My Gripe with Saint Peter: Hiking the Volcano in Lago de Atitlán (by S. Bedford)

San Pedro volcano cloud forest.

San Pedro volcano cloud forest.

Nobody warned me that climbing the San Pedro volcano would be hard.

I was expecting a jovial sojourn—a festive jaunt—through sun-mottled woodland to a summit that presented the languorous waves of Lago de Atitlán sprawled at my feet like a cat before a fireplace and the jagged peaks of far-shore volcanoes tearing holes in the lacy clouds. Perhaps there would even be a quaint café where I could enjoy a cuppa Guatemala’s finest.

I was horrendously mistaken.

My travel companions Kate and Jayden (from Western Australia) and I crossed the lake from Santa Cruz to San Pedro after a leisurely breakfast that flirted with being a leisurely brunch. At the park entrance, we paid our 100-quetzal admission fee and were introduced to our guide: a cheerful Spanglish-speaking Mayan whose name we never quite caught. He bequeathed us with walking sticks and we set off into the wild overcast yonder.

The path was deceivingly flat for a couple hundred meters before jarring starkly upwards. I attempted to conceal my huffing as Jayden bounded with the enthusiasm of a frisky spaniel and Kate maintained a steady, respectable pace. We passed micro coffee farms where we gnawed on raw coffee beans and our guide showed us a curious species of plant that flinched when flicked.

“Pfft, that’s not so weird,” scoffed Jayden. “I flinch when flicked, too.”

(Note: I attempted to find the name of this plant but my search proved fruitless. If anybody knows, please leave a comment below)

The route grew increasingly onerous; we staggered up a makeshift staircase of cut logs jutting from the hillside. I convinced myself that it was the lake’s altitude and not my lack of athleticism that caused my head to reel. We stopped so that Jayden could frighten Kate with a black and yellow millipede as thick as my finger, and I seized the opportunity to will away the ink seeping into the corners of my vision. Forty minutes after we’d embarked on what could only be described as a graceless scramble, we arrived at a wooden viewing platform, and I sighed with relief.

“This is the halfway point, right?” I queried the chisel-calved hiker descending the trail. She looked at me as though I’d asked if this was the road to El Dorado.

Kate shrugged. “I guess she doesn’t speak English.”

We paused long enough for the the quivering in our thighs to subside, then continued our ascent. Suddenly, ambling clouds crowded the path like lost tourists and our guide appeared eerily gossamer in the distance ahead—at least, it would’ve been eerie had he not been sporting a cowboy hat. Now, the altitude really was beginning to affect us.

“Say ‘squirrel,’” I ordered Jayden.

“Skwee-rell.”

The giggles fizzed within me like champagne bubbles. Kate inquired how Canadians pronounced the word.

“Skwurl.”

She squinted suspiciously. “That’s an awful lot of letters for one syllable.”

We skwee-relled and skwurled merrily as the vines unfurled above our heads and the mist thickened around our elbows. When we asked our guide how much time remained until we crested the volcano, he snorted.

“Thirty-five minutes,” he said with a chuckle.

An hour later, we were still thirty-five minutes from the top. I wondered whether the altitude was affecting his mathematical skills or whether we had accidentally stumbled into a glitch in the space-time continuum. If the latter was indeed correct, then it’d occurred at a highly inopportune moment.

My delirium was brusquely interrupted by the peculiar yet much-appreciated happenstance of a Tarzan-style rope swing hanging above a steep gradient. Our guide laughed as we eagerly raced towards it.

“Yeeewwwwwww!” I shrieked at the dewy foliage as I soared through the trees.

Three and a half hours after we began, Kate, Jayden, our guide, and I finally clambered onto the peak of the volcano. The clouds wetly caressed our skin as we collapsed in a panting heap on the comfiest-looking boulders we could find. There was no view save for a white oblivion and certainly no café—but we didn’t need one anyway as our guide was gracious enough to share his tortilla shells and salt with us, a snack enhanced immensely by the spontaneous addition of the leaves of a low-hanging branch.

“Oh my god, these are the best leaves ever!” gushed Kate as she gorged herself on a second helping.

It was another hour and a half back down, and while there ceased to be any anomalies in space-time, there were numerous in the gravitational field—at least, that was my explanation for why I kept falling down. Either that, or my walking stick was running low on batteries.

Muddy and trembling, we stumbled into San Pedro just in time to catch the last launcha across the lake. As the boat’s spray cooled our flushed faces, we peered at the volcano looming tremendously beneath its cloud crown.

“Now that I think about it, I suppose it does look pretty big, hey?” remarked Jayden.

Lago de Atitlán is at 1 562 meters and the summit of San Pedro is at 3 020 meters. When trekking, be sure to allot yourself lots of time as it is easy to grow winded at this altitude. Bring plenty of water (there are no shops or vendors along the trail) and a sweatshirt or light jacket as it is cool at the top. There is typically too much cloud cover during the rainy season (May-October) to see the lake from the peak, but it is an enjoyable—if challenging—hike regardless.

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S.Bedford

S. Bedford (Sue) is a travel writer from Toronto. She is a Vagabond Travel columnist and the host of our web series. Twitter: @SBedford86

2 Comments:

  1. Hi Sue, Fun writing.

    What would be the point of a climbing hike like that? The view from a high place, looking down and around the volcano? Then the fact that it happened to be a volcano was incidental. And one must know with the low clouds, a good view wouldn’t be guaranteed.

    As young and athletic hikers the exercise and test of stamina might appeal.

    For me, what made this a unique hike is the possibility of seeing into a volcano. What did you see when you looked into the volcano? Was it at all active? What was its history? What is a cloud forest and what is interesting about it?

    This story focused on your struggle with your personal fitness, a difficult hike for people with average strength. OK, written in an entertaining way but, in a travel magazine, I expected less about you and more description of travel, of the terrain, the volcano and the forest and, with all those clouds, what about rain? And the logistics. Just a reminder that this is not a letter home. The geography is the star.

    Too harsh? I don’t mean to be mean. Just some honest feedback for a newbie from a blowhard fan who cares that you succeed. I hope this has been helpful.

    With respect,
    Peter

    • Thanks for your constructive suggestions, Peter. In answer to your questions: 1. San Pedro has been dormant for an extremely long time, and thus is covered in foliage. While it would be exciting to peer into a crater where lava is bubbling, they don’t let you climb those volcanoes. 2. A cloud forest is a forest that occurs above the cloud line, and is distinguished by heavy mist and altitude. Thanks for reading! Cheers, Sue.

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