This is a great and spectacularly beautiful climb. It is also highly accessible to a broad range of trekking aficionados. My 11 year old son and I climbed the Tacana over the course of the three days preceding Christmas 2005. Neither of us are in great shape, hence the slowish pace. It was two days up, one day down, from Chiquihuite. This is, as far as I can tell, the most direct and the less traveled route.
Arriving in the base town of Union Juarez (no small navigational feat), local authorities tried to direct us to the route called La Linea - a marked trail that runs exactly along the Mexican-Guatemalan border. They said that in light of the mudslides triggered by Hurricane Stan a few weeks before, it was the "advisable" route. I suspect, however, that they really wanted us to leave from there in the hope that we would contract a guide from their town - something which is completely unnecessary, irrespective of the route you choose. There is not much in Union Juarez (outside of coffee fincas), so arrive prepared with any special needs. The better place to stay the night if you have to is the next community down the road (i.e., towards Tapachula), Santo Domingo (US$20 per night for two people at the Santo Domingo Hotel). The Germans established and operated coffee plantations there until the administration of Lazaro Cardenas, at which time the facilities were expropriated and turned over to the local inhabitants. You can still see the facilities, often times in the technological condition that the Germans left, at several points in the Santo Domingo valley.
I had heard about great water falls and swimming holes a few kilometers up the road in the community of Cordoba, so we politely declined the Union Juarez guide offer and kept going. The Cordoba falls (locally known as the Cascadas Muxbal) were a nice stop, even though in hindsight the trek down the barranca to the swimming hole wore us out a good bit just before the start of our ascent. Herbie, our rented beetle bug did great, even after the paved road ended in Cordoba. It's some eight kilometers on "brecha" from Cordoba to Chiquihuite (passing the community of Talquian Viejo en route) - no problem, provided it's not rainy season. We picked up a Mam Indian woman hitchhiker and she got us safely to the house of the “jefe” of Chiquihuite. We secured parking alongside the community’s concrete basketball court, checked out the trail map which the state’s tourism authority has erected, readied our gear, and set out on the trail head leading out through a milpa.
The government’s trail map does an excellent job of giving the big picture overview – a nice reassurance prior to embarking into the unknown. With it, you can see the twelve major points of reference (see accompanying photo), several of which serve as “casas de refugio” for climbers who get stuck in between points on account of bad weather (always a possibility on the Mexican side of the mountain), lack of light, fatigue, or whatever. The estimated trekking times between points indicated on this map are, however, not realistic - at least from the point of view of our sub-optimal state of physical condition. Look carefully at the accompanying picture of this map – 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, so it indicates. In reality, these seemingly small stretches took hours. Not that this was a problem. The varied terrains, landscapes, and vistas were so distinctly beautiful that you don’t even notice. But barring excellent physical preparation, I wouldn’t set your stop watch according to these times.
Starting out from Chiquihuite (approximately 1,950 meters), you pass through the low lying milpas and calla lily gardens of several small indigenous communities (Las Hortensias and El Caracol). The path is generally well defined and the pitch of the trek is mild. Leaving Las Flores, you enter into a long stretch that undulates through essentially tropical flora and mountain streams. This section is very wet and muddy. Good boots and poles help here. Visibility can be reduced significantly by mists that seem to materialize out of nothing. In the winter time – supposedly the dry season – locals informed us that the lower reaches of the Mexican side of the volcano get a lot of fog borne precipitation, especially in the afternoons. And they were right. After having trekked through this jungle like terrain for several hours, the skies opened up on Konrad and I. Luckily, we had come prepared for weather that would range from hot, wet and sticky to cold, snowy, and windy. Actually, that was great for staying warm/cool (as circumstances required), but terrible from the point of view of the weight of the gear we had to pack (not that it mattered too much as most of the gear that had been in my son’s pack ended up in mine almost from the beginning). At any rate, we trekked on, wondering when we would reach the next point of reference. After another wet half hour or so, we stumbled across Las Flores, a little clearing manned by two local Indians. There we were able to purchase some basic necessities – plastic bottles of water, fruit, etc. – and rest under the make shift tarp that had been set up. As dark was fast approaching and it was impossible for us to know how far out we were from the next point of reference (which we had been told served as a casa de refugio), we didn’t linger long. We hit the trail hard with visions of calling it a day by the refugio’s campfire dancing in our tired and wet heads. In fact, Konrad hit the trail hard in a physical way – i.e., when I stopped to look back, he had wiped out on the slick muddy terrain and done a face plant into the earth. Poor kid! But he was a hard charger. Far from complaining, he hopped back up and kept going. I privately thanked my lucky stars he hadn’t broken or twisted anything that would require me to evacuate him. About an hour later we came around a bend in the trail and out of nowhere appeared the two structures that make up the community/casa de refugio of Linda Vista. By this time (approximately 6PM), it was completely dark. As the rain had continued to fall steadily, nobody was more ready than Konrad and I to get under a shelter and into something dry and warm. All in all, it took us about four hours to go from Chiquihuite to Linda Vista.
