Another item was checked off my bucket list during my trip to Guatemala: reaching the top of a volcano! Okay, Volcán Tolimán is an inactive volcano covered in forest and fields and has hardly any wildlife, so it's nothing crazy or dangerous. But regardless, it was an incredible hiking experience.
As it was my first volcano hike, and first hike of that intensity for that matter, there’s a lot I didn’t know before starting the climb. For one, how much water would be needed! Don’t worry though; I’ve made a list of everything you need to know about climbing a volcano so you don’t have to learn the hard way!
The very first thing you should know is that I am by no means an expert on the matter. Heck, this was my first time climbing a volcano! Other than a handful of times hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies, my experience has mostly consisted of minimal intensity hikes in my neighbourhoods. But whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned hiker, it’s important and also your responsibility to inform yourself; every hike is different!
You may also like: 10 Reasons to Add Guatemala to Your Bucket List!
Preparation is essential in order to enjoy your hike to its fullest. First, you’ll want to make sure that you’re physically capable of doing the climb. I recommend you start training at least a month before your departure. It doesn’t have to be intense, but make sure that you are capable of going the distance, keeping in mind altitude, difficulty level and the weight you will carry from your backpack. Regular exercise as simple as running, cycling or long distance walking will get you a long way in your preparation for the hike.
For Volcán Tolimán, I didn’t do any physical preparation other than a handful of runs to make sure I wasn’t totally out of my league. But in all honesty, I wasn't ready for the intensity and would have definitely benefitted from putting in a little bit of effort and keeping a regular training for the few weeks prior. Nobody wants to get up to that steep point of the trek and not be able to make it to the finish. Thankfully, I was able to make it!
Another thing you want to keep in mind is that you also need to make your way down! Though at first thought it seems easier to come down than to go up, it’s actually quite hard, and where the majority of injuries happen. Training before your trip will increase your stamina and muscle strength, and be an immense help on your volcano journey.
What about Thailand? See 8 Reasons Why You Need To Visit Thailand!
2. Hire a guide
In a foreign country especially, where you don’t know the area, the terrain and the people, it’s important to bring a guide with you on these types of treks. An experienced and skilful guide will be able to make sure you don’t get lost or separated from the group, will help ensure you have the right equipment and knowledge, and will also be prepared to act accordingly in case of injury.
When you select your guide or tour company, don’t be afraid to question their experience level and knowledge of the area. This is especially important when hiking with beginners! In Guatemala, even experienced hikers are highly discouraged from hiking without a guide. Thieves, animals, weather or a simple misstep can quickly lead to serious injury, and it’s important to have a person on site that will be able to make the right contacts to get you to safety.
For a group of eight people, we paid an independent guide a mere 50 Quetzals per person (about 10$ CAD) plus tip, for a climb of Volcán Tolimán that took about 12 hours including breaks. This small fee was completely worth it in exchange for the peace of mind we had, even though we did have some experienced hikers in the group.
3. Research weather conditions and terrain
You can hike year-round in Guatemala as the weather is rather mild, but you might want to avoid rain season regardless. We unwittingly adventured out in the beginning of rain season, but luckily the day of our climb it only started raining in the mid afternoon when we were about half way down the volcano, already on our way home.
I can tell you however, that it makes the hike much less enjoyable – the ground gets slippery, the temperature cools down much and the view becomes foggy or cloudy. I’m certain that had it started raining in the morning, most of our group would not have made it all the way to the top!
Budget is often a concern, check out these Free Things To Do In Xela, Guatemala!
4. Altitude is tough!
If you’ve never ventured in high altitude, you may not be aware of the difficulty breathing, the insomnia, the nausea and the elevated heart rate it often brings. Altitude sickness can be a serious issue and unfortunately there’s not really any way to know how your body will tolerate it until you make it up there. Volcán Tolimán is not super high at 3158 meters, but regardless it can trigger altitude sickness for some people.
Another unfortunate fact is that there’s no way of preparing your body to withstand it. Altitude affects everyone differently, and at different levels, regardless of how fit or unfit you are. Your doctor can prescribe a medication that may help, or some people claim that chewing cocoa leaves helps. Either way, the best way to ensure you’re giving your body every chance is to acclimatize and pace yourself. Acclimatization is the process in which people gradually increase altitude in order for the body to slowly adjust to the lower levels of oxygen found in the air.
So if you’re flying in to a high altitude city and plan on hiking even higher, give yourself a day or two in the city before embarking on your trek to let your body adjust. We only had one person show signs of altitude sickness when climbing Tolimán, but slowing down the pace, taking breaks regularly and keeping well hydrated helped her adjust, and she made it to the top without too much trouble!
5. Start early
The sunrise view in the mountain is a sight that will take your breath away. If you can time your hike to be able to make it to a view point in time to see the sun come up, you will not regret it!
Our guide woke us up at 3AM the morning of our hike, and we went on our way in the darkness of the night with only our headlamps to light our way. Though it makes the hike more treacherous with the darkness, catching the blues and pinks of the sunrays made that totally worth it! Besides, although sunsets are also very beautiful, we were happy to be back in town long before sunset and on time for a hearty dinner after such a long day.
