The Volcan Santa Maria hike is a cracking day hike that you can easily do from Quetzaltenango (Xela) in Guatemala. Santa Maria Volcano (3,772m) is one of 37 volcanoes in Guatemala and one of the most popular and accessible volcanoes to hike. Whether you’re an avid hiker or just looking for things to do in Quetzaltenango, doing the Santa Maria trail should be on your radar.
Like many volcano hikes in Guatemala, the Volcan Santa Maria hike is a fun experience and a satisfying challenge given the high altitude. Atop the Santa Maria Volcano, not only will you have exquisite views of Quetzaltenango, but you’ll have spectacular views of other volcanoes, including Volcan Santiaguito. This volcano has been actively erupting for about 100 years. Seeing Volcan Santiaguito from the peak of Santa Maria is a highlight of this day hike.
In this guide, we’ll tell you all about hiking Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala. We’ll explain why a Santa Maria Volcan tour is a good idea, but we’ll also cover how to hike the Santa Maria trail independently. We’ll also show you stellar photos of the hike, talk about some interesting Santa Maria Volcano facts and cover other hiking near Xela.
Volcan Santa Maria Hike: With or Without a Guide?
Of course, the million-dollar question when it comes to hiking the Santa Maria trail, is, ‘should I hike independently or with a guide?’ Personally, Beck and I always prefer to hike independently. It’s just what we’re used to, spending most of our time hiking in Australia and the UK without the need for a guide.
But, on this occasion, we happily chose to do a Santa Maria Volcano tour, which meant hiking with a guide. We made this decision based on two main reasons – the peculiar Volcan Santa Maria weather and safety. Let us explain…
Volcan Santa Maria Weather
The typical weather pattern around Volcan Santa Maria means clouds start to cover and surround Volcan Santa Maria from 10am. If you arrive too late, you won’t have any views atop Santa Maria. This means missing out on seeing the active Volcan Santiaguito. To put in all that effort to get to the top and have a white-out. What a bummer!
For this reason, we recommend a Volcan Santa Maria tour. They will pick you up early enough (usually around 5am) so you start the climb before 5:30am. Reaching the peak can take 3–4 hours. So you should definitely arive at the top by at least 9:30am, in time before the weather turns foul.
If you decide to hike Santa Maria independently, the earliest bus from Xela to Llano de Pinal is at 6am. The bus is often running late, leaving around 6:30am. The bus ride can take around 45 minutes. So, you may arrive around 7:15am. If all goes well, with the usual ascent time, you’ll arrive at the summit by 11:15 am. At this time, you run the risk of clouds already covering Volcan Santa Maria and ruining your views.
Of course, the weather around volcanoes is unpredictable. These weather patterns don’t always hold true. But, from what the locals tell us, it’s best to start the hike as early as possible to avoid disappointment at the summit of Volcan Santa Maria. So, a tour is the best option for getting there early.
Volcan Santa Maria Safety Update
In terms of safety, look, we’re not trying to scaremonger. In early 2022, hiking Volcan Santa Maria in Quetzaltenango is considered quite safe. After doing some research and talking with locals and other travellers, we have not heard any recent reports of robberies or anything untoward. In fact, compared with other volcano hikes around Lake Atitlan and other areas in Guatemala, the Volcan Santa Maria hike is considered one of the safest.
But, safety is something to take seriously when hiking in Guatemala and Central America. As the locals tell us, safety situations are constantly evolving and robberies/violence can happen without warning.
Beck and I agreed, that during our 6 month trip to Central and South America, we’d prioritise our safety and minimise risk as much as possible (this has got to win me brownie points with Beck’s parents). This means we don’t catch night buses, we explore towns during daylight hours and on this occasion, we chose to hike with a guide.
Volcan Santa Maria Tour
A better chance of good weather and spectacular views; plus, safety and peace of mind. This is why we recommend a Santa Maria Volcan tour. Despite our usual preference for hiking independently, we had a terrific time hiking Volcan Santa Maria with Monte Verde Tours and their exceptional guide Feliz.
If you’re interested in doing the Volcan Santa Maria hike with Monte Verde tours, simply book online, Whatsapp them (+502 5729-6279) or visit their office (13 Av. 8-34 Zona 1 Quetzaltenango) to book a tour or check availability. You’ll also find that many of the hotels and hostels in the area recommend Monte Verde Tours.
The price for the tour is Q250/person ($25USD). Considering they offer accommodation pick-up and drop-off, and a guide, we thought the tour was good value.
