Guatemala – Volcan Tajumulco

Volcan Tajumulco – 13,845ft

Eric and Matthew Gilbertson

Date: March 27, 2013

On the summit at sunrise

On the summit at sunrise

I slowed the car to a stop and rolled down the window. A white car was parked in the middle of the road in front of me with its lights on, and a man with a gun wearing a police uniform was motioning for me to pull over. I couldn’t help but feel nervous. Matthew and I had heard that it was dangerous to drive in Honduras at night, because armed men dressed as police officers had been known to stop unsuspecting cars and rob the occupants. But we had to drive at night a little bit to make the 17-hour drive from Cerro Las Minas, the Honduras highpoint, to Volcan Tajumulco, the Guatemala highpoint, in one day. It was currently 3:45am and we had just left Gracias, Honduras, hoping that an hour or two of night driving close to morning was safer than the same hour or two just after sunset.

“Documentos. Donde vas? [Documents. Where are you going?],” the man asked, leaning in toward the window.

“Vamos a la ciudad Guatemala [We’re going to Guatemala City],” I answered, digging out the fistful of random car rental documents and handing it to the man. He seemed like a legitimate policeman, but still might give us trouble.

“Salga del coche [get out of the car],” the man said, still looking over the documents. We stepped out and opened all the doors and the trunk so he could inspect inside.

He handed me back the documents, then started rummaging through our backpacks, and taking everything out of the trunk. We stood by patiently, hoping he would finish soon and not find anything suspicious. He must have been looking for drugs or weapons, of which we of course had neither.

When he was done examining my backpack he put it in the backseat and closed the rear door to start inspecting the trunk. But my waistbelt buckle got caught in the door and smashed to pieces as he closed it. I quickly rushed over to inspect it, and let out a groan of agony. I was planning to use that pack to hike my overnight gear up Tajumulco, and I realized how annoying it would be now to hike without a hipstrap.

The man walked over and looked embarrassed at the damage he’d done, and at how upset I was. To be honest, I was exaggerating a bit, hoping to make him feel bad and just let us go. My plan must have worked, because he suddenly decided we were not carrying any contraband, and waved us through. We got back in the car and quickly took off before the man could change his mind.

Matthew and I had just started our fifth day of an ambitious weeklong trip to climb the country highpoints of six Central American countries. We’d succeeded in reaching the easy radio-tower-capped summit of El Salvador, the scary landmined Mogoton in Nicaragua, and the long jungle hike up Cerro Las Minas in Honduras, and next on the lineup was the snow-covered Volcan Tajumulco in Guatemala. The police encounter in the pre-dawn hours of Honduras was hardly our first run-in with law enforcement on the trip, and would certainly not be our last.

After a few more hours of driving we reached the Guatemala border, just as the sun started rising.
“How long you think this one’ll take, an hour?” Matthew asked, referring to the upcoming border crossing.

“I don’t care, as long as we don’t have to bribe anymore corrupt officials,” I replied. “It’s like they see two white guys and think they can squeeze every last peso out of us.”

We’d already crossed a half-dozen borders in the past few days, and were becoming frustrated at how inefficient and chaotic they were, and that we were expected to bribe police officers to get official “stamps” on our documents. This one was looking to be no different.

I pulled past the standard line of tractor trailors parked on the side of the road, then came up to another car moving slowly in front of me. I followed the car to a large overhang over the road next to an official office. This is definitely where we would need our passports stamped and some bribing money for the local police, but surprisingly there was nobody around anywhere outside. It was just barely sunrise, and people must have still been sleeping. The car in front slowed down, then rolled right through the border and kept going on the Guatemala side.

“We could stop and look around and try to get our passport stamped…” Matthew started.

“Or we could just cruise through like that guy did and hope nobody sees us,” I finished his sentence.

Before I had time to reconsider, I pushed my foot gently on the accelerator and cruised through the border just like the guy in front of me had. I looked in the rear-view mirror, but nobody was running after us, so I just kept going. After about 10 minutes with still nobody following I finally relaxed. We’d been taken advantage of on so many border crossings, but this time it was our turn to end up ahead. I just hoped the next customs agent to see our passports didn’t care that the number of Honduras exit stamps didn’t exactly match the number of entry stamps.

We were now on familiar terrain – we’d started our trip in Guatemala City and driven this same road on the way to our first mountain in El Salvador. Fortunately this time we were following the road in the daylight and there weren’t quite as many slow-moving trucks to contend with. We passed through San Jacinto and Zacapa before heading West and eventually reaching Guatemala City. Our destination, Volcan Tajumulco, was on the opposite side of the country nearly on the Mexico border, and we still had a long drive ahead of us.

