central america's best sunrise: climbing tajumulco

It was 3 a.m. and a far too chirpy voice for the hour had woken us up - “Good news tent three. It's clear guys, we're going to head up.”

That we were going to 'head up' the side of a volcano - half-asleep and laden down with sleeping bags and puffa jackets in freezing temperatures with only a head-torch providing the guiding light - was good news struck us as a cruel trick.

Wedged between four others in our cramped tent, it was clear that none of us had really slept too well and our enthusiasm from 5 a.m. the previous morning had abated as quickly as the altitude had risen.

“I can't be bothered” one says.

“Why am I doing this?” groans another. 

It was tempting to sack it all off and stay in the surprisingly snuggly sleeping bag. But that wasn't why we had come this far and camped at 4,000m in the cold – one of our bucket list items had been to climb the highest peak in Central America and this was our last opportunity to scale Volcan Tajumulco.

We had returned to Quetzaltenango (Xela) especially to submit ourselves to this ordeal. Our first attempt had failed as others had pulled out making it too expensive for our miserly budget, but this time there was a strong and international group of hikers willing to scale the 4,220m to the summit.

With so many excellent adventure activities and treks on the outskirts of Xela, there is no shortage of tour groups. We did a lot of research and settled on Quetzaltrekkers (QT) – the only non-profit, all volunteer run trekking and outdoor association in Guatemala. Established in 1995, all proceeds from their treks go directly toward Associación Escuela de la Calle (EDELAC), with the primary aim of helping to house, educate, rehabilitate and provide medical care for local street and at risk children. Their international volunteer guides give a three-month minimum commitment and work bloody hard to sustain the organisation and provide you with a great experience. 

Both sets of parents will attest to the fact that we are not morning people, and one of us still regularly greets the other with expletives if woken too early. It was therefore with great difficulty and bleary-eyes that we stumbled into QT's office at 5 a.m. on the day of the hike.

In order to keep costs down, this is not the sort of tour where you will be chauffered around in air-conditioned minivans. Rather, we all squeeze onto another over-stuffed chicken bus and bounce along steep mountain roads admiring the spectacular scenery. We have travelled the length and breadth of Guatemala almost exclusively on chicken buses, but for those that are more accustomed to tourist shuttles, this provides an excellent opportunity to experience an aspect of day-to-day Guatemalan life without the fear of being unable to locate your connecting bus.

At an ear-popping 3000m, we reach our starting point where the real hard work begins. Our backpacks are stuffed with various sections of equipment: tent poles, trail mix, two days worth of rations, five litres of water per person and a smorgasbord of layers. Despite the fact that we're used to travelling with all sorts of crap on our back, often knocking into people on the street and getting stuck in narrow alleyways, we sensed this was going to be an altogether different challenge.

The three volunteer guides – two girls from England and America respectively and a Guatemalan guy – set a brisk pace, but always keep one guide at the back to ensure no-one is left behind or feels like they are holding back the group. Neither of us had been at such a high altitude before and it made its impact quite quickly; shorter of breath than a darts player on a short jog and struggling to get a rhythm, we require a couple of breaks prior to the 'official' first stop.

We also have a Quetzaltrekkers legend and honorary guide making an appearance – a lovely dog named Doris. Blind in the right eye and showing the signs of one too many pregnancies, she escorts the group up. All the way. To the very top. And stays the night. All this for a few scraps of pasta and biscuits. However, she did also find time to pilfer our stash of peanut butter which, to be fair, she had earned. She truly is the Paula Radcliffe of pooches (including defecating in front of everyone).

It takes around four hours to reach our camp. The last hour is a struggle with the air thinning and temperature dropping, but everyone supports each other on the final leg with words of encouragement or promises of jelly beans and hot drinks at the end.

Camp is 200m off the summit, nestled in amongst trees and the clouds. It's been a long day; some people elect for a nap after lunch whilst others partake in the surprisingly competitive 'list every capital city in the world' game. The expected rain thankfully fails to appear so spirits and clothes remain undampened. But bloody hell, it's cold.

It's 4 a.m. Colder than a penguin's private parts and pitch black.

In single-file, we scramble, stumble and scurry in the dark, aware of the sheer drop just to our right but unable to see, and therefore rationalise, it. Andrew has vertigo; Emily the balance of a drunk one-legged giraffe with inner-ear problems – what the hell are we doing?! We start to fall a little behind, but Katie – one of the guides – remains at our side until we're on solid ground.

Finally, we make it to the top. Still cloaked in darkness, we fumble into our sleeping bags and desperately search for that extra pair of socks.

The stars feel closer and clearer than ever before and slowly give themselves away to the emerging sun.

As the sky changes from shades of pink and blue to clementine then a crisp silver dawn, we start to warm up. The reluctance, cold feet and poor sleep from the previous night are now a distant memory. Everyone peels off their sleeping bags to capture the moment or perfect shot.

We were very lucky. Not all groups will make it to the summit due to weather conditions, so you have to take the risk. However, if everything works out, you are treated to a stunning sunrise on a landscape and terrain like no other. Several volcanoes to the east, an endless vista into a Guatemala just waking up and an incredible pyramid shadow to the west.

And the sun stayed with us for the hugely enjoyable three hour descent on an alternative route to the previous day's hike. Being able to shed layers every 30 minutes or so whilst carrying a much lighter backpack probably had a little to do with the group's renewed zest , but the arresting scenery with imposing mountain landscapes and an erupting volcano or two was undoubtedly the main reason. 

It didn't take long to forget our bad night's sleep and remember why we had been so excited for this adventure in the first place.

The trek is demanding and there will be times when you'll question why you're putting yourself through it. But the guides are well prepared and support you every step of the way and, if the weather is on your side, you will witness something unforgettable. 

Details: Quetzaltrekkers organises treks to Tajumulco every Saturday and every other Tuesday (although make sure to check in advance on scheduling). On-demand private treks may also be available. 

Departure is at 5 a.m., with an overnight stay on the volcano and return trip the following afternoon, arriving back in Xela at Quetzaltrekker's HQ no later than 5 p.m.  

For groups of four or more, the cost is 500Q (£40/$65) per person. This includes all the equipment, transport and food required, including an excellent restaurant breakfast and lunch en route.

You can secure your place with a 50Q deposit, refundable after all your borrowed equipment is returned. You can also reserve online for a slightly increased deposit.

A compulsory briefing and equipment check is held at 5 p.m. the day prior to your trek.

They can also supply you with the required good quality clothing and equipment for each hike. However, we recommend, as a minimum, that you have your own walking shoes (and make sure you break them in before the hike!)

Requirements: A decent level of fitness, non-aversion to the cold, a streak of adventure and access to a very long hot shower once back in your hostel.

Company information and contact details: Quetzaltrekkers organises a variety of treks – of varying length and difficulty – throughout the Western Highlands of Guatemala. They also operate in Nicaragua.

If you are travelling light, and have some space in your backpack, check out 'Pack for a Purpose', an initiative for travellers to bring much required medical and educational supplies to organisations such as Quetzaltrekkers.

Website - http://www.quetzaltrekkers.com/guathome.html

E-mail - quetzaltrekkers@gmail.com

Phone - (502) 7765-5895

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