Peak bagging in Central America

I hate it when people do things just to tick boxes and say they’ve done it. Travelling’s all about enjoying the moment, whether it’s gazing upon a glorious view or immersing yourself in an unusual, unique experience. I hate it when people use the term bucket list to describe places they long to visit, because it implies box-ticking rather than experiencing.

Volcan Tajumulco (4220m), the highest point in Central America
Volcan Tajumulco (4220m), the highest point in Central America

I’m also a complete hypocrite, because I’m ashamed to admit I’m a bit of a peak bagger. I’ve climbed 81 of Scotland’s 283 Munros, and four of the world’s Seven Summits. I’ve climbed all 10 of the highest mountains in the UK, and the highest in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I’ve climbed two of the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks and reached Camp 2 on five of them. I’ve even climbed the highest mountain in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and not many people can say that.

How can a self-confessed peak bagger say he hates the phrase bucket list? Isn’t that a bit like Sir Alex Ferguson saying he hates it when people moan about referees?

Yes, you’re right. Guilty as charged, but that’s not going to stop me making a lame attempt to defend the practice of box ticking. The beauty of peak bagging is that it takes me to places I wouldn’t otherwise think of visiting. Munro bagging has taken me to some remote parts of the Scottish highlands I never knew existed, and I’ve always felt enriched by the experience. Box ticking is OK then, as long as you remember the purpose of it is to enjoy the moment rather than brag about it later (says he typing up a blog post which lists some of the mountains he’s climbed).

Antigua is a lovely old colonial town surrounded by volcanoes
Antigua is a lovely old colonial town surrounded by volcanoes

It was peak bagging that originally took me to Guatemala over Christmas, but I’m bloody glad I went. It’s a great country with a marvellous climate at this time of year, which wouldn’t normally draw the mountaineer. Around 350 people have climbed the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each of the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Australasia and Antarctica, but I wonder how many of them have climbed the highest point in Central America.

I signed up for a trip to climb seven of Guatemala’s volcanoes, including Volcan Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America, run by the UK tour operator KE Adventure Travel. KE in turn used a local company Old Town Outfitters, based in Antigua, who specialise in mountain biking but run all sorts of other activity trips including trekking. I had no complaints with either company: the trip was well-organised with an imaginative, jam-packed itinerary, and very professional guides, although our American group leader Nico did have a tendency to provoke chuckles from some of the less mature British members of the group with his occasional references to fanny packs and wind pants.

I wasn’t the only peak bagger to be drawn to Guatemala in this way. I spent the first day of my holiday in Antigua, a lovely old Spanish colonial town surrounded by volcanoes, with cobbled streets and pastel-coloured buildings with terracotta roofs and bougainvillea flowers spilling down the walls. As I sat in a cosy garden restaurant drinking my first bottle of Gallo beer I discovered one of my companions, Doug Mantle, has climbed Everest. Bearing in mind this was an ordinary trekking trip involving nothing more than strenuous hiking, to have one team member who has climbed Everest would be unusual; to have two of us seemed as improbable as a volcanic eruption on Ben Nevis. Nevertheless, here we were, and in peak bagging terms Doug made me look like a spotty teenager. In fact, he’s a bit of a legend. He made one of the first ever commercial ascents of Everest way back in 1992 with Rob Hall’s fledgling Adventure Consultants, and it was much harder in those days. He has climbed the normal Seven Summits, as well as the seven island summits (the highest peak on each of the world’s seven largest islands), and most of the highest mountains in South America. He has climbed all 247 major peaks in the Sierra Nevada Mountains five times. I thought I had climbed a lot of mountains, but I couldn’t find any I’ve climbed Doug hasn’t, and I only managed to reverse this statistic for two minutes by running up Tajumulco and arriving on the summit marginally ahead of him. Doug is the peak bagger to end all peak baggers. He has also climbed the highest mountain in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Volcan Pacaya is still active, and only vulcanologists and Klingons can get any higher than this
Volcan Pacaya is still active, and only vulcanologists and Klingons can get any higher than this

But what of the mountains? They’re all volcanoes. Most of them are free-standing and many are still active. They all lie within a belt of highlands stretching west of Guatemala City to the Mexican border in the far southwest of the country. Most rise little more than 1000m above a high plateau and can be climbed in a single day, but they reach altitudes as high as 4220m. While the active ones are dry and barren, those which have been dormant for a while are covered in an apron of dense jungle at their base, and sparse pine forest higher up. Because of the temperate climate, the pine trees grow at altitudes as high as 4000m, an extraordinary altitude to find fully-grown trees. None of the mountains are snow-capped, and apparently snow in Guatemala is as rare as racial tolerance in the Daily Mail.

