Tajumulco Trudge

Trip Start Feb 03, 2006
Trip End Jun 20, 2006

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Just after we wrote our last entry, we went to pick up our clothes at the laundromat. When we opened the package in our room, we discovered my pants on top with a note (in Spanish) that basically said "these were dirty when they came in", and my favorite
pants were covered in black ink blotches. Andrew's pants also suffered a few spots, but not nearly as bad. Andrew was furious, and took the pants back to the laundromat and demanded compensation. After getting called a "liar" and a "son-of-a-bitch" (in English), the owner relented when he realized Andrew would likely ruin his travel agency (also in the same building) business--Andrew told anyone that came while he was waiting for money that the guy was a rip-off artist (and he was....two people came in who had already paid for a shuttle, and he told them that they would need to pay 50 Quetzales more apiece). Finally, Andrew got the money, but the guy wouldn't give back the pants. I told Andrew I would rather have the pants than the money, so he went back. The guy's back was turned, so Andrew took my pants and scuttled off. I think I will try to dye them black.

The next day (Friday), we headed to Quetzaltenago, usually called Xela by the locals. We had to switch busses in some nowhere town, and we had our first experience with a Central American pickpocket--not bad for already having travelled 2 months! As Andrew was getting onto the very crowded bus, he felt a hand slip into his back pocket. He turned around and found a guy with a jacket over his hand. Andrew slapped the guy's hand, pushed the guy over, and Andrew's wallet fell out of the jacket. The would-be pickpocket then acted offended, and Andrew quietly took his seat. Even if we had lost the wallet, it wouldn't have been terrible--it only contained enough cash for the day, and some fake credit cards (the ones they send you with credit card offers through the mail).

After 4 hours of local busses (we refuse to call them "chicken busses"--the phrase is very overused, and inaccurate, as we have yet to see an actual chicken on a bus), we made it to Xela.

We booked a guided trip up Volcan Tajumulco, which is the highest point in Central America (4220 meters, or about 13,842 feet--not much shorter than Mount Ranier) through a group called Quetzaltrekkers. The organization is run by volunteers and all profits go toward running a school and orphanage for street children.

Quetzaltrekkers is based out of a local hotel, so we figured it would be the most logical place to stay before our early Saturday start. We rendezvoused with the rest of the group Friday night to go over the plan and dole out gear. We were able to borrow extra fleece jackets, hats, gloves, sleeping bags and meager pads. Our group consisted of 21 clients and 3 guides, and was pretty multinational--Swiss, German, Swedish, Norwegian, American, Canadian, Guatemalan, and Irish. Ages ranged from about 19 up to Caroline and Walter, retired American doctors we think were in their late 60's.

We woke up at 4:30 Saturday morning and were taken by pickup to the bus station. From there, we took a local bus for about 1.5 hrs to a different town, where we had breakfast at a comedor. From there, it was another hour on local bus to the start of the hike.

The hike is about 6.5 km total. It begins at about 3000 meters, and on the first day you climb to base camp at 4000 meters. The hike was very strenuous, but not killer. We passed first through a deforested hillside landscape, heavily damaged by erosion. After that, we got into some open, park-like stands of pine trees. Our group had very diverse abilities, and we were happy to find that we were among the more fit. Caroline and Walt trucked right along as well. There was one American med student that was consistently 45 minutes behind, but we gave him a lot of credit for not giving up. (After the hike, he commented that he had the best service of anyone, as Roberto, the "sweep-up" guide, was basically his personal guide for the entire trip up the mountain). Our lead guide, a German named Arne, was a slave-driver, and basically went as fast as he could and only took breaks when he realized that he needed a cigarette, or when the group was strung out over a kilometer or more.

