Guatemala’s Tajumulco Volcano is impressive.
A gigantic 13,845 foot peak that stands among the great giants of the Americas. Surprisingly, it is not so well-known among trekkers, despite it being the highest point in Central America.
There were many volcanoes around Xela, but when we heard Celas Maya (our Spanish School) was planning a trip to Tajumulco.
We didn’t hesitate!
Tajumulco is the grand prize of Guatemala.
The plan was that the first day was used to reach an altitude of 4000 metres, camp out for the night, climb the final 200 metres and watch the sunrise from the summit.
All we needed to do was pay the 325 Quetzales (about $43USD) and everything would be arranged, food, transport etc.
We set the alarm for 4am to meet our crew at 5am and get started on the 3 hour chicken bus journey to the trailhead.
Fully laden with water and warm gear we headed off down the dimly lit and empty street to the bus station. We arrived just as the sun was rising. Our first chicken bus trip of about 1 hour was uneventful, most of us still half asleep.
After a stop and sumptuous breakfast we switched chicken buses and headed on past San Marcos towards the foot of the volcano itself.
After 3 hours bouncing around in a chicken bus, remember in Guatemala, around every bend, is another bend and at the bottom of every hill is another hill.
We were dropped off at the side of the road and told that we would walk for 10 minutes towards the start of the trail before taking some time to really prepare for the gruelling challenge ahead.
The trail is identified on the side of the road by a battered white metal sign welcoming you ‘Bienvenidos al Volcan Tajumulco’.
From the sealed road we pass the sign and start walking up the steep 4WD track paved with cobblestones. Up the track we pass a handful of houses and kids out welcoming us in typical Guatemalan style.
The ascent to the summit can be broken into three sections: the lower section on a 4WD track (2km), the main body of the trail through alpine meadows and sparse pines (3km), and the final steep scrambling section from the saddle to the summit (1km).
Sounds easy enough?
Well maybe – we continue up the 4WD track, which suffers from washouts and is home to some remarkably powdery dust and huge rocks. We reached the grassy patch just past the second sign which heralded the actual start of the hike where we stopped for a bit of a snack.
Here in front of us is Tajumulco in all her glory.
It didn’t look too daunting at all so I am feeling pretty confident at this stage.
Our party of 8 were accompanied by 2 guides Saul and Kevin, 1 horse and 1 horseman.
Saul is an older gentlemen, an experienced hiker with awesome stamina. He carried a huge and heavy load and was the chief who cooked our food and generally looked out for everyone.
Our other guide Kevin, a young adventurous guide who loved to take cool pictures and do some crazy and sometimes dangerous antics.
We had wisely hired the horse to carry our 8 litres of water, tent and other heavy gear.
It cost 200 Quetzales which is about $25.
It transpired to be a very worthwhile expense!
The guides and horse took up various positions along the group with one guide also being behind everyone else, or me actually.
I was always last but I’m ok with that.
It immediately became apparent to me how unaccustomed I was to the altitude to which I kept climbing. Even though we had spent some time in Xela before attempting the hike, the altitude still affected us.
Every step upwards at any incline started and began with a deep gasp with panting in between and eventually a sore chest.
The higher I climbed the deeper I had to breathe and the more I struggled. As I became more and more fatigued, I could hardy utter a word, it took way too much oxygen. But overall I made one more step, gasped, made another.
Having done this I would disagree with the person who said the first step is the hardest. I plodded on with the silent help of Kevin and Everett.
Try as I might I could not for the life of me hear Everett or Kevin puffing one bit.
I told Everett if he was a girl I would have to call him a bitch for that.
The usually fit Des also struggled to make each step. We were a great pair!
The day wore on and we got slower and slower, the cloud and mist rolled in and we find ourselves in an eerie, ghostly, misty place high up a volcano, just 4 of us, the others well ahead.
Not a sound could be heard and I felt was in another world.. maybe I was?
We stopped to just be be with it…
Thankfully, the camp was not that much farther from that point. After 6 hours it was a pleasant and welcome site to spot some bright orange color in the distance.
Yay – it was a tent, we had made it to camp!
Our fellow hikers already had the tent pitched, a fire going and the hot tea waiting. It was cold, really cold so the fire was awesome.
Dinner was pasta with some sauce and some cheese, it was nice and I ate a full helping, Des didn’t manage anything, not even his pork bones and chicken that he had bought.
The altitude seems to have that effect of one’s appetite.
The tent which was our shelter for the night housed all eight of us with a bit of a squeeze and by that I mean sleeping straight, no curling up!
We were all squished together, several people resting on one person’s legs or with someone else’s legs protruding against someone else.
