The Santa Maria Volcano In Guatemala: Day Hike
The Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala is defined as a stratovolcano and is located in the country’s southwestern highlands. It overlooks Guatemala’s second largest city, Quetzaltenango (or locally known as ‘Xela’), which should be your base for hiking this giant. It has a summit of 3772 metres (12,375 ft) making it the 6th tallest peak in Central America and the 4th tallest in Guatemala.
Santa Maria tends to be visited mainly because of its lava dome, Santiaguito, which erupts approximately every half an hour. It is, along with Fuego and Pacaya, one of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala.
We mustn’t forget Santa Maria itself, which is a hotbed (pun intended) of research for volcanologists. It’s one of the most closely monitored volcanos in the world and this is for a VERY good reason….
The Santa Maria eruption in 1902 was one of the biggest eruptions to take place in the 20th century and the results were quite catastrophic. The sheer power of the eruption itself killed around 5000 people. The eruption was so violent that it killed off bird life on the volcano which allowed mosquitos to run riot in the nearby communities which caused a huge malaria outbreak, killing thousands more. The scale of the eruption was so intense that half of the mountain-side was actually blown off in the explosion.
Years later, further activity on Santa Maria created Santiaguito which is an active volcanic vent on the collapsed side of the volcano. Nowadays, there are plenty of trees, creatures and greenery on and around the summit (see the lizard below!).
Hiking The Santa Maria Volcano
This is definitely not a simple task. In the dry season camping overnight on the summit is an option, but if you do it in the wet season then camping is not recommended and you’ll have to make do with going up and down on the same day.
I did it in the rainy season so had no option but to go for the day hike. The hike started at around 6:30 am and we were back to the city by around 5 pm. This might be considerably shorter depending on weather conditions, your fitness, and the amount of time that you spend at the top.
The hike starts at the very end of a dirt track road through a small farmers village. You’ll find that the landscape is very similar for much of the hike, especially the first couple of hours.
The initial ascent is steady and doesn’t present too many problems. It’s a landscape of farmland where it is not uncommon to bump into some of the local farmers. Don’t be surprised if you’re greeted by a curious, toothy smile and some questions, or if you get small kids asking for sweets.
We took our first break on a small grassy opening which turns out to be the end of the steady ascent through the grassy farmland, and the beginning of the steeper, zigzag up to the summit. I would recommend that you do the same in order to get a quick breather.
The next part of the hike is definitely the most difficult, and somewhat tedious, part of the volcano. It’s a fairly steep ascent which takes a sort of zigzag form up the side of Santa Maria.
People often assume that climbing a volcano means wading through ashes and clambering over volcano rocks – this one definitely isn’t the case.
Due to such a long period of inactivity, the side of the volcano has been given a chance to grow into a big green forest. This is definitely handy on a hot day, providing welcome shade from the potentially relentless sunlight.
The first section of the zigzag ascent only really requires leg power, there’s not much of a technical climb involved here.
The technical climbing comes soon after with several rocky banks and sections which must be traversed at a bit of a scrabble. Watch your footing and take your time going through the rocky sections. You should also use your arms as much as you can to help lever your body up.
You’ll get the opportunity to take breaks at your leisure with plenty of gaps opening up in the trees providing a quite brilliant view of Quetzaltenango below. There are also some makeshift benches as you go up which you can sit, or even lean, on if you’re finding it a particularly tough hike.
The rest of the hike is much of the same with the final climb steep and a bit overgrown as you make your way to the summit. The summit is grassy with a lot of apparent vegetation – you really don’t feel like you’re on top of one of the most potentially dangerous volcanoes on the planet!
The total ascent time should be in the range of 2 – 5 hours. My group took around 4.
Depending on which tour you take and in which season you’re there, you’ll either set up camp on the summit or stay for about an hour to have some lunch and then start the descent.
Going on the day tour, my group stayed on the summit for about an hour. Here the guide told us some facts and history about the volcano, as well as some information about potential future eruptions!
It made for some interesting story-telling, but wouldn’t have been ideal to hear if we were to spend the night there….
Descending the volcano definitely wasn’t as straightforward as I had initially expected. The route is self-explanatory because, due to half the mountain not existing anymore, the only way down is the same way you came up!
The most difficult parts are the rocky sections which are around the beginning of the descent. This eases off after a while and turns back into the same zigzagging path.
The slog back down to the starting point should take around 2-3 hours. If you have clear skies then the view of Quetzaltenango and beyond really is amazing, it can be enjoyed more as you come down the mountain because you have it all directly in front of you.
If you have a basic level of fitness then you will manage the hike without too many problems. The toughest part is undoubtedly the steep, rocky section of the climb but it shouldn’t present any major difficulties.
If you decide not to go with a guide then you will NEED:-
- Walking poles/sticks
- Plenty of food and water
- Basic first aid kit
- Tent and sleeping bag (unless you’re doing the day-hike)
- Hat and gloves
If you go with a guide then essentials should be included in the price. You’ll most likely be expected to take the following:-
- Water, 2 – 5 litres depending on whether you’re doing the day or overnight hike.
- Extra snacks
In any case, I always recommend taking as much of your own equipment as possible.
First, it’s worth mentioning that you don’t actually need a guide to climb the volcano. It is, of course, recommended in case you get lost or encounter robbers, but our guide did say that she had never heard of any muggings in the last 10 years around the volcano. I also thought that the track was pretty self-explanatory and it would be difficult to get lost.
A guide, however, is not that expensive and will save you any uncertainty.
I went up with Quetzaltrekkers, which is an entirely non-profit trekking association based in Guatemala. The guide was nothing mind-blowing but I was happy knowing that the money was going to a good cause, plus it got us up and down the volcano.
Quetzaltrekkers also do various other treks around the Quetzaltenango region and were generally recommended as the number 1 agency to go with.
In June 2017 I paid 300 quetzales ($41) for the day hike. I felt that this was a reasonable (if not slightly steep) price for what we got.
You probably will find a better price if you do some digging and find smaller or more local guides. but please do bear in mind that this is Guatemala – paying less means you have much less of a guarantee that it’ll be of the same quality.
The Santa Maria volcano is a worthwhile hike if you are in the Quetzaltenango region, and can be done by anyone with at least a basic level of fitness.
Being in Guatemala, the weather really does vary depending on which season you decide to hike. In the rainy season, you’ll almost certainly get some showers but it will be warmer. Whereas in the dry season it’ll be much colder on the summit but you’ve got a MUCH higher chance of no rain.
Although no comparison to its bigger brother, the Acatenango volcano, Santa Maria still provides you with spectacular views and the opportunity to see one of the world’s most active lava domes.
For all you avid hikers out there it mustn’t be missed if you’re in the area.
Thanks a lot for reading and, as always, please leave your comments below. 🙂