Guatemala City was as chaotic as before, but Matthew navigated expertly and I swerved at the right times to avoid any collisions. On the west side of the city we were treated to a 4-lane highway weaving through the mountains. Now we were entering the touristy part of Guatemala. We passed a few rest stops full of trinket stands and restaurants, and gringos wandering around. This side of the country is popular because of the scenic Lago de Atitlan, and some large volcanoes popular with hikers.

By mid afternoon we reached the town of Quetzaltenango (Quetzal-town, as we would later refer to it), and our magical 4-lane highway deteriorated into a 2-lane traffic-clogged road. There were no more touristy stops from here on, though we were treated to views of several huge volcanoes on the skyline. None of them were Tajumulco, but we were getting close.

To encourage cars to slow down in Quetzal-town there are huge yellow speed bumps in front of every intersection, and often at random places along the road. These weren’t your standard American-style speed-bumps, though. These were Guatemalan style – aka they will without fail scrape the bottom of your car no matter how slowly you drive. Our car definitely had standard ground clearance, but no matter how slowly I inched over the bumps I would always scrape. Only one or two times when I came to a complete stop before the bump did I manage to pass scratch-free, but that could have been that the bump was just older and worn-down an extra inch from so much metal contact over the years.

Rental car agencies, however, never check the undercarriage of a car, so we didn’t worry too much. At the town of San Marcos we left the valley and started our climb up the side of the volcano. The road switch-backed aggressively up the steep hillside, and we had to pass quite a few slow-moving trucks chugging up the hill. We soon emerged on a plateau of sorts at 10,000 ft, and drove to the small village of Tulichan. The sun was setting by this time, and the cloud ceiling dropped to our elevation, making for very low visibility. At Tulichan a rough road continues a little farther up the volcano, but with our 2wd rental car we decided to park at the base of the rougher road and avoid any chance of getting stuck in the dark and fog.

Our plan to avoid any night-driving in Guatemala had worked perfectly. We were surprised, because our car GPS had predicted an 8.5-hour drive from Gracias, Honduras, to the Tajumulco trailhead. In the previous four days we’d found empirically that in central America a google-maps or car GPS time estimate is off by a factor of two over actual driving time, mostly due to rough roads and slow truck traffic. We’d thus been dead on target with our estimated 17-hour drive, and had left Gracias at the perfect time to avoid night driving in Guatemala.

It was surprisingly cold when we got out of the car. Just 24 hours earlier we’d been sweltering in the jungles of Honduras, and now we were freezing in the highlands of Guatemala. We quickly started packing our backpacks to start hiking up the mountain and pitch our tent before it got much darker. A few local mutts mosied over to our car to check out the activity and try their luck begging for food. However, Matthew and I were not feeling overly generous, and the dogs soon got bored and left.

At the trailhead

At the trailhead

We hid all our valuables under the seats, locked the car, and headed up the mountain. The road started out with cobble-stone-like pavement, but then deteriorated to dirt after passing the last outpost of houses. From what we could see of the terrain, we were surrounded by open grassland interspersed with outcroppings of bushes. As we left the last house a small, skinny black dog ran up to us and started tagging along. He looked like he hadn’t seen a decent meal in weeks, and we felt sorry enough for him to not scare him away. We even gave him a name – Pedro.

After a few turns of the road we determined we were out of site of the houses, and immediately found a sheltered flat spot in the bushes and set up the tent. Pedro sat diligently watching our every maneuver. I secretly slipped him a handful of bagel crumbs, and I instantly turned into his new best friend. We were now guaranteed a guard dog for the rest of the night, and crawled in the tent to go to sleep as Pedro stood watch.

At 3:30am our alarms went off and we crawled back outside into the darkness. Pedro was there to greet us right outside the entrance, eagerly awaiting a reward for his guard duty. I snuck him a few more bagel crumbs and patted him on the head for a job well done.

Our goal was to see sunrise from the summit, and we quickly threw some food and spare clothes in our backpacks and started walking up the road. We left the tent and our sleeping bags set up, and Pedro laid back down next to the tent and went back to sleep. If he was still there when we returned, I vowed to give him a huge reward for guarding our gear.

The road deteriorated into true 4wd high-clearance territory, and we knew we’d made the right call to leave the car parked lower down. Before long we reached a parking area with several tough looking trucks parked, and here the road changed into a pure hiking trail.

A pine forest replaced the bushy slopes below, and we continued hiking up in the darkness through the trees. Surprisingly, a set of headlamps appeared above us, growing larger until we recognized the outline of three men hiking down.

“Buenos dias [good morning],” I said to the shadowy figures.

