the reality of our situation and began a very steep, slow, umotivated hike back to the summit. Our ascent was marked by sighs of exasperation and rests where we would suggest if, maybe heading in this or that direction might be a better idea than retracing our steps all the way to the top–but such ideas were always decided against, and after over an hour we finally, finally made it back to the summit.
We were so stoked to see a familiar place, but the fog still obscured everything in the distance, so we weren’t quite sure in which direction we should go. We started walking in what we thought was the right direction and, finding what we thought was unfamiliar territory, turned around and went the other way. Well this turned out to be a great idea as we ended up walking around the whole crater and found ourselves back in exactly the same spot. Eventually, we found the place where we had ascended, and made it back down to our backpacks at around 4 pm. Total time being lost: approx 2 and a half hours.
Relieved to have climbed Tajumulco again for the second time today
Made it back to the trailhead at 5 pm for a total of 7 hours on the mountain–and the dog had followed us the whole way. Totally beaten but satisfied with the comedy of errors that had been our adventure, we caught the bus home and I made it back to casa Henry around 7 where I relaxed with the other folks that were there by watching Dragon Ball Z on Charlie’s laptop. All in all a great adventure–although next time I’ll think twice before trusting my Guatemalan “guide.” Thanks a lot, Urias..!