Climbing Guatemala’s Volcan de Zunil

A Last-Minute Ascent of an Unknown Peak with a Non-English Speaking Guide


By Rick Mannshardt


Climbing a Misty Jungle Mountain

Go to Part 2    Go to Part 3
Part 1 of 3

TIMELINE: August 2002. Fuentes Georginas, Zunil, Guatemala.

I awoke the next morning at five o’clock. I’d gotten only four or five hours of sleep, but my senses were sharp and hungry. I was ready. Outside, everything was quiet. Whoever had caused the disturbance the night before was gone. I slid out of bed and started getting dressed. My guide was due to arrive at the front gate at six o’clock. At a quarter till, my girlfriend was still in bed as I left the stone hut and walked down the path to wait for him. Cool and damp, the cloud forest lay heavy with mist in the pre-dawn stillness. Unfortunately my own mood wasn’t as tranquil. There wasn’t much time to play with today. Even if we left on schedule, our chances of summiting were iffy. I waited as six o’clock came and went, and still my guide had not arrived.

Even after a couple weeks, I was still getting used to Latin America Time. Here in Guatemala, like I’d seen earlier in Belize, deadlines and appointments were nebulous terms; things happened on their own schedule. Just because you were paying for it didn’t mean it would be any different. That’s one thing Brenda was fully accustomed to. But then she had spent years down here living and working among the Maya. As the daughter of Central American parents, it was in her blood as well.

I circled the small clearing a couple times as I waited. Fuentes Georginas was indeed a magical place— its remote location as alluring as the hot springs that gave it its name. The heavenly call of a bird somewhere in the canopy filled the canyon with a gently descending warble. Off in the distance lay several forested volcanoes catching the first light of dawn. They looked truly inviting. Idly, I wondered which one of them was Zunil. At one point I stopped. On the ground at my feet lay an empty shell casing. I bent over to pick it up– a .45 automatic, probably from the gunfire last night. I was going to slip it in my pocket to take home as a souvenir, but because of the heightened security in recent months I tossed the shell in the bushes and continued to wait.

The faint whine of an automobile engine broke the stillness. A car was making its way up the hill. Ah, here he is finally, I thought. A dusty sedan appeared from around the bend. It slowed down and stopped at the gate with its engine still running. After a few seconds of waiting, the car drove off. No guide. I couldn’t help thinking about the time this happened before. Seven years earlier, I was stranded at the Tanzanian border, waiting for a mountain guide who seemed to have forgotten about me. The foul-up eventually delayed me several hours. But I didn’t have those extra hours today.

By now, Brenda had walked down from our hut to wait with me. There was nothing else we could do. There were no phones here at Fuentes, and we wouldn’t have known whom to call if there were. The arrangements had been made by a woman behind the bar at the restaurant. Again, Latin America Time. I just needed to be cool. But it was always hard to be cool on the morning of a climb—especially a new peak in a foreign country. I’d hardly eaten a thing this morning—just a few leftover snacks in the darkness of our hut. By now, I just wanted to get going. Maybe I was still edgy from the commotion the previous night.

Just after 6:30, a well-worn pickup truck pulled up and stopped by the gate. Once again, I watched and waited—half-expecting another false alarm. This time, the passenger side door opened and a short stocky Maya man in his fifties hopped out. A yellowed straw cowboy hat sat atop his head and a two-foot machete hung from his belt. I knew this had to be him. As the car drove off he walked up and introduced himself, smiling modestly. His name was Santos. Apparently my mountain guide was bilingual—speaking Spanish as well as K’iche, one of several indigenous Mayan dialects common in Guatemala. But he spoke no English—confirming what we’d been told the day before. I already knew this was going to be a problem. My own Spanish was pretty weak—a patchwork of random words and phrases picked up over the years; but not enough to bet my life on. That’s why Brenda had joined us here; I’d asked her to translate for me. But she wasn’t coming on the climb with us. So she had only a few minutes to make sure Santos understood our situation. It had to do with timing.

We were flying home early the next morning, and had a four hour bus ride to Guatemala City ahead of us this afternoon. Safety was still an issue in the country. More than one of our sources had stressed the importance of being off the roads before dark because of recent armed robberies. In order to do so, Brenda and I had to be on that 3:30 bus to Guatemala City, which was the last one of the day. From that, we’d determined that I needed to be off the mountain by 1:30 to give us enough time to catch a taxi back to Xela. (Since there were no phones, we’d already made arrangements for the ride before our cabbie had left the previous afternoon after dropping us off.) Missing the taxi meant missing the bus. Missing the bus meant we were screwed.

