The border crossing into Guatemala was as fun as border crossings ever are, at least at this one there was a dog to entertain us and Alice managed to piss off the official by asking for a receipt. In turn, the official scanned her passport. To clarify, a simple request for a receipt, for an “official” payment made the lady so angry that she grabbed my passport back and aggressively started flicking through the pages for, what I assumed, to rip or cross out the exit stamp she had just gave me. It was complete crap, but we decided to play the game, just deal with it and move on. This was the third time we had been forced to pay $30 each for leaving/entering Mexico.
On the other side of the Guatemalan border, I was charged for being an Australian (only a couple quid, but still) then we received our stamps and were shuffled out of the tiny little office straight into our respective collectivos, each collectivo headed to a different part of Guatemala. Before we could leave though, a young guatemalteca and her mother, peered into our collectivo and asked Alice for a photo. We politely declined but then curiosity caught us and we asked why she wanted a photo. The mother responded “just because my daughter wants a photo with you”. The four of us jumped out, let the mum take a couple photos on her flip phone with this girl, then jumped back in before we thought about it much more. We will all probably end up on some website where they take the mick out of tourists or maybe even some school project.
Twelve hours and four buses later we arrived at Xela (Quetzaltenango) at our mate Mark’s hostal, Kasa Kiwi. Alice and I had met Mark in Belize and had run into him a couple times on our travels. We also used to work with a life long friend of his in New Zealand (it’s a very small world in New Zealand). He was kind enough to give all four of us a very sweet deal on accomodation at his hostel, which was pretty amazing in itself. Definitely a good place to stay in Xela, plus it has a great roof top bar and unless you’re hiking or drinking, there’s really not much else to do there.
After a quick catch up with Mark, the four of us showered and headed out for some actual food. After not having anything substantial for most of the day, apart from 6 eggs at 6am for Adam, we all decided on some pizza before we would brave the market food. A few beers and a relatively early night followed.
Alice and I had to hit the mall the following day and for some reason Adam and Rach declined joining us.
We managed to jump in a collectivo that was a massive 25p to the block opposite the mall. The only catch; we had to walk through a labyrinth of market. At one point I was looking for a sign of light to try orientate us out of there. Alice said it was just like getting stuck in Ikea; you don’t know if you will get out alive, when your next meal will be or whether you really do need that candle. It took us about about 40 minutes to cross through.
We managed to get a SIM card, which took about 4 hours to set up, no bank would allow us to withdraw money and of the 80 or so sport and shoe shops, including a Walmart, not one single place sold hiking socks (by this point in our travels we have managed to lose at least three items of clothing each, including for Alice, a pair of good hiking socks which we actually really need). So a good day was spent running around the worlds least efficient and helpful mall.
The afternoon was spent booking in a hike up Tajamulco volcano, the tallest peak in Central America standing at a whopping 4220m. It takes about 5/6 hours of strenuous hiking to get to base camp, where you freeze your bollocks off all night then wake up at 3am to hike to the summit which is another, harder 1.5 hours hiking; which even now sounds like an absolutely bloody treat, right?
We wandered around the little town of Xela, but unfortunately for us, it didn’t have a lot going on. Guatemala also has “Concealed Carry” gun laws, so that adds a little mystery into the country also. It didn’t feel any different to Mexico safety wise until we all had a good chat about guns.
The following morning we headed to a local, volunteer run company, called Quetzaltrekkers. This company has a bunch of volunteers leading the hikes up Tajamulco, a three day hike to Lago Atitlan and a bunch of other hikes up volcanos. All the profits go to not only building schools in Guatemala, but putting children through education and housing those who live too far away to attend a school; so decided to go with this company based on this program. All that was left to do was show up to a “meeting” that night to hear a brief and to collect the items we would have to hike up the mountain with us, including 6 litres of water. As we were already at high altitude and planning to get up very high the following day we were warned to stay hydrated and eat cautiously.
We spent the day preparing and relaxing. Before the meeting we headed out for an afternoon snack, which included accidentally ordering 2 pupusas each for Alice, Rach and I and a whole chicken meal for Adam. We thought pupusas were small palm sized snackitos; we were wrong. Alice also thought chicharrón was a type of sausage, also wrong. It turned out that pupusas, one of the country’s traditional dish, was the size of dinner plates. The lady cooking let us order two each!! Not to mention that the “sausage” was actually like pork scratching and it came with all the black pig hairs still attached.
Alice managed to hiccup her way through half of one, Rach and I managed a whole one and a half each and then poor Adam did his best by clearing up not only his meal but everything remaining. We had to cut it off though, it was as if we realised that eating this sort of food before hiking the tallest volcano wasn’t the best idea… None of us left that comedor feeling like we had made good decisions, but at least we had drunk 20 litres of water between us and could not stop peeing. Great planning.
At the meeting, we collected our items, including thick sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tents, food items and other heavy crap that we had to shove into our already heavy bags when we got home. We had brief conversations about the following day, but mainly what time to arrive and what to be ready for. We filled out a medical form, and at that point I realised that I was currently, at 2600 meters, which was the highest altitude I had ever been at. Stupid low Australia and New Zealand. That should make for a fun time climbing this Volcano.
That night, after another three or so litres of water each, we called it quits early and went to bed. Turns out, when you panic drink approximately 10L of water each, every single one of the four people sleeping in the same room will get fuck all sleep. It was like a rotating door of people needing to pee, all night long.
We all woke up “bright and breezy” very early and headed to Quetzaltrekkers office, with our 15kg packs (más o menos including Alice’s camera and lenses) piled into a shuttle bus and took off on the three hour journey to the starting point of our trek, full of hope, happiness and optimism.
