During my 6 or 7 weeks in Xela, I went on 3 different treks with group called Quetzaltrekkers. They are a NGO who lead a number of hiking and backpacking adventures in the mountains and volcanoes of Guatemala and Nicaragua. There guides are all volunteers, mostly gringos, who work for no pay. All contribution and donations go to a few local schools for underprivileged students. They are probably one of the best run NGO's I have ever seen, with all funds going to the local people and not to those that run the organization. Not only that, but their treks are by far the most affordable adventures I have been on. If you are in the area, I would recommend joining them for a trek or two if you have the time. Their website is: http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/
The first trek, as previously mentioned, involved hiking about halfway up the southern slope of Volcan Santa Maria through the thick rainforest. We hiked for 3 or 4 hours until we reached out destination: a large, open mirador (viewpoint) that had been cleared of trees by the local cattle farmers. Never thought I'd see Holsteins grazing in the rainforest halfway up a volcano, but I did. In fact, these were probably the happiest cows I've seen in Guatemala. We set up camp on a number of semi-level steps in the slope. We were a bit short on tent space and I wanted to find my own place to sleep, so I Jerry-rigged a bivouac structure using my companions´ walking sticks. It actually turned out pretty cool, except that I was on a slope and slid down the hill will just the slightest movement. I squirm a lot to get comfortable, especially when sleeping on a 1.5cm foam mat. Every time I woke up that night, I had to crawl a foot or two back up onto my sleeping pad.
The reason we were there was to watch Volcan Santiaguito erupt throughout the evening and night. Santiaguitio is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. A few years ago it used to erupt every 20 minutes or so, but now it only erupts every 1.5-2 hours. I was hoping for massive amounts of lava to spew into the atmosphere, but all you get during the day is a soft rumble then a large plume of smoke and ash is released from the crater. It wasn't what I had expected, but it was still pretty cool. With the eruptions being so infrequent and short-lived, someone would yell 'Eruption!' at the top of their lungs in the middle of the night when they were woken by the rumbling. I was fortunate because all I had to do was open my eyes and look to the right to watch the eruption from beneath my bivouac fly while everyone else had to scramble out of their tents. Most of the eruptions were nothing to write home about, but there was one really good one where a number of huge, orange, glowing, molten rocks were thrown from the crater. They proceeded to roll down the volcano, occasionally exploding as they collided with the mountainside. I felt like I was fortunate enough just to witness this. However, my Dutch friend Sanders (who was a guide for Quetzaltrekkers 5 years earlier), happened to catch the eruption and molten rockslide all in a single 20 or 30 second frame with his fancy digital camera. It is definitely a wicked cool picture. You can view it in my photo gallery if you'd like. I witnessed a few other eruptions, but they were few and far between. The following morning we packed up camp and made our way back to Xela.