Spelunking San Ignacio: the insanely awesome Crystal Cave

The Dream Team in Wonderland, two miles under ground. *

I said it before, but I’ll say it again: ATM is for tourists, Crystal is for adventurers. Crystal is different. It was a challenge the memory of which still gets my blood pumping. It is impossible to overstate how incredibly breathtaking it is. It was one of the most exciting and intimate ways I have ever experienced the earth. I will never forget it.

In San Ignacio, I was lucky enough to cross paths again with my friend Ryan from Caye Caulker and meet his new travel buddies Seamus and Oxy. Not only are they all super cool, but were best buds with Caveman Carlos (the guide I tried unsuccessfully to go with to ATM; connect with him via J&R Guest House) plus had a rental car and generously welcomed another passenger. It was Seamus and Oxy’s last day in Belize, so they called up Carlos and asked what we should do. He recommended Crystal ($75Bz each, plus $28Bz park entry fee) and we signed right up. We grabbed lunch to go and hopped in the car, off on an adventure.

Before & After

After a detour through Mennonite farm country for ice cream (reminded me of my childhood aspirations to be a Sunnyside dairy princess!) and beer, we arrived at the National Park, also home to Blue Hole, one of the only cenotes in Belize. We pilfered oranges from the neighboring orchard and hiked 30 minutes in near 100-degree weather to the cave entrance, sweat already starting to pour off of us. I sang my favorite walking tra la la la song to myself.

Unlike ATM, which is a tunnel without altitude change, Crystal delves deep right from the get go. At the greatest depth we were two miles under ground. It is a serious cave: you climb, you crawl, you slither, you squeeze, and you do NOT get your hand held. Do not even think of attempting it without a guide. No one else was in the cave with us; everyone was at ATM. From the huge pit of an entrance, we descended quickly.

Our entrance and sharp descent. *
Yep, we’re going that way, through that tiny hole in the upper right.
Our guide Carlos and Ryan, heading down.
Slipping through crevasses just barely people-sized. Sometimes sliding on your butt was the only way.

The pattern of Crystal is large cavern, small crawl space, large cavern, repeat. It led us to have moments of tight embrace of the rock followed by grand open awe. How very Frank Lloyd Wright…

The Carlosisms started coming fast and furious. Our names were shortened to our home states, which actually wasn’t specific, but worked well enough: Seamus and Oxy from Oregon, Ryan and me from California. “Take a break!” “Fear is a disease!” “Follow your heart!” “Keep the fire burning!” “Cave sex!” Soon enough we were all chiming in with the applicable Carlosism.

Being 6’7″ isn’t very helpful down here… *
Hear me roar! I was really into growling in the cave. (“Take a break, California…”)

These caves in Belize are said to be some of the entrances to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld or “place of fear”. Most locals refuse to enter them. Like ATM, Crystal Cave was also used as a ceremonial access point, and thousand-year-old skulls and pot shards grace its floors.

Pottery slowly being consumed by the cave.
The team in action, down then up. *
The munching O’Malleys. “This is the furthest below ground I have ever eaten a burrito.”

I felt spry and light on my feet, and enjoyed vaulting myself up. The further we went in, the slicker the clay covering the rocks got. We maintained three points on contact with the earth at all times. The act of finding holds, swinging yourself around corners, and pulling yourself up and over made me think of my rock climbing sister Laura. Is this what bouldering feels like? Because it was kind of super awesome…

The formations all around us through were breathtaking. The variation astounding: delicate crystals, cascading layers like melted wax, smooth ripples, many reminiscent of stone coral reefs.

But Carlos told us we hadn’t seen anything yet. We were headed to Wonderland and “you’re gonna pee your pants!” We took off our shoes, and I daintily trekked barefoot into the underworld.

The peanut brittle road to Wonderland.

He wasn’t joking. It was truly a wonder. Everywhere you turn was something spectacular. We discovered that beautiful ringing tones could be coaxed from certain stalagmites with a soft knock.

 The entrance to Wonderland. *
Making cave music.
Stunning beauty all around.
Enamored by the earth sparkling around me.

