Archive for the ‘Volcano Adventures’ Category

Colum’s colum: Another volcano adventure

January 29, 2012

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

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.

Volcano Adventures: IXTEPEQUE, December, 2005

January 6, 2012
Volcano-Adventures by Colum Muccio

Volcano-Adventures by Colum Muccio

Volcano Adventures: IXTEPEQUE, December, 2005

Hugh Paxton’s Blog has climbed quite a lot of volcanos but times change. The days, then the years, pass, a certain lassitude sinks in and my sort of volcano now is one that erupts at a safe distance and doesn’t need climbing before it fires a lava bomb into my face.

Yeah, right! I’m a cowardly lazy old fart.

But I’m a bit more than that gentle reader!

I’m a manipulative cowardly lazy old fart! And I’m delighted to say that Colum my intrepid friend and gallant conservationist in Guatemala has been manipulated into climbing every volcano in Central America.  And telling us how (or how not) to do it. We’ll kick off with one he climbed a a few years back. Ixtepeque. Pronounce it if you can!

We will be hosting his volcano adventures as and when he sends them in. Dates of climb are always important when you are reading about volcano climbing. Hughg Paxton’s Blog will ensure that you are informed of when the ascent was made.

Over to Colum and start the ascent!


Volcano-Adventures by Colum Muccio

Volcano-Adventures by Colum Muccio

Roberto and I drove out what was now becoming a familiar route to the eastern volcanoes: Carretera Salvador, Barbarena, Los Esclavos and then Jutiapa.  When we got close to Ixtepeque, we stopped in at a love hotel to ask for directions.  It only occurred to me later the logic of stopping in at such a place, the hotel was pathetic, with only plastic sheets for doors and the owner sitting outside shirtless, potbellied, with a mouth full of gold and a pistol packed into his belt.  That is something characteristic of this part of Guatemala, a little bit of the wild west, where every male over the age of four years old by obligation must wear a gun.  It makes it hard to know who the thieves are.

Antonio, the owner of the hotel, had a friend and we drove him up the road so that he could introduce us.  Robin was a quiet, handsome cowboy, who apparently did a lot of hunting and after some explanation, agreed to take us up the volcano.  He had a spider monkey in his front yard chained to a ceiba tree and Roberto walked too close to him and got bit on the arm.  The monkey was uncharacteristically muscular and swung continuously from limb to limb.  We squeezed lemon on the wounds and drove to the starting off point in the village of La Tuna.  I mistakenly left my sunglasses on the roof of the car, and driving along heard the sound of broken glass as they hit the pavement.  Damn! On the dirt road to La Tuna, we saw beautiful green tree snake sunning itself on the road.  It slithered away casually through the brush.

Ixtepeque is an interesting volcano being composed almost entirely of obsidian and as we started walking we saw it all over the trail, chinking like pieces of broken black glass.  Ixtepeque is thought to be one of the principal sources of obsidian for the Mayas.  Our hike was slowed by frequent stops to pick up especially interesting-looking pieces.  Robin explained to us that the shards were so sharp that at locals had to be careful when walking cattle up the trail.

The trail was an easy grade, climbing with stone walls on each side with cattle grazing in pastures.  We were glad that we had Robin along with us as it was easy to lose the path.  Several cattle farmers were pushing their herds down the trail, and we had to climb the stone walls to get out of their way and let the cattle pass.  And, of course, each one of them had the ubiquitous pistol in the belt.  We stopped briefly to pass the time of day, explaining that we were climbing the volcano (and not robbing cattle).  You could tell that they were enjoying their lives as cowboys.

We got to the top of the trail, which crossed the volcano in a saddle in between two hills.   Robin indicated that the summit was to the left and we followed him as he cut a path through the brush with his machete.  I remembered again that it would be useful to take a machete along on these trips.   After about 15 minutes of climbing through the brush, we came out onto a summit covered with tall grass and small trees, but with a fairly decent view of the surrounding volcanoes.  

