Hugh Paxton’s Blog is proud to know Colum Muccio, our Guatemala correspondent and wildlife conservationist, and is used to receiving messages such as “Sorry this is late. I was chasing criminals.”
He didn’t say whether he’d caught this lot yet. And he didn’t explain the nature of their crime. But that’s not the point of this post. Colum intends to climb every volcano in Guatemala and will let us know how he gets on. Begin the ascent! Rather him than me!
SUCHITAN, USA March 7, 2004
Volcano-Adventures by Colum Muccio
We climbed the Suchitan Volcano with my explorer/astronomer/philosopher friend Robertillo Monterroso and his friend Hugo and Hugo’s girlfriend Helen. Suchitan is an extinct volcano in the southwestern part of Guatemala. It´s a dry, poor part of the country but the landscape and weather are somehow appealing, having the same “big sky” feel of places like Wyoming and Texas. Tio Sam’s influence is strong here too and you see the effects of repatriated dollars from “remesas” everywhere in the form of nicer than normal houses. And like most remote corners of the country, we saw signs for Western Union.. It´s said that Guatemala and other Central American countries have a built-in buffer to economic downturns in the form of remesas (and ssshhh… drug trafficking).
Robertillo and I had seen Suchitan from the Jumay Volcano which we had climbed the week before. It is pretty much the same height, but as we found out, much more difficult.
We drove out of Guatemala City fairly early, getting to the town of Suchitan around 10AM, found a “guide”, negotiated a price and started walking through the small town to the slopes up the volcano. Our two guides were like Mutt and Jeff: One, Freddy, was short, stocky and strong, self-confident and ironic. The other, Luis, was taller, thin and had a serious stutter. He came off as more of a Cowboy to Freddy’s Indian. Cowboys and Indians: that´s a good way to summarize southeastern Guatemala.
Freddy had spent five years living in North Carolina and was planning to make his way back up in a few months. From the slopes of Suchitan, he pointed to the road leading out of town and said “that´s the road to the States” as if Texas was just over the next ridge. He claimed he had made it to Los Angeles in 7 days, crossing “la frontera” in “Fenis”, Arizona.
We walked through the “suburbs” of Suchitan, Freddy pointing out all the nicer houses paid for by remesas. The older, more traditional homes were made out of mud brick walls and heavy terracotta tile roofs that during earthquakes are responsible for most of the deaths. Each tile weighs about 2 pounds, even more in the rainy season when it absorbs the rain. Further down the road there were newer houses, very simple affairs, built for free by the Peace Corps.
We started to climb up the volcano, first through corn fields and then areas of low, dry scrub which had obviously earlier been cow pastures. After climbing Acatenengo Volcano (one of the highest and hardest to climb in Guatemala) two weeks prior, both Jumay and Suchitan deceived me into thinking that they were just little hills and that the claims in the Guidebook of Volcanoes in Guatemala that they took 3 hours to climb was an exaggeration. However, Suchitan was a difficult climb and Helen, especially, was having a hard time with the steep, dusty slope.
We climbed through the scrub to the top of the ridge where the forest started to get nice and lush and the air became cool and damp and felt good on our hot dry skin. The contrast in the tropics between sun and shade, meadow and forest is startling sometimes. When you step from field to forest it can feels much the same as stepping off a sweltering summer sidewalk in Washington (my hometown) into an air conditioned building, only the building is much more humid than the field.
In contrast to the scrub of the lower slopes, the ridge top of Suchitan still had some decent-sized trees and had the look and feel of a cloud forest with bromeliads, orchids and epiphytes covering thick, gnarly branches overhead. I noticed that many of the epiphytes were of a type I had never seen before and wondered if each volcano had its own species, wished I knew more about these fascinating plants.
The trail leveled out on the ridge and we walked through a nice cloud forest, skirting around what seemed to be a summit and continuing on along another ridge. The summit of the volcano was like a giant T, with the side we ascended hiding a perpendicular ridge behind.
At the bottom of a descent there was a group of locals on a day hike. An older man who appeared to be the leader of the group of mainly kids claimed that he had climbed Suchitan more than 50 times.