Volcan Santa Maria Trail Preview
- Type: Out & Back
- Distance: 13km
- Time: 5–7 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 1,230m
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trailhead: Volcan Santa Maria Park Entrance (or Llano de Pinal bus stop)
Travel Made Me Do It have personally rated this trail
Volcan Santa Maria Hike
If you follow suit and do a Volcan Santa Maria tour, your adventure starts with an early wake-up (if you decide against a tour, that’s cool, we have a section on how to visit independently below)! Our alarm was set to 4:30am, so we could scoff down breaky and be ready for the 5am pick-up with Monte Verde Tours.
Driving at this time of day helps to avoid the usual Quetzaltenango traffic. You should arrive at the trailhead in around 20 minutes. Pack your headtorch, as you’ll start the hike in the dark!
The Santa Maria trail begins on a flat dusty road, that quickly joins a gradually ascending grassy, rocky and uneven track. Don’t be surprised if you’re joined by two others at this point – Pantera and Coyote, two loveable dogs!
There is no purposefully constructed path. The trail has gradually formed over hundreds of years by locals accessing farmland at the base of the volcano and climbing to the summit to perform Mayan ceremonies and rituals.
Santa Maria Trail
If you’re not used to the altitude, you’ll be breathing out your backside pretty early on. Just make sure to take it easy and don’t rush. By taking a Volcan Santa Maria tour, you’d have set off early enough for good weather at the top. So there isn’t a need to rush. Personally, this was our first volcano hike in Central America. We soon realised that speed hiking and altitude don’t mix.
We really enjoy speed hiking. But, for high altitude hikes, it’s best not to walk too quickly. This helps reduce the chance of altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS).
Although you won’t be able to see much initially, your surroundings change from farmland to forest as you gain elevation. Soon enough, you’ll catch glimpses of sunrise and gorgeous orange hues through the trees.
On your way up, there are a few lookouts with unobstructed views of Xela. These stunning views are just rewards for your hard work early on.
After a couple of hours, you’ll reach a flat grassy area, with Volcan Santa Maria looking large in the distance. It’s time for a break and to refuel because the trail soon becomes steeper and harder.
Continuing along the Santa Maria trail, expect more muddy and slippery sections. As we climbed higher and higher, we had noticed Coyote had disappeared, but Pantera was still with us and would even join us at the top of Volcan Santa Maria. Anything for a bit of food!
You’ll be filled with joy as you reach the peak of Volcan Santa Maria. Hopefully, with obedient weather, you’ll have breathtaking views of the town of Xela, the surrounding countryside, Volcan Santiaguito and other volcanoes. From the summit, we recommend continuing a little further to arrive at a flatter plateau. Here, you’ll have even better views of Volcan Santiaguito, Cerro Quemado and Volcan Almolonga.
Watching the active Volcan Santiaguito is definitely the main event! Fortunately, we had clear views of Xela and Volcan Santiaguito, which was emitting a lot of ash. Volcan Santiaguito is one of the most active lava domes in the world, let alone in Guatemala. Beck loves volcanoes, so she was absolutely thrilled.
But, it didn’t all go our own way. When we arrived at 9:30am, there was a lot of cloud cover over Cerro Quemado and Volcan Almolonga. Thankfully, the clouds seemed to roll in and out, creating an epic atmosphere.
After spending around 30 minutes at the top Volcan Santa Maria, you’ll then make the return journey, which is obviously much quicker than going up. It’ll take around 2 hours to descend. As you make your way down, you should pass quite a few people. These are the hikers who have started later by doing it independently. We stopped for a chat with half a dozen people, wishing them luck with their ascent.
Nearing the base of the volcano, it was nice to see the forest and farmland we couldn’t see in the dark when we started the hike. Expect to see many farmers working on the land. As you finish the hike, you’ll be greeted by your driver if you’ve chosen to do a group tour, who’ll take you back to your accommodation. We were back in Xela by 12:15 pm, with plenty of time to relax that afternoon.
Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala Recap
Hiking Volcan Santa Maria in Quetzaltenango will be a highlight of your trip to Guatemala. By doing a tour, you’ll set off earlier and have a better chance of good weather at the peak. You’ll also have an added sense of safety and security. We had a great hiking experience with Monte Verde Tours and can highly recommend them for your Volcan Santa Maria hike.
Hiking Volcan Santa Maria Independently
When we were in Quetzaltenango, most travellers we met chose to hike Volcan Santa Maria independently. The Santa Maria trail is a very straightforward route in terms of navigation. So, you shouldn’t be worried about getting lost.