Apart from the obsidian, Ixtepeque isn’t a spectacular volcano, but a nice easy walk.  What really set the day apart for us was the particular, increasingly funny series of events that staged themselves throughout the day.  First the monkey, then my sunglasses, then the green snake…  and to top off the day, when we returned to the car and popped the ceremonial Gallo beers, Roberto and Robin had already grabbed the only nearby rocks to sit on, and I decided to sit on the ground, landing my ass on a very sharp, 3 inch thorn which I had to tug furiously to get out of my butt, leaving a spot of blood on my ass. We all laughed at the eventful day.

Apart from the volcanoes and the views, these walks were interesting in giving a window, though a fleeting one,  into the lives of rural Guatemala campesinos.  Robin took us back to his house were his wife and mother offered us glasses of lukewarm Pepsi.  The real refreshment, however, came in the form of a cool “juacal” full of water from the pila poured over our dusty heads.  Robin had a three year old daughter who looked at us untrustingly with tears in her eyes from behind her mother’s skirt.  Robin explained to us that she was sick, had a fever from infections in her front teeth.  Roberto explained that he was a dentist and told the child to come over to him so he could take a look, which she only did when her mother picked her up, crying, and carried her over.  Roberto explained that teeth infections are dangerous because they can grow up, into the brain, and that they should have the teeth pulled.  It’s sometimes too easy to blame things on poverty, that poor people do what they do because they have no other choice.  It’s also true that people simply make bad decisions out of ignorance or superstition, like the decision to chain a wild monkey to a tree in their front yard.  I looked at the child’s feverous face and wondered what her future was.

Volcano, a new series. Indonesia: Big Booms, New Life.

July 27, 2010


Hugh Paxton’s Blog promised you Colum’s Column, news from our long suffering, underpaid, overworked  conservationist friend in Guatemala. Colum came through with a good post but has since fallen silent. One of his goals is to climb every volcano in Central America and I’m hoping this new series will inspire him to haul his hairy arse out of the rainforest (or off a volcano) and sit down in front of his computer.  

This one’s from the Hugh Paxton archives, but worth a glance if you like volcanos. It was first written in 2000 but the facts remain the same.

Hey ho! Let’s go! 

