Sunrise on Santa Maria

Operation Groundswell Guatemala (OGG) Extreme stayed true to the name as we hit the ground running. Wasting no time at all, we welcomed 12 eager adventurers with open arms at the airport, shipped them on a whirlwind tour of the capital city, and carted them around Antigua for a bit before finally settling into our own little apartment in the highlands of Xela for a full week.

Our time in Xela was divvied up between Spanish lessons, co-op visits, fair trade discussions, a scavenger hunt, and some good ol’ R&R in a natural hot springs (tough life, we know). Amidst the jam-packed schedule of awesomeness, just about everyone would agree that the highlight of Xela was our midnight trek up Volcano Santa Maria.

The trek was arranged for Sunday night. We planned a late lunch, a nighttime nap, and dinner around 10:30pm to load up on energy for the grueling trek up. Lunch happened, nap happened, trek… should have happened, except plans in Guatemala during rainy season are as reliable as the chicken bus schedule, and anyone who has visited Guatemala knows that the “schedule” is more of a suggestion than a rule. Since the trek would be more of a swim than a hike, we were forced to call it off in hopes of better weather the following night.

Monday came: same routine. Late lunch, late nap, late dinner. The alarm sounded at 10pm. Everyone jumped out of their sleeping bags and ran to the windows to check for rain. This time around… success! Not a cloud in the night sky. Filled with adrenaline for the hike to come, OGG scarfed down a delicious pasta primavera dinner, laced up their boots, and turned on their headlamps in preparation for the ascent. We were out the door with no time to spare, ready to conquer Mrs. Maria.

OGG snuggles as the sun comes up on Santa Maria
OGG snuggles as the sun comes up.

After a short ride across the city in the back of a furniture moving truck, the fourteen of us, accompanied by two close friends and trail guides, unloaded at the base of the beast. Santa Maria seemed to ascend beyond the stars in one rigid, vertical silhouette. Her outline in the sky was almost threatening, but we had no time to dwell on that. The clock struck midnight and we were off, determined to make it to the top by sunrise.

Sunbeams peeking through the clouds.

Huffing and puffing, heaving and hoeing, we trudged along the black, muddied trail for what seemed like days. It took about an hour and a half to reach a grassy patch called “La Mesa,” which serves as the foot of the switchbacks. From here, it would take us about another three hours to summit. We climbed over boulders, walked across tree trunks, slipped in mud, and stopped to suck whatever oxygen we could out of the thin highland air. Despite the discomfort, there was no shortage of encouragement, laughs or trail mix.

The going got tough but OGG fought back, rising to the top for perhaps the most memorable sight of the trip: Sunrise on Santa Maria. Every centimeter of the 3, 772m climb was worth it. From the top, we looked down on crisp clouds and rising sunbeams, complimented by several sister volcanoes as a backdrop. We cozied up in true OG fashion, snuggled together in sleeping bags and down jackets, enjoying each others’ company among such natural beauty. What a night.

A mountain top snooze and snuggle
A mountain top snooze and snuggle

OG Guatemala Extreme