After gawking, we all sat in a row on a ledge, turned off our lights, spoke soft words of appreciation for this experience, and then were silent in the pure and complete dark. The Mayans say the spirits still dwell in the caves, and our group felt their presence. To me, the silence felt like a prayer without words. A meditation to the earth.

Stunning, as if delicately dipped in shredded coconut.

But the silence had to end, like all things do, and we left our beautiful crystal sanctuary to rejoin the living, feeling peaceful, alive, and pretty kick ass.

The crawl back to the surface. *
Our team, victorious. Yeah, I cave, and wield a machete. *
Use what yo mamma gave you! *

We finished sweaty, THIRSTY, hungry, and oh so happy. Those spare burritos saved from lunch hit the spot so hard. We then went for a sunset swim in Blue Hole cenote where we bathed in the cool water, chased crawdads, and watched the fire beetles come out after dark to dance. Refreshing! An absolutely killer and memorable day.

Cenote bound! *
Cave woman!! *
* photos courtesey of Seamus and Oxy O’Malley. ūüėČ

Spelunking San Ignacio: Actun Tunichil Muknal

Pulling myself away from the beach, I backtracked west towards the Guatemalan border in search of caves, a famous attraction in this part of Belize. The cave on top of everyone’s list is Actun Tunichil Muknal, the Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher commonly referred to as ATM. It is both the most popular and most expensive cave to visit ($170Bz). I booked a tour through my hotel (J&R Guest House) with a well-known tour guide, Carlos, who my friends recommended highly. Unfortunately he had to cancel and sent a replacement from Hun Chi’ik tours.

The morning, my group of ten drove one hour east from San Ignacio, hiked an easy 20 minutes from the parking lot, and entered the cave swimming in between tall cavern walls. We continued wading through water and walking over rocks moving from room to room. Most spaces we were in were very open and the scale of the place felt impressive. The walls of quartz made me think of my Grandma and the geology lessons and projects she used to give us as kids. ‚̧ Twice we had to navigate a tight space, but not often was there any true physical challenge (once, we climbed a ladder!). It is an accessible cave for most visitors.

The entrance, the deepest swimming you do in the whole cave. Most other places it is shallow enough to walk.
Source: Google Images
Grand formations inside.
Source: Google Images

One of the special things about ATM is that it was used by the Mayans as a ceremonial space and when it was discovered twenty-some years ago artifacts were left where they were found, making the cave a living museum. The Mayans believed the spirits of their ancestors dwelt in the caves and performed rituals including human sacrifice inside ATM in their honor. In the main chamber you see pots and crystallized human remains. The apex of the tour is a full skeleton that has been claimed by the crystals.

The famous Crystal Maiden.
Source: Google Images

The tour experience on the other hand I found to be quite gentled. ATM is the top cave tour in the region, one that everyone goes on, and it showed. I was shocked by how crowded the cave felt. We were inside from about 11am-1:30pm and were constantly bumping into or waiting on other tour groups. The pace felt slow. We wore protective helmets, headlamps, and reef shoes. My young guide seemed uncomfortable going off script and I found his source material (many Discovery Channel-esque tv special references) suspect. The principle information we got was there’s a big rock here, watch your head here. I’m an adult. I can figure out where to put my feet. And If I don’t come out of a cave without a few scrapes then I don’t feel I have been exploring, you know? I felt like it was a good tour, but somewhat unsatisfied. Was it really worth the trip?

The next day I visited Crystal Cave and it blew my mind. Bottom line: ATM is for tourists, Crystal is for adventurers.

Diving school: Day 2 and 3, Open water

On day two of my dive course I took a choppy one-hour boat ride with ten-foot swells to Turneffe North. The thought of being at depth gave me butterflies. During the ride, I took the opportunity to relax and practice breathing slow deep breaths. I had a new instructor who was an older ex-military Belizian nicknamed “the Legend”, seemingly stern at first but warmed to me over time.

We started with a simple fun dive to a depth of 30 feet. I descended slowly using a rope line, equalizing my air spaces for the very first time by holding my nose and gently blowing. The surface shimmered above me. To be surrounded by and part of the reef was amazing! This dive made me “get it” and taste what a real dive could be. Checking out parrot fish and giant sea sponges is so much more fun than simulating equipment failure!

