SAN LUCAS TOLIMAN, Guatemala – The alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. and I'm instantly awakened not so much by the buzzing of the borrowed clock as by the boom, boom, boom of the Latin rock still reverberating outside my hotel room.It's early morning on Good Friday during the weeklong celebration of Semana Santa, when all of Guatemala shuts down for a week of festivals and parades leading up to Easter Sunday.
The night before, the revelers – some of whom appear to be little more than 14 – had promised that the night's party would cease at 2 a.m., but as I stumble bleary-eyed up the steep, cobble-stoned streets of the lakeside village of San Lucas Toliman, I look back to see that they are still going strong despite the coming onset of dawn.
But I am not in the Western Highlands of Guatemala to party with the locals, as enticing as it may be. I'm here to hike volcanoes, and from my vantage point at the Hotel Don Pedro -- where the rates during the holiday week have been tripled to nearly, well, $9 U.S. – I can see three of them, including Volcan Atitlan, which, at 11,666 feet, towers above the lake of the same name.
Or at least I will be able to see it, once the sun creeps over the eastern rim of a spectacular mountain range that encircles the Lake Atitlan caldera, created by a huge eruption 85,000 years ago that sent rocks flying as far away as Florida and Panama.
I meet my guides for this trip, which I have saved for the final day of my vacation, in the town's square, which is all decked out for the Semana Santa procession scheduled for that afternoon. But at this hour of the morning, no one is about save for a few mangy dogs and a couple of the indigenous Mayans who are eating breakfast before setting up their booths of local crafts that to many constitute their livelihood.
Richard Morgan, of Adventures in Education, greets me along with Carlos, his hired guide for the day's climb, which starts in front of Carlos's house well outside of the parade route. We hike through alleyways and dirt roads before we begin to climb steadily through the coffee fincas and fields to the saddle that separates taller Atitlan from its sister volcano, the double-peaked Toliman, which is to our right. We turn left, and immediately begin a constant, breath-stealing ascent that three hours later brings us to treeline, a few hundred meters below the summit.
Richard has carried a .12-guage shotgun with him during the climb, while Carlos has been given a 9-millimeter pistol -- just in case. Though there have been reported cases of hikers being robbed on climbs on all the volcanoes in Guatemala – mostly on still-active Pacaya, which is a sometimes haunt of the gangs from nearby Guatemala City – we see no one on the mountain other than fellow hikers, including a group of 10 young men from the nearby town of Godinez, who enjoyed a nighttime ascent under a waning full moon.
The guidebooks say that climbing Atitlan is a two-day excursion, with hikers camping overnight at the summit in a refuge, or hut. But, in fact, the hike can easily be done in one day – though admittedly a long and strenuous one – and the so-called hut, which was located in the col between the two volcanoes, is no longer there, according to Carlos. There is, however, a foul-looking, cement-block building atop the mountain, but it is apparent that those who have camped over on Atitlan's exposed summit have simply erected stone-wall barriers to block them from the wind. Unfortunately, the concept of "Carry in, carry out" has yet to take hold in the Third World, as trash litters what would otherwise be a pristine landscape.
The final scramble to the summit – and the slide back down to treeline – requires all four limbs, as even Carlos – at 32 a father of six – is sliding backward with each step in the loose volcanic scree that makes the final few hundred yards seem like you're trying to walk on pinballs. But once you reach the summit and look around, you know why you are there. And this was a cloudy day.
The waves of white, puffy clouds bounce along the spine of Central American's highlands like a chorus line of Michelin men, each framed by a brilliant blue background. Occasionally, breaks in the clouds enable me to see more of the range, with twins Agua and Fuego – which is also currently active – rearing their heads above the clouds to the south, near the original Spanish colonial capital of Ciudad Vieja. The city was buried by a mudslide when the caldera atop Agua collapsed in 1541 and emptied the contents of its summit lake onto the city below. After that, the Spanish moved the capital of its Mesoamerican empire to the nearby town of Antigua. That city, in turn, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, and the Spanish again moved the capital to present-day Guatemala City.
To the north are a line of volcanoes that pop out of the clouds as they string their way to the Mexican border, several hours away by bus. To the west – somewhere – is the Pacific Ocean, but on this day it is hidden from view by a band of low-level clouds that resembles the stuffing that has been removed from an oversized pillow.
Morgan, who organized the hike, is a retired U.S. Army colonel who was wounded in Vietnam in 1972. He moved with his wife, Sharon, and son Luke, 12, six years ago from Tucson, Ariz., to the nearby town of Panajachel, located on the opposite side of the lake. Morgan, 62, grew up in New Jersey – a long way from volcanoes – but has been carrying on a virtual one-man crusade on Lake Atitlan to promote the three dominant peaks that give the tourist town known simply as "Pana" its picture-postcard view.
"I've been trying to get the Guatemalan government to see the volcanoes as a resource, as a tourist attraction," said Morgan, without the results he would like. He hopes the new government, which has been in power for little more than a year but seems receptive to promoting tourism, will see the country's 37 volcanoes – three of which are currently active – as a way to lure more tourists.Already tourism is the No. 2 source of income for Guatemala, trailing only the money sent from abroad by nationals living outside the country. It has supplanted coffee, which was once the top money producer, but coffee has fallen on hard times since its price has plummeted in recent years.
"Tourism is something this country needs," Morgan said. So far, he's had very few clients sign up for the rigorous climb up Atitlan, but is optimistic that will change once people begin to discover the eco-rich country. From where he's standing, it's a good bet.
"The view from Atitlan is magnificent," Morgan says as he looks out from the summit. "It's one of the toughest climbs in Guatemala. I haven't seen anything as impressive."
And as for the .12-gauge shotgun housed in his old Army backpack? "I do carry a gun on the trip,” he admits, “but I've had no need to use it.
"It's called worst-case planning in the military," he says, though his own brochure – which offers other hikes and even some eco-cultural tours – cautions that robberies have occurred on the trails. "I've lived in this country for six years and I've never seen a crime," Morgan says, adding that reports of Guatemala being a dangerous place are greatly exaggerated. "I've walked in Zone 1 in Guatemala City and never had a problem.
"While Atitlan, or its less-climbed neighbor Toliman, are climbs which will require you to hire a guide, the third volcano on the lake, San Pedro, is an easy day hike that will take only about four or five hours roundtrip, rather than the 10 that it took us on Atitlan.
San Pedro, which stands at 9,900 feet, can be reached by boat from Panajachel (go straight to the dock at the end of Calle del Embarcadero and don't deal with anyone other than the captain, who will be at the dock; cost: about $1.20 each way). The lake crossing takes about an hour and deposits you in San Pedro, where opportunistic guides will besiege you with warnings that it is too dangerous to climb without hiring them. Graciously explain you don't need a guide – the locals in the center of town will help point you to the trailhead – and enjoy the views from the summit, which include stunning vistas of both the villages of San Pedro, where you started, and of Santiago, located on the opposite side of the volcano.
The summit of San Pedro is a protected area under the dominion of the environmental group Vivamos Mejor (We All Live Better), in conjunction with funding provided by The Nature Conservancy in the U.S.
Bring plenty of agua pura, bottles of which can be bought in San Pedro for as little as three quetzales (37 cents).
For the more difficult Atitlan climb, the cost to use Morgan and his guide is $48, but includes overnight lodging at his hotel in Panajachel, called the Posada Los Ecuentros, pre-dawn transportation to San Lucas Toliman, a box lunch and plenty of water. And that includes the hot tub back at the hotel after the hike.