We had lunch about 3:00 in a breezy saddle. Arne had made a lot of the food himself, which was nice--guacamole, tomato salad, potato salad, and peanut-butter sandwiches, but we thought that they did take up a LOT of space and weight. Also, the loaves of bread were all, of course, squished to death, and the tortilla chips were more like tortilla crumbs. We hung out there for an hour and a half, then made the final hour-long trudge to base camp. Once there, we discovered that a different group had taken the space that Quetzaltrekkers usually uses, so we were forced to find other space, and it was a bit tight. Instead of multiple small tents, Quetzaltrekkers uses 3 large 6-man tents. It was hard to find a space big enough for the tents.

We had a big campfire that evening, which was nice in the chilly weather (it got really cold after the sun set, and waves of heavy fog were blowing through condensing on everything) but we had to wonder if contributing to the already staggering deforestation was the best thing Quetzaltrekkers could do. Each person had to donate 1.5 L of water to cooking purposes, which seemed really wasteful--for dinner we had soup (okay--you eat all the liquid) and pasta, which wastes a LOT of water, not to mention a lot of space in the packs--macaroni, not spaghetti.

After eating the okay soup and dry pasta with chunks of tomato and bad cheese, and having smoke from the campfire blow on us for a few hours, Andrew and I hit the sack early. Many people were feeling the effects of the altitude (there were quite a few puke-piles the next morning), and so a lot of the group was in bed by 8:00.

The next morning, we were woken at 4:10 in order to climb the volcano in time to see the sun rise. We only had two guides for this part of the climb, as the third was struggling with altitude sickness. I had had a migraine the night before, and had taken a Maxalt (a vasoconstrictor) and my heart felt like it was beating even more frantically than it had the previous day. The hike up to the volcano was mostly steep, through loose rock with occasional scrambling on all-fours. It began to get light before we got to the top, but there was little sign of "sunrise", due to the thick thick fog. At one point, we were almost forced to return to base camp, as the second guide had escorted a sick client back to camp, and then another wanted to drop out, which would have left us guide-less. The second guide showed back up with the sick client, who had decided to push on, and so we were able to make the summit by about 5:30 am.

The summit was very very cold and foggy and quite windy. It was not a pleasant place to be. We hung out for about 45 minutes waiting for the clouds to clear. On of the guides handed out cookies, and I was surprised to find that my lips wouldn't quite work right to chew the damned thing. We briefly saw the sun through the fog, but realized that it wasn't clearing, so with everyone cold, we went back down the mountain after circumnavigating the crater lip.

Back in camp, the weather cleared.

One of our biggest problems with Quetzaltrekkers was the hygiene. Everyone was assigned a cup, spoon, and plate, but not any way to wash them. When Andrew asked Arne what to do after the first lunch, he was told to "wipe it out with bread". By our third meal, breakfast, everything was really grubby, and Andrew was reduced to cleaning our things with alcohol hand sanitizer. Arne heated a pot of water on the whisperlite for coffee, then told everyone to dip out water with their own cups. Luckily Andrew was first in line, because when he went back for seconds, the water remaining in the pot was filthy with food bits. We are surprised nobody got sick (or maybe they did after they got home). Caroline was particularly appalled, describing the entire situation as "wretched".

After breakfast, we broke camp and made our way down the mountain. It was sort of appalling that Andrew and I were more adept at tent set-up than our guides, one of whom had almost started a forest fire that morning with the Whisperlite. Going downhill was nice on the heart, but hard on the knees.

At the bottom, we caught a bus, then had lunch at that same comedor, then caught another bus back to Xela. As an interesting side-note, vendors frequently get on the bus in Central America selling everything from food to sodas to newspapers and snake-oil medicines. However, this was the first time we saw a bus vendor selling pornography.

We walked back to Quetzaltrekker headquarters, turned in our gear, and went to find our new hotel. We went out to dinner, then crashed for over 10 hours. Today, our legs are sore and we are happy.
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andrewandjacque on

Don't know about the other mtn. You can go with Quetzaltrekkers up Tajumulco, but you should be independantly equipped and provisioned and have some previous backcountry self-support experience and light mountaineering experience to keep yourselves happy and healthy.

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