The indigenous family that lives up at Linda Vista received us warmly. It is an extended affair of about 20 people. There is no permanent electricity, plumbing, or anything else that might be construed as civilization. We read for a while using our head lamps and then gave ourselves up to exhaustion. Waking in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, the rain had stopped. Stepping outside, I could see, for the first time, how high we had already ascended. The air had become crystal clear and quite cold. A sea of stars stretched as far as the eye could see. Down below – way down below – the lights of the coffee fincas silently sparkled. And, in the distance, silhouetted against the strong moon, was the Guatemalan volcano of El Tajamulco. It was peaceful beyond imagination. Konrad didn’t stir.
Up there, disconnected from reality as we know it and clinging to the side of an active volcano, mornings start early. Or maybe it was just the cold, cold mountain air that got us going. Or maybe it was the sound of the community’s roosters and dogs. Either way, we awoke with the rising sun, grabbed a hearty breakfast of eggs, beans, tortillas, and chocolate flavored coffee, and prepared our gear for the day ahead of us. The charge for staying the night in the covered casa de refugio at Linda Vista was about US$2. It is possible to purchase bottled water, Raman type soup, eggs, beans and tortillas there, in the event one wants to lighten the food and water component of the load packed during the first stage of the ascent.
Leaving the community of Linda Vista, it is a short 20 minute trek to the next point of reference – the one hut indigenous community of Papales. At this point in the climb, the tropical, bamboo-like vegetation of the lower elevations gives way to grassy fields, shrubs, and sporadic trees. There is a good amount of water erosion evident in the soil, too, which makes the passage a bit rough under foot. Water and Raman type soup can be purchased in Papales, should one miss his/her opportunity at Linda Vista. The trail between Linda Vista and Papales is well trodden and offers consistently breathtaking views of the Tajamulco volcano in Guatemala.
The next significant point of reference beyond Papales is La Cabana. This is a tiny, intermittently manned, state run casa de refugio. According to the sign attached to the side of the small wood shack, it is 3,800 meters above sea level. The same sign also states that trekkers might encounter and therefore should be on the lookout for quetzales, bear, and mountain lions. Unfortunately (quetzales) and fortunately (bears, mountain lions, etc.), we didn’t see any of the above. Moving beyond wildlife, a word of caution is in order here. Upon seeing the elevation posting at La Cabana, one thinks – “Gosh, we must be very close to the crater.” The summit is, afterall, only at 4,200 meters above sea level. How long can it take to go 400 meters, anyway? Well, the short answer is that La Cabana marks the beginning of the longest and, ultimately, the most difficult part of the ascent – especially as regards the physical condition and clarity of the trail.
Beyond La Cabana, we found ourselves enjoying the smell, shade, and soft ground cover of a living pine forest. This stretch of the trek is locally known as the Bosque Encantado (the Enchanted Forest). The temperature dropped noticeably, relative to what we had encountered in Linda Vista. By now the visibility that characterizes early mornings on this side of the volcano was giving way to the giant cloud formation that typically rings the Tacana in the afternoon. This cloud cover is quite moist, so be sure to have the right gear on hand. Light, water resistant gear for below followed by mid weight, wind and water resistant gear for the upper elevations.