So I needed to be back down off the mountain by 1:30. That was the one thing Brenda needed to make clear to my guide. Certainly it was more important to make it aboard that bus than it was to reach the summit of this volcano, but I saw no reason I couldn’t do both. As Brenda went over the details, Santos nodded in agreement, indicating that he understood. I was hoping to make the climb in seven hours, though we’d heard that it was going to be a stretch. And we were already a half hour behind schedule. So Brenda snapped a quick picture of me and Santos, kissed me goodbye and we were off, heading for the summit of Volcan de Zunil– a mountain I hadn’t even heard of before yesterday afternoon. I didn’t know it yet, but I was in for more than a climb. I was about to begin a race—a jungle mountain marathon.

This was the third guided climb I’d been on, but the first time with a guide that didn’t speak English. It seemed that this would be an easy problem to solve, but there were other ramifications I hadn’t anticipated. Knowing that my understanding of Spanish was limited, I’d asked Brenda to prepare a little cheat sheet for me—a list of phrases and questions to help me communicate any pressing issues that might come up. This would take care of the basic necessities; the safety issues. But unlike Kilimanjaro and Mount Hood, there’d be no easy, casual chatter this time around—the kind of talk that builds trust and allows you to get to know one another. So for most of the climb, the two of us would be alone with our thoughts. I didn’t realize how this silent isolation would affect the trip; how it would color my perceptions and shape my interpretation of what was happening. But I had faith that the little sheet of paper folded in my shirt pocket would answer all my questions.

The trailhead was closer than I thought. Passing the thermal pools of the spa, we climbed a flight of rock steps near the head of the canyon and quickly found ourselves in the forest. A canopy of vine-choked trees closed in overhead, filtering out the misty twilight. Almost immediately, the slick muddy trail took off up the hill at nearly a forty-five degree angle. There’d be no warm-up period on this mountain, I thought to myself. This was going to be one tough mother of a climb. Though the forest remained chilly from the previous night, I found myself quickly working up a sweat. It was clear to me now that Santos had understood Brenda’s instructions. He was practically flying up the trail. Already panting hard within the first few minutes, I struggled just to keep up with the old guy. I wondered if the entire climb was going to be this steep.

What started as a race now felt more like a punitive military expedition. Though Santos was twenty feet ahead of me on the trail, his labored breathing told me that he was already panting as hard as I was. Clearly he was determined to stay within my time constraints of seven hours for the round trip. Still, I kept thinking about what the skeptical woman behind the bar had told us yesterday. She said If we really hurried, we might possibly make it in that time. But if we kept up this pace, I’d be out of gas before we got halfway. After only ten minutes, I was already having doubts about making the summit.

I knew almost nothing about this mountain. The route, the terrain, the conditions and especially the risks were a mystery to me. All I had to go on were a couple of numbers: an elevation of 3,542 meters—roughly 11,600 feet– and a ballpark time estimate for getting to the top and back. I wasn’t accustomed to having so many unanswered questions; I usually had weeks or even months to do my research and fill-in the blanks. But it was actually this mystery– this murky uncertainty that I was initially fearing and denying, that would ultimately define this trip. The unknowns of Zunil would become its strongest allure, and the source of my fondest memories.

The blanket of low-lying clouds that shrouded the mountain obscured any kind of view, but it kept the sun off our heads and the temperature in the mild fifties. Yet this cloud cover didn’t keep the sweat away. Within minutes I was drenched, mopping my brow on an already saturated sleeve. Not having time to properly prepare for this climb, I’d brought no mountain gear. Nearly everything I had with me was designed for the tropics and was made out of cotton. So it all stayed wet.

After twenty minutes of non-stop slogging we stopped to rest—but just long enough for us to catch our breath and allow me a few gulps of water before continuing. I considered myself in good physical shape at the time; I worked out year-round to ready myself for these kinds of trips. Yet the aggressive training schedule I’d adhered to back home seemed laughably insufficient now. This volcano had reduced me to a beginner; a Marine Corps draftee struggling through his first week of boot camp.

Santos was a different story. For an old guy, he had the stamina of a mountain goat. Every time we stopped and I stood hunched over a pool of sweat with my heart pounding in my ears, he was admiring the view– waiting till I was ready to continue. Rationally I knew his endurance came from a lifetime of toiling in these rugged high mountains. But to look at him he seemed like some kindly grandfather who tended coffee plants and took an occasional stroll into the hills to stretch his legs. It looked like he hadn’t even brought anything with him to drink. I’d already emptied my first quart bottle, yet he hadn’t taken even a sip. Beneath his cowboy hat, his sun-darkened face rarely showed any emotion. But I knew that his stoicism was merely the typical reserve of the Maya that Brenda had come to know in her years of living in Central America. Despite the language barrier between us, he and I did manage to communicate a bit during these short breaks. But it usually involved him asking me if I was tired, and me saying that I wasn’t. My responses may not have been completely honest, but I didn’t want him slowing down because of me. I knew this was my only shot at making the summit of Zunil. And I really needed to catch that 3:30 bus back to Guate.