We started by climbing Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano just south of Guatemala City. It experienced a major eruption as recently as 2010, and three years ago tourists used to hike among red hot lava flows. The lava has since cooled into hard black volcanic rock, and Pacaya’s crater now gives out a constant cloud of steam rather than a series of more dramatic eruptions. Nevertheless it’s still highly active, and it’s not possible to climb within 200 metres of the summit without a special vulcanologist’s permit (by which they mean someone who studies volcanoes rather than people from the planet Vulcan like Mr Spock from Star Trek). There are smaller vents the size of manholes all over the side of the mountain though. One of our group, Peter, climbed into one of them to have his photo taken, and emerged dripping with sweat. The area around Pacaya is highly built up, with many radio masts, tin shacks, and a thermal power station further down the hill. Sprawling Guatemala City is a constant presence to the north, and despite its active nature it was my least favourite of all the volcanoes we visited.

Our camp on Acatenango had a great view across to Fuego
Our camp on Acatenango had a great view across to Fuego

Our next excursion was a three day hike up Volcan Fuego and Volcan Acatenango, two volcanoes linked by a saddle rising above Antigua. Fuego is also active, and experienced a major eruption only four months ago, when 30,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. Unlike Pacaya it gives off regular belches, and its narrow ridge adjoining Acatenango and more remote location makes it a much more pleasing peak for the mountain lover. We spent two nights at a lovely elevated campsite among pine trees, high up on the steeply sloping side of Acatenango, and drank red wine beside a camp fire beneath the stars. It was a magical place to spend a couple of nights. Acatenango was a tedious climb up very loose scree, but it was only a short hike above our campsite, and the summit was worth it, with a perfect circular crater of dry scree and views for miles, including its own shadow projected over the plains of Antigua. The steep dry pathways were hazardous to descend. We had to take great care coming down and falls were frequent, but the only real accident occurred when Frances fell into a bush trying to do a Tarzan impression with a giant creeper.

From Volcan Zunil we watched a fabulous sunset over Volcan Santa Maria
From Volcan Zunil we watched a fabulous sunset over Volcan Santa Maria

We moved west and based ourselves for a few nights in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city on a heavily populated high altitude plateau at 2500m. Here we climbed two volcanoes. Zunil was a beautiful verdant ridge of a mountain, awash with colourful grasses and wild flowers on top, and with thick forest covering its slopes. We reached the summit late in the afternoon and descended to a lovely sunset over the mountains to the west. We camped in a wonderful setting on a dip in the ridge, but the experience was marred by a fierce wind which gusted in random directions. This made our camp fire that evening a bit pointless. No matter where we positioned ourselves around it, every so often we were doused in smoke and sparks. This caused Paul to look up after one particularly severe gust and calmly ask: “Am I on fire?” Two members of the group have less pleasant memories of Zunil. Tara had a porter sent over to escort her down from the mountain, which was all very well but for the fact she didn’t know he was a porter, and he was carrying a large machete. While Peter chatted away amiably to her for 20 minutes, she was busily plotting how to use him as a decoy while she dispensed with the armed madman using her pen knife. To add insult to injury she then sat down on a cactus. Tara’s pain was only imaginary though. The worst was reserved for poor Yvonne, who broke her ankle descending the steep dusty trail through forest, every bit as treacherous as it had been on Acatenango, and had to cut short her holiday and fly home to Boston.

Volcan Santa Maria was a more accessible volcano rising above Quetzaltenango. Pleasant lush grasslands on its lower slopes gave way to thick jungle and the usual sparse pine trees towards the summit. Its crowning glory is supposed to be Santiaguito, an active volcano 1000m lower right next to it. On a good day it’s possible to have unusual views right down into the crater and watch it erupt. The wind was against us though, and all we could see was a wall of grey steam. Nevertheless it was still an enjoyable summit.