There is a mirador (lookout tower) shortly after leaving La Cabana, though one must leave the trail to reach it. Not knowing exactly where to diverge from the main trail, it is easy to miss. For us, it didn’t make too much difference as our view of the surrounding valleys, volcano, and ocean was now totally obscured by the afternoon cloud cover. Between La Cabana and the next point of reference, Te Falta Poco (You Have Just a Little Further to Go), there is what would make a very good place to pitch a tent for the night, were one to get stuck short of the summit. It’s a nice pine needle covered spot, ensconced within a thick grove of deciduous trees. We didn’t stay here as we estimated that we still had plenty of time to make our goal - the stone walls of the crater’s rim were in plain view – before nightfall.
Not finding anybody manning the Te Falta Poco outpost, Konrad and I kept on heading for the next point of reference, La Cueva del Oso (The Bear’s Cave). The trek from Te Falta Poco to La Cueva del Oso took about an hour, still through live pine forest. At La Cueva del Oso (so called for the large natural fossa that is encountered there), a Zoque indian greeted us with a smoldering fire. Konrad and I stoked it up and broke out some warm drinks and food. After that steep albeit pleasant climb, we relished being able to stretch out on a tuft of moss and, using the lower part of our packs as pillows, take a brief rest. The subtle, incremental pain of the climb was sinking in. We were, I must admit, both tempted to crawl into the big fossa and call it a day right there. It would be a perfect place to stay the night. But with the end in sight, we overcame the impulse.
Looking around, we could see that the living forest was giving way to a burned out and fallen wasteland of a forest. This juncture marked the start of the final leg to the top, i.e., the Cementario de los Pinos (the Pine Tree Graveyard). After a bit we motivated. We could never figure out what killed the upper reaches of the pine forest – A man made forest fire of some sort? The mid-1980s eruption of the Tacana? Either way, it was kind of eerie, clambering over the fallen trunks that dotted this ashen landscape. As the cloud cover had still not lifted, we had no view except that which we could see immediately in front of us – namely, the top. By now it was getting cold. We got hit with a few bouts of sizeable hail, but no snow, as we had been advised to expect. About midway trough this last segment, we came upon a boulder strewn and nearly vertical ascent. The trail – something which until this point had been mostly easy to pick up and follow – dissolved into 15 different paths. We were closer than ever, yet we felt like we had literally and figuratively hit a wall. This was, we later found out, the area called the Plan de las Adrillas (the Squirrel’s Plan). There wasn’t really any clear indication as to how to proceed at this point. It was basically identify where you want to reach up top and set a heading. So, off we went, over and around the maze of boulders. After about 30 minutes of pretty confused (I presume it is this quality that gives rise to the “Squirrel’s Plan” name) but nonetheless upward climbing, we stumbled upon a segment of trail that had faint arrows painted onto the faces of the rocks. This was a God send. Having picked up that thread of a lifeline, we pulled ourselves, step by deoxygenated step, to the top. You can’t even begin to imagine how exhausted we were by this point. Konrad - my 11 year old who had been wowing every mountain goat of an Indian we encountered along the way for his ability to get himself and his pack up the mountain – was nearly delirious. But, after almost two days of uncertainty, exposure, pure effort, and fatigue, we scrambled up over the last rock faces and crested the rim of primary crater at about 4PM.
The remaining hours of daylight were spent doing a quick reconnaissance of the different craters atop the volcano and preparing for the night. There are, we discovered, at least 5 different mini-craters (situated at about the same elevation) distributed about the top of the volcano and approximately 100 meters below the raised outcrop of its summit. They flow easily from one to the next and can be explored without any difficulty on foot. Circumnavigating the mountain, one is afforded diverse panoramic views – the Pacific ocean, the Soconusco, the Sierra Madre, Guatemala and el Tajumulco, etc. All quite impressive from 4,000 (+) meters.
While each of these mini-craters would have made an excellent place to pitch a tent, we decided to make our home for the night in the first crater we reached. There is no shortage of firewood up there and, in fact, there were even a few Indian families that supplement their income by selling wood, food, and water to climbers during the holidays. After setting up our tent and organizing our gear, we took over one of the fires that had already been started. Darkness fell quickly, as did the temperature. A stiff wind sharpened the intensity of the cold. Within an hour or two the temperature was easily at or below freezing, though it still didn’t snow.
