Conquering Volcanoes (or San Pedro: Even Locals Like It!)

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It turns out that volcanoes are to Guatemalans what the Empire State Building is to most New Yorkers: Something you don’t really bother with until you have visitors in town.

This I discovered a few weeks ago when Shon and I climbed San Pedro, one of Lake Atitlán’s three volcanoes, along with four of Shon’s coworkers (from Guatemala) and two of his coworker’s sons (from Colombia). None of them had climbed a volcano before, despite living in a country with more than 30. It was Shon who rallied the troops, set a date, and found a guide to take us. Only an out-of-towner would plan such an excursion with such enthusiasm.

Not to say that Shon’s exuberance was for naught—indeed, he had hiked San Pedro before with a friend and loved it and was certain we would, too. And so, early one Saturday morning, we gathered at the docks in Panajachel and took a private boat across the lake to the town of San Pedro, located just next door to the 9,908-foot mountainous behemoth we planned to conquer.

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IMG_1877 (640x409) San Pedro is a town of approximately 13,000 people and is as touristy as Panajachel but in a very different way. Whereas Pana is giant tourist buses and groups in matching khaki, San Pedro is fire dancers, backpackers, hostels, dreads, and drugs. (We fit more into one group. Sadly, it’s not the cool one.)

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We met our guide, Manuel (the same guide who had led Shon up the volcano before), near the docks of San Pedro and then hopped into the back of a pick-up truck to get to the volcano’s trail head. As soon as we arrived, we set out on a dirt path that ascended gradually passed fields of green coffee plants and tall stands of corn. We meandered through pockets of sun and shade and caught lake views from the occasional opening in the forest.

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Half-way up the mountain, we stopped at an overlook where Shon and I could see the ridge where we had watched the sun rise over Lake Atitlán just a couple of weeks before. Known locally as “Indian Nose,” this ridge vaguely resembles the profile of a man’s face. I could definitely see the profile, though I’d say the nose looks a bit more Ukrainian–or maybe Dutch. No, Ukrainian.

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From here, the trail grew significantly steeper. The dry, warm air quickly turned damp and chilly as we headed into cloud forests and worked our way between giant trees draped in heather-colored Spanish moss.

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It was a strenuous hike, but three hours after starting out, we finally reached the top.

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This is not the top of San Pedro.

***

And now I believe I’m going to disappoint. If you’ve been reading along so far, expecting us to reach a hot, steamy, lave-spewing summit where we’d sacrificed a goat or someone in our group, I’m sad to say that our arrival was much more subdued. San Pedro volcano has been inactive for a very long time (no one knows when it last erupted), and its crater today is enshrouded by thick, lush forest.

Active or not, though, the birds-eye-view from San Pedro’s peak is pretty spectacular. We had set out early enough to beat the midday clouds that normally settle over its cone and had an unobscured look at the lake and everything that surrounds it. We could see San Pedro’s neighbors–volcanoes Atitlán and Tolíman–as well as Panajachel and a handful other small towns. Boats were just specks on the vast expanse of water.

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It was fun to see the area where we live from such precipitous heights–and apparently not just for Shon and me. The rest of our group (i.e. the real locals) was just as camera-happy and seemingly excited to have made it to the top as we were. Clearly, you don’t have to be an out-of-towner or tourist to appreciate a mighty fine view.

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My face looks like German’s (the guy to the left of Shon) every time I see this photo. “Shon, you climbed a volcano and look so… refreshed.” Meanwhile, I complained of hip pain.

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