Part 2 of 3

As we pressed ahead we eventually came upon an area of exposed, moss-covered boulders that protruded from the slope like the steps of a giant staircase. Santos pushed on, undaunted. I followed behind him, struggling to keep up. As I leapt from one precarious step to the next I realized that this staircase was begging for a railing, and had to resist the temptation to grab onto the surrounding vegetation for balance. I knew from past experience that many tropical plants employed some nasty defense mechanisms. I thought back to the wickedly thorny vines I ran into during a hill climb in Costa Rica; the burning rash from the poisonwood trees that we encountered in Belize was said to be just as unpleasant. Somehow I managed to cling to the muddy slope, probably more from sheer will than from traction.

A pair of dogs, a rust-colored chow and a black chow mix, had been hanging around the café when we started out this morning. When we passed by, they began following us. I’d expected them to quickly lose interest but they stayed with us, showing no sign of being tired. With more stamina than Santos, the two of them were constantly running off-trail to investigate things– doubling the mileage that the two of us were putting in. They looked quite at home on this mountain; I had the feeling that they’d done this before.

After a punishing thirty minutes that felt like ninety, the trail began to level off. Finally we’d reached a plateau. We took advantage of the opportunity and stopped for a rest. As the hammering in my chest began to subside, I was able to catch my breath for the first time since we started. My entire upper body from scalp to waist was soaked, but the rain of sweat had ceased for the moment. That first half hour had felt like a jet taking off. Hopefully we were now at cruising altitude. After a few more gulps of water, we continued on.

Now that the pace had eased up a bit, I could start to see beyond my immediate world, and had the chance to organize a thought or two. I pulled the camera out of my pack and took a few photos. Zunil was an enchanting mountain—an intense collision of geology and vegetation that stood apart from the lifeless volcanoes I was accustomed to hiking on. The winding trail carved its way through dense stands of two-inch bamboo so high that the tops disappeared into the surrounding trees. Still under a heavy canopy, we hadn’t seen the sun all morning. The few hurried photos I took of Santos would turn out hopelessly blurred in the dim light. A minute or two later we were back on the trail at a good pace, trying to stay on schedule.

Eventually, the jungle that had surrounded us began to close in even tighter. With ferns and heavy brush hemming us in on both sides, the trail shrunk to barely two feet across. Overhead, a dense tangle of branches and vines hung down to within five feet of the ground, making the trail look more like a tunnel. Santos led the way, cruising right through without even having to duck, as if the trail was built for him. I didn’t have that luxury myself and was constantly dodging the low branches. Despite these frequent impediments on the trail, I noticed my guide had yet to use his machete. It remained hanging in its scabbard on his hip. I wondered how bad things needed to get before he’d pull it out. Maybe it was just for show.

Still heavy with dew from the previous night, the forest held moisture like a giant green sponge. At one point we found ourselves trudging through a hundred yards of waist-high foliage absolutely dripping with water. By the time we’d gotten through it, the front of my pants were drenched, mirroring an upper body that was equally saturated from sweat. A rain shower couldn’t have made us any wetter.

The dogs continued to follow us up the mountain. Ever curious, they were constantly going off-trail, straying ahead or falling behind. Most of the time, they were out of our sight. On several occasions I heard high-pitched yelps coming from the bush, suggesting they had run into some thorns or something. But they always managed to catch up with us again, ready for more. At one point the rust-colored one was somewhere off to my left, rooting around in the brush. I heard another yelp—this time louder and more distressed. I wanted to stop but Santos didn’t seem worried. Apparently the dogs would have to take care of themselves. So we continued up the trail without him. After what felt like ten minutes, the dog showed up again, seemingly OK and eager to continue. I had to keep reminding myself that dogs here didn’t get the pampering that they do back home in the states. The dogs I’d seen in Belize were about as independent as they come; tough, scrappy and as world-wise as timber wolves.

As we ascended higher, the terrain began to open up; the foliage becoming less dense and oppressive. The sky poked its way through the trees, and the damp air felt drier and more mountain-like. We even managed to catch a brief glimpse of a view; gaining some sense of a world outside the all-consuming confines of the forest.

At one point we came to a fork in the trail; one of several we’d encounter over the next hour. Apparently there was more than one route to the summit. Yet I got the feeling that some of these trails led to other places—places you didn’t necessarily want to go. I’d heard that tourists frequently attempt to climb Zunil without using a guide. A lot of them get lost— sometimes for several days, requiring search parties to be sent out to find them. There were subtle signs at these trail junctions if you knew what to look for– machete cuts on fallen logs or tiny spots of orange spray paint on tree trunks. At other places, thin blue ribbons dangled from branches. Whether these indicators were interchangeable with each other, or if they meant different things was unclear. Yet for Santos, these cryptic marks were as distinct as road signs.