Want to get out of your comfort zone?
See our top Adrenaline Filled Activities To Do In South Africa!
6. Bring enough water and food
I was surprised at how much water I drank on the way up. Although it wasn’t a particularly hot day, the exercise made me very thirsty and I drained almost 4 liters of water! If you have a camelback pouch for your water, do take it along – it distributes the weight evenly, close to your back, and it’s the most convenient when you want a quick drink. Actually, the fact that it’s readily available will make it more likely that you will drink regularly and ensure you stay hydrated. For a day long trek like this which was over 5 hours up and 4 hours down, I recommend bringing at least three liters of water if the weather is cool, and four or more if the weather is hot and sunny.
Also equally important is food – you will want sustenance once you get to the crater of the volcano! Avoid things that require ice packs or heavy containers and opt instead for high protein and high calorie foods that will fill you up. A can of tuna and crackers, nuts and trail mix, and fruits or vegetables are all great nutrients that you can easily pack in your bag. The old PB&J is also always a good idea!
7. Have the right equipment
Having the right equipment is essential to a smooth hike. A comfortable, well-fitted backpack with chest and waist straps is the first item that should be on your list. Make sure it’s big enough to carry your water, food and belongings.
Your second essential item is a good pair of well-fitted hiking shoes. Hiking boots are perfect in the rougher terrains as they have a good grip, good support and are often waterproof. But for easy to moderate hikes, a comfortable running shoe will likely be just as good.
Thirdly, always bring a windproof (and preferably waterproof) jacket, along with a warm long sleeve shirt. The weather in altitude cools down quickly, and even if during the hike your body produces enough heat to keep you comfortable, as soon as you stop for a break you will quickly cool down and get cold.
Other items to keep in mind are a headlamp if you will be hiking in the dark or close to sunset, a camelback water pouch for easy access to drinking water, and a basic emergency kit in case of injury. A poncho, walking stick, and change of clothes (especially socks!) can also be very useful.
8. Other tips
If you’re like me and nature makes you itch and sneeze, make sure you take a 24-hour anti-histamine medication before you start the trek. Whether you’re prone to reactions or not, it’s also a good idea to have a stronger medication on hand such as Benadryl, in case you or someone in the group happen to have a strong reaction. I know pollen in the spring is a killer for me and can often trigger mild asthma if I don’t have the proper medicine with me.
You’ll want to make it to the top fast, maybe prove that you’re a trooper and beat someone else, but it’s best to pace yourself. To ensure proper acclimatization to the altitude and to avoid injuries, pacing yourself is the best method.
Keeping hydrated may be difficult for multiple reasons. I recommend bringing hydrolytes tablets or powder pouch to add to your water in order to make sure that your body stays well hydrated. These tablets or powder pouches can be found in any pharmacy and are great for so many uses, such as when you have heavy sweating, high intensity exercise, if you’re sick or have a hangover!
Sunscreen is very important when you are at high altitude. Weather can change quickly and a heavy cloud cover may disperse and leave you in direct reach of the sunrays, causing you to burn. And since the altitude is high, the UV rays are stronger and can cause sunburns quicker than what you are used to. Keep in mind also that the cold weather and cloud covers often conceal the burning of the sun, but the UV rays are still reaching for your skin. Protect yourself and layer it on!
9. Don’t be stupid
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean this in an insulting way. But we see more and more extreme photos from people who travel and will do incredibly reckless things in order to get that crazy shot. Please don’t be that person; no photograph is worth your life! Keep a safe distance from the edge of cliffs, don’t tease or tempt wildlife, and take reasonable precautions when you’re on your adventure. Trust me, you can get incredible shots without having to risk anyone’s life!
The safety and respect of the wildlife and nature are also points I want to bring up. Too often when hiking, you come across an empty water bottle, plastic bag or other garbage. Please pick up your trash and take it back with you. You may think that one piece of trash won’t make a difference, and it’s maybe a hassle to take it back with you, but if everyone left only one piece of trash every time they hiked, well, I’ll let you picture it (hint: it’s not pretty!). The only things you should leave behind on the volcano are footprints!
10. Enjoy the view!
It’s easy to forget to look up when you’re on a difficult trail, or even to stop looking through your camera lens. But the reason you’re here is for the ultimate view. Make sure you take the time to stop and enjoy nature’s work of art!
Volcán Tolimán was my first volcano hike, but it definitely won’t be my last. From the early morning walking through the eerily quiet village of San Lucas and the incredible sunrise at the viewpoint, to the lunch break in the volcano’s crater with for special guest a random cow, the entire experience was amazing. It should definitely be part of your bucket list!
Budget Travel Blog: Tips and tricks for affordable vacation planning. From cheap hotels to cheap flights and everything in between, prioritizing safety and comfort.
The Dime Travelers
It’s time to ditch your misconceptions about cheap travel and join us on our blog as we show you safe and comfortable ways to travel on a budget. We will guide you through the process of trip planning and share with you what we have learned from our own travels. Our advice and reviews come from personal experience and will offer easy to follow tips and tricks to make your vacation a positive experience you'll want to have again and again.
Let's make your travel dreams come true!