The highest point in Central America – Volcano Tajumulco

Firstly, Happy Spring day to everyone in South Africa! I honestly don’t understand how seasons work here in Central America. We are currently in El Salvador, at the beach and it is bloomin’ hot with rain showers at night. It’s called the rainy season, but I think it’s always hot, year round.

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Three weeks ago we were in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala when Dirk and I had decided to climb Volcano Tajumulco for a weekend activity. There are a few volcano’s to climb around Quetzaltenango: Santa Maria is the iconic cone-shaped volcano and there’s another volcano with a lake in the crater…but Dirk had his eyes set on the highest point in Central America: Tajumulco, the highest mountain in Central America at 4220m.

Amongst mountain climbers, the ultimate goal seems to be to climb the seven summits on the seven continents of earth. Technically, Central America falls on the Northern American continent, and Mount McKinley (also known as Denali) at 6168m in Alaska is the highest point in North America. (I know this, because I have just finished reading ‘Into thin air’, John Krakauer’s horrifying account of the 1996 Everest disaster where eight people died on one day.) So, our 4220m summit is of little importance to mountain climbers, but the idea of climbing the highest point in Central America intimidated me.

We chose to go by ourselves, not wanting to pay 50USD for a guided tour that didn’t even include a shuttle ride to the mountain. We knew that there was a group of tourists going with a guide on the Saturday, so we felt comforted by the idea that we wouldn’t be alone on the mountain. In preparation for our trip, I read other people’s account of the hike. It was going to be tough and breathing would be difficult in the high altitude. Luckily we have great sleeping bags for cold weather and a three season tent.

We left Xela around 11am. First we took a collectivo to the bus terminal Minerva. From there we took a two-and-a-half-hour chicken bus to San Marcos. At the San Marcos station we had a delicious snack of hot cakes and got into the next chicken bus that would take us to a place called ‘cruz de Tajumulco’ or something like that. It is the place where the hike up the volcano begins. Our total cost to get to the volcano was 17quetzales – less than 5USD. You don’t have to pay an entry fee to climb the mountain.

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We asked a lady where the volcano hike began, and she pointed right across the road. And so our hike started around 2:30pm, just as it started raining.

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I was nervous, because we were not familiar with the surroundings and I was worried that bandits would attack us or steal our backpacks…Guatemala is not exactly the safest country. I am happy to report that my fears were ungrounded. Nothing bad happened to us. We walked past two men with machetes (a machete is a common accessory in Guatemala; I think men use it to cut down trees or maize) and they didn’t confront us, just greeted and walked past.

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Dirk had downloaded the gps route on his phone, so he checked every now and then that we were heading in the right direction (up). The first part of the route (almost a third of the way) was a dirt road where cars drove on. We walked past a twelve year old driving a car (I’m serious) and he offered us a lift to where the road ended, but we declined. The road lead us past a few houses and farmlands where we greeted the women working – they didn’t seem bothered by our presence. We walked slowly, I struggled breathing, even though the road wasn’t that steep.

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We were disappointed with the weather. It was overcast; meaning that we didn’t have a view of the villages and valleys below us and we couldn’t even see the top of the volcano as we approached it.

Here’s two pictures we took when the clouds lifted a bit:

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After an hour of walking, the road stopped and the trail started. The trail we followed was of dark mud. The interesting part about climbing volcanoes is that each volcano has a different type of vegetation. Tajumulco is covered in bright green grass and trees and beautiful flowers!

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A close up of interesting plants:

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We walked past two groups of young Guatemaltecas (maybe students) who also came to the volcano without guides. In total the hike to a height where we wanted to camp took about 4 hours. We reached the camping area at the same time as a Guatemalteca group and we followed them to a flattened out area where they planned on camping. It was turning dark, so we followed the sound of their voices to get to the campsite. By the time we reached the campsite it was dark and starting to get cold. There was another guided group that was also camping at the same campsite.

We ate our cold dinner (chicken milanesas and bread), and read a bit on my kindle, before falling asleep. The one downside of walking in rainy weather was that my eight year old High-tec boots had lost their waterproofing. My socks were wet. I put on dry socks, but went out of the tent at night to answer nature’s call and my socks got drenched by my wet shoes. My bare feet were so cold at night that I had to sleep with a glove on one foot and my beanie on the other!

We heard that the guided group was going to rise at 4:45am to climb the hour to the top to watch the sunrise. We decided to do the same. We got up wearily and cold in the dark hours of the morning and saw the other group outside their tents. A few minutes later, when we were ready to hike, there was nobody around the campsite. This was inconvenient, because we didn’t know the way up and we were planning on following the other group. Unsure of our route, we hiked up on one side of the volcano. Dirk was confident that we were heading in the right direction (up), so we continued and reached the top after about 40 minutes.

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The top of the volcano is a moon landscape – rocks and gravel. There were names spray painted on rocks, so we knew we’ve reached the top. The other group was nowhere to be seen. Maybe they decided that the overcast weather is not going to provide a beautiful sunrise and slept in. As we sat in between the clouds, moving our fingers and toes to prevent frostbite, we wondered if maybe we were silly to hope to see a sunrise or any kind of view through the clouds.

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Our endurance was rewarded when the clouds opened up for a few seconds and we saw a few rays of sun. This was nothing compared to the view you usually see – apparently you can see all the way to Mexico – but we were happy for a bit of sunlight.

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After our short moment in the sun and an hour in total at the top, I had enough of the cold and wanted to go home. Then the group with their guide arrived. We took photos of each other.

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I didn’t want to wait to descend with the group, so we climbed down the way we came up, but lost our way and decided to retrace our steps up and follow the group down with their guide. By then I felt frozen and I started crying because of the cold. When we reached the top again, it was more misty – visibility was very limited – and a lot more windy and cold. The group was gone and we were alone on top of a volcano, freezing our fingers off and confused about which way to go. I was terrified and started to panic. Thank goodness that Dirk kept his cool and found the place where the group went down and got us to our campsite in a short time. That lost moment in the mist on the volcano was one of the worst moments I’ve ever experienced.

Back at camp, where it was a lot warmer than at the top, we ate yogurt and granola, packed up our tent and started our way down.

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We met a few other hikers going up early for a day hike. They excitedly asked us about the view and we gave them the bad news that they probably wouldn’t see anything.

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The way down went a lot quicker than the way up.

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After reaching the bottom of the volcano, the last thing that we wanted to do was to sit or stand in overfull Chicken buses…but that was exactly what we did. We crammed into the first chicken bus that arrived after waiting for an hour. Then we had to squeeze into an already full bus to get from San Marcos to Xela – a long bus ride. We lugged our backpacks to the roof of the bus, but when we realised that the only seats left were a tiny bit of seat for a third person to sit uncomfortably on, we chose to wait for the next bus where we could have better seats. After a really long day, we walked from the bus station to the Black Cat Hostel and when we arrived we were overjoyed with the luxuries of a comfortable bed and a warm shower.wpid-wp-1441241710754.jpeg

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