On the second dive we descended and knelt on a sandy bottom to work through skills. First up, my nemesis, clearing a flooded mask. I found this to be quite scary to do under three stories of water, but it is a very useful, common, and important skill to master. The full flood was the worst. Nervous, at the end I took a little water up my nose and choked. I had the powerful instinct to head for the surface, but my instructor made me stay under and resolve the problem. Learned how to cough it out into a regulator and regain calm.

Day three was the final day of the course: my last two open water dives and taking the written exam. We headed to the nearby Belize Barrier Reef. Finished off my skills at Spanish Bay with a navigation test and full mask removal. At Dolphin Point, we had a victory lap fun dive. The reef is so spectacular. We glided through canyons of coral. My instructor scared up a huge turtle from the sea floor. As she rose, another turtle came out of the deep blue and snapped his massive jaw at her tail. The two began swirling around each other locked in what I thought was a dual but I learned later was probably sex. One of the remora suckerfish riding on her shell was knocked free and followed us around for the rest of the dive.

Happy new diver’s id photo!

While waiting at our final three minute safety stop at 15 feet, my instructor gave me a double high five, a double fist bump, and then shocked me by busting a move. I happy danced along with glee; a great final dive. Back at the dive shop, I took my written test (much like a drivers license exam) and passed. They took the picture for my id card before they finished grading my test. Achievement unlocked: PADI open water diving certification!

Next up, another dive day in the Belize reef. I think I am going to pass for now on the Blue Hole and whale shark diving until I have more experience; I want more normal dives under my belt first. The plan: head to Utila where I can actually afford to dive dive dive.

Vice and gender inequality

Walking down the street in Caye Caulker every foreigner gets attention from the locals. But what kind of attention greatly differs based on your gender. As a lady, I receive subdued cat calls every 30 seconds or less along the main drag. Usually these are complimentary (“beautiful” “lady in red” “she’s so dan-ger-ous!”), but the other night when yawning while walking some dude said “you gotta big mouth”. Or, if I am carrying two plates of cake from the Cake Lady, “which one of those is for me, baby?”. Oh no no no, don’t even try to get between me and my rum cake OR coconut pie. Remember that big mouth? Both for me, I assure you.

My guy friends report they get offered drugs just as often as I get harmlessly hit on. And apparently the drug dealer pitches are AWFUL. “I got da best weed, we’ll blaze down the highway” or “I’m 35 and you look as old as I do. Have some of my weed and you’ll look younger and we can play basketball.” Umm, seriously? My friend Mark came back from a two-hour trip to San Pedro and his biggest impression of the place was the fact that there they tried to sell him cocaine instead of weed. I was there four days and had no idea! In comparing notes, we couldn’t decide which sex got the short end of the stick. “Just for variety, why can’t they mix it up? Offer you coke sometimes, hit on me sometimes…”

“I hear the reviews of the jail on TripAdvisor are *all* bad.”

Dive school: Day 1, Confined water

HQ of Belize Diving Services, my wonderful teachers.

¬†Well, I did it. I took that first breath underwater. And then another, and another out in the lagoon under four feet of water with pelicans watching. Even though PADI doesn’t recognize dives under twenty feet as an official dive and our dive computers kept automatically turning on and off because they couldn’t decide if we were going under or not, this one counts in my book.

I ended up being the only one who signed up for the course so am training one-on-one with a private instructor. I thought at first this might put extra pressure on me to perform, but actually it gave me so much freedom to speak my mind and get all the help I needed. One bit of advice he gave me at the very beginning: internalize the Caye Caulker motto and go slow. Move slow, breathe slow, everything slow.

In shallow confined water–similar to swimming pool conditions–I learned and demonstrated basic mask skills, emergency breathing, and stress tests over about 3 hours. There were times I minorly panicked. Apparently this is normal; most people struggle initially with a couple specific skills and take time to get their shit together in the new environment.