We all made it to the highest point in Central America
We all made it to the highest point in Central America

From the peak bagger’s point of view, Guatemala’s crowning glory is Volcan Tajumulco, and that isn’t just because it’s the highest. It’s the most enjoyable climb, and also the best summit. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s a great summit. It helped that we reached it in perfect weather conditions shortly after dawn. A thin veil of cloud blanketed the hills below us, with the tops of the volcanoes peeping through. To the east the sun rose over all the mountains we had climbed in the last week, and we could name them all. Guatemala’s second highest mountain, Volcan Tacana, formed a perfect triangle a short distance away on the Mexican border. Tajumulco contains both a deep extinct crater with a narrow concentric ridge, and a broad summit plateau covered in yellow rock. Surprisingly, it is also a popular tourist destination for locals, the only one of the country’s volcanoes which seemed to be. Many Guatemalans were with us at the summit and some had even camped there. It also seems to be one of those mountains where a dog you can’t get rid of follows you most of the way to the summit. Fortunately there’s no glacier to cross.

Our climb had begun inauspiciously among dull grey cloud in a shabby village at the trailhead. The first part of the ascent was along a dusty dirt track. Once we left the 4WD track the trail became more inviting, alternating between steep pine groves and gentle grassy traverses. We had another beautiful campsite at 4000m on the very fringes of the tree line. By then we had climbed above the cloud and the weather promised fair for the following morning. This time we weren’t troubled by the wind, and our camp fire was enhanced by the decent quantities of alcohol people had brought up: Chilean red wine, Guatemalan rum and tins of Gallo beer. We got up at dawn and watched a beautiful sunrise through the trees. With all these elements together it made for a very memorable mountain indeed, and easily the highlight of the trip for me.

Lake Atitlan is a peaceful place to relax in the central highlands surrounded by volcanoes
Lake Atitlan is a peaceful place to relax in the central highlands surrounded by volcanoes

Our final volcano was more straightforward. Volcan San Pedro is a fairly boring 1000m slog through forest so thick there are virtually no views until you reach the summit. My experience wasn’t enhanced by walking behind Doug and Nico, who talked incessantly about US politics for 700 of those vertical metres (I measured it on my altimeter). On the positive side I’ll now be able to answer any question about Nelson Rockefeller in a pub quiz. Eventually, after realising they weren’t going to stop, I dropped back and walked with Joe, a quieter character who likes to walk in silence identifying the trees and birds of the forest. Volcan San Pedro’s redeeming feature is its view from the summit out over Lake Atitlan, a large 35km lake surrounded by volcanoes. It was a relaxing place to end our trip, and the following day we went kayaking on the lake. It was the first time I’ve ever been in a kayak, but luckily we had a secret weapon in the form of Tara, a kayak instructor. With her help I even managed to avoid falling in the drink.

Had it not been for Tajumulco I would never have been drawn to Guatemala, but there aren’t many places in the world you can walk among active volcanoes. Guatemala is so lush and green that it must rain a lot, but in December the climate is magnificent, and the weather perfect. It’s definitely a place all lovers of mountains should consider visiting.

Here’s a little video of Tajumulco I put together, and you can see more photos of Guatemala’s volcanoes or read the complete diary of my trip here.

Watch on YouTube

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6 thoughts on “Peak bagging in Central America

  • January 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm
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    You had a wonderful Christmas journey, away from the madding crowds! Thank you for posting your blog together with your photographs and video. It allows people like me who for various reasons are unable to travel to distant shores anymore.I really enjoy following you and thank you for your talented writing skills. I realise you don’t do this for acclaim but I am delighted for you that your talents are being recognised and that your work is being published and as a consequence brings pleasure to many. Cheers Kate.

  • January 16, 2013 at 11:13 pm
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    Thanks for the kind words, Kate. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  • January 17, 2013 at 12:06 am
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    I suppose if you ever run out of mountains to climb, you can always start on boulders! Bouldering sounds like something you’d have to be mad to even contemplate, but at least it’s difficult to die whilst doing it. I’m glad you’re getting something out of this beyond merely checking boxes, and I enjoy a great chortle from the writeups. Yakshit Camp sounds like it was just marvelous, hah.

  • January 17, 2013 at 10:40 am
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    I’m more of a hill walker than a rock climber, so bouldering lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from the reason I head for the mountains. It’s an activity for people who climb because they enjoy the technical challenge of completing a difficult move. While there are times when I’m on a tricky section of rock that I wish I was better at getting my leg over (but doesn’t everyone?), I tend to pick up my technical skills on easier mountains with nice views.

    This reminds me of a conversation Eric Shipton had with Tom Bourdillon during one of the Everest reconnaissance expeditions of the 1950s. Shipton the explorer asked Bourdillon the rock climber whether he would prefer to spend the next month exploring the southern side of the Everest massif or climbing on the vast rock precipice they could see across the valley. Bourdillon looked a little embarrassed as he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, Eric; I’d choose the rocks.” I’m more in the Shipton camp!

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