“Buenos dias,” one replied. “Vas a la cima? [are you going to the summit?]”

“Si, por la salida del sol [yes, for sunrise],” I replied.

“Buena suerte! [good luck!],” he replied as we parted ways.

I couldn’t figure out why three guys would be hiking down the mountain at 4:30am. Shouldn’t they be going up for sunrise if they’re out at that hour, or still sleeping? We continued up the trail, weaving through the trees and occasionally in and out of open meadows. At one point we took a wrong turn that lead to a campsite on the side of the mountain, but we took a bushwack shortcut back to the main trail with no problem.

At 5am we reached the edge of treeline and passed by a set of several campfires burning in a small ravine next to the trail. As we got closer we noticed people huddled around the fires covered in blankets, and rudimentary little wooden structures nearby. It looked like some Guatemalan hikers getting ready for a sunrise hike, but we couldn’t be sure. They definitely looked cold, though. And with good reason – this was the elevation we saw our first snow patches on the ground. It must have been just below freezing then. Matthew picked up a handful of snow and took a bite.

“Mmm, tastes about the same as snow back in New Hampshire,” he observed.

“I’m sure there’ll be plenty more on the top of this mountain,” I replied.

Now the trail turned more rugged, and we had to use our hands once in a while to pull ourselves over boulders. The snow patches became more numerous, but never completely covered the ground. By 5:30 the steepness of the terrain began subsiding, and soon enough there was no more mountain left to climb. We officially reached the roof of Guatemala at 5:32am, roughly two hours after starting the hike, and unfortunately well before sunrise.

guatemala4A biting cold wind blew across the boulder-swept top, and we were not quite prepared for such windchill, having only our summer rain jackets and a few poly pro top layers on. Matthew found a semi-sheltered area just inside the crater rim below some boulders and the remains of a large steel cross. We still had a half-hour to kill until sunrise.

I dug out some plantain chips to eat, then started doing jumping jacks furiously to regain warmth in my body. Matthew scrambled back up to the summit and ran around, also to stay warm. We would have been quite the site to see if anyone else were around, but we were luckily the only ones at the summit.

Alpenglow was forming on the horizon, and we found some good picture opportunities in between the jumping jacks and summit laps. By 6am, though, the clouds rolled back in and blocked our sunrise view.

“I’ve had more than enough being cold,” Matthew said. “It’s not right to feel this frigid in Central America.”

guatemala2“Yeah, I’d say we’ve enjoyed the summit long enough to leave,” I replied between jumping jacks.

We snapped a few last victory pictures and then started walking back down. Now a few Guatemalans started emerging at the summit, obviously having better timing than us for sunrise. They must have been from the camp in the ravine below. As we descended through the boulder section we passed probably 30 people. Most were wearing blankets for warmth, and must have been pretty cold. They were smart to not reach the summit before sunrise like we had.

The hike back was much easier in the daylight, and we easily made it back to our tent by 7am. Surprisingly, Pedro was diligently waiting, tail wagging happily to see us. This time I took out a tasty granola bar and gave him the whole thing. Our tent was still there with all its contents, so he must have done a good guard job while we were gone.

guatemala6We packed up the tent and sleeping bags, and walked back down the road to our car. Pedro followed us to the small cluster of houses, then ran away toward some people standing outside. I’m guessing they were his owners, and he didn’t want to miss breakfast.

The car was in good shape back at the trailhead, apparently not having been broken into. I guess we’d only been gone about 12 hours, but were still relieved after hearing about the prevalence of roadside crime in Guatemala.

guatemala7Matthew got behind the wheel this time, and at 8am we began the 8 hour drive back to Guatemala City. It should have been a smooth drive back – we knew the way, had plenty of time, and were driving in the daylight, but alas, this was Central America, where nothing is guaranteed to go smoothly.

As we started descending Matthew touched the brakes to slow down, and the car replied with an excruciating sound of metal grating on metal.

“Dang it!” Matthew exclaimed, pulling on the emergency brake and steering to the side of the road. “Of all places for the brakes to decide to go out, why does it have to be right before we need to descend 3000 feet?”

“I don’t think that means they’re useless,” I replied. “I think that just means the pads are getting low, and the annoying sound was engineered to cause the driver to go and replace them.”

“Sure, that’s how it works on cars in America,” Matthew countered, “but who can be sure about down here in Guatemala? And even if that is the case, I might wear the last millimeters out of them going down this hill.”

We sat and thought about the situation a little. We could try to find a mechanic to come fix the brakes, but that might take a while, and we had a flight to catch early the next morning. It was holy week, after all, and most people weren’t working the whole week. We could call the rental agency, but then they might blame us for the problem and still not be able to help. Or, we could be careful and try to get the car back to Guatemala City on our own. We decided on the latter option.

