This is a blog about a trip I made to Guatemala almost a year ago now. “Guatemala. What do you want to go there for?” I was asked that question a few times before I made my trip last November. Well I can report that Guatemala is green. Guatemala has more than its fair share of volcanoes. And Guatemala is rather good. So this longish blog is about those Guatemalan volcanoes.
Of course, for me, the initial attraction was the volcanoes. Guatemala lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire. There are 37 Guatemalan volcanoes of which four are active. The volcanoes lie in an arc inland of the Pacific coast to the south west of the country. But the greater part of the country is jungle, sparsely inhabited. It has a population of over 17 million. Its capital, Guatemala City, is by far the largest urban area.
It has an interesting cultural mix comprising the original Mayan tribes, Mestizos (mixed Mayan and European heritage) and other settlers. The country has had a fairly turbulent history since the end of Spanish rule with various conflicts (including a 32 year civil war that only ended in 1996) and much foreign interference, especially by the Americans.
It is not all that easy to reach from the UK. The only direct flight from Europe is from Madrid. The alternative is to go via the States. Because I wanted to fly from my local airport I went via Amsterdam and Panama City. So the flying time was quite long but was fine apart from a lengthy stopover in Amsterdam on the way home.
So I booked myself on a trip through KE Adventure which promised seven volcanoes over 14 days. The group climbed six of these, the seventh (Pacaya) is active so it was not possible to climb to the top of that one.
The highlights of the trip were probably (a) watching Volcán de Fuego from Volcán Acatenango, (b) the camp on Pico Zunil where we saw a fabulous sunset and sunrise and (c) Lago Atitlan. They all beat Volcán Tajumulco even though this mountain is the highest peak in Central America.
We spent the first night at a pleasant hotel in Antigua, a former capital of Guatemala until it was flattened in a series of earthquakes in 1773 and 1774. The morning gave an opportunity for the group to meet as a whole for the first time whilst watching the distant Volcán de Fuego regularly cough grey ash into the air as we had our breakfast.
Whilst Volcán de Agua towers over the city.
Our group was rather large in number at 14 including a Scottish contingent of five. This was a bigger group than I was hoping, or expecting. The largest group I had previously been with on a trip such as this was eight. There was a wide range of ages from late 20’s to later 60’s. But all were adventurous at heart as might be expected for a trip such as this one. There were only two women in the group.
KE Adventure sub-contracted all of the arrangements to a local guide company. So we ended up with two guides, a cook and a driver. They were all good.
Day 1 consisted of a wander around Antigua, admiring the colonial architecture, obtaining some local currency and finding a view of the city.
Volcán Pacaya (2580m)
Day 2 took us to Volcán Pacaya, the first of our Guatemalan volcanoes, where we were able to watch the volcano spitting out rocks and molten lava slipped down the black lava covered slopes in red streaks.
We were only able to get to 2350m – not great for acclimatisation. We were due to climb Volcán de Agua at 3760m the following day.
In fact that evening we were told that the itinerary would change. It is recommended that Volcán de Agua is only climbed accompanied by Tourist Police because of incidences of robberies of tourists. However, because of a meeting of local bigwigs police were not available. So we switched to Volcán Acatenango.
Volcán Acatenango (3975m)
The decision to change the itinerary proved to be a better option in any event. The following morning we had a drive of an hour and a half to our start point with stunning views of sunrise hitting volcanoes to the east.
It would involve a climb of over 1600m accompanied by some locals.
The climb followed the usual pattern of passing through scrub or farmland, followed by forest before emerging onto typical volcanic terrain.
By the time we reached the top at just under 4000m we were above the cloud. We looked across to Volcán de Agua which was also above the cloud and down into a shallow crater with its equipment to measure seismic activity.
But the best bit was crossing to the other side of the crater.
There we could look down on Fuego whilst eating our lunch.
It belched dust up through the cloud.
Before the mountain revealed itself.
It was rather wonderful watching that activity. Just a few months before we were there, Fuego had erupted much more violently killing almost 200 people. The descent was much quicker, taken in part by a slightly more direct route. Most of us were suffering from mild symptoms of altitude. Rick, who was my room/tent mate did not make the summit on this account. Getting to 4000m on our third day without any real acclimatisation was a bit ambitious.
So we had our final night in Antigua before setting off the next day to our next objective. This was Lake Atitlan which must be one of the most stunning locations of its type on earth. The lake is itself an ancient caldera now ringed by volcanoes of its own.
Volcán Toliman (3158m)
Although the lake was only about 60km from Antigua as the condor flies, it took an age to reach Panachajel on the north east edge of the lake. Here we boarded a boat to cross the lake so as to get to Santiago Atitlan and Volcán Toliman.
We split our luggage – part to go to the hotel we would be staying at in two nights’ time and the rest to be carried by porters. The crossing itself was very rough with the water stirred up by the brisk wind. At times we were being tossed around as if we were on the sea in a storm. Low down in the boat the waves looked big!
