El Volcan San Pedro

by Amy

This morning I learned four things. The first is that when standing behind a man who is wacking something with a machete, you should give him a little space. The second is that the word for steep in Spanish is escarpado. The third is that the phrase for ‘fucking steep’ is mierda escarpado. The fourth is that I am not in shape. Miguel is. He’s the guide I’ve hired to take me up the San Pedro Volcano on the other side of the lake and keeping up with him as we ascended the volcanoe’s 3,020 meters was like spending four hours on a treadmill and letting a tiny, enthusiastic Guatemalan man control the speed. I could hear my heart in my ears in a way I haven’t in years and I think I sweated out all the beer from last night in the first thirty minutes.

I haven’t done a ton of climbing but this is undoubtedly the most challenging climb I’ve ever attempted. If Salkantay in Peru had been five days of this, I’m not sure I would have been able to do it.

He picked me up from my hostel at 6am in a tuk tuk, which is basically a motorcycle disguised as a cart, and we took a small canoe across to the base of the volcano. It was lined with some kind of grass to absorb the water that was coming in through its numerous holes.

We began after he hid his ore under some brush and used the machete to fashion a walking stick for me, which I, at first, thought was cute and for show, but I soon learned that nothing on our climb was for show. The walking stick turned out to function as life support, the machete led the way through thick brush that obviously doesn’t see a lot of traffic and every piece of food and water we had on us was consumed. We stopped every forty five minutes or so to share a piece of fruit – he had brought along apples, bananas and the sweetest mango I’ve ever tasted.

His pace as we ascended was unforgiving and for some completely irrational reason I felt like asking him to slow down would disappoint him in some way so I stared at my feet and kept up. The reality of the hike demanded too much from my body for me to make conversation as we went, but we talked every time we stopped for rest. His English isn’t terrible and my Spanish is sort of passable, so I was able to find out that he has a 13 year old son who will most likely also become a guide when he’s older and finished with his schooling. School in Santiago is expensive and Miguel can only pay for about five years of it for his son. He can do that or become a teacher of some kind. Those are apparently his only two real options. I also found out that Miguel speaks the native Mayan language of this region more fluently than Spanish. His parents, who are in their 70s don’t speak any Spanish at all and his son will speak Spanish and English more fluently than the Mayan dialect. I find this disheartening and also very, very odd. The Mayan heritage surrounding the lake has withstood generations and I have an example in front of me of a major piece of that culture – its language – vanishing from a single family in just three generations. Before I could concentrate on this too much, however, my reprieve was over and we began climbing again.

A word about the difference between hiking and climbing…I keep saying climbing because I believe somewhat strongly that when your hands are on the ground in front of you and you aren’t bent over and your movement would be better characterized as crawling than walking, then you’re climbing, not hiking. It was steep and it wasn’t steep in parts – it was steep the entire way to the top. We did finally get there and he shared with me sandwiches that his wife had made. They were made from eggs and what seemed like refried black beans between tortillas. They weren’t hot but I was dizzy from exhaustion and thought they were life saving and delicious. The view was mostly obstructed by clouds – because we were above them – but every once in a while they would clear and you could see the entirety of the villages that surround the lake. Miguel tells me the hike sometimes takes 5 or 6 hours and we’ve done it in three.

We don’t stay long at the top and descend rapidly, him setting the pace in front and I feeling like I’m 12 trying to keep up with my Dad, whose legs are longer than mine. Except Miguel’s definitely aren’t, he’s just fast. I am more sliding than anything and fall more than once, hard on my ass because of loose gravel and leaves and Miguel laughs at me.

I’m back in my hostel now and my thighs and calves are shaking. Hot tub…