Take a Guide or You Might Die


After having limited success independently hiking in Mexico, we were apprehensive about the opportunities that awaited us in Guatemala. We lined up three potential hikes for the first week, two out of the three recommended guides, both because of route finding and personal safety.

So often guidebooks warn of potential dangers when hiking, with one notable publication going as far as recommend you carry a machete for “show”. Generally my thoughts on this are that it is their role to portray a conservative approach to travel and also to promote local business ie guiding outfits. I have nothing against guided trips and sometimes enjoy the social element of a group activity, however there is something undeniably more rewarding about getting out there and doing it for yourself.  To that end we hiked the following volcanoes over the course of three days, and in the process we did not die once.

Hight: 4220m (13,845ft)
Elevation Gain: 1039m (3412ft)
Distance: 11.2km

The first summit on our list was Tajumulco, standing just shy of 14,000ft this is the highest point in Central America, located in the Santa Maria department of Western Guatemala. We camped halfway up the dirt road to the trail head, and after spending a little time being entertained by some kids from the local village we settled in for an early night.

Next morning we set off up the dirt road to the trailhead. There was a rusted white sign with some rules of the trail and a pretty obvious path to the left heading steeply uphill. The route finding was pretty apparent, we kept the main ridgeline to our left and headed in a relentlessly upward manner. Our only slight detour was at the disused radio relay station, all that remains of this reminder of the civil war is a few concrete posts, we needed to have kept this to our left, not the right as we had managed. But in the grand scheme of things this was less than 5 minutes out of the way. After getting back on track the path was clear and we followed a rocky gully towards summit. Heather’s altitude issues briefly flared up again about 10 minutes from the top, but after a brief rest and moan we quickly covered the remaining climb and were rewarded with spectacular views of the valleys and neighbouring volcano.

The descent was pretty straight forward, we met an American Expat who was an excellent source of local information. He assured us that the volcano we had planned for the following day was safe, having hiked it regularly and twice the previous week, he also gave us a few route valuable finding tips.

-Don’t climb in the fog, this is the only time trail finding could be challenging.
-Additional sources of info for this hike can be found in High Points book by Jonathan J. Wunrow, and on Free Range Kiwis blog
-Sadly after the radio relay station graffiti serves as confidence markers that you are on the right path
-Pay attention to the trails on the way up as there are no obvious landmarks to aim for.
-If you want to take a guided tour Quetzal Trekkers out of Xela seem an excellent budget option.

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Santa Maria
Hight: 3,772m (12,375ft)
Elevation Gain: 1340m(4,396ft)
Distance: 12.2km

Santa Maria is an active volcano that in 1902 produced the third largest eruption in the 20th century. Due to its proximity to a densely populated area it has been classified as a ‘decade volcano’, meaning that on the off chance it erupts a lot of people are quiet fucked, hence intensive study and monitoring exists to mitigate the risks.

For this hike we met our friends Nikki and Jakob from Sprinter Van Diaries. That night we stayed in a family run parking lot where Don Pedro and his family made us feel very at home. His son is a guide, and offered to take us up the volcano when we declined his offer he drew us a map and assured us that the trails were safe.

The next morning we set off before first light in hope of catching a glimpse of the neighbouring Santiaguito erupting.  As we walked in dense cloud that eventually turned to heavy rain and strong winds, it became
apparent that we would be seeing very little.

Route finding for the first 1/3 was a little tricky, but between the map and the information we had been given by the day prior we were able to find the route without any mishaps. Essentially stay left at each of the first two chica trees (looks like a little palm tree) you encounter and then hang a right at the second trash can you encounter in a flattish area, after that it is easy breezy. The navigation that is, the hiking however was a slog, we had chosen mountain goats to hike with, and ended up summiting in less than three hours, where the typical accent time is 5 hours, we told them they didn’t have to keep waiting for us but were too nice to ditch us.

Sadly the summit was a bust, with zero visibility, and high winds we stayed briefly before heading into the relative protection of the forest. On the descent we passed many locals climbing for a religious celebration, and entertained them slipping down on our asses in the mud.

Despite the weather we had a blast hiking this with our friends.

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-If you want a guide you could easily find one in the town of Xela
-Consider spending the night on the volcano to watch Santiaguito erupt through the night
-Hiking poles would have been good for the muddy descent

Lake Chicobal
Hight: 2,712m (8,879ft)
Elevation Gain: 402m (1322ft)
Distance: 6.7km

Lake Chicobal is a crater lake in unsurprisingly, in volcano Chicobal, located in the Quezaltenango district. The lake is revered as a sacred place by the Mam Mayan people, swimming here is strictly forbidden and the mythology states that anyone who does swim will become sick. The slopes of the crater are covered in lush cloud forest.

After a short 4×4 drive up to the ranger station we set up camp for the night. We wanted to arrive before the park closed at 6pm to make sure that we were in fact able to camp there for the night, however we arrived to find the rangers office locked up for the day, apparently they actually close at 3pm not 6pm as stated in our guidebook. We decided to risk it and camp anyway, we were treated to the windiest night of our trip, worried that the roof may blow off our camper, we slept with the roof down on the tiny fold out sofa in what we call “stealth mode”.

After a questionable nights sleep, where my arm spent more time asleep than I did, quite why the selfish limb decided to continually fall asleep at the expense of the rest of my body sleeping is a mystery, we headed up the trail. Near the top we were presented with a choice, head directly down or visit a viewpoint (mirador) first, we opted for the later, there we had a striking view of the lake below. We then descended ~600 steps to the lakeshore, my legs were grumbling as the cumulative pounding of the last couple of days was making itself known. We strolled around the lake exploring the various Mayan alters dotted around the lake. We began the walk back up the crater and by the time we started to head back down my legs were protesting even more, but we were essential done hiking for a few days so they* could just suck it up and get me down.

Down and packing up, I realize that I don’t have my camera filters, dread fills my gut and then my legs as I realize that I left them on a log by the lake. After three days of hiking the last thing you want to do is repeat that third day as soon as you have finished it but that is precisely what we had to do. Still the lake was just as beautiful the second time and I got my filters back.

-Visiting in early May may not be possible as restrictions are placed on visitors as this is an important time for the Mam Mayans to celebrate traditional ceremonies.
-Don’t leave your camera filters on a log

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To reward ourselves after three days of hiking we spent the afternoon in Fuentes Georginas hot springs in the mountains outside Quetzaltenango. We were able to camp in the parking lot and stayed in the pools soaking out our aches and pains late into the afternoon.

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If you would like GPX files for any of these hikes drop us a line, we are not smart enough to share them on the website.

*As you may have noticed I have away of falling out with limbs that displease me.

Categories: Guatemala, Hiking, Overlanding, Trails, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Beautiful pics, love to see the view from ‘the road less travelled!’ xoxo


  2. Very imformative blog with lots of amazing pics that I am sure would be of great help to anyone lucky enough to hike up the trails.
    Note from Gaz, good to see we are not alone in having brain that will never save legs ! Lucky for us we only have a set of stairs not a 6.7k climb to fetch what we have forgotten !
    Note from me, am VERY glad you did not die !!


  3. Thanks so much for all the information t’s really helpful! I climbed Santa Maria in March 2015 and am going again this July. If you still have a GPX file for your route could you send it to me at aw1300@my.bristol.ac.uk please? I’m worried I’ve forgotten how to find my way up there, especially at night! Cheers guys, hope you enjoyed yourselves. Alana


    • Hi Alana. Glad you liked our post. I’m sorry to report that we are currently travelling without our laptop and do not have access to our gpx files. You could try wikiloc.com for gpx files. Have fun in Guatemala!


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