In a country split down the middle by a string of beautiful and restless craters, climbing volcanoes is a rite of passage for every traveller passing through Guatemala. From my previous time here, I had vivid memories of sitting atop Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America at 4,220m, and gazing out towards Mexico and the Pacific as the sun rose through a beautiful sea of clouds.
Inspired by this experience, on our second weekend in Xela we headed out to climb Tajumulco on a hike organised by Quetzaltrekkers, an excellent not-for-profit and volunteer-run trekking co-operative. Unfortunately the anticipated sunrise was not to be, as the clouds rolled in, the rain lashed down and we peered out into the mist.
It all would have been a bit miserable, if it wasn’t for the fact that we were lucky enough to find ourselves with a great bunch of people. Partly due to the altitude, but more thanks to the unique ice-breaking skills of Dave, a nurse from Colorado, shivering in a soggy tent at 4,000m has never been so much fun.
Our Tajumulco group when the mist cleared: Claire, Dave, Heather, Sanne and Nathan.
Dave the Naughty Dragon tries his moves on Claire. Oscars night will never be the same again thanks to Dave and Amanda Weeks.
As luck would have it, one of our guides on the Tajumulco trek was Nathan – a fellow Brit and PanAm cyclist who’d spent the past few months living in Xela and volunteering for Quetzaltrekkers. After a collective love-in over our mutual appreciation of Thorn bikes, Cass Gilbert, and going very slowly, Nathan invited us to join him the following weekend on his final trek before resuming his ride south.
After a week of limping around the streets of Xela, Bedders very sensibly declined and opted for some local hot springs followed by wine with girlfriends – while Nathan and I set off with fellow guide Jamie for a weekend climb up to the bizarre landscape of Santiaguito, apparently one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world.
It was an incredible, surreal experience which this time left me hobbling around like a 90 year old for the next week. Yet the aches and pains were well worth it – as we all agreed before we went our separate ways, it was a truly memorable way to bid farewell to Xela.
My guides for the weekend: Jamie from Colorado and Nathan from Reading, who started his PanAm bike ride south from Alaska nearly two years ago.
After hacking our way down through thick vegetation and some spectacular and mostly unintentional slides down a polished rocky ravine, we reached the boulder field at the base of Santuaguito. Next up was a sweaty scramble towards our campsite...
...which we reached just as the clouds rolled in and the rain started to fall. We huddled in our tent while Santiaguito, eerily invisible in the mist but less than a kilometre away, rumbled loudly as it erupted every 30 minutes or so.
Finally the clouds cleared, and we were able to escape the tent as night fell...
...revealing Santiaguito for the first time, ominously spewing ash and steam and dwarfed by its mother volcano Santa María in the background.
Up at 3am the following morning, we scrambled in the dark up towards the crater, until we were perched just a few hundred metres away.
We were surrounded by a bizarre grey moonscape of rocky outcrops, volcanic ash and steaming vents...
...broken only by splashes of bright green moss which had sprouted since the start of the rainy season only a few weeks earlier.
Spirals of steam twisted out of the crater while we waited expectantly for the show to begin.
Needless to say, we didn't have long to wait before the steam grew in intensity, the deep rumbling began, and a cloud of ash was launched high into the air above our heads...
...catching the first sunlight of the day.
Showing his pro guiding skills, Nathan pulls out his brolly in preparation for the ash shower that followed every eruption.
After watching a few more eruptions, we set up the obligatory group shot. Right on cue, Santiaguito obliged with a final spectacular effort which had us gawping over our shoulders.
Back at camp, we tucked into breakfast with a final chance to soak up the spectacular backdrop. All that was left was a tough slog back up and out to the road, before falling into a bus back to Xela; exhausted and filthy, but grinning and happy after a unforgettable weekend.