However, we arrived safely at Santiago Atitlan, our start point. We climbed steeply up the main road from the waterside dodging tuk tuks, took a left and then a right up a narrow alley. It was quite warm and the legs took a while to get going having been immobile in the bus and on the boat.
The way then followed an established path up through fields of harvested maize. The stems of the plants were used as supports for peas that were then being grown. The climate is so clement and there are not the same seasons that crops can be grown at any time.
Two of the most important crops are coffee and avocadoes. Just as we hit the lower edge of the forest having passed an area of coffee bushes we stopped for lunch amongst a grove of avocado trees. Some fruit were lying on the ground rotting. Avocadoes are so abundant that they normally feature with most meals. Rick got out his penknife, cut open one of the avocadoes and ate it.
There then followed the usual tramp up through the jungle. The camp site chosen was probably the least pleasant of the three we had. It was still in the jungle and a bit damp. A number of our group did not immediately make it to camp. Often the path would split. In amongst the trees the way on would not necessarily be obvious. To steer people the right way sometimes branches would be placed across the path that was not to be followed. The branches were not always large.
So the inevitable happened and five of them missed the branches and ended up near the summit. This was where we went once the camp had been set up in any event in order to see the sunset through swirling clouds. We went up again the next morning in the chill of the morning.
It was about a 20 minute hike up. The summit area is covered in low trees and scrub, so there are various viewpoints around the edge of the summit area where views are available. We visited a number of them.
After breakfast we descended back to Santiago for lunch where there was a pleasing view across the lake to Volcán San Pedro, and then onto our hotel. The hotel management must not have believed its luck with the volume of consumption of mojitos. Anyway it was nice watching Toliman change colour from below whilst we became gently sozzled.
Pico Zunil (3542m)
The next day we went back across the lake, a much smoother crossing this time. We now had the chance to look around Panajachel and its markets.
We remained for lunch before boarding our bus for Quetzaltenango along the Pan-American highway. This was another time consuming journey over 80 kilometres. Once we reached Quetzaltenango we checked in to a characterful if run down hotel. My and Rick’s room was OK but others left things to be desired such as wash basins hanging off the wall and dodgy plumbing.
Quetzaltenango is also less tongue-twistingly known as Xela, is the centre of the Quiche Mayan people and is one of Guatemala’s larger cities. It has been the centre of revolution and like many central American cities could do with a bit of investment in its buildings and infrastructure generally. It has the usual Plaza Major but then sprawls chaotically.
Our next mountain objective was Pico Zunil. Although not looking like a volcano, it is an very old eroded one. And it gave us one of the highlights of the trip.
Having been driven to the trailhead at Xecam we were joined by a local, female guide and walked for a couple of hours to a grassy plateau where we had lunch as the cloud billowed near us. From there a path followed a long ridge-line along the Siete Cruces trail. In another couple of hours we reached a rather nice camp site on a shallow saddle at around 3100m, still an hour or so short of Pico Zunil’s summit.
After a brief stop at the camp, we continued. As it was getting late the guides were concerned as to whether or not we could make the summit and return before it became dark. The trail along the ridge was narrow, in parts overgrown and rough with many ups and downs. Progress was at times slow. The cloud came and went. Eventually we came to the final rise and the summit.
I managed to get one shot off towards Volcán Santa Maria before the cloud enveloped us permanently.
On the summit was a Mayan shrine. Guatemala has a wide range of religions. The Catholic Church is predominant but even that incorporates Mayan rites into its liturgies. But the old Mayan beliefs still hold sway over a large proportion of the population.
As sunset would soon be upon us we hurried back towards the camp. We took a route below the ridge line on this occasion. This was a lot faster and it also gave us stunning views of the sunset.
That evening after dinner most of the group sat around a campfire and swapped stories before it became too cold and we retreated to our tents.
If the sunset had been good then the sunrise was even better with the puffing Fuego in the distance.
We all perched on the rocks above the camp site and watched the scene in front of us unfold. Looking the other way Santa Maria first picked up the tinges of the early morning light
and then emitted a celebratory puff of its own.
Meanwhile the views back to the other volcanoes continued to develop.
After breakfast it was time to break camp and leave. We had an appointment with some hot springs later that afternoon.
The hot springs were busy and a bit grubby. I felt as though I needed a shower when I got out! But at least the water was warm. We returned to our hotel in Xela where I was able to indulge in a thorough clean.
Volcán Santa Maria (3772m)
The next day we were going to climb Guatemala’s fifth highest peak, Volcán Santa Maria. Because there have been instances of tourists being robbed on this mountain, we were going to be accompanied by a couple of (armed) policemen. The climb went up through the usual scrub land and then jungle at the usual steep angle.
It was somewhat cloudier today. The trees did not end until quite close to the summit and it was quite busy up there. One group was carrying out some sort of ritual that involved a lot of wailing. The clouds had a few breaks in them, but they ensured that we were unable to look down to Santa Maria’s baby volcano, Santiaguito.