Most of us went to bed quite early, I think about 7pm. I tried to do so too because I knew the next day would start at 4am at which point we would reach the summit in time for sunrise.
I say try because I did not sleep very well or better put at all well.
It became progressively colder at night and as Des was on the outside of the tent with a light sleeping bag he fared worse than me. My head was not elevated and rested awkwardly on someone else’s sleeping mat. On my sides, front and back people were shifting, moving and turning as was I.
At one point in the night I could hear dogs howling and fighting, presumably over food.
Eventually I heard an alarm in the next tent… it was time to wake up.
We roused slowly reaching for our clothes and trying to make ourselves as warm as possible for the impending hike.
Not all the rocks were completely sturdy and I was actually glad it was dark, because I am sure it was a long way down.
The last part of the hike at least had more of a visual target, a point that you could see above you.
Although motivating, once you realise that there is actually much more to climb, terrain hidden behind what you had thought was the summit, this can be quite disheartening.
And lest we forget as I was climbing up the air was not getting any more oxygen rich. I found needing stops every few minutes, it was taking longer and longer to get my breath back.
Des having got really cold in the night and not eaten was faring a little worse, but happiness reined once the top was clearly visible.
I persisted and the incline became gentler. The final 50 metres was almost like a gentle walk along ground littered with pebbles, rocks and massive boulders.
I trudged faster and faster as the ground became flatter and flatter. A few more steps and I finally saw all the other people that signified the summit.
I was at the highest point of Central America and had survived everything it had thrown at me.
Looking out to see the view, resplendent volcanoes that surround Tajumulco feel like they are bowing to you, a conqueror of the toughest amongst them.
The clouds formed a whirlpool in the sky, with the obligatory patch of sky in the middle. On the other side, is the Pacific Ocean along with land parceled into different shapes and colours. From the sides the view was filled with clouds of various sizes with peaks of other volcanoes protruding through them, standing tall and proud.
I want to climb mountains, I want to learn Spanish, I want to swim with sharks, I want this and that….you can have anything in life that you want but not everything.
No matter what the odds against you are, the pressure that you face, the environment you are, others have been in you shoes before and they made it and so can anybody.
You just have to keep walking, sometimes in despair, hopelessly but keeping in mind that every journey has an end and most suffering earns you a just reward.
We stayed on top of the volcano for maybe 30 minutes and despite the chilling wind, I was happy to be looking down all over Guatemala. All too soon it was over and we had to head down to camp, the descent was no less steep, but still exciting since we had took a different and more scenic route around the crater.
I was indeed thankful we were not scrambling down the loose rocks they way we had come up. I was also very glad of my walking poles on the descent.
Eventually we stumbled back to camp and to what was a gloriously sunny morning.
Going down was much easier than climbing up and I was finally able to look up for extended periods of time and take piles of photos.
It was pure luxury to feel this comfort, and of course with every downward step came a little more oxygen. What I saw was amazing, green valleys dotted with villages and tree filled hill tops.
Much more often we would take picture breaks just to capture the expansive vistas opening up to us.
The last part of what turned to be an amazingly authentic, but somewhat dangerous Guatemalan experience was the chicken bus ride from Tajumulco to San Marcos.
Chicken buses are cool around the city but out in the countryside they can end up pretty crowded in a ‘Guatemalan’ way.
Chicken buses rarely admit that they are full so after all the seats, 3 people to a seat, are taken, the aisles become blocked.
Then people sometimes ride on the roof which of course is illegal.
The seats are for 2 people; but the third one has one cheek on the chair and jams in with the third person in the opposite aisle to create stability.
Des and I were both the third bums in one aisle with 2 people standing above us.
THEN… drive man drive. FAAAAST…Now let me tell you that the most of the chicken bus drivers in Guatemala are burly, rough, aggressive looking, ego driven types who drive the same way.
They talk on their phones while driving around the corners almost on 2 wheels, you get the picture.
In fact talking on their phones is good because when they do they are going slower usually.
It seems they get into these buses with power and plant their foots to the floor, driving at speed around corners and over bumps.
I kid you not, I feared for my life, we were in the back of the chock full bus where the door kept flying open. We were bumped out of our seats numerous times, one local kid seated near to us was also crying and terrified and my knuckles were white from hanging on for dear life.
I swear that 2 hour ride was worse than being deprived of oxygen.
1) Whilst our school organized this trip, another good option is to go with Quetzaltrekkers In Xela. Quetzaltrekkers offer this and many other awesome hikes, a volunteer organization that donates all to charity in the area. http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/guathome.html
2) Take a horse to carry your gear, it was more enjoyable and easier to hike without 30lbs.
3) Take seriously warm layers of clothes and a good sleeping bag.
4) Consider hiring private transport to avoid the Chicken Buses.