Hiking Santa Maria and different definitions of "easy"

I just finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring and find that a usual episode for the company reads like this: they travel far and grow weary but then arrive in a friendly land where something nice happens (meeting new friends, eating a good meal, receiving gifts) that lifts their spirits and emboldens their hearts and they carry on with renewed vigor. This was the way of my day hiking the volcano Santa Maria just outside of Xela. It is a tale of struggle and triumph of which I am extremely proud.

Xela and surrounds from a distance. Santa Maria is the tallest pointy one.
Source: Google Images

There are many volcanoes in western Guatemala, but Santa Maria is the one that looms over the city of Xela. Fun fact: its 1902 eruption is one of the 5 largest worldwide in the past 200 years. The city of Xela is high up at an approximate altitude of 7,875 feet. (Conveniently, I already acclimated last week in San Cristobal at 7,200 feet.) The summit of Santa Maria is at 12,375 feet. So yeah, this is an intense hike with 4,500 feet elevation change (almost one vertical mile!) over 3 miles one-way, with most of the elevation change happening in the final third. Essentially, while it may not be long, this is very steep and very challenging hike. And it was my first big mountain climbed! Whew, just remembering makes me tired.

When booking the tour the day prior, I was totally gung-ho. Yes, it’s the hardest hike around and I knew it was going to be tough, but it’s iconic in Xela. We have to do it! We were told by the tour company the difficulty was a 4 out of 7. I do hike back home in California, though rarely at altitude and never an actual mountain, so am fit and not a novice; no problem, I can do a 4. In hindsight I now find this rating somewhat hilarious, especially as the tour company’s own website rates the hike as “difficult”.

Monte Verde p { margin-bottom: 0.08in;tours (who were great btw, as was our guide) picked our trio up from the hostel at 5:30am and we were at the trail head by 6am. The “easy” part took us from the road through fields up and foothills. It didn’t feel so easy for me at the time, but compared to what was coming up easy was a good description!

Our company setting out at the trail head at 6am, Santa Maria in the background.
The initial approach. Yeah, we’re going to the top of that.

After about an hour we took a short rest at the base, then headed up the daunting peak. There was constant trash on the trail left mostly by locals on their way up. Volcanic ash made for fine and slippery footing, not to mention the dust clouds we each kicked up. The hike was strenuous. I began to worry about my knee; usually my left knee bothers me on descent but this time it was the right knee on the way up. My doubts were growing. Without the guide- and peer-pressure I might have turned back.

Me, about to head up and apprehensive.

On the mountain, my joy-to-pain ratio was not good. I was worried, tired, and getting grumpy. Why was I doing this? I find so much beauty in the world already without killing myself going up a mountain. I’ve never felt the need to summit. It is a conquering impulse I know a lot of hikers have, but I always wonder if those few moments at the top are really worth all the pain getting there. Whenever we would stop to take a picture partway up, our guide cheerfully assured us that the view would be better at the top. That doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful down here! I grew more frustrated.

Looking down on Xela below.
All kinds of pretty views! Haven’t we climbed high enough?

Our guide kept jokingly saying “5 minutos mas!”, which I found increasingly irritating. Just tell me the truth! I want to make decisions about my body based on accurate information! After much prodding, he acquiesced and disclosed how much left there was. At that point, we were resting on a bridge, I was already dead tired, and I thought we weren’t too far from the top. Turns out we had more than an hour of the most difficult stretch to go.

Horsing around on the bridge. (Partially obscured by grass near the camera lens.)
A typical extreme incline during hour four. Onward and upward.

We summited just before 10am. A preacher was sermonizing to locals as we caught our breath and took in the panorama. Much like cenotes in the Yucatan, volcanoes were often considered sacred to Guatemalans and rituals are still performed on their peaks today. We sat atop a huge boulder at the very top and looked out over the land around us. Our guide pointed out a dozen other volcanoes in all directions. It was beautiful, but I was dead tired and dreading the hike down.

Exhausted at the top.

After a few minutes we descended slightly (all I could think at that point was “God, we’re going to have to climb back up this to get to the trail…”) to have lunch overlooking the active volcano Santiaguito right next door. We spent a half hour enjoying the view and munching on our pesto sandwiches. Amy kindly passed around cookies to share. Then Santiaguito–the next door volcano just below us–blew for the first time. For me, this was that special transformative moment. It was so cool! The ash erupted into the sky like a mushroom cloud. We watched in awe. From that moment on, I felt renewed excitement. I was still beat, but it didn’t matter as much anymore. Look at what was around us! How freakin’ awesome is it to watch a volcano actually blow?! It erupted a second time even bigger just as we were about to leave our viewpoint. An inspiring and invigorating send off.

Amy with the best seat in the house.
So freakin’ awesome.
180 degrees from Santiaguito view, twin volcanoes erupt in the far distance.

On the way down Laura, our hike instigator, was tickled pink that we had fulfilled a dream of hers–we climbed a volcano! Her excitement was infectious. The descent wasn’t short but it was orders of magnitude easier than the way up. Our clip down was quick and good god did it feel awesome to be on the home stretch. We chatted and bubbled about what we had just done. When we finally left the mountain behind us, I felt huge relief, accomplishment, and happiness. Laura and I cheered!

There and back again. We did it!
Our hiking party at the pick up point. Even brighter-eyed now than at the onset. Yeah, we kicked that bad-boy-in-the-background’s ass!

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Would I do it again? Yes if I hadn’t already, but probably not a second time. Tough, but amazing and worth it. I’m very glad to have had this experience, but think this may be my one extreme hike of the trip. I was really hurting on the way up. Now, my legs are sore but I am SUPER killer proud of us. Especially when looking up at the mountain from down in the city. It is enormous and we are so bad ass!! The farther away I get from the pain of ascent, the more and more happy I am to have accomplished this hike.

I ate like a hobbit that day: first breakfast, snacks, lunch/elevensies, a 3pm dinner-ish meal of breakfast food (so I’m completely confused about what to call it), and later second dinner of fettuccine bolognese and lots of red wine. I did finally get that hot shower, plus a fresh coat of paint on my toenails.
Ew, the dust seeped through my shoes and socks! Pre-shower and pedicure.

4 thoughts on “Hiking Santa Maria and different definitions of "easy"

  1. Holy crap, that's serious. And getting to see a volcano erupt, from _below_ you?! Awesome.

    PS: most of the hikers I know like to summit more for the internal accomplishment, not conquering the mountain. More “I set out to do everything in front of me, and I did it” than “I am so much better than you, Mr. Mountain”. Which, in retrospect, sounds an awful lot like how you felt afterwards.

    PPS: How did you manage to look so cute at 6am?


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