Tajumulco (4220m) is the highest mountain in Guatemala and Central-America. Unlike the other volcanoes in Guatemala, it's considered very safe, except for the dangerous chicken bus to/from the trailhead.
Preparing for Tajumulco in Xela
We arrived the city of Quetzaltenango, most commonly known as Xela, around lunchtime after a 15 hours journey from Flores/Tikal. The Black Cat Hostel didn't have any twin bed room available, so instead we checked in at Hotel Los Olivos just across the street.
We basically had 3 options to climb Tajumulco:
-1 day trip by ourselves, transportation with car or public buses
-guided 1 day trip, transportation with car
-guided 2 days trip, transportation with public bus
A self-done 1 day hike from Xela using public buses, is really not recommended, because you are getting too late on the mountain to enjoy the awesome views from Tajumulco. You will need to hire a car or taxi to get there early, but that will be very expensive for only 1-2 persons. So instead we figured out it was a very good deal to sign up for a 2 days package with Monte Verde Tours. They charge only 400 Quetzal (around 50 USD) per person including bus, tent, sleeping mattress, 3 meals on the trail and a local guide.
Josh at Monte Verde Tours is a very reliable tour operator in Xela. On the morning of departure, we met his guide Saul and one more client, the always smiling Alex. He turned out to be a Filipino residing in USA, so we had in fact a lot to talk about. Josh drove the four of us to the bus terminal in Xela. These kind of places tend to be extremely chaotic in Guatemala, but our guide Saul had full control regarding which buses to jump on. We had to switch bus halfway in San Pedro. The entire journey with overloaded chicken-buses took almost 3 hours, including the brief stop in San Pedro.
Walking to high camp
It was really nice to be able to stretch the legs when we arrived at the foot of Tajumulco. The start of the hike is located at 3000 meters elevation. Initially we walked on a dusty road, before we hit the trail a bit further up. Alex had stomach problems, maybe it was the street food from yesterday? Secondly he was not very well acclimatized, so we took it very easy uphills. No need to be in a rush when doing Tajumulco in two days.
We had lunch halfway up the hill on a flat and open spot. After 3.5 hours on the trail we eventually arrived the camp at 4000 m.a.s.l. The campsite is not far away from the summit, so Tommaso and myself decided to head up before sunset. The dense clouds never disappeared, so basically we saw nothing from the summit.
Arriving back in camp, Saul was preparing our dinner. It was starting to get fairly chilly so we were indeed enjoying the heat around the bonfire. We went to sleep early (around 20:00) in order to wake up early. Tommaso was freezing during the night, because he only had a summer bag. But when he wore his down-jacket inside the sleeping bag, there was no more complaining.
Greeted by a spectacular sunrise
We woke up 04:00 and set off walking around 04:30. It was still almost pitch dark when we arrived at the summit less than one hour later. But during the next few minutes, the transformation from night to day started. The sunrise was absolutely amazing and it formed a huge shadow of Tajumulco in the horizon. This reminded me why I continue to do such kind of things, while most other guys prefer to stay in a soft bed and not wake up early.
Saul had promised us to walk around the crater and so we did. The crater is fairly small so the walk around the rim only took 10-15 minutes extra. Back in camp we ate a simple breakfast (oat porridge), before we started on the hike down. Alex was very slow and weak, because of his stomach bug (vomiting etc).
The bus is on fire
Fortunately we survived the 3 hours in chicken buses back to Xela. At one occasion the bus seemed to be on fire, because it was suddenly filled with smoke after coming down a steep hill. A girl next to Tommaso told us to "Jump out the windows". I escaped from the backdoor of the bus. The smoke coming from the rear wheel brakes, was certainly not healthy to breath. The bus conductor went under the bus, adjusted something on the brakes, and 5 minutes later we were ordered to go back inside the bus again. A few people understandably hesitated to do so, but I knew there was no more downhills to Xela. Hence no need to worry about a failure of the brakes.
Back in Xela, we decided to try out another hostel. Together with Alex, we found a 3-bed room for the next couple of nights. Next morning we were going to do another volcano hike, Santa Maria, which is notorious for armed robberies on the trail. Josh even told us that 2 out of 6 groups had been robbed today. Unlike Santa Maria Volcano, we were told that Tajumulco is very safe, except for the chicken bus journey....