Any wilderness trip demands a certain level of attentiveness and concern, and this journey through politically sensitive Guatemala was no exception. Months ago, during the planning stages of our trip, Brenda and I had read a lot about security. It seemed that every Guatemalan guidebook mentioned problems with armed guerrillas robbing foreign tourists– especially in the highlands. Incidences of rape and murder had also been reported. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that Guatemala was basically off limits to tourism. The recently ended 36-year civil war between government forces and indigenous Maya guerilla fighters had left the country burdened with tension and mistrust. As a result there were still a lot of desperate, angry people with guns in these outlying areas. Brenda and I had been OK so far in Guatemala, in both the small towns and the big cities, but I found myself more on alert here than I might otherwise have been; perhaps even subject to a little paranoia.

I hadn’t really given much thought to the ongoing silence between Santos and myself, though I admit that I was still a bit unsure about him. Back in my own hometown, such silence might have been seen as a sign of trouble; of tension lurking beneath the surface. I’ve never been a very chatty person, especially with new people, but I’d never spent so much time with someone where there was so little talk. So when he suddenly asked me how much I’d paid for my camera (one of several semi-pro Nikons that I owned for my work back home) his question caught me off guard. I felt self-conscious revealing a price that was probably more than he earned in six months. His astounded response and subsequent silence had me feeling uneasy, and for a brief moment I imagined he was plotting to use his machete to relieve me of that camera and abandon me on the mountain.

I was still fairly new to international travel at this point. I hadn’t yet been to Nepal or South America, and hadn’t done much trekking in remote country, so I guess I was still subject to an occasional twinge of naïve assumption. Laughing at my initial reaction, I realized it was an innocent question. My guide was simply curious.

About an hour into the ascent, Santos stopped abruptly at the edge of a sloped clearing. I wasn’t sure what he was looking at until I caught up with him. On the slope above us and to the right lay the raw gash of a recent landslide. A twenty yard section of the trail had been swept away. The dark brown volcanic soil, once anchored by grass and shrubs, lay exposed and unstable. Santos stood for some time surveying the damage. The slope was easily steeper than forty-five degrees and extremely soft. I didn’t see how we could get through, and was convinced that we’d be forced to turn back. Santos continued to study the slope, not saying anything. Perhaps he was thinking of a way to break the bad news to me.

But I was wrong. The trail was still passable. A set of fresh footprints followed the raw edge of the slide all the way up. I’ll admit it looked nearly suicidal, but when Santos started heading up the slope, I simply followed him. Twenty feet up, he turned and started to traverse to the left. The upturned soil felt like slushy snow. If either of us slipped, we’d roll a hundred feet until we came to a stop. As carefully as I was placing each step, I was convinced the soil was ready to give way under our weight at any moment. I tried not to think about it too much, and just kept following Santos’ footprints up the slope.

Once we’d gotten above the slide, I didn’t feel any sense of relief. Instead, I instinctively found myself thinking about having to get through here again on our way back down, when it would be even harder for us to keep things under control. But there was no point in worrying about that now; we had enough to deal with getting to the summit. As we continued upward, the forested canopy closed back in above us and I soon forgot about the landslide altogether. I had no way of knowing that we wouldn’t even be coming back this way.

Despite my limited knowledge of Spanish, Santos and I were able to communicate more easily as the day progressed. And except for one brief peek at it, Brenda’s little cheat sheet stayed in my pocket the entire time. The two of us even managed some occasional small talk, chatting about his guiding career and my climbs in California and Africa. But I could never be sure if everything we said was coming across accurately. I guess it didn’t matter. After our somewhat awkward start, it felt good simply to be talking with my guide.

Our chances of making the summit were still uncertain, but something else was concerning me. We hadn’t yet agreed on a turn-around time, so I didn’t know when we needed to be heading back down. I knew we had to be off the mountain by 1:30, but what I didn’t know was how much time to set aside for the descent. Before I asked Santos how long it would take, I thought I’d try to figure it out on my own and made a calculated guess of 2 ½ hours, based on the steepness of the terrain and a total trip time of seven.

My guess turned out to be fairly accurate. Santos said that the descent would take us about two hours. This gave us a mandatory turn-around time of 11:00—whether we’d summitted or not. With that question answered, I found myself much more at ease. I hadn’t realized how much of my apprehension was centered around that one issue. At this point I knew that I’d enjoy the rest of the climb, regardless of the outcome.

About two hours into the ascent, the canopy opened up again and the terrain became more exposed. Zunil was now beginning to look more like a mountain. As we started zigzagging up a rocky outcrop, we heard voices coming from up above. The two of us had been alone on the mountain all morning, so I didn’t expect to encounter anyone else on the climb. As we continued up the steep slope we came upon three Guatemalan boys, probably ten or twelve years old on their way down. They were probably from one of the nearby villages. I remember they were all wearing cheap rubber boots– the kind I used to wear to school on rainy days when I was a kid. One of them carried an unsheathed machete on his belt and a portable radio slung over his shoulder on a homemade twine strap. I noticed they weren’t carrying any overnight gear, so they must’ve started out very early in the morning. Young as they were, their easy manner suggested that they’d done this climb before. Like the members of some secret club, they brought to mind the impoverished yet worldly characters from Huckleberry Finn. I wished I’d had a backyard like this to play in when I was their age. We stopped for a few moments while Santos spoke to them in K’iche. Then, we were off again as they continued down the mountain.