The very first skill tripped me: partially flooding your mask and clearing it with a strong puff of air through your nose. I hate hate HATE water in my mask. And I am neither a yogi nor a wind player, so breathing control isn’t my strength. I flooded my mask, floundered, and surfaced. This is apparently a common skill to freak on initially. After some deep breaths at the surface and calm words by my instructor, we went back down and completed other skills first (taking the regulator–the breathing apparatus–out of your mouth and putting it back in, breathing from secondary air sources, losing and recovering your regulator). With a little time, I became more comfortable. The next try, we practiced clearing an empty mask first. That buffeted my confidence and, after a deep breath, I succeeded with a partially flooded mask. Now I clear my mask all the time and it’s awesome! It really helps to know that I can now solve a common problem that I used to dread.

One of the more interesting skills to me is adjusting buoyancy. There are many tools at your disposal: your BCD (inflating/deflating vest), lead weight belt, and very importantly your lungs. I was amazed at how much breathing control and lung capacity impacted my position in the water and had fun playing with it. My instructor said I was a champ at these skills. We also practiced taking gear on and off, simulating running out of air, breathing out of a malfunctioning regulator, taking the mask fully off and breathing with it off (I hated this one too), clearing a fully flooded mask, and simulating emergency ascents.

I feel like I accomplished a bunch of new things today and overcame initial hurdles. The few moments we spent cruising around looking at baby barracudas were pretty cool, so I look forward to doing more of that (you know, the diving part) and fewer stress tests. My confined water training is done, and I head out on a proper open water dive tomorrow. I am a bit nervous. Instead of a depth of four feet in confined water where the surface is right there (I did utilize this option today!), we could go down as low as forty. I have already done the most brutal skills and am more confident in my ability; just have to replicate some of them at greater depth. I have both proven to myself that I do have beginners nerves but also I can overcome them, stay underwater, calm down, and get it done. There is no easy exit down there tomorrow, so no panicking allowed. Practicing my Zen breathing tonight.

Snorkeling Hol Chan: Sharks, rays, and eels oh my

Our lovely boat, the Ragga King.

In San Pedro on Caye Ambergris, I met up with my friend Maggie from San Francisco who came down to spend a few days with me in between her old and new jobs. We spent most of the four days she was here in the sun, reading, and girl talking while generally lazying about the yoga retreat where we stayed (and did zero yoga), but we had one main event: a full day snorkel tour of the Belize reef.

We went with Ragamuffin tours out of Caye Caulker. It is one of the more pricey snorkel tours, but we also had heard it was the best: $70USD each for six hours on the boat, three one-hour snorkel stops, snorkel guides, gear, lunch, and sunset ceviche and rum. (Other half day tours without food cost about $35USD.) After a breakfast of fry jack (savory Belizian fry dough) and beans, we climbed aboard and headed out to sea.

Maggie with hash and fry jack!

The sun was shining bright, the island music was playing, and we were all in fine spirits.  It felt happy-chill in a very Caribbean way. I love when good cliches come true. Our first stop was Coral Gardens way out in the reef, about a hour sail from our home port. We got our fins wet snorkeling among the coral and riding the waves.

Me, joyfully dipping my toes off the Ragga King.

Our second stop was Shark Ray Alley. Our guides tossed some chum into the water and suddenly beside our boat was teeming with four-foot long nurse sharks. We all jumped on in and checked out the docile frenzy, with large sting rays cruising just below on the sea floor. One of the guides grabbed a shark and let us all pet his belly. Smooth and springy!

Swimming with the sharks.

Our final stop was in the Hol Chan reserve, which was very cool. Here we saw all sorts of large marine life; my favorite were the morey eels! Our guide lured one out of his den using a conch shell (don’t ask me why this worked) and we followed the eel as he slithered all along the base of the reef. After we reboarded the boat, Maggie and I sat near the bow and were seen off by a friendly turtle just coming up for a breath. We cruised home tired and happy with chips and shrimp ceviche–very difficult to eat on a windy sail boat without flinging salsa bits onto other people! All in all, a lovely adventure, and I’m so happy I got to share some of my time down here with Maggie. ‚̧

You better Belize it!

