One of the biggest attractions in Guatemala is the abundance of active and inactive volcanoes, many of which can be climbed for spectacular views from above the clouds.
The first place I came to in Guatemala, after crossing the border from Mexico for a mandatory tourist visa renewal, was Quetzaltenango (or Xela). It’s a big and ugly city, not really one that stands out from other big ugly cities (according to me, the one who generally disdains big cities in general!) but it’s one of the best places in Guatemala for volcano hikes or even a 3-day hike from the city to Lake Atitlán.
At the hostel where I stayed, a group of five of us decided we should do one of the volcano hikes that doesn’t necessarily require a guide. Reunited with my old traveling buddy Samantha, and joined by two Israeli girls and a Dutch guy we met at the hostel, we decided to climb volcano Santa María.
We woke up bright and early to set off at 6am, allowing us enough time to get to the top of the volcano before 10:30am, around which time the clouds get so thick that there’s a very slim chance of seeing the eruption of the nearest active volcano Santiaguito. Thanks to the super helpful receptionist at our hostel, we saved money on the taxi to the bus station and followed his directions to the nearest bus stop. We hopped on a bright yellow chicken bus with the destination Lleno de Peña and 25min and 2 quetzales later we were dropped off on the dirt road in a random village. Straight ahead for Santa María, the driver advised us. And so we walked.
The morning fog was still hovering above the ground, giving the whole scene a mystical feel. In front of us, the volcano dominated the horizon in the distance and Loek commented: “Oh, it doesn’t look that big at all!” Or so we thought at first…
After a quick breakfast snack stop, we started steadily making our way to the base of the volcano. We walked through farms and fields of vegetables, past señores on horses and local farmers carrying wood logs down the hill. The most shocking thing, however, was just how much rubbish we passed on the way. Plastic bags, wrappers, bottles – the litter continued all the way up the volcano. Sadly, this is the case in too many places all around Guatemala.
We were hiking for a good hour and a half along a fairly lightly inclined path until we reached an open field that looked perfect for a picnic. And finally a big patch of sun not blocked by trees! As we veered towards the left across the field, soaking in the warmth, Talia pointed towards the huge volcano to the right of us: “Ermm, guys? Are you sure it’s not that way?”. As we looked up and I checked the hiking path on maps.me, we realised Talia was right and we still had a loooong way up. We followed the suddenly much steeper and rockier path and hoped it wouldn’t take us long to reach the top.
As we were making our way up, occasional breaks in the trees allowed for a stunning view of the city of Xela stretched out down below, getting smaller and smaller as we kept gaining altitude. Curiously, even being so far away we could still hear the honks of the chicken buses!
It was around 9:50, we were fairly tired by this point when Noa optimistically said: “We’ll be there by 10:30, half an hour and we’ll make it!”.
At around 10:30 it was clear to me that there was no way we’d see the volcano before the clouds pulled over. The path snaking across the map on my phone screen showed that we’d just about passed the halfway point since the base of the volcano and the realisation of how much was still left made me think we’d never make it. By then I was already bored of 3,5 hours of hiking. I just wanted to be at the top already! Loek had already speeded off in front of us and every half an hour from there onwards we would shout up into the trees: “Loek!! Are you there yeeeet??”. Of course, we didn’t hear any response.
By the fourth hour of hiking I was exhausted and impatient to finally reach the summit. It just didn’t seem to be getting any closer! The impatience made me break away from the other girls and I just powered through the uphill struggle determined to finally sit down with a view.
The last 10 minutes were the hardest. By then, the hiking group that we’d seen in front of us at the start of the hike had started the descent. I could already see the last trees, the final stretch of the rocky path was already visible but I was at my slowest and the rocks at their biggest.
It was 12:00 when I finally peeked over the edge of the highest rock and experienced a light flush of vertigo from the sheer height I had climbed up to – 3,810km above sea level. Loek had already been waiting for an hour and the girls appeared 15 minutes after me.
Before I could marvel at the impressive views stretching out all around and down below, a different sight (or sound before anything else!) caught my attention much closer. Right on the summit a group of Mayan women were chanting and performing a ritual of sorts. I sat down to listen and watch. What started with the same chant led by one women and repeated by the rest turned into a chorus of individual chants, increasing in volume and strength with every word, accompanied by passionate hand gestures, shaking and jumping. It was an impressive sight! They switched between Spanish and their native Mayan language intermittently and from what I could make out of the Spanish, they were praising Jesus and the Holy Spirit, expressing gratitude and asking for blessing and protection against various illnesses.
When the chants began to calm and the women sat down to rest, I walked up to them for a chat. They explained that they come from a nearby town called San Miguel Sigüila and every day, yes, EVERY day, they go to a different mountain or volcano to perform their ritual and thank God for everything they have – as he is the creator and the force behind everything. Their dedication is surreal and worth a whole lot of respect, in my opinion. And what was even more mindboggling was how they managed to hike up that volcano in skirts!
After the beautiful encounter with the ladies, we settled down for a rest, fixing our eyes on the thick blanket of clouds below us. We tried to make out where the active volcano may be but it was impossible – there was nothing but a sea of white fluffiness wherever you turned. So we entertained ourselves instead by naming figures we could see in the clouds and simply enjoying the peacefully beautiful view.
After an hour on top of the world, we figured it was time we started making our way back down if we were to catch a chicken bus back to the city. This task wasn’t much easier than the climb up! My body was tired, my legs were beginning to feel like jelly halfway down the volcano and the path just didn’t seem to end! The dusty path and lack of grip on my shoes really didn’t help and I slipped and fell on my bum countless times before finally making it down to the dirt road we started on – 3 hours later and completely exhausted! Looking back over our shoulders at the monstrous triangle of earth and trees, we really felt a sense of accomplishment. Damn, it really does look big and far away from here!
Back in the village, I was happier than ever to see a corner shop that sold ice-cream and the last 200m finally brought us to the chicken bus – finally the chance to relax after a 10-hour adventure that, by the way, cost us a mere 4 quetzales (or €0.5). Winner! Needless to say, I slept like a baby that night 🙂