We continued on to La Piedrona, a summit rock accessible by a steep trail with a cable handrail. On top, we were treated to a beautiful view of the arid landscape around us sprinkled with volcanoes and smaller conical hills that weren’t technically classified as volcanoes but sure looked like them. There is some debate in Guatemala about exactly what is a volcano. The Alpinist Federation of Guatemala claims that there are 37 volcanos in the country, and claims that the tell-tale feature of a volcano is the existence of a certain type of rock on the summit that indicates that there was a crater there.
Directly in front of us was the Retana Laguna, which was a large crater-like lake whose flat lakebed was, according to our guides, drained by a tunnel built by the gringos to irrigate nearby fields. There was obviously still a lot of moisture and nutrients in the soil as it was being heavily cultivated. Robertillo claimed that 20 years ago, it was an important sanctuary for migratory waterfowl, and it was said that the ducks were so thick that if you tossed a stick into the air a duck would fall down dead. Our guides confirmed that there are still a lot of ducks during November and December and people from the city still come to hunt.
Although we had explained to them that we were from ARCAS and were conservationists, Freddy and Luis still didn’t get it. We asked them “todavia se ve patos”, “can you still see ducks?”. They responded “si, todavia se consigue.” “Yeah, you can still get (shoot) some.”
In general, I found it difficult and at times interesting seeing the reaction to my explanation to Guatemalans, especially rural Guatemalans of what I was doing in their country. Responses ranged from:
“Nature, I love nature! Cows, corn…. it’s beautiful!
“You conserve parrots? That’s interesting. How much can you get one for me?”
“Wildlife conservation? That’s great that someone’s doing that!”
And the inevitable jibes about how sea turtle eggs and tepesquintle meat are so delicious… Yawn, yawn…
There was a group of boys on the top of La Piedrona flying pieces of litter like kites and running like billygoats over the rocks and ridges. Someone had taken an enormous crap by the side of the trail that was drying in the sun none too slowly, a nice touch, I thought. A wildfire was burning out of sight over the ridge at the end of the T with billowing clouds of smoke rising in front of us. As in other places in the developing world, fire is seen as a friend, comforting even, that helps clear the land before the rains come, leaving pastures and cornfields ready to plant. The fact that these fires regularly go out of control and sweep across wildlands, burning down forests and preventing their natural regeneration, seems to be of little concern. Better yet, it’s considered to be natural. I’ve always thought that it was telling that people in Latin America use the work “limpiar” (clean) for clearing land, as if forested land was somehow dirty.
We ate a sandwich for lunch and I got a phone call from Ricardo from Washington: another one of those bizarre moments out of some sort of cell phone commercial. We started down the mountain, passing the group of kids. Freddy was a nice guy, but was obviously impatient with the frequent stops we were making. Hugo and Helen were getting tired. Every time we stopped for a rest, he’d get up a few seconds later and say “OK, let’s walk”. But he kept me amused with his Marquez-esque view of the world. He talked to me about his life in the States, how he worked in a restaurant, pronouncing the name unintelligibly over and over. An Italian restaurant. He had started out as a dishwasher, but worked his way up to salad chef . I asked him if he had seen the mountains, or the beaches of North Carolina and he said that he only had one day per week off and that it didn’t give him enough time to travel. He talked fondly of his “matrona”, saying she treated him really well. I imagined that if I were a struggling small business owner and was lucky enough to find a loyal worker like Freddy, willing to work 6 days per week 12 hours per day, I would treat him well too. I asked him if he had papers. He said no. I said that it wasn’t that easy to get into the States any more without papers and he just shrugged as if to say, “we’ll see.” What hearty, hardworking, optimistic people! I wondered whether that is what allowed them to survive and even flourish when most of the other indigenous peoples of the New World had been wiped out. Perhaps their willingness to work with the patron, rather than fight against him.
We continued walking down the mountain, and about 300 meters from town, a rock fell on Helen’s ankle, and although she didn’t appear to break anything, she couldn’t walk. I walked ahead and brought the Trooper up the trail as far as I could and we waited for an hour for them to limp up. We were all quietly impatient with Helen as she had moped and complained for much of the trip, even before her accident. Freddy wasn’t very quiet though. “If it wasn’t for her boyfriend, I would have thrown her over my shoulder like a sack of rice. Like this.” he tells me gesturing. We drove back into the village and to a store recommended by Freddy to have the coldest beers in town. No better way to celebrate the conquest of a mountain! When I went to buy another round, the owner greeted me in broken English “Where you from?” and explains to me that he lived 8 years in Austin before recently being deported.