Tikal, Tiredness, and Distractions

After another eight-hour shuttle ride I arrived in Flores, the island city base for visiting the great Mayan ruins of Tikal in northern Guatemala. Flores itself is quiet, but lovely surrounded by water, docks, and sunshine. I was utterly exhausted when I arrived in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, this is not unusual for visitors in Flores as many are arriving from long bus rides (me today) and getting up extremely early in the morning for Tikal tours (me tomorrow). The social scene here was subdued as so many people were in some phase of recovery (me the whole time).
Tired as I was, I set to work planning a tour for the next day of the famous Tikal, the granddaddy of Mayan ruins. There is great debate on when and how to visit Tikal. Sunrise is generally preferred by purists and masochists as the sunrise is beautiful, it is cooler in temperature, and wildlife is more active. But it also involves a 3am departure time from Flores–ouch. Both sunrise and sunset also have an added cost (100Q/$14USD) on top of the already expensive park entry fee (150Q/$20US). Guides and transport also come into play. After weighing the options, I decided to depart the hostel at reasonable a quite 4:30am, arrive at the park just as it opens officially at 6am, and complete the tour with a guide.

The next morning we did just that. After arriving at the park, getting everyone else caffeinated and me eating coconut cookies for breakfast, we headed in. It was beautiful in the early morning and we did see and hear wildlife: toucans, howler monkeys, a bizarre relative of opossum with a long snout, and the craziest looking turkeys you would ever see.

Hello pretty bird.
Rodents of Unusual Size.
Greeting the sun.

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The site and views were indeed beautiful, Mayan ruins in the jungle and all that, but I will admit I was a little disappointed. I preferred both Palenque and Tulum over Tikal as they felt more unique and spoke to me. To be fair, Tikal carries the burden of high expectations from a lot of hype, and perhaps I was just too tired to get something truly grand out of it. I was already wooed by the Mayans in Mexico and am also afraid Angkor Wat permanently did a number on my sense of scale (“show me another two dozen each gorgeously detailed and with tons of personality, then I’ll be impressed!‚ÄĚ). Also, while our guide was nice, he didn’t actually give me much historical perspective beyond the very basic. I really should have done more homework beforehand.

The thing about Tikal is that it actually *is* big, over 6 square miles and 3000 structures, but 80-90% is uncleared, unmapped, and unexcavated. I find this utterly amazing. See those rolling hills? Yeah, not actually natural hills, but more¬†archaeology¬†to be done. UPenn has been the leader of the serious excavation since 1956 and it looks like they have a lot of work ahead of them. Sim, I know you’re busy, but could you tell your people to get on this please? Kthnx.
Lots to do… better get moving Penn!
On top of pyramid IV, the tallest structure, a man approached me and asked me to be his model. He told me where to stand and to move this way and that, peering through his viewfinder to get the positioning just perfect, then handed me his camera and asked to switch places. I got curious. What exactly was he doing? (Cousin Mark, if you are reading I bet you have guessed already!) He happily enlightened me: reenacting a shot of the landing of the Millennium Falcon at the rebel base on Yavin 4 in Star Wars: A New Hope. Right, I remember now! This totally made my day. With his coaching, I got the camera angle right and took a shot of him he was satisfied with. In return, he took my picture too and knew exactly what he was doing directing me. Not bad, eh?
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Lanquin and Semuc Champey: an ode to an epicly fun three days

Semuc Champey. How could you not want to jump right in?

After the bustle of Semana Santa in Antigua, it was time for more of the beautiful outdoors and what better place than Lanquin. The small town of Lanquin serves as the perfect base for exploring Semuc Champey national park, renowned for its spectacular loveliness. If you are an adventurer, move Semuc Champey to the top of your to-do list NOW.

Sometimes fun hits exactly when you really need it to. I stayed at the Zephyr Lodge, a place I had been hearing about from other travelers since literally day one in Merida. It is perched on a high ridge with breathtaking 360 degree views all around you. You could not imagine a more picturesque spot. It is a super popular hostel and was completely booked; I snagged a reservation as a thank you for delivering a passport a friend left behind in Antigua. After a rough eight-hour shuttle ride, I was welcomed with a beer, bbq, and excellent company. Couldn’t think of a better way to start the next three days.

Another gorgeous Central American breakfast view, looking down from Zephyr Lodge to the river on morning number one.
Perched on the edge.
My favorite spot off-the-beaten-track at the hostel. Who can resist a secret hammock?

