My boots crunch the gravel underfoot as I stare down a volcano. Tajumulco rises impressive before me, a ring of clouds surrounding its base, the only thing to hint this is the highest peak in Guatemala and all Central America. At 4,220 meters (or 13,845 feet) Tajumulco will be the highest mountain I’ve ever summitted.
With one last look to the mighty peak, I stow my camera, lift my pack onto my back, and begin the ascent to this ancient place of fire and brimstone. As our group heads up the mountain, I can’t help but think how this must make an odd bunch, a mishmash of seasoned climbers and alpine newbies thrown together by the common goal of sitting amid the clouds here in Guatemala. I am hiking with Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit guiding outfit based out of Quetzaltenango, my home for the past six months. I had come to Guatemala to learn Spanish, but the call of the mountains is strong in this country of peaks, so here I am.
From Tuichan to Tajumulco
The climb will take two days, but today the team’s only headed to base camp, about 4km from the starting point in the small town of Tuichan. It seems like such a small distance to me, but soon the elevation starts to tug at my lungs and I am reminded that I’m not at sea level anymore. I’m puffing my way through lush, green valleys that give way to sparse, sentinel pines that tower over me like guardians of the land. The age of the trees reminds me how long this volcano has lain dormant; the last recorded eruption was in the 18th century. I smile inwardly to myself, happy that the era of hellfire has long been over for this monolithic beauty, unlike her cousin to the east, Acatenango, who last breathed fire in 1972.
After a slow, but steady couple of hours I make it to base camp, puffed, but not entirely spent. I’m still filled with the energy of the mountains, so while the guides begin prepping dinner, some friends and I scamper up a small peak near camp.
I stride through the long, dry grass around the base of this second, smaller summit. My companions and I are breathing hard when we finally crest the rocky crown to view the prize, a world above the clouds. The group sits on the rocks at the edge of the peak, basking in the last rays of sunlight before descending for an early dinner.
Dinner is a simple affair, pasta and red sauce, made more complicated by the ever-present street dogs who are trying to score a bite. Good naturedly, we shoo away the dogs and head to bed, bundled up in layers upon layers of fleece to protect against the summit chill.
The Climb Begins
Early the next morning my world slowly awakens as the guides rouse the climbers, sometime around 4 am. I grumble, struggle into my clothes, and get my gear together as fast as my frozen fingers will allow. It really does get cold at the top of the world. Before I know it, I’m being marched single file up a series of switchbacks leading to the final peak. There is no natural light in this pre-dawn world of the volcano, instead I follow the light of the headlamps, which from a distance remind me of tiny lanterns bobbing up and down, drawing a crooked line up the mountain.
I hike fast, wanting to make it to the top for sunrise, and soon I am sweating, shedding layers right and left. By the time I crest the final hill, I am down to my long sleeve cotton shirt.
I roll out my sleeping bag that was brought to watch the sunrise in, something I didn’t quite understand on the hike up, sweating as I was, but now, sitting still, I’m chilled to the bone by the gusts of wind that rip across the rocky face of the summit. I crawl into my sleeping bag, thankful for the foresight of the guides, and watch the sun slowly rise over the volcanic line of Guatemala—Agua, Acatenango, Fuego, Atitlán, and Santa María all visible above the clouds.
Written by: Monica Puccetti
Monica is a directionally challenged traveler searching the world for good beer, cute animals, and new stories to tell. She has been traveling for the past two years as a budget backpacker and adventure seeker, looking for all the best this wild world has to offer. You can follow her adventure at www.whichwayswest.com
All photos by: Monica Puccetti