“I’ll just shift into the lowest gear going downhill, and pull on the emergency brake if I need to stop,” Matthew said. “And I’ll lightly tap on the back brakes just so the light goes on when I’m slowing down.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said.

Matthew slowly drove the car back onto the road and shifted into the low gear. We angered a few other cars behind us for driving so slow, but made it out of Tulichan without hearing the grating metal-on-metal sound too often.

As we got a little farther down the road, though, we saw a frightening sight in front of us. Two teenage boys had rigged up a wooden plank across the road with a menacing array of nails sticking up the top. The contraption would surely pop all four tires of any car foolish enough to drive over it. The boys were wearing Halloween masks, and each held a rope attached to one side of the wooden plank.

Matthew pulled on the emergency brake just before the plank, and the car ground to a stop. Two more boys wearing masks then jumped out of the bushes and ran towards the car shaking bottles full of coins. I quickly locked all the doors as they pounded on the windows, shaking their bottles.

“What in the world is going on?” I asked. “It looks like they want us to pay them to let us pass.”

“I ain’t paying those little hooligans a penny,” Matthew replied.

We sat in the car waiting as the boys kept shaking their bottles. Matthew honked a few times, and the boys eventually gave up. One boy pulled his rope, and the plank slid off the side of the road. We quickly drove through, giving the boys angry looks out the window.

A little farther down the road we encountered two more boys on the side of the road, this time much younger and a little less nefarious. They were also wearing masks, and as we approached they pulled a small rope tight between them so it blocked the road. This time Matthew slowed down only slightly, knowing the little rope could do no damage to the car, unlike the previous ploy. When they boys saw we weren’t stopping, they let the rope down just in time for our car to drive through.

One set of mischievous boys may have been merely an isolated event, but now that we’d passed two sets of masked boys we were began thinking it was more than just coincidence. Was this some equivalent of Halloween in Guatemala? Was there some significance to the Thursday of holy week?

We made it safely down the hill using the emergency brake, then entered the village of San Marcos. In the middle of town we turned a corner and saw a group of about 30 young men in their 20s lining the side of the road, and across the road was an even more menacing wooden plank with a nasty set of spiky nails sticking out in all directions. As before there were ropes on each end, and a man holding each rope.

Matthew pulled on the e-brake to stop just before the wooden plank, and the men started walking over towards the car. I made certain all the doors were locked, and we just stared ahead, trying not to look at the men. Matthew honked his horn several times, but the men still wouldn’t let us through. It was a standoff. A few cars started pilling up behind us, and the men in the road began to realize we were not going to give in. Matthew honked again, and one man reluctantly dropped his rope as the other pulled the plank out of the road.

Luckily that was our last encounter with the roadblocks, and we managed to escape without losing any tires or money. We drove back through Quetzal-town, then onto the 4-lane highway into Guatemala City. All the while we would downshift and use the e-brake to stop, tapping on the actual brake lightly to turn on the back lights.

About half way to Guatemala City we came across a seen almost straight out of a James Bond movie. A bus was stopped on the side of the road and a man was standing on the roof tying down some chairs. The bus slowly started moving, but the guy on the roof hadn’t yet finished his job. As the bus got up to highway speed ahead of us the man on the roof made his final knots in the rope, then turned around and started walking towards us. By this time the bus was going 60mph! He turned around and climbed down a ladder to the back of the bus, then opened the door, hanging onto the ladder by one hand, and crawled inside. He was completely non-chalant about all the Indiana Jones-like maneuvers he’d just accomplished right in front of us!

We arrived in Guatemala City around 4pm, and decided to test the back brake just in case it had changed. Amazingly it didn’t squeak at all! The whole drive over from Tajumulco it had made excruciating metal-on-metal squeaking sounds whenever we tapped it, but somehow it decided to turn silent right when we needed it to!

We pulled into the Avis rental station at the airport, and with another stroke of luck, were just barely early enough to save a full day on the rental. We had reserved the car until the next morning to give us plenty of buffer to make all the unknown driving times, but miraculously didn’t need that buffer.

I told the rental agent that the brakes had been making some noises, but when he tested them out he couldn’t hear a thing, so didn’t charge us. I don’t think I’ve ever been as relieved as I was then to walk away from a car. We’d driven that car all through the rough roads of Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala and came through without a single scratch (except for the undercarriage, which was not noticeable).

We spent the night in a hostel a block from the airport, and the next morning got on a flight to San Jose. Our next adventure was just starting – a climb up Cerro Chirripo, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica.

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