Volcano Ascent Take Two: Tajumulco – THE highest peak in Central America

6am, Saturday 9th April: A bleary-eyed crew of 19 PLQ students plus two guides, Oscar the driver and provisions for two days pile into a school bus designed to take a maximum of 20 small children. Ned and I, egos still slightly bruised from our abortive attempt to climb Volcano San Pedro a couple of weeks ago, are fired up for the climb.

Oscar's bus

A cramped two and a half hours later, we arrive at the foot of the mighty Volcano Tajumulco – the tallest peak in Central America.

The stats

Greg and Ben help Ned out with some last minute adjustments

The fun begins

Greg demonstrating that every man needs a machete when climbing a volcano - Chelsea and I feel very reassured

Not to be outdone, Ned gets in on the machete action!

A very small child carrying a very heavy log down the mountain - back to his home for essential firewood.

11am: Lunchtime – a tad early, but we have been up since 5.30am!

Up above the clouds already

The climbing gets steeper and steeper (luckily this time there is a very clear trail!)

2pm – ish: Setting up camp, our home for the night at 4,000m above sea level.

The boys (Ned, Greg and Tobias) get to work

One of our guides – Almaro – gave us some orientation on the history of the volcano, and told his story. At eight years old (during the Civil War of 1960-96) Almaro and his family fled to Chiapas, Mexico from their home near the volcano. Almaro’s father had been captured and tortured due to his status as a community leader in the area. His father survived but was so badly hurt that he had to be carried across the border by the family – a journey of some days through the mountains.

Almaro and his family lived in Chiapas, but after ten years he decided to return to Guatemala and join the guerrillas, to fight for his country and what he believed in. He lived and fought in the mountains for five years in the early 1990s, sometimes going four days without food. Many of his friends died in the conflict, and he witnessed terrible atrocities.

During the conflict the guerrilla forces broadcast a clandestine radio station from Volcano Tajumulco. Two days a week for 30 minutes to one hour the guerrillas managed to broadcast to counter the propaganda from the government forces. The military eventually found out that the broadcast was from the mountain and mounted a huge campaign to find and eradicate it. They never found the equipment.

Almaro has now joined the URNG – the ex-guerrilla party, and the only left of centre party in Guatemala. He is running for local office in the forthcoming elections, later this year.

The story made a big impression on us all. Despite the freezing cold we were all transfixed. Thinking back to what I was up to during the mid-nineties: listening to Brit-pop, being a moody teenager and generally causing mischief; brought it home how recent and tragic the history of Guatemala is.

Almaro in mid flow

7pm: Dinnertime

The girls (Aliza, Chelsea and I) get to work making tortillas to put in the coals of the fire. A triumph!

4.30am, Sunday 10th April: After six freezing cold, sleepless hours in our tents we set off in the pitch dark for the summit.

Spot the flashlights...a photo purely for context!

5.30am-ish: The summit! A devilishly steep scramble up in the dark and we arrived just before dawn.

Here comes the sun...

The anticipation

Little by little the dawn rolls in from the East

The line of volanoes from Lake Atitlan to Anitgua dissolves into view

Incredible!

Spellbinding!

Magnificent!

The crater

Enchanting!

Ben and Magnus jumping for joy

It's still f-f-f-freezing!

Beautiful!

The perfect triangle shadow of the volcano

The conditions were perfect on top of the mountain – no wind, no clouds above us or surrounding the crater. It felt like we were on top of the world. We witnessed a sunrise beyond compare – a gorgeous orange glow slowly unfurled towards us, enveloping the whole of Central America. It was emotional, and bloody freezing!

The team at the top

6.30am-ish: the descent back to camp for peanut butter sandwiches begins…

Packed up and ready for the rest of the gnarly descent

Almost 9am, and there's still frost on the ground

10.30am-ish: Safe and sound, tired but extremely happy we arrived back at the road to the welcome sight of the school bus waiting to take us back to Xela (and to bed). Alas! The bus refused to start – choking repeatedly, and belching thick smoke from the exhaust every time Oscar tried to fire her up. Dismay spread around the group – whisperings of mutiny began to take hold. The chicken bus began to look like an attractive option, even though it would involve three changes to get back.

After two hours of nervous waiting and milling around, while our two guides enjoyed a beer or three – totally chilled out about the broken down bus – a snazzy car showed up with some mechanics inside. They eventually managed to jump start the bus and away we went. A relief to one and all – another night on the volcano being the least attractive option! Plus, we had almost run out of peanut butter.

The forlorn school bus and the snazzy rescue vehicle

3pm: Back in Xela we went our separate ways – satisfied and exhausted. It was, as they say here in Guatemala, ‘vale la pena’ – definitely worth the pain!

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8 Responses to Volcano Ascent Take Two: Tajumulco – THE highest peak in Central America

  1. Geoff says:

    What a great adventure – and wonderfully told through the story and photos! That’s way higher than I’ve ever been with my feet on terra firma. I’d like to think that our abortive attempt on San Pedro was the necessary physical and mental preparation for your Tajumulco triumph. But how does that explain your classmates also succeeding?? Perhaps this is where the slightly older and more experienced guides come into the picture!

  2. Patricio says:

    Great pictures of Volcan Tajumulco. Thanks for posting. Look us up if you are back in San Marcos. El Migrante Spanish School

  3. Ben says:

    Ahhhhhh! You guys made it clear how fun this was! The 6 frozen hours in our not-sleeping bags were totally forgotten as soon as the sun came up and we could see half of Guatemala below us!

  4. Alan says:

    …awesome!!!

  5. Chelsea says:

    Ah! Charlotte and Ned I just am reading this- I love it!! Amazing photos!!! I wish I were still in Xela with you guys! SO freaking fun, great memories. Take care.

    Chelsea

    • Charlotte says:

      Gracias chica! Great memories indeed. Hopefully see you again in the States, UK or who knows, maybe back in Guatemala some day – reliving the dream!

  6. Greg Huebner says:

    Hey you two… miss y’all. Hope that your trip is continuing well. Great pics, and story :) I’m back in Florida gettin a job on the beach waiting tables, I think I can find some people to practice my Spanish with. Good luck!

    • Charlotte says:

      Ah, thanks, we miss the PLQ gang too. Good times. We’ll find you for a pina colada if we end up flying back via Orlando…

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