View from the Top: Xela lies thousands of feet below.

“Getting to the top is optional.   Getting down is mandatory.” -Ed Viesturs climber and author of “No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks”

After my surreal experience on top of Santa Maria volcano, witnessing my first live volcanic eruption just a few thousand feet below my perch on a jagged rock, it was time to say goodbye.  Heading back is always the anti-climax of a hike, especially a good one in which you reach your peak and for that moment in time you are on top of the world.  But as I always say, all good things must come to an end.  It was time to head back.

The start of our descent….you can see terraced farmland first, followed by the town of Xela far below. 

We hiked quickly, mostly due to the steepness of the terrain.  Going down is always so much easier on the heart yet harder on the knees.  I could not believe how steep it was!  In all my initial excitement and early morning fatigue, I guess I didn’t realize that I was literally walking straight up.  After all, I was climbing a volcano!  They aren’t round!

A lovely sideways shot of the incoming clouds filling up the valley.  

More and more clouds rolled in and I understood why it was essential to hike the volcano early in the morning.  Otherwise you’d do all that hard work and reach the top to be literally in a fog of clouds.  You wouldn’t see a single thing!

The hill in front was our landmark on the hike up.  The spot where we took our first break in the early hours of the morning and I watched the clouds and listened to the sing-song of the birds.  

The indigenous of Guatemala adore the fertile, steep lands of the volcano.  Their rich soil offers a great place to grow fresh produce.  

We saw this farmer at the break of dawn, around 5:30 am as we begin our ascent up the steep volcano trail.  He was working away in the dark.  Here is his horse above and a photo of him below, working away and tending his field. 

Some of the lush farmland on the banks of the volcano. 

After an hour we had finally caught up to the Mayan pilgrimage.  There was a group of about thirty people, most likely all family, who had done the trek up to the volcano where they camped for a couple of days and prayed.  I was utterly amazed and fascinated by them, especially the women.  The women wore their traditional clothing in brilliant colors, every piece a work of art.  Even more impressive was the fact that the women, including the young girls, carried their babies on their backs and their supplies on top of their heads, all while hiking the steep, strenuous trails of the volcano!  It was unbelievable!  Yet I was also a little bit sad as I obviously noticed that the young boys only carried a tiny backpack and wore sneakers with laces.  The girls wore the most abhorrent footwear imaginable for hiking a 12,375 foot volcano:  Plastic, strapless, high-heeled sandals!   Now if that is not discrimination, I don’t know what else it could possibly mean.  Climbing a volcano is not about fashion!  Sadly, poverty plays a role here.

My guide Lico, a fabulous guy!

As we continued our descent, I could not believe how insanely slippery dried mud and dirt could be!  It was like ice-skating on dirt!  Both Lico and I skid, slipped and fell several times. And this was a dry day!  I can hardly imagine what it would be like hiking in the rain!

As we neared the end of the trail, I noticed this old plastic shoe left along the wayside.  I took this photo as a reminder of the footwear the young Mayan girls wear.  Insane.  Not right.  

Finally, after five hours we are back!  I was exhausted, elated and ready to be done.  My feet felt as grimy as can be.  I could only imagine the dirt that had soaked through my half-ass “hiking shoes” and how dirty my feet would be.  (Hours later, I died of laughter to find that my feet were as black as coal!  Too bad I didn’t take a picture! But some things are better off forgetting).  

We finally hit the end of the trail and walked the short distance to catch the Chicken Bus.  I could hardly wait!  It was my first ride!   

Even the farmer’s wife goes barefoot!  She must have some tough feet!

And…there were no chickens!

Stay tuned…did I got back and completely pass out in bed? Of course not! I had to keep the momentum going and catch a ride to the natural hot springs! What could be a better way to end a hike than to soak in super hot water while drinking a local beer? Not much!


  1. Absolutely love this post! Reminds of my old days backpacking through South East Asia. Fav pic, hands down, has got to be the one with the sweet baby on the mama’s back. Great post!

    1. Thank you! I am dying to explore SE Asia! I fell in love with Nepal and also have been to India, China and Japan but that is it. I know that I’ll need a lot of time to do it so it will probably have to wait.

  2. Wow, I am blown away thinking of those Mayan women carrying babies on their backs and belongings on their head–all while climbing the side of a volcano. Amazing!

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