Further up the trail, we came across other locals—two boys, and later a man by himself. They were all very quiet at first, and I instinctively found myself a bit apprehensive. As they passed by us on the narrow trail, Santos and I said hello to them before we continued on. Admittedly I’d been overly suspicious. I was still getting used to the ways of the Maya. Like the many others we encountered in Guatemala, they were friendly– but noticeably reserved with people they didn’t know. I’d already forgotten that Santos had struck me the same way when we first met. But by now, I’d begun thinking of him as an old friend.

Once atop the rocky slope, we came to another plateau, smaller than the one we’d seen earlier. Witnessing our first unobstructed view of the surrounding landscape, we looked out upon a sweeping vista of the neighboring volcanoes. A blanket of mist slowly crept up from the jungle between them. For the first time, I sensed that we were getting close to the summit; I could already feel the magic. A little further on, we stopped by the edge of a cliff. The view nearly overwhelmed me. Five feet from the tips of my muddied boots, the ground dropped straight down at least 1,000 feet to the jungly valley below. It was a scene straight out of The Lost World; I almost expected to see dinosaurs roaming around down there. One of the dogs crept curiously up to the edge. “Muy peligroso,” Santos warned us both. I agreed. After a quick photo, we were off again.

Other volcanoes such as Santo Tomas and Santa Maria came into view whenever we reached a high clearing, gradually revealing yet more of the grandeur of this mountainous world. Off in the distance, beyond the city of Xela, stood the peak of Cuxliquel (Koosh-le-kel). Ranging in elevation from 7,000 to nearly 14,000 feet, the volcanoes of southern Guatemala tower over the land like an order of high priests. Many of them currently active, several erupt on a regular basis. Plumes of steam and ash can often be seen rising from their rocky summits. The magic was building; our earlier struggles now a faded memory as we found ourselves being virtually pulled onward. I’ve always had a special affinity for volcanoes. There’s something exciting about climbing a mountain that’s alive beneath your feet. Sometimes, you can even smell their breath. The magma within Zunil heated the water that fed the pools here at Fuentes.

By now the terrain had changed completely. Leaving the jungle behind, we came upon vast areas of open scrub country where scattered, deciduous trees stood out against a sea of low-lying vegetation. Pale green grass lay thick along the trail. This looked like an entirely different mountain than the one we’d started out on this morning. We followed the contour of the hillside as it gradually took us higher. I was getting the feeling that we had to be near the top at this point– there didn’t seem to be much more mountain left to climb. I looked at my watch, surprised that it was only 9:30. Things were looking good; we seemed to be ahead of schedule.

But when I asked Santos how much longer until we reached the summit, he told me it would take another hour and a half. It was going to be tight. We needed to be heading back down by eleven. Yet the pull of the summit was so strong by now that I was tempted to alter the game plan; stretching our turn-around time. Surely we could squeeze a half hour off the descent if we needed to. That would still give us enough time to get back down to Fuentes. Despite this rush of summit fever, I had to keep reminding myself that catching the 3:30 bus to Guate was more important than reaching the top of a mountain that I didn’t even know existed 24 hours earlier. But we still had a chance. I could still have both.

We eventually found ourselves atop an open ridge. For the first time all morning, the sun was fully upon us, intense and vibrant from the altitude. I smeared on some sunscreen and continued up the vaguely-marked trail. We soon came to a small saddle between two brush covered hills. My first thought was that we’d continue up the hill on the left, which seemed to be the higher of the two. But Santos, with the dogs still at our heels, pushed up the smaller steep slope to the right. Covered with knee-high dry scrub, there wasn’t really any trail at this point. We just navigated between the clumps of vegetation.

Twenty minutes later we crested the slope and came upon a small flat area crowned with scattered brush. At our feet lay the charred remains of a campfire. It looked like nothing more than an abandoned campsite. We stopped to rest. Then, quite abruptly, Santos said we were there. I was sure that I’d misunderstood him, but it appeared that we were actually at the summit. “El tope,” he said. “El tope!” It was true; we were there.

I looked at my watch. Though it felt like two in the afternoon, it was only 10:00 AM. We’d reached the top of Volcan de Zunil in an astounding three hours; a climb of nearly 4,000 feet. Our unrelenting sweat-soaked pace had paid off. Despite the snafu at the spa the day before, despite the delays and doubts and the gunfire that had kept me awake half the night, we’d pulled it off. Thanks to Santos, whose determination was matched only by his quiet confidence, I’d reached the summit of a Central American volcano on the final day of our trip. Life felt very sweet indeed.