Plus, it’s easy enough to access the trailhead by bus. From Xela, you’ll need to catch a chicken bus or ‘camionetta’ from Iglesia El Calvario near Parque El Calvario.
Many buses and vans come and go from this spot, so it can get chaotic. Look for a bus with a Llano de Pinal or Pinal sign and confirm with the driver that the bus is going to Pinal.
At Q2 ($0.25USD) one-way, the bus journey there and back is as cheap as chips. We can see why hiking independently would be the preferred option for budget travellers. Basically, once you arrive in Llao de Pinal, you’ll get off at the last stop. You’ll have a short walk, following a wide dusty road towards Volcan Santa Maria, to access the trailhead.
Once you complete the hike, return to the same bus stop to make your way back to Xela. Hopefully, you shouldn’t have to wait too long for the bus! If you’re not having any luck, a taxi back to Xela should cost about Q60 ($7.50USD).
Santa Maria Volcano Facts
A benefit of doing a Volcan Santa Maria hike is learning interesting facts about the volcano from your guide. This would of course be true if we understood Spanish! Luckily, our driver from Monte Verde Tours on the day was Josh, a very friendly American who is actually the owner of the company. He told us some really interesting Santa Maria Volcano facts. We’ve summaried these fun facts below:
- Volcano age: 30,000 years old
- Famous eruption: the 1902 eruption was one of the three largest eruptions in the 20th century
- Is it active? Volcan Santa Maria is considered active due to the continuously active Volcan Santiaguito, which forms part of the Volcan Santa Maria volcano complex.
Things to do in Quetzaltenango (Xela)
Many travellers following the Gringo Trail will skip Quetzaltenango (more commonly known as Xela). This is such a shame as Quetzaltenango is a charming town in the volcanic highlands of southwestern Guatemala that you really shouldn’t miss.
Quetzaltenango is actually well-known as being a cheap place to learn Spanish. Many students and backpackers will pass through for short term or long term homestays to immerse themselves in the language. The town is also well known for its hot springs, including Las Fuentes Georginas, Los Vahos and Las Cumbres.
But, perhaps the main reason outdoor enthusiasts decide to visit Quetzaltenango is to hike Central America’s highest peak – Volcan Tajumulco (4,203m). Unfortunately, when Beck and I visited in February 2022, there were land disputes and resultant violence and gunfire at the base of the volcano. So, unfortunately, we didn’t get to hike Volcan Tajumulco.
Best Hiking near Xela
Thankfully, there’s more to hiking in Xela than just summiting Volcan Tajumulco. Beck and I can recommend other great hikes in the area, including:
- Chicabal Lake: this short but steep trail leads you to an epic Mirador overlooking the crater lake. You can also walk around the lake as part of this day hike.
- Volcan Santo Tomas (Volcan Pecul): starting from Las Fuentes Georginas, this lesser-known trail leads you through the jungle, in between two volcanoes, before you summit Volcan Santo Thomas. The best part is, you can finish your hike by dipping your toe in the warm spring waters at Las Fuentes Georginas.
- Xela to Lake Atitlan: this three-day hike winds its way past mountains and volcanoes, finishing with a stunning sunrise at Indian Nose in Lake Atitlan.
Five hiking gear essentials
These are our five hiking gear essentials for hiking Santa Maria. For a more comprehensive hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Otherwise, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
Why do you need this?
See it in action
These hiking boots are very comfortable and a great choice for hiking Santa Maria
This camera is the best compact digital camera on the market. Lightweight, compact and durable, the Sony Cybershot RX100 VII takes high-quality photos and 4K videos
A wind jacket is necessary for Volcan Santa Maria. If you set off in the dark, you'll want some layers. Even, if you hike Santa Maria later in the day, you'll want a jacket for when it gets cloudy
This is an awesome backpack for day hikes. It has plenty of space, so you can pack whatever you need
The GoPro Hero 9 is a fantastic action camera. We captured some great footage during the Volcan Santa Maria hike
- When to climb Volcan Santa Maria in Quetzaltenango: like most hikes in Guatemala, it’s best to do them in the dry season, which is from November to April. As mentioned, it can be really cloudy from 10am onwards, so aim to get to the summit as early as possible.
- Take snacks and water: generally speaking, a Volcan Santa Maria tour is unlikely to provide food, because it’s really only a half-day activity. So, make sure to pack your own snacks and 2L of water.
- Use trekking poles: with 1.2km of elevation gain, this hike can be tough on the knees. By using trekking poles, you can help take a lot of the load off those joints. Beck and I have started using them for high elevation hikes and it’s been a revelation!
Have you done the Volcan Santa Maria hike before? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.
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