About 2 hours into the drive, the guides realised that no one had told the driver we needed to stop for breakfast at the preorganised comedor. Panic followed until one of them decided to organise eating at another comedor, closer to the start of the trek. This was not the first point where we realised these guys leading us were not experienced guides and just young volunteers from North America who were pretty disorganised. Good on them doing something like this so young but my goodness they needed at least one good clue between the three of them. It was also at this point that I demanded a pee stop, and was confidently backed up by the whole bus who had been obviously skulling as much water as us four. Super confident in our team, and we haven’t even started walking yet.
After a decent breakfast, we lathered up in sunscreen and hit the road. Literally, we ended up walking on the dustiest road I’ve ever seen in my life for about an hour, straight up hill. Needless to say, the sunscreen was a complete waste of our time and effort as by the time we had walked the first hour, all it had done was create a perfect glue for the dust to stick to us, inches and inches of it.
Maybe Half Way?! @ Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
About four more hours of hell and torture proceeded, including Adam having some issues with all the pupusas from the previous day. Honestly, this trek was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, I frequently thought I might not be able to make it to the summit. We started at 3000metres and hiked only 1000metres up in about five hours. The altitude made me feel exhausted like I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs and all of us except surprisingly Alice really struggled. It was really hard, but worth it; Base camp was very cold but surrounded by amazing views.
As we climbed, and at base camp, we were surprised to find so much rubbish and toilet paper on the volcano. We asked the “guides” who told us that we were supposed to leave our toilet paper, as it is biodegradable. Looking around, the amount of toilet paper on this volcano would take years to clear, and yet people and these hiking tourist groups kept adding to it daily. As for the rubbish, we were told that was all the locals and we would learn about it the next day…
Toilet paper lined our base camp, as soon as we wandered around two meters away, we were surrounded by white. It was horrendous. We decided to bring ours back down with us because we couldn’t bare contributing to it.
At base camp, our guides realised that they had forgotten the ground sheet of their tent, and their organisational skills. We had to keep asking them for information and what we needed to be doing/getting ready, which was extremely frustrating after a day hiking. Understandably they are young volunteers, but it was so painful as they were meant to be running the program.
While Adam sadly slowly died in our shared tent, Alice, Rach and I headed for the false summit in hopes of the clouds clearing and getting to see the sunset behind Tajamulco. The clouds didn’t clear for long, but contributed to an incredible and somewhat eerie sunset. We told Adam it was really shit because he was so ill but it wasn’t, it was amazing!
The Power Puff Gals @ The False Summit Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
The Eerie Sunset @ The False Summit, Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
The following morning at 3:30am, we trekked up the side of Tajamulco to the summit. If I thought the day before was hard, this was something
else. We scrambelled up shear rock for practically the whole 1.5hours. I, about half way up, got a touch more of altitude sickness but which a Dramamine mostly cleared up. Alice had to practically drag me up as I couldn’t breath. Eventually, gradually, all four of us made it to the summit and words will never be able to explain how it felt to be above the clouds, standing on the summit of this volcano watching the sun rise after achieving the most difficult climb of my life. Despite the freezing cold temperatures, this was an experience we will never forget, the photos just can’t do it justice.
View of Volcán Agua, Acatenango and Fuego @ The Summit Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
Chuffed Hiker @ The Summit Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
The summit was so cold and coupled with the altitude most people got into their sleeping bags. After a quick wander around to take in the view, Ad and Rach got into their sleeping bags and died a little. To this day we have no idea how Adam managed to get up to the top with a serious case of the pupoosas. I got into my sleeping bag after a while because it was so damn cold, Alice somehow spent the whole time we were on the summit running around taking photos and ended up being made the group photographer. Until I pried the camera out of her frozen dead camera-shaped claw so she could get some blood back to her fingers.
Volcano Shadow @ Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
Ad, Jess and Rach Looking A Bit Cold @ The Summit @ Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
The way down, easier for me, harder for Alice (because she is like Bambi on ice), took in total about 3 hours. We were told by the guides about deforestation and pollution with rubbish; how it was all locals, barely anything to do with tourists. We questioned them on this, as we had not learnt anything about the volcano, like it’s history or it’s significance, which was a bit of a clue as to how disengaged these guys were from the community, possibly. We were pretty shocked and disappointed in the guides, although being volunteers for an amazing project, we expected a bit more professionalism and knowledge. Before we left base camp, there was a whole bunch of containers and tent gear that had not been claimed by the same people who had carried it up. I ended up with tent pegs weighing at least 3 times the amount my original ones did, and Adam, Rach, Alice and I ended up carrying minimum 3 times the amount of equipment, the guides said nothing, did nothing, as they had no accountability for who was responsible for what. This was infuriating as it could have all been solved if they had just written up an inventory, apparently they had written up something but they had forgotten it.
Jumping at 4222m @ The Summit Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
Sunrise @ The Summit Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
Above The Clouds @ Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
The hike was absolutely incredible, very difficult and we wouldn’t recommend Quetzaltrekkers as guides unless you were very aware before hand that they were young, semi clueless volunteers, but the money did go to a great cause at least!
Everyone was totally dead after the hike, we made it down, hundreds of blisters heavier. By the time we made it back to Xela, we showered and scrubbed the inches of dirt off of us and our clothing, had a couple beers and rounds of monopoly deal, then passed out.
Alice and I were off the next morning on a shuttle to Lago Atitlán, while Adam and Rach hung back to possibly do the three day trek to Lago Atitlan in a few days once they had recovered. We were jealous but a bit time poor as we needed to get to Antigua to start our Spanish school, also at that point I was a bit over hiking so we weren’t that sad.
Xela, you killed us. Tajamulco was a challenge that we will not forget about, even if we tried.
Adam not feeling that unwell @ The Summit, Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango
Stunning Views @ Volcán Tajamulco, Quetzaltenango