It all started off as a horrible mistake. I thought I was booking a two-day stroll through some local Mayan villages, but unfortunately for me that hike and the trek to the highest point in Central America have similar names. By then it was too late to back out.
My hike was booked with Quetzaltrekkers, a grassroots, community-based not-for-profit that is entirely run by volunteers. All of the trek profits go to Escuela de la Calle (EDELAC), which provides a home, education, food, counselling, rehabilitation and medical treatment to over 200 street children and at-risk youth in Quetzaltenango.
The volunteer guides come from all over the world and stay for a minimum of three months. Over this time they lead hikes, complete administrative tasks, and spend time with the children at EDELAC. Despite receiving no payment for their work, the guides use their tip money to take the kids on excursions around Guatemala.
Unlike many other hikes in the region, there are no porters. Instead, I was carrying 6L of water, a 5kg tent, food, sleeping mat, warm clothes and a hiking pole. As I struggled to put on my backpack I had vivid images of Reese Witherspoon in Wild, struggling to stand with the weight of her backpack.
At 4:30 a.m., our group of adventurous hikers hopped into the back of a waiting truck and were taken to the local chicken bus station. These are old Canadian and American school buses that have been painted in vivid colours and decked out with a sound system that you would normally expect to find in a club. And forget about personal space–each seat is packed with three or four people with more standing in the aisle. Then the bus zips through the mountains, weaving in between traffic so the driver never has to use his brake pedal.
A few hours later we squeezed our way out of the bus, put on our packs and looked up at the volcano in front of us. At 4,222 metres, Tajumulco is the highest point in Central America, although from the bottom it didn’t really look that high. But, as we all know, looks can be deceiving.
Our guides, Jami from Canada and Tyler from America, were incredible. Tyler led the way and the fittest members of the group followed him up the mountain while Jami was at the back of the pack. We had regular stops for some homemade trail mix to give us the energy to keep going to the next rest point.
As we went further up, I felt more and more terrible as I started to get altitude sickness. I’ve been this high before, but everything is different with a heavy pack! After what seemed like an eternity we finally made it to our campground two-thirds of the way up Tajumulco and set up our tents amongst the pines. We had a delicious lunch of salad, guacamole and sandwiches and hiked up the smaller of Tajumulco’s twin peaks–Cerro Concepción.
As the sun started to set and the full moon became visible, the pain of the hike finally seemed worth it. The shadow of Tajumulco was a perfect silhouette against the purple and pink sky. Sitting on the top of the Central America, far above the clouds the stars were bright orange as though they were on fire. This has to be one of my favourite moments in Guatemala. It was perfection.
As the stars came out we all stumbled wearily back down towards base camp and Jami and Tyler started to make a pasta dinner. By all accounts it was incredible, but unfortunately I lay down in my sleeping bag for a moment to rest my eyes and managed to sleep all the way through it!
At 3:30 a.m. we woke up, packed up our sleeping bags and started the final hike to the summit. After a horrible night with altitude sickness, I didn’t think I would make it to the summit, but Tyler helped me up at a snail’s pace and I made it to the highest point in Central America! And in time for sunrise! I joined the rest of my group in our sleeping bags as we watched the sun rise over the volcano-studded horizon.
As the sun started to warm our frozen fingers, we packed up our tents and had some hot drinks and breakfast before starting the hike down. The hike downhill took us through a varied and interesting terrain with pine trees shading us from the hot sun. We finally made it to the bottom and were rewarded with a delicious hot lunch at a local comedor.
A few bus rides later and we were back in the office, happy and incredibly exhausted. This hike was the hardest thing I have ever done, but that only made it more rewarding. There, standing on the top of Tajumulco, the roof of Central America, watching the sunrise you know that anything is possible.
Editor’s Note: Quetzaltrekkers operates their office out of Quetzaltenango. After a tough hike with a do-good tour group, you may want to relax. Check out this sustainable boutique resort along nearby Lake Atitlan.