On the first full day, our group from the hostel piled into the back of a blue flatbed pickup truck at 8:30am and headed for Semuc Champey. We road 11km through the jungle, jostling up and down on the crap road into the valley. I kicked off my flip flips and loved every bump and bounce in my bare feet, occasionally going mini-airborne with glee. After an hour, we arrived and took a short and steep hike up for a breathtaking view of our next stop.

Panoramic of the beautiful Semuc Champey. Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
Can’t wait to go swimming!

We spent two hours frolicking below in the shallow pools. The water was a clear blue-green, which became my favorite color of the day. I particularly liked crawling on my belly over the smooth rocks covered in brown slime. Short waterfalls link the pools; all are excellent and refreshing to play in and a few make for a bumpy slide down. Tiny fish nibbled my feet as I watched everyone make their way down one large slide with a mad sharp dogleg; no one succeeded gracefully and there were many awkward dismounts, which made it that much more awesome.

So many kick ass swimming holes on this trip–unbelievable! Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

From the pools, we moved on to phase two of the day: caving. It is hard to believe that the day could get better, but it does. We discarded our shoes, sarongs, and backpacks, entering the Grutas K’anba caves in swimsuits and bare feet each carrying a taper candle. As we waded into the first tunnel and the water started coming up around my legs, it was impossible not to recall Indiana Jones down in the catacombs of Venice (sans the rats).

Going deeper into the cave, we swam holding the candles alight and aloft with one hand and paddling with the other. We climbed waterfalls and ladders, felt the way carefully with our feet, and scrambled up wet ledges. Our guide leaped from the front of our group to the back with ease, taking candles from his hat to light our way. At the end of the tunnel, the men were goaded into jumping off a tall ledge into a small pit of water, supposedly free of snakes. Me and two other girls scuttled over to the opposite ledge to watch, but quickly became the target of cannonballs. On the return trip, we finished with a final blind plunge. What can you do but just have fun when the guide sticks you in a hole barely big enough to squeeze through with darkness below, points your feet directly down, takes your candle, puts your hand on a hold, says “don’t let go!” and pushes you through? Exhilarating finish. I landed with my face under another waterfall and was thrilled not to lose a contact.

I have discovered on this trip that I adore caving. Leaving the caves, I was in a state of excited bliss and knew it was a day I would remember for however long forever is to me.

Cave women, splashed by cannonballs within an inch of our lives and loving it. Photo courtesy of Amanda Dwyer.

After an intense day one exploring, chilling was in order on day two. Luckily, there was the perfect option: tubing down the river. We hopped in the water with nothing but our tubes, selves, and two big mesh bags filled with beer. It was HOT, and the water felt fantastic. We drifted down, hooking together to slow the ride, chatting, and making our way through the bags ‘o beer. With so much Aussie slang being thrown around, it was this American’s strategy to laugh and enjoy, even if I only understood half!

Ah, floating. What better way to see the river? Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
Me and two of the Aussie boys. Wheeee!! Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.
More fun, towards the end of our beer stash. ūüėČ Photo courtesy of Nick Cooper.

We got home early in the afternoon and kept the chilling going. During an afternoon siesta at the secret hammock a few drops began to fall from the sky and I prayed for it to really rain. Within an hour, the heat broke and the sky opened up. Thunder and lightening cut out the power and threatened us in the open air, wind wrecked our card game, spraying cards all over the table. And when cards isn’t working, what’s to be done? For the rest of the night, the answer was tequila shots. In the ensuing aftermath, I poorly defended the sanity of women in gender debates, danced atop broken glass, laughed hard, remained exceedingly hydrated, accidentally kicked a dog in the face (disc√ļlpame!) while playing giant Jenga, asked inappropriate questions, and assured multiple people that everything was going to be okay and they did likewise for me. We all need a little comfort sometimes. And where the hell did that hat come from? I think you just got Gautemalaed.

Awesome crew, hell of a lot of fun. It was sad to see everyone ship out in their separate ways in the morning. But that is the way of life on the road. Embracing the impermanence and accepting another beautiful experience into my life.

