Sunrise at Santa Maria

The Mystical Land of Volcanoes

Written by Christine Sanderson, 2015 Guatemala Program Leader.

It’s 12:30am and the alarm is singing a sweet melody that in no way matches my mood. Starting a midnight adventure seemed like such a fabulous idea yesterday when the sun was shining and I was well rested. In the cold, dark air of night and after only a few short hours of sleep, that idea is not sounding nearly as attractive as my refuge of snuggly warm blankets.   Nevertheless, in the wee hours of this morning, I get to climb Santa Maria, one of Guatemala’s 37 volcanoes. If we move fast enough and reach the summit in time, we’ll experience a sunrise above the clouds. That is certainly worth jumping out of bed and into my hiking boot

An hour later, the taxi drops me and my two fearless companions and fellow OGers off at the end of a gravel road. Our headlamps peer into the darkness ahead and reflect off of frost-covered vegetation. Our breath comes out like smoke visible in the beams of light. We hike until we reach a clearing, which serves as the perfect place for a quick water break. As we turn off our lights and sip in silence we finally think to look up; at 2am the nearly cloudless sky shines bright with brilliant stars undiluted by artificial light. I could stand there forever staring in wonderment at the night sky in all its natural splendor, but my shivering body reminds me to get moving.


The hike to the summit takes us just over four hours. Excitement begins to bubble inside of me. Even though my legs are burning and my breathing is heavy, I feel as though I could go skipping and jumping across the top of Santa Maria. Before 6:00am these three intrepid travelers have hiked to the top of a volcano! As my reward, the sun begins to paint the sky in pastel colors of orange, yellow and pink as it rises above fluffy clouds floating in front of me. A chain of volcanoes weaves a trail into the distance, ending with the salute of a far-off plume of smoke and ash erupting from the last visible peak. As if to remind us that volcanic activity is not just off in the distance, the very active Santiaguito tucked just behind Santa Maria emits a sulfuric cloud of smoke into the atmosphere.

Santa Maria at sunrise


Even though I’ve made it to the top of quite a few mountains over the years, each climb is special. Each hike brings new challenges. Each summit brings new feelings of pride over what I’ve accomplished and awe at the beauty that surrounds me. Standing surrounded by volcanoes at what feels like the top of the world is an experience that I will never forget.

Guatemala 2015 Santa Maria

I could easily make a list of the numerous things that I love about Guatemala:

The very smiley people and their amazing spirit and ingenuity, delectable coffee that is available almost anywhere you turn, the inspiring strides being made towards improving human rights, the cobblestone streets of Xela that have played host to some lovely nights of salsa dancing, delicious hand-made tortillas of which I can never get enough… Okay, I’ll stop the terrible run on sentence here, but you get the point. Today I’ve decided to focus on the incredible natural beauty that I am in awe of every day in Guatemala, but there are a million things that make this place special. Nonetheless, even the best writing and the most stunning photographs can’t do any of it justice. In order to truly understand the history, culture, people and unbelievable mix of sights, smells and tastes of Guatemala, both natural and man-made, you have to be there.

Journaling at Santa Maria

As an ethical backpacker, you have the chance to appreciate Guatemala in a way that most people could never even imagine. You don’t just look at pictures or read guidebooks, you get to be in them and experience them. Your legs will burn and your pack will be heavy. Your mind will be weary while you pump your veins with caffeine. You will push your mental and physical boundaries. And then you will start to realize what you have accomplished; the intricate pieces of Guatemalan culture and history will start weaving themselves together in your mind while spectacular sights surround you, making it more than worth the effort.

This land of volcanoes (and coffee) is meant to be explored and experienced. If not now, when?

Ready to take the plunge yourself? Check out our Guatemala: Extreme andGuatemala: Fair Trade program!