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Lake Atitlan - Hiking Volcan San Pedro

Today was our free day. All along we had hoped to go horseback riding, but in the end Andre hadn't been able to arrange it for us. So we decided to hike the San Pedro volcano instead. We woke up at 5:30, took showers, and were ready in the lobby by 7:00. Andre and his coworker Humberto had come across on the early boat from Panajachel. Humberto was ready to take us hiking. We were expecting to leave right around 7, and the kitchen didn't open for breakfast until 8. They whipped us up some quick scrambled eggs, black beans, and cheese for breakfast. We ate very quickly but then waited around for the boat to show up. While waiting we got a chance to have a nice chat with Humberto who was very friendly and eager for us to help him learn more English. We didn't end up leaving until around 9 o'clock which was a much later start than originally planned. In the end, Margaret was the only other group member that went with us. The day was already getting very hot and we had a long day ahead of us.

We docked at San Pedro. We walked up a big hill and got a ride in the back of a pickup which took us along bumpy cobblestone roads to about 5000 feet, where we began our hike. There were lots of coffee plants along the first part of the hike. We tasted a coffee bean right off the tree (sucked the juice out of it). It tasted sweet. The air was thin and the sun was hot, and I was immediately wishing that we had set out earlier in the morning. Luckily everyone was patient with me and we took frequent breaks. The trail was steep and didn't let up for a moment. Humberto used his machete to cut a walking stick for me. We met a farmer named Delfino. He and his mute son were farming the fields (beans and corn) on the slopes of the volcano. Margaret offered them some bread that she had left over from breakfast. Delfino gladly accepted. We asked if we could take a picture and he asked if we would send him a copy. He was very happy when we said yes.

Soon afterwards we reached the "mirador" (a lookout platform with picnic tables and benches). There was a white flag flying from the mirador, and I clung to it saying that I surrender from the hike. I had barely been able to make it that far. Craig, Margaret, and Humberto were very supportive, but I didn't want them to stop on my account. We ate granola bars and Humberto gave me a mango for later. I settled in with my journal and Spanish dictionary when they continued on at around 11:30. There was a great view of San Pedro and some of the other lakeside towns, and I enjoyed watching the butterflies, bees, and birds while I journaled. At one point 16 other people arrived, on their way down the volcano. Two police officers were among them. Everyone was carrying a machete. It was disheartening that a lot of these locals were throwing lots of trash onto the ground at the mirador.

Some English-speaking hikers arrived and I asked them the time. It was already 1:45. Then a large Mayan family arrived on their way up the mountain. They were going to perform a ritual at the summit. Seeing them progress up the hill reminded me of the photograph on the back of Paul Simon's album "The Rhythm of the Saints." The only thing that disturbed the peace and tranquility of my spot was music from "The Entertainer" wafting up the mountain from ice cream carts in the town below. It got old pretty quickly. I saw a gray fox with orange ears and a black stripe down the center of its tail. At one point I heard Craig shout something, which alerted me that they were on their way back. I couldn't make out what he said, but afterwards he told me it was "BURNETT!" a reference to an EcoChallenge we saw where Team Go was cursing race organizer Mark Burnett for hiding a hut on them. I took this to mean that Craig was feeling like the poor guy in Team Go that had to push himself to finish the race he began. Even if it meant finishing last place long after the others.

Craig, Margaret, and Humberto didn't arrive back at the mirador until around 4:00 but they had made it to the top (about 10,000 feet). They stayed on top and ate "the best cantaloupe in the world". They said that the trees at the summit were covered in orchids, and that it was a beautiful cloud forest. Although it had been cloudy and misty at the top, there had been a few breaks in the clouds and they could see that the crater was full of vegetation. Soon after leaving me behind they had seen a large spider on the trail which could well have been a tarantula. From there the trail went straight up a series of stairs, one after another. As the altitude got higher and higher the trees actually got taller and more dense. This is something we aren't used to seeing. Craig says he couldn't believe he actually made it to the top and was really wishing that he had more water with him. Although he had plenty by normal standards the heat made him feel he could have used even more. He also wished that he had brought actual food with him as he had read that normally this hike would provide a bagged lunch. This was not the case today though. The two words that Craig used to describe the hike were "punishing and relentless". I decided I was glad I spent a few hours by myself enjoying the view rather than trying to press on.

