Question: What do you do when you when you have a serious case of altitude sickness and laying in fetal position in the dirt at 3772 meters above sea level, and 3 hours from civilization?
Answer: You toughen up and walk down, step by step..
After recommendation from some Norwegian friends we chose to go to Xela and climb the volcano Santa Maria, Guatemala’s 4th tallest volcano at 3772 meters above sea level, and the neighbor to Volcano Santiaguito, an active volcano that erupts every hour. We chose a 2-day trip with Altiplanos, spending the night on top to see both the sunset and sunrise (cost: 450 GTQ per person).
We had a good guide, Daniel, who spoke English, and although it was a tough ascent, we managed to get to the top in 4 hours. On the way up we met two police officers who told us about some bandidos who had robbed a Guatemalan family earlier in the morning, luckily for us we didn’t run into them.
We had packed three meals, sleeping bags and plenty of warm clothes, as we knew that it would be a cold night. When we got to the top it was clear skies (we were above the clouds) and hot enough to lie down and get our tan on, while Daniel pitched up our tent and started cooking dinner.
It was absolutely quiet on the top and the view was spectacular, as a sea of clouds covered the surroundings and only briefly revealed the majestic landscape beneath. Unfortunately Santa Maria is also full of trash, as people can’t seem to bother to take their bottles, bags of chips and other wrappings down with them, which took away some of the serene feel.
Not long after the clouds surrounded the top, and the sunset we were looking forward to was only visible for a few seconds and behind some layers of clouds. When the sun set the temperature fell quickly and we put on all the clothes we had.
We were not the only ones on top as there were some Guatemaltecos who had come to pray and sing throughout the night. We talked to one who had come 7 days ago with his mother and had stayed on the top to pray and sacrifice for God (they’re Catholics). Needless to say he was looking forward to going down the next day.
The night in the tent was freezing cold and we realized we should have brought some long wool underwear and thick wool socks. The combination of the cold (-5C), hard ground and singing religious Guatemaltecos resulted in not much sleep. We got up around 2 am and 4 am to view the amazing night sky, surrounding cities and erupting Santiaguito, and also got up around 5 am to see the sunrise, which was spectacular.
Unfortunately, while Mathias was running around like a yo-yo taking pictures of the stars and the sunrise (it was a photographer’s heaven), Tuva got a bad case of altitude sickness during the night and was really sick (dizzy, headache, nausea and no energy) when we were going down. She toughened up and we managed to get down with a lot of breaks. Mathias also got a minor case of altitude sickness, but nothing serious. In retrospect we see that we could have mitigated the risk of sickness by spending some more nights in Xela to get used to the height (we only stayed one night) and taken some medicine against altitude sickness.
We survived the cold, bandidos and altitude sickness; all in all it was a once in a lifetime experience, both good and bad, and despite the troubles we’re glad we did it!
More pictures from the volcano and our travels in Guatemala can be found here.