We stood there in silence, absorbing the view. Several forested volcanoes lay scattered throughout the landscape, towering over the green and brown valleys below. A white veil of mist was creeping toward us from the valley to the west. The view was almost mystical. A familiar feeling soon swept over me—a heady mixture of accomplishment and reverence, flavored with a bit of immortality. For the moment, we owned the mountain and everything we could see. We took a few photos and at Santos’ insistence, sat down and had a snack. The dogs were still with us. They’d probably made this climb many times before. They lay on the dry grass, completely relaxed– as if they were in the park.

I was full of energy and would’ve been happy to start back down, but Santos wanted to savor the moment—or at least rest a bit more. He was right. I sat back down and finished the last of my water. He reached into his daypack and pulled out a small bottle of very weak coffee—the only thing he’d had to drink since we started. I’d already drained the second quart from my water bottles, and had yet to pee even once. I’d sweated out every drop. Santos looked dry as a bone. He was in amazing shape, regardless of his age.

Putting together a few rudimentary sentences in Spanish, I spoke with him about my upcoming journey home. As was the case all morning, the drive to communicate superseded any barriers that seemed to stand in the way. I was amazed that we always managed to get our thoughts across—or at least the basic parameters. At one point, he asked me where California was. The distance was a difficult concept, but I told him it was basically north of where we were. We ended up teaching each other the names of the four points of the compass, as he used his hand to indicate their corresponding directions from the summit. It was a special moment. Sometimes small things become meaningful. For the seemingly millionth time in my life, I was profoundly grateful that I’d had the opportunity to come to a place like this; even more so since this climb hadn’t been on our original agenda. Despite knowing that I’d be back home in the urban United States by the end of the following day, at this moment I was a world away, both in body and in spirit. We were in Shangri-la, Eden, lotus land and Utopia. The dogs however, probably weren’t as impressed.

Five minutes later, when we both acknowledged that we were ready to go, we packed up and started our descent. Santos led the way, heading back down the grassy slope. The dogs were eager, pulling ahead of him. He then told me we could reach the bottom in an hour. Once again, I thought I’d misunderstood him; he’d said earlier it would take at least two and a half. I was skeptical, but I wanted very much to believe him.

Part 3 of 3

We soon came to a junction in the trail that we hadn’t seen on the way up. Squatting down to draw a picture in the dirt, Santos told me there was a shortcut off the mountain. But nothing comes for free; I figured there had to be a downside. I asked him about it and was encouraged to learn that it wasn’t any more dangerous than the route we’d ascended on. So I said OK, let’s do it. He then took off into the high brush with me not far behind. The route may not have been more dangerous, but I’d soon find that it couldn’t have gotten much steeper. And Santos would finally be pulling out his machete.

Until now, I’d resigned myself to hauling-ass all the way back down, barely making it aboard the shuttle in time for the long dusty bus ride back to Guate. But with this shortcut at our disposal, I began to see a brighter picture. If we could reach the spa in an hour I’d have the chance to relax and have lunch with Brenda before the shuttle arrived. We might even be able to enjoy another soak in the pool. The more I envisioned an afternoon of leisure at the spa, the more I found myself being propelled down the mountain.

But we didn’t need much encouragement. Gravity was impetus enough. From that point on, Santos was absolutely flying. I had to run to keep up with him. Still inebriated from the summit, I was having a hell of a good time. The only problem was trying to keep my footing on the steep grassy slope, since I couldn’t get much traction with my badly worn boots. But I never considered asking Santos to slow down. I didn’t want to disrupt our momentum, even if it bordered on the maniacal. I don’t think I knew the Spanish word for “slow” anyway.

Very quickly we came to a broad slope covered in low scraggly trees. Rather than taking an unobstructed path, the route seemed to weave its way through every thicket. Still in high gear, Santos plowed ahead down the slope, navigating our way through a high-speed obstacle course. Every five seconds came a new problem to negotiate; weaving left, then right; fending off a continual barrage of hazards at eye level. I found myself constantly dodging low branches that Santos breezed right under. He was the perfect size for this trail. He never even lost his hat. I’d always thought of myself as short. But these miniature trees had me feeling like Goliath. The dogs had the right idea. The best way to go down this thing was on all fours.

Earlier on our way up, I kept wishing I had a walking stick to help me with my balance. Now, on this virtual slalom course I found myself needing a pair of them. With footwear far too worn out and socks far too thin, my feet were now sliding around inside my boots with every step. I stopped to tighten the laces, but it didn’t help. My toes kept slamming into the front of my boots. Within the first ten minutes, I could feel the blisters starting. This shortcut was already making me pay for the privilege.

The further we dropped in elevation, the more treacherous the conditions became. Yet this didn’t affect our marathon pace, which continued unabated. Between the pull of gravity and the pull of my guide, there was simply no slowing down. Santos’ drive to reach the spa seemed as fervent as his earlier desire to reach the summit.