2000, Krakatau

Five days and 116 years ago, a small island in the Sunda Straight between Java and Sumatra exploded. They heard Krakatau go bang in Perth, Australia. And 4,600 km to the west they heard it too, on Rodrigues Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The airwave it created hit Bogota, Colombia, on the other side of the world 19 hours later. It then bounced, back and forth, seven times. Krakatau’s 40-meter-tall tsunami killed 40,000 Javans and Sumatrans, drowned one person in distant Ceylon and hit Le Havre, France, 32 hours later. (By that time, the killer wave was just 1 cm in height.) Sunsets around the world were extravagant with light flamed by floating ash for weeks afterward. Krakatau was not the biggest volcanic eruption in human history. In 1815, the Tambura eruption on Sumbawa Island (also Indonesia) lifted “five times the rock and ash,” according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s magnificent book, “The Biodiversity of Life.” And 75,000 years ago, an eruption in central Sumatra (Indonesia again!) punched out an impressive 1,000 cubic km of solid matter. There’s a lake there now. Krakatau was, nevertheless, a big one. The captain of a British ship lying 222 km south that day reported encountering “carcasses of animals including even those of tigers . . . besides enormous trunks of trees borne along by the current.” When the ash settled, Krakatau, formerly the size of Manhattan, had largely ceased to exist. What remained was Rakata, a completely lifeless chunk of rock at the southern end of the former island. And Rakata presented the scientific world with a unique opportunity. This sterilized environment offered early zoologists an unrivaled “living laboratory” in which to study the recolonizing process of life. The ship’s naturalist on a French vessel that searched Rakata for life forms nine months after the eruption, found just one: a spider. Although the Frenchman was perplexed by the presence of this lonely colonist, scientists now believe the spider arrived by ballooning _ a process in which the spider spins a web and, like a kite, is wafted by the wind sometimes many thousands of meters in height and for distances of hundreds of kilometers. Indeed, the earth’s atmosphere is full of balloonists and other insects caught by strong updrafts. They form an airborne drift, known as aeolian plankton, that settles here or there at the whim of the wind. Subsequent scientific visits to Rakata recorded new arrivals. Birds and bats, naturally. There’s no mystery about how they colonize islands (although, interestingly, many forest bird species refuse to cross large areas of water). There were also more surprising immigrants: a reticulated python (which reaching lengths of 10 meters is the world’s largest snake species); geckoes; rats. All of them presumably swam the considerable distance from the mainland or rafted over on floating vegetation. Unlike the volcanic Galapagos Islands where scientists believe it took on average 80,000 years for each new species to became settled (even the giant tortoises had to float 1,600 km from Ecuador), Rakata soon became rather crowded. By 1930, there were 300 species of plants alone. In 1999, as our speed boat sliced through calm water beneath the bluest skies, there was little indication that this island had ever been seared by burning gas and ash. Vivid tropical greens completely smothered Rakata. Eagles spiraled overhead. It was as peaceful and thriving a chunk of biodiversity as one could wish. The same could not be said of Anak Krakatau (“Child of Krakatau”) which burst out of the sea just east of Rakata in 1927 and has been erupting, on and off, ever since. The last burst of violent activity occurred between 1992 and 1995, claiming the life of an American visitor. The recolonization of life on Anak Krakatau is dramatically obvious. A monitor lizard, disturbed by our arrival, padded away. These entrepreneurial omnivores manage to scrounge a living on dead marine life that washes ashore. Carnivorous grasshoppers whirred through the air. Flowering creepers snaked across the beach. For several hundred meters inland, tropical fir forest and giant pandanus palms swayed in the rising breeze. Today, Anak Krakatau is at least 350 meters high, and growing. It’s a tough climb and it wants to twist your ankles. Wild sugar cane clumps mark the last inroads of vegetation; thereafter it’s pumice, ash, sulphurous vents, lava bombs and splendid desolation, arcing sharply up to the steaming summit crater. Looking down from the heights you can clearly see the battle between life, pushing up, and catastrophic forces pushing it back. Visits to the volcano are best topped off with a refreshing but bizarre spot of snorkeling. There are the usual marine marvels: giant clams, vivid clownfish weaving unharmed through the stinging tentacles of their host anemones, fluttering wrasses and so on. The underwater reef world, as anyone knows who has been there, is far from silent. There is the faint grinding scrunch as parrotfish nip and crunch hard coral with their beaks. The occasional squeak or grunt. Off Rakata these sounds are augmented from time to time by a threatening, thudding grumble — almost a groan — as Anak Krakatau shifts uneasily. Getting to the volcanoes presents no difficulties. It can be done as a day trip from Jakarta, three hours’ drive and one and a half speedboat hours away. A safer option is to stay overnight at one of the many sea front inns, though. Although the dry season sees calm waters, for most of the year the weather is fickle, as we discovered. It was a hellish return trip. From a perfect, cloudless morning was born an afternoon of lowering clouds and fast, gusting winds that churned the Sunda Straight into violent life. The speedboat thudded across the angry waves like a sledge that has run out of snow. Drenched, battered, shaken and stirred, my heart went out to the monitor lizard that had to swim through this sort of stuff before taking up precarious residence on some of the world’s most temperamental real estate. But that’s life, I guess. Tough. Hiring a speedboat seating six costs roughly $ 100 and can be arranged by Sam Hidaya. Tel: 0253-81074 Fax: 0253-82400. If you want to push your luck, you can also camp overnight on Anak Krakatau.

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