BEWARE: Many a traveler looses their heart in Lanquin. It is a special and odd paradise that sucks people in, as can be seen by the number of travelers that return to work for extended periods of time at the hostel for just room and board. I wasn’t bit that bad, but it was tough to leave. If I could do it all over again from the beginning, I would in a heartbeat, 100%, any day of the week. Most definitely a highlight.

Hiking Santa Maria and different definitions of "easy"

I just finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring and find that a usual episode for the company reads like this: they travel far and grow weary but then arrive in a friendly land where something nice happens (meeting new friends, eating a good meal, receiving gifts) that lifts their spirits and emboldens their hearts and they carry on with renewed vigor. This was the way of my day hiking the volcano Santa Maria just outside of Xela. It is a tale of struggle and triumph of which I am extremely proud.

Xela and surrounds from a distance. Santa Maria is the tallest pointy one.
Source: Google Images

There are many volcanoes in western Guatemala, but Santa Maria is the one that looms over the city of Xela. Fun fact: its 1902 eruption is one of the 5 largest worldwide in the past 200 years. The city of Xela is high up at an approximate altitude of 7,875 feet. (Conveniently, I already acclimated last week in San Cristobal at 7,200 feet.) The summit of Santa Maria is at 12,375 feet. So yeah, this is an intense hike with 4,500 feet elevation change (almost one vertical mile!) over 3 miles one-way, with most of the elevation change happening in the final third. Essentially, while it may not be long, this is very steep and very challenging hike. And it was my first big mountain climbed! Whew, just remembering makes me tired.

When booking the tour the day prior, I was totally gung-ho. Yes, it’s the hardest hike around and I knew it was going to be tough, but it’s iconic in Xela. We have to do it! We were told by the tour company the difficulty was a 4 out of 7. I do hike back home in California, though rarely at altitude and never an actual mountain, so am fit and not a novice; no problem, I can do a 4. In hindsight I now find this rating somewhat hilarious, especially as the tour company’s own website rates the hike as “difficult”.

Monte Verde p { margin-bottom: 0.08in;tours (who were great btw, as was our guide) picked our trio up from the hostel at 5:30am and we were at the trail head by 6am. The “easy” part took us from the road through fields up and foothills. It didn’t feel so easy for me at the time, but compared to what was coming up easy was a good description!

Our company setting out at the trail head at 6am, Santa Maria in the background.
The initial approach. Yeah, we’re going to the top of that.

After about an hour we took a short rest at the base, then headed up the daunting peak. There was constant trash on the trail left mostly by locals on their way up. Volcanic ash made for fine and slippery footing, not to mention the dust clouds we each kicked up. The hike was strenuous. I began to worry about my knee; usually my left knee bothers me on descent but this time it was the right knee on the way up. My doubts were growing. Without the guide- and peer-pressure I might have turned back.

Me, about to head up and apprehensive.

On the mountain, my joy-to-pain ratio was not good. I was worried, tired, and getting grumpy. Why was I doing this? I find so much beauty in the world already without killing myself going up a mountain. I’ve never felt the need to summit. It is a conquering impulse I know a lot of hikers have, but I always wonder if those few moments at the top are really worth all the pain getting there. Whenever we would stop to take a picture partway up, our guide cheerfully assured us that the view would be better at the top. That doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful down here! I grew more frustrated.

Looking down on Xela below.
All kinds of pretty views! Haven’t we climbed high enough?

Our guide kept jokingly saying “5 minutos mas!”, which I found increasingly irritating. Just tell me the truth! I want to make decisions about my body based on accurate information! After much prodding, he acquiesced and disclosed how much left there was. At that point, we were resting on a bridge, I was already dead tired, and I thought we weren’t too far from the top. Turns out we had more than an hour of the most difficult stretch to go.

Horsing around on the bridge. (Partially obscured by grass near the camera lens.)
A typical extreme incline during hour four. Onward and upward.

We summited just before 10am. A preacher was sermonizing to locals as we caught our breath and took in the panorama. Much like cenotes in the Yucatan, volcanoes were often considered sacred to Guatemalans and rituals are still performed on their peaks today. We sat atop a huge boulder at the very top and looked out over the land around us. Our guide pointed out a dozen other volcanoes in all directions. It was beautiful, but I was dead tired and dreading the hike down.

