A couple of hours ago I arrived home after an exhilarating hike up and camp on Santa Maria, a volcano just outside of Xela. This may come as a slight surprise as I’d previously voiced ambitions to take in the views from the top of Tajumulco, another volcano and Central Americas highest peak. Unfortunatley a bout of illness coupled with the particularly volatile atmosphere in that region at the moment in conspiring against me getting that particular t-shirt. So instead I opted for Santa Maria, a volcano that is much more accessible from Xela and reputedly a more involving climb. Summitting at about 12,400 feet Santa Maria falls nearly 1,500 feet short of the mighty Tajumulco, an inadequacy that is more than made up for by the potentially stunning views it offers down into the active crater of its shorter sister, Santiaguito. Unsure of the route and tired from my illness I made the impulsive decision to swallow my pride and hire a guide. As a nonprofit volunteer run organisation geared towards helping local children, Quetzaltrekkers were the only outfit I considered and I’m glad I did.
Here is the story of how a little two-day jaunt turned into a minor epic…
Having met up mid morning at the Queztaltrekkers HQ and divided up the gear, our cosmopolitan crew of four guides and nine punters clambered onto a Chicken bus.
I’ve seen hundreds of these juggernauts charging around Guatemala’s road system but this is the first time I’ve braved riding one. My fare is paid for me and there are few other passengers, so the ride is considerably more tranquil than the stories that have stoked my fears would suggest.
There are plenty of spare seats and certainly none of the exotic cargo I know can travel inside. Our bags are thrown on the roof. Not used to having things out of my sight every bump in the road has me imagining my pack bouncing off into the road.
I’ve been likened to Jesus on more than a few occasions as the natives marvel at my beard (no doubt jealously). Such mistaken identity has its upsides… there is a seat on the bus reserved specifically for me.
After the excitement of my first foray on Guatemalan public transport its down to the serious business of hiking. The distinctive triangular form of Santa Maria dominates the appraoching skyline.
After leaving the dusty road things start tamely. The grades are slight on this initial plod through sun soaked farmlands.
Slowly but surely our course carries us up away from civilization.
Before long we’re at ‘trail-mix’ rest stop, an opportunity to gather ourselves before the real climbing begins.
The rest is enjoyed against a backdrop of rubbish. Turns out the whole trail is heavily littered, the summit being particularly bad.
Santa Maria sits clear and majestic, beckoning us towards her slopes.
We’re soon walking on forest trails…
Their grades quickly increase and as the air thins things become progressively more challenging.
But moral is kept buoyant by the frequent breaks in tree cover, each providing a different angle on Xela that stretches off in the distance.
About halfway up the main climb we’re joined by this cheeky little bitch. Apparently she lives on the volcano using her immense charms to survive off the kindness/weakness of hikers. Someone names her Maria and she takes her place as the fourteenth member of our crew, staying with us all night. With a shiny coat and gentle manner Maria is obviously good at what she does. It’ wouldn’t have taken much to persuade me to steal her.
By around 5pm we’ve all made it to the summit, which by now is momentarily shrouded in pulses of cloud.
Our two giant tents are pitched and…
Some of our more conscientious members involve themselves with a bit of stretching.
The clouds hold off for most of the evening and our days efforts are rewarded with some magnificent views. Tajumulco is visible in the distance beyond the smoldering Xela rubbish dump.
As the evening draws on a few of us stroll over to check out Santiaguito. A thick column of volcanic ash marks the spot.
Eventually we are treated to a fleeting glimpse of the red hot crater. Just about visible here near the base of the smoke plume. Soon we are all fed, the sun is gone and the clouds rolled in.
Slightly headachy from the altitude I retired to the tents with the first wave of pikers. All plans of a good nights sleep fall foul to persistent cold wet winds that batter the tent, causing its partial collapse and making things less comfortable than they could have been. The late arrival of a group of drunken Guatemaltecan lads also serve to put nerves on end. After a few hours of fitful sleep the alarm sounds. The plan was for us all to get up and watch the sun rise, one of the major reasons for camping on the summit. Wet cloud is soaking the summit and combines with the continuing brutal winds to dissuade the sensible amongst us from leaving the tents. Only U.S. medical student Cori and myself rise at five to brave the elements.
Things are pretty uncomfortable and the cloud refuses to budge. In our tired state it takes a while to work out where the sun will rise. All we can do is huddle against the wind and wait…
Then after an hour and a halves cold waiting the clouds parted for 30 seconds, revealing the quickly rising sun. You can imagine our delight… unfortunately it was very short-lived.
On returning to camp we managed to raise the weaker/infinitely more sensible members of the tribe and found a spot out of the wind for breakfast.
Despite the restless night and unkind weather spirits are high. There are always people worse of than you… such as those who manage to pack two left-handed gloves!
After packing up a sodden wind ravaged camp we topple off the summit, tentatively climbing down through the clouds. Over night the path has been transformed into a mud slide. Purchase is at a premium.
Despite having to delicately pick our way down the mountain, progress is considerably quicker than on the way up. We’re soon out of the clouds and into fairer climes.
Having broken the back of the retreat from Santa Maria we congregate back at ‘trail-mix’ rest stop . Everyone is in a good mood. Considering the lack of real ‘outdoor’ experience of many in the group the resilience shown in the face of some quite debilitating conditions was remarkable. It was a genuine treat to meet several members of our party and a joy to spend time with them all. The makeup of the crew definitely vindicated my earlier decision to get guided.
We are all filthy. Looking around the rest stop you could be forgiven for thinking we’d just walked out of a few weeks wilderness survival.
A spring in our step, we make short work of the gentle grades back to civilization.
Arriving in town a bus soon pulls up and we look forward to a speedy return to Xela.
Speedy it wasn’t, but we are eventually dropped back in familiar old Xela.
A short walk and we’re back at base-camp, Casa Argentina, the Quetzaltrekkers HQ. None of us expected such a grueling little trip but I doubt there’s a single member who wouldn’t admit that things actually worked out rather well in the end.
This little trip marks an end to my time in Xela. My Spanish has certainly improved and despite falling ill, my batteries are recharged. Standing on top of Santa Maria gazing out over the lights of Xela I was hit by a rush of serotonin that filled me with euphoric expectation of what is to come. After a day of rest I’ll be dusting off Shermy and spinning down to Lake Atitlan for a couple of weeks honest farm labor. These are exciting times.