After a short rest, I put on Craig's pack (his knee began really hurting him on the descent) and we began the long journey down from the mirador. When we arrived at the starting point of the hike, a truck laden with coffee was unable to make it all the way up the hill. The drivers wanted us to help them, but after a while it proved fruitless and we started walking down to San Pedro town. This was the ground we had covered in the back of a pickup truck this morning, and it was a long way to walk, especially with Craig's sore knee. We passed a garbage dump where locals were burning trash. Humberto flagged down a pickup driven by the police and asked them if they could give us a ride to the docks. They did so, and refused any payment. We went to a little bodega by the dock and got Orange Crush and water. Margaret and Humberto got fresh squeezed pineapple juice, which they were gracious enough to let us sample. We then boarded the boat, which flew quickly back to the Hotel Bambu. We were very grateful for the cool breeze on the ride.

Humberto now has his own tour company called Lago Aventura. If you are looking for a guide in the Panajachel area, we highly recommend his services.

Once we arrived, Margaret jumped straight into the lake for a swim. Craig and I headed to the chicken shack and were warmly welcomed. The girls had decorated the room and the room keys with pictures of chickens from a Martha Stewart magazine one of them brought along. We found out that the girls had all moved into one chicken shack room (it had 4 beds) and Andre had moved into the adjacent room. They gave Craig a Gallo beer and I took a couple of swigs off a bottle of cucha (some type of Guatemalan moonshine where the bottle costs more than the alcohol). We went back to the room and showered.

We met at 7:30 and piled into the back of a pickup to head into Santiago to eat dinner at the Posada de Santiago. The restaurant was really nice. The walls were made of stone and there was a lot of nice artwork hung up. We got carrot soup and garlic bread as appetizers. Craig got lomito in a wine sauce with fries and veggies. I got blackened lomito with fries and veggies. The beef was so tender that you barely needed a butter knife to cut it. At 9 pm, there was a ceremony taking place down by the lake at the Posada. We left our dinners for a few minutes and went out to watch.

The ceremony centered on Maximon (pronounced "Mah-shee-mon"), a local saint who is said to be a combination of Judas Iscariot, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, Saint Simon, and various pre-Columbian Mayan deities such as Maam, the god of the underworld. The story goes once upon a time, in a small Mayan village, all of the men went off to war, except for Maximon, who stayed behind to watch over the women. When the men returned from battle, they found that all of the women were pregnant, and they subsquently killed Maximon. The women were upset by this and forced the men to worship Maximon from then on. Maximon's effigy is kept in a different private house each year, and tourists can pay a small fee to visit him. People usually leave offerings of cigars and aguardiente liquor. Tonight the men of Santiago de Atitlan were washing Maximon's clothes, a yearly ritual, while the woman were holding vigil in the center of town waiting for them to return. People were lighting incense and candles at the clothes washing ceremony.

After watching for a few minutes, we headed back into the restaurant to eat our main course. After dinner we caught the pickup back to the Hotel Bambu. Three boys (children of the driver) were holding onto the back of the truck. The girls dubbed one small boy "Baby Godzilla" because he liked Godzilla. We stopped at a liquor store and Andre ran in to buy some beer. We passed the candlelight vigil where the women were waiting for the men to return with Maximon's clean clothes. When we got back to the hotel we gave each of the boys a pen before saying goodbye. Most of the group hung out for a while outside the chicken shack. The moonlight was peeking through the clouds and we set up a bunch of chairs in a circle on the patio in order to drink a few more beers and swigs of cucha by candlelight.

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