Santa María Volcano is part of the Sierra Madre, which extends along the western edge of Guatemala, separated from the Pacific Ocean by a broad plain. The volcanoes are formed by the subduction of the Cocos Plate under the Caribbean Plate.
We had a long lunch stop on the summit watching the views come and go. Then we returned the same way and drove back to the hotel.
Volcán Tajumulco (4220m)
It was now time for the highest of the Guatemalan volcanoes and the highest peak in Central America – Volcán Tajumulco. Tajumulco is also the 24th most prominent peak in the world and an Ultra.
The following morning we had another slow drive to take us even further from Antigua. We spent 3 hours on twisting roads for the 50km. We were taken around to the north side of the mountain to a height of a little under 3000m. The north route is the normal route, but there are routes from the east (from a higher start point) and the south (which presents a much longer proposition).
We only started our climb late morning. Kitbags were loaded on to mules. We first followed a wide, rough 4WD track for four or five kilometres before breaking off on a footpath whilst the mules carried on along the track. We stopped for lunch in a grove of scattered trees seated on scattered logs and rocks. It was pleasantly warm in the sun.
After 30 minutes we started off again. We had rejoined the track. The gradient increased and continued through the trees. The track came to an end at a steepening but now it was not that far. The summit was visible between the branches but we swung around to the left as the way levelled out. We arrived at the campsite.
The mules were already there. So the group set about setting up camp, pitching the tents amongst the trees. In contrast to Toliman and its damp situation, this camp was airy and brighter.
We decided then to climb up Tajumulco’s subsidiary summit, Cerro Concepción . It wasn’t too far above us – perhaps a 20 minute climb. So most of the group were up there before the sun went down. Tajumulco reared up 200 metres higher across a shallow depression. Cloud was largely below us, but also billowed near us without actually covering our top.
I was beginning to get cold and feeling the effects of the altitude so descended before the sun dipped towards the horizon. I wasn’t up to having any dinner so popped some pills and went to bed hoping the slight headache and nausea would disappear by the morning. This was disappointing as I been as high as the camp site on both Acatenango and Santa Maria.
I slept pretty well and by the morning I was fit to go. We had our breakfast in the dark and also set off in the dark at 5am. We were soon clear of the trees ascending a rocky route. The night was cool. Way below I could see the lights of towns.
Occasionally we had to use our hands to make progress. The aim was to reach the top for sunrise. This we achieved but we had to wait on the summit for 20 minutes for the sun to breach the horizon. It was cold but worth it for the cloudscape, changing colours, views and the diminutive crater.
Cloud was streaming in from the west well below us and then sinking into a nearby valley looking like a waterfall before dissipating.
There are a couple of candidates for the highest point on the crater rim and I visited them. To the north Montañas Peña Blanca rose near the border with Mexico. Our volcanoes of the previous 10 days ranged in the far distance to the south east, cloud swirling around some.
But it was time to leave. The descent went quickly. Camp was soon dismantled and we descended back to our pick up point. The clouds repeated their waterfall effect.
Some local kids came looking for treats.
By 10am we were on our way. We were going back to Lake Atitlan. We would cross it and go to another town on its fringe – San Pedro de Atitlan. Above this town was our final volcano.
Volcán San Pedro (3020m)
We checked in to our hotel by the water’s edge and relaxed in the sun before going to a nearby restaurant for our meal.
The final one of our Guatemalan volcanoes was to be Volcán San Pedro which loomed above the town.
Part of the climb was relieved by being driven up about 600m in elevation to the National Park boundary. From here we would have over 1200m of height gain. As was normal most of this was in the jungle. About a third of the way up a viewing platform had been constructed with views through the trees out over the lake.
The path, steaming in the warm sun, zig-zagged up easily but steeply. We reached a shelter where a picnic lunch had been laid out for us. At this point, behind the shelter, an unmarked path sneaks off to easily gain the true summit where there is no view. The main and obvious path climbs up to the secondary summit which has great views out over the lake. The true nature of the original ancient caldera can be seen from here. The top of this summit is an awkward scramble up some rocks.
We stayed a while here admiring the views and looking down on to the town of San Pedro.
The descent was rapid. Part way down a few of us indulged in having a go on a swing to which a rubber tyre was attached. We were soon down to the Park Entrance and our transport back to the hotel. Here we again had the opportunity to sit in the sun, look out over the lake and, later, watch the moon rise over the distant shore.
The final full day was all about returning to Antigua – first a ride across the lake, then the slow grind on the Pan American Highway (including a stop for lunch) and, eventually, in the late afternoon back to the San Jorge hotel where we had started. Here we sorted ourselves out for the return home.
In the evening we went out of the city for a final dinner at a restaurant on the side of Volcán de Agua looking down on the city – with the glow of Volcán de Fuego in the distance.
Guatemala is a fascinating place; a mix of cultures; green; full of litter; still early in its tourist development; grand, if fading, colonial cities. A definite place to go therefore – even if not to climb volcanoes!