Soon we were back within the tropical zone. The jungle canopy closed in around us, blocking out the sun, along with all visual perspective. Once again, we found ourselves running through a tunnel of vegetation. Dense foliage crowded to the very edge of the narrow trail, and a ceiling of branches hung just above our heads. Sheltered from the tropical sun, the trail lay muddy and slick. No longer concerned about thorns or toxins, I found myself grabbing tree trunks and exposed roots at every opportunity just to stay on my feet.

And it only got worse. Every twenty yards, the trail dropped six feet—nearly straight down in mammoth steps that dwarfed the rock staircase we’d climbed on our way up. Clutching branches and sometimes crawling on all four limbs, I had to summon every ounce of strength and concentration just to keep from falling on my butt. Any lapse in focus invited another slip in the mud. It was no longer a mystery why this route took less time than the other; it shot straight down the mountain like a fire escape. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a sign that read “One-Way Trail.” There was absolutely no way anyone could’ve used this route to reach the summit—at least not without ropes and climbing gear.

Then Santos stopped ahead of me and pulled off to the side of the trail. I thought he was taking a pee. Instead he whipped out his machete, finally making use of the tool that had been hanging from his hip all this time. I watched him as he began hacking at a long slender branch of a hardwood tree. His skill with the two-foot blade was impressive; in half a minute he’d carved a sturdy walking stick for me. Santos slipped his machete back in its sheath and handed me the six-foot stick. Problem solved, I thought. We then took off again down the slope.

Even with a two-handed death-grip around my staff, it took Herculean effort to stay on my feet. Every muscle fought against the slope, struggling to find control where there was virtually none. By now the tops of both of my feet were on fire from the constant chafing against my boots, which seemed determined to fly out from under me with each step. I leaned more heavily on my staff to relieve the strain on my feet, but soon my arms were cramped from constantly putting on the brakes. There simply was no easy way down this slope; we were now working far harder than we had on the way up. Both Santos and I slipped numerous times in the mud—once simultaneously. I couldn’t help laughing. We looked like a couple of drunks returning home from an all-night bender.

Even within the shelter of the canopy, sweat rained off me as heavily as it had during the ascent. My cotton shirtsleeves were saturated from me continually mopping my face. I was grateful for the shade but I couldn’t imagine it being any worse if we were out in the sun. But again, I never once thought to ask Santos to slow down. The alluring call of the warm mineral waters waiting for me at the foot of the mountain kept pulling me onward.

About halfway down, we came to a small flat clearing carpeted with two-foot high grass. With no canopy overhead, the tropical sun now bore down on us with its full weight—stuffy, oppressive; certainly not the best conditions for strenuous activity. Mercifully, it didn’t last. The trail soon vanished back into the trees, returning us to the relative cool of the shade. But by now the bugs had found us. That was one thing I hadn’t anticipated, so I hadn’t brought any repellent with me. Whether these bugs were mosquitoes or gnats, I couldn’t be sure. But a persistent swarm of them was soon buzzing around my head, having no trouble keeping up with our frantic pace. Being in a region subject to malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases, I wanted to avoid being bitten– despite the prescription chloroquine I was taking. Barely slowing down, I wrapped a bandanna around my face and continued onward, trying to keep up with my guide.

Roughly an hour and a half after leaving the summit, I thought I heard the faint sound of music filtering through the jungle. Perhaps it was delirium. Yet as we continued to slog through the bugs and the mud, I realized that it was no hallucination. The music we heard was singing. Sensing that we were approaching our destination, I found myself fantasizing that everyone at Fuentes was welcoming us on our return from the mountain. The idea was preposterous and self-indulgent but I couldn’t think of a more celebrated way to end this climb. A sudden rush of energy came over me as I sped up toward the inviting sound coming through the trees.

By now I was slathered with mud and sweat, my limbs were weary and overtaxed, and the tops of my toes were raw and fiery with blisters. But none of that bothered me. Through the back-lit trees I could see the sun shining on the rocky pool two hundred feet below us; a sight more glorious than the summit itself. A group of people were standing in a circle, singing what sounded like a religious hymn. Things were getting more surreal by the moment. Like a pair of soldiers returning from battle, we made our way down the final hundred feet of winding trail and emerged from the forest. We were there.

I checked my watch, and was astonished once again. Santos and I had completed the climb in five hours. Despite my concerns about Latin America Time, my guide had come through and had been able to deliver on his promise. My heart filled with gratitude.

I saw Brenda waiting for me in the warm emerald waters; a virtual vision of salvation. In one of the most extraordinary moments of my life, I stepped back onto the stone walkway of the pool and could think of nothing other than joining her for a long, well-deserved soak. But something was going on.