Exhausted at the top.

After a few minutes we descended slightly (all I could think at that point was “God, we’re going to have to climb back up this to get to the trail…”) to have lunch overlooking the active volcano Santiaguito right next door. We spent a half hour enjoying the view and munching on our pesto sandwiches. Amy kindly passed around cookies to share. Then Santiaguito–the next door volcano just below us–blew for the first time. For me, this was that special transformative moment. It was so cool! The ash erupted into the sky like a mushroom cloud. We watched in awe. From that moment on, I felt renewed excitement. I was still beat, but it didn’t matter as much anymore. Look at what was around us! How freakin’ awesome is it to watch a volcano actually blow?! It erupted a second time even bigger just as we were about to leave our viewpoint. An inspiring and invigorating send off.

Amy with the best seat in the house.
So freakin’ awesome.
180 degrees from Santiaguito view, twin volcanoes erupt in the far distance.

On the way down Laura, our hike instigator, was tickled pink that we had fulfilled a dream of hers–we climbed a volcano! Her excitement was infectious. The descent wasn’t short but it was orders of magnitude easier than the way up. Our clip down was quick and good god did it feel awesome to be on the home stretch. We chatted and bubbled about what we had just done. When we finally left the mountain behind us, I felt huge relief, accomplishment, and happiness. Laura and I cheered!

There and back again. We did it!
Our hiking party at the pick up point. Even brighter-eyed now than at the onset. Yeah, we kicked that bad-boy-in-the-background’s ass!

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Would I do it again? Yes if I hadn’t already, but probably not a second time. Tough, but amazing and worth it. I’m very glad to have had this experience, but think this may be my one extreme hike of the trip. I was really hurting on the way up. Now, my legs are sore but I am SUPER killer proud of us. Especially when looking up at the mountain from down in the city. It is enormous and we are so bad ass!! The farther away I get from the pain of ascent, the more and more happy I am to have accomplished this hike.

I ate like a hobbit that day: first breakfast, snacks, lunch/elevensies, a 3pm dinner-ish meal of breakfast food (so I’m completely confused about what to call it), and later second dinner of fettuccine bolognese and lots of red wine. I did finally get that hot shower, plus a fresh coat of paint on my toenails.
Ew, the dust seeped through my shoes and socks! Pre-shower and pedicure.

Misol-Ha and Auga Azul tour: pretty, but worth it?


As a day trip from Palenque, I joined a half-day afternoon tour ($130 pesos transport plus $68 pesos entrance fees) to visit the nearby waterfalls of Misol-Ha and Agua Azul. It was a reminder of why I dislike giving up my independence to set tours and that I should ALWAYS bring a book. Twelve of us piled into a van and headed up a curvy highway into the mountains. The Misol-Ha waterfall was picturesque plunging from above and worth a photo, but my favorite part was behind the waterfall. Back there the water gushes so loudly that you can sing to yourself as loud as you want (my choice: Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”) and no one else notices.

Battling car sickness, we wove through the occasional small mountain village up to the Agua Azul waterfalls. Basic shops with children selling bananas and embroidered dresses peppered the roadside. Once at Agua Azul, the tour van held us there for three long hours. The falls were more horizontal than vertical, cascading in widescreen. Grand and nice, but not that nice. With not nearly enough to do there, the length of our visit seemed a coordinated ploy to trap tourists who then spend more money at¬† restaurants and shops that densely line the path all the way to the top of the falls. Had I not been locked in, I would have left after 45 minutes max. And I didn’t skimp on hiking. The other people on the tour felt the same and we tried to negotiate an earlier departure with the driver, but he was on contract and wouldn’t budge. Foolishly, I left LOTR behind, as I had wanted to force myself to focus on where I was in the present instead of keeping my nose in a book. Never again!

Agua Azul

On the way down, we encountered a fatal car crash just four cars ahead of us. We slowed to a halt and waited for the coroner to arrive to clear the body from the road. Locals from the nearby village ran along the shoulder and gathered to catch a glimpse. Once the wreckage was clear and now shortly after dusk, our delayed driver blasted down the windy two lane road, eager to end his day. I tightened my seatbelt.