In the days before I had extensively researched the hike. According to several blogs, the climb up was definitely manageable without a guide. Being Dutch also means being stingy. So I decided against a trekking company. Besides that, I prefer to set my own pace. I made sure to take plenty of sandwiches, water and layers of clothes with me. What could possibly go wrong?
Santa Maria lies in the middle of Guatemalan volcano heartland. From its top you can see several of the other highest summits in Guatemala, including big brother Acatenango. But for that hike a night in a tent on the mountain is required, so I preferred Santa Maria instead as a warm-up for my three-day hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan.
Always keep up the good spirit, right? So yes, after a solid climb I reached the La Meseta clearing. It’s a beautiful, yellow-golden meadow. It’s a good place to have a rest before you start the proper ascent of Santa Maria, because you have only reached the one-third point. Thank God I didn’t know that.
Now, this actually turned out to be the crucial stage of the walk. Because somewhere very early on the right side is the main path hidden. Follow your map app as close as you can, until you are very confident it is a solid path upwards.
Relief, my friends, is an understatement to describe the feelings after finding the small trail back down after five minutes or so grinding through the tree branches. At least I knew I was going to get home today, back in my bed. Which is more than I could have dreamed of only a quarter of an hour before. I didn’t even care I looked like Sylvester Stallone in the first Rambo movie at this stage.
So, straight back down? Nope, because the Gods of cynicism decided to have a laugh with me today. Not even two minutes later I hit upon a wider path. And a lot of hikers. Hallelujah, the proper trail! And it can’t be that far anymore, right?
Going down proved to be more dangerous than going up, because of sliding rocks and slippery sand. The indigenous women doing a praying ritual in a circle for an injured member of the crew (sprained ankle) will be forever etched in my memory. Their wonderful singing, in the middle of the forest, was surreal.
Just as surreal as reaching Pinal again after a mere two hours of descending Santa Maria. As by magic – and a rare can of Coca Cola – energy returned to my body and confidence to my mind. One more chicken bus to take me to Xela, to enjoy the memories that are always sweeter than the act itself.
- How to get there: either walk to Llano de Pinal, or take a chicken bus (around 2 Quetzales one way) early in the morning (between 6am and 7am). The bus goes past Iglesia El Calvario (at the Cemetario Central), then onwards to the Minerva terminal before returning to Pinal. Takes ages by the way
- Length: 5-7 hours from the village
- Food and drinks (at least two litres, preferrably more)
- Walking pole
- Several layers of clothes (the top is around 1,500 metres higher than Xela)
- Cap and sunglasses
- Rain gear
- first aid kit (optional)
- Navigation: download the Maps.me app before the hike. Look up the way to Santa Maria before the trip and download it, so you are not reliant on cell phone reception
- Good to know:
- If you need guides, Quetzaltrekkers is a good option. I opted for them as well on my hike to Lake Atitlan
- Safety has improved over the years. There are sometimes police patrols on the trail and summit as well. Use common sense though
- Sleeping at the summit is allowed. Bring your own tent. The main reason to do that is to have night and early morning views of Santiaguito, a nearby lava dome. You can also make a detour there on your way back
- Check the weather forecast before you leave. Cloudy weather makes it very likely you can forget about those awesome kick-ass views
- The last big eruption of Santa Maria, albeit a catastrophic one, was in 1902. The volcano is still active
- More information:
- Experienced hiker Steve from In Shape Explorer writes about the walk to Santa Maria
- Same goes for Sheena & Erik from DIY Travel HQ