Five feet from the edge of the pool stood two camo-clad Guatemalan soldiers holding automatic rifles. My first thought was that they were here in response to the gunfire we’d heard the previous night. But it soon became clear that their presence was hardly reassuring to the crowd of bathers, who like most visitors to the spa, were Maya. Because of the recent persecution and violence against their people by government troops, they were understandably apprehensive. It was obvious by now that the singing had not been for us. It was their way of showing their faith and unity with each other. The soldiers stood by the pool, silently watching the crowd. As Santos and I walked past them, I tried not to make eye contact. Rationally, I knew that a visible military presence was commonplace in most Central American countries. I imagined it was just a routine patrol. But the atmosphere here was certainly tenser than it had been the day before; a bizarre juxtaposition in such a peaceful, almost mystical setting. Eventually, after seeing what they came to see, the soldiers left– without saying a word to anyone. The atmosphere quickly returned to normal as the friendly chatter resumed.

But before I could think about slipping into the pool to join Brenda, I had some business to attend to; a special person to thank. We grabbed some money from our wallets and stopped Santos outside our hut. Brenda and I both thanked him for getting me to the summit and back safely, and tipped him an additional 20 Quetzals for his extra effort. This amounted to only $2.60 on top of the $15 we paid him before the climb. But Santos made a decent living as a mountain guide, and he was very content. After a quick photo with me, he was off– heading back down the winding road to town. Another day, he’d return to Fuentes to guide others up the volcanoes. The dogs would most likely accompany them.

The time Brenda and I spent together lounging in the warm waters of the pool was among the best moments of our two-week trip in Central America. In a not-unfamiliar state, I was both exhausted and exhilarated. The clear green waters, warmed within the very heart of the volcano I had just returned from melted away every care, every ache, every last bit of mud, sweat, and stress. As we leaned back along the rock wall of the pool, Brenda rubbed my weary feet and shoulders. I felt about as good as I could ever remember feeling. This pampered treatment didn’t go unnoticed by the crowd. All around us, young men were motioning to their wives and girlfriends about us in a manner that said, “Hey, why don’t you do that for me?” We both had a good laugh. Today, I’d earned it.

After lunch at the café overlooking the pool, our shuttle driver picked us up at the front gate. We threw our bags in the back and took off down the road. On the way, we once again passed the garbage dump outside the town of Zunil, but the 200 black vultures we’d seen there on the way up were gone this time. Soon, we were aboard the express bus for our four-hour ride back to Guate. As we headed east on Highway 1, the rugged mountainous countryside was more beautiful than I remembered it being on the way here. People were everywhere– tending fields, selling produce, shopping in small roadside markets. As the sun began its slow arc toward the horizon, we continued heading east, rolling through the green highlands that seemed to go on forever.

My thoughts drifted back to the climb. It had been an unforgettable experience; exhilarating and magical. But something was puzzling me. The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if Santos had taken me to the actual summit of Zunil. I felt bad about doubting him, especially since he had worked so hard to get me up the mountain within my limited time frame. But several things didn’t add up. The first thing I noticed was when we were at the saddle near the top. A few minutes earlier, I’d asked him how much longer it would be. He said an hour and a half. Off to our left, another slope led to a peak that looked at least an hour away. I thought that was the route we were supposed to follow. But we went to the right instead, and arrived at “El Tope” in less than twenty minutes. But I could’ve been completely wrong about this other alleged summit. I was so focused on following Santos that I really wasn’t paying much attention to anything off the route. Yet the fact that we got back to the spa after a mere five hours on the mountain clearly didn’t jibe with the bartender’s opinion when she doubted that we could make it in seven.

I certainly didn’t want to impugn Santos’ reputation as a guide, or question his integrity, and the guilt from doubting him was as unsettling as the doubt itself. Maybe it wasn’t that complicated. Some people simply like to keep others happy– to tell them what they want to hear. Before the climb, both Brenda and I had made it clear to Santos that getting me off the mountain on time was the #1 priority. Reaching the summit was secondary. Yet by surreptitiously taking me to a lower summit, he could theoretically accomplish both– and keep everybody happy.

It was just as likely however that this confusion was the result of the language barrier. Given my limited knowledge of Spanish, any of the exchanges between us could easily have been misinterpreted. Of course, I was just hypothesizing. There was no way to know for sure what had really happened. And it doesn’t matter. Either way, I’d had an extraordinary journey, despite the mystery—or perhaps because of it. When I think back on my experience on Volcan de Zunil, it’s this mystery that reminds me that not every summit needs to be reached. Not every question needs to be answered. Muchas gracias, Senor Santos. May we live to meet each other again atop other mountains.

Climbing Guatemala Volcano

The End

Copyright © 2015 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb

Return to Top

Please Share on Facebook and Twitter!


Don't Forget: Subscribe to my Website to Hear about New Stories!
Otherwise I won't know you're out there

Your information won't be given to any third parties. Expect an email every month or two.