We sat by the fire, enjoying the chicken, beans, tortillas, and hot coffee that had been prepared for us by an Indian family. Contrary to what we had previously read about syncretic religious celebrations being held on the summit of the Tacana (involving the sacrificing of chickens), there was nothing of the sort. I told my son a good story about the flying jabali salvaje (i.e., the winged wild pig), which he seemed to enjoy and then, being too cold to stay out, we retreated to our tent. That ended up being a good move as, unbeknown to us, our tent did a first rate job of blocking the wind and retaining our combined body warmth. This cocoon, together with the good quality and condition appropriate sleeping bags we had hauled up the volcano, gave us all the warmth we needed. Konrad was amazed as, based on what we experienced beside the hearth, he must surely have thought that we were going to freeze to death. There were no other noteworthy incidents to relate – until about half way through the night when Konrad mistook the noise made by the blowing of the wind around the tent shell as the unwanted arrival of a winged wild pig. Frantically, he tried to wake me, saying, “Dad, the jabali salvaje has come and is trying to get into the tent.” I reassured him that what I had told him had only been a story and that there was, in fact, no such thing as a wild flying pig. But he wouldn’t let go of it. We sleepily debated this issue in the pre-dawn chill of the Tacana summit for about an hour before I gave up and fell back asleep. I think he did too, though reluctantly. Moral of the story: watch the scare factor of the stories you tell in cold, distant, and isolated places.
Daybreak came early. Cold and fast. I had really just fallen back asleep – I think - after all of Konrad’s pleas to go out and do battle with the wind, when our tent shell began to glow orange with the sunrise. Anxious to see the volcano’s surroundings before the cloud cover rolled in, I decided to undertake the final ascent to the summit. Recall, the craters that ring the summit are one to two hundred meters below the actual summit. I rolled over and tried to get Konrad to motivate for an early morning hike, but he didn’t even respond. So, I summoned the courage to climb out of my bag, out of the tent, and into the light of the new day. Needless to say, the morning air was so cold that our Canon point and shoot digital camera had frozen itself into uselessness. Ni modo, as they say in Mexico, taking pictures wasn’t really the point anyway.
I began the final ascent by circumnavigating the series of craters that ring the sub-summit level. As I went around the mountain, I was afforded amazing and unobstructed views. Too bad the camera had chosen this moment to die. Then it was up into a vertical bed of rocks. There was no path, just one big boulder after another to go over or around. It didn’t seem that far, but gosh, it just never seemed to end. I ended up on the north western face of the mountain, in the shadows. Cold. After a little more improvised bush whacking, I finally reached the summit, as marked by a concrete datum point. The wind was absolute. The sense of freedom and space was absolute. The sense of silence was absolute. The sense of peace and tranquility was absolute. I can think of no better place to escape all of man’s petty vanities, insecurities, bounded thoughts, and other undesirable conditions then there, atop the volcano. Similarly, I can think of no better time or place to simply sit back, feel the embrace of the air and space, and give thanks for having had the chance to live. From the summit, one can see clear to the Pacific ocean, Guatemala, and la Sierra Madre de Chiapas. You are so high that you have the feeling of being suspended in a satellite generated Google Earth image. What a wonderful way to wake up. What a wonderful celebration of human life. After being atop this volcano, thrust against the upper limits of the troposphere, feeling the full force of spirituality that flows from this natural tour de force of creation, who could ever return to the rigidity and staleness of mortally constructed churches, hopelessly mechanized masses, or any other colorless and one dimensional flavor of life?
After some time, I reluctantly got up and headed back down to the craters. Getting out of the wind sheer, it now felt much warmer. The unobstructed sun no doubt also had a warming effect. Everything is always relative, and this is especially the case at 4,000 (+) meters above sea level. Back at the tent, Konrad and I carefully packed our gear, devoured a hot breakfast of eggs, beans, tortillas, and Chiapan coffee and readied ourselves for the upcoming descent. Before bounding back down the volacano, however, I took Konrad up to one of the rock ledges overlooking the Pacific for a picture or two. Standing there at the edge of this abyss, in all of his 11 years, 14,000 feet up into the atmosphere, knowing that he had, under his own power, got himself up this rather sizeable rock, he seemed so proud and self assured (see picture)! What a wonderful feeling to think, as a parent, “OK, the wisdom of taking him on this little expedition may have been debatable, but look at the confidence and pride that, as a consequence of having tried and succeeded, literally radiates from his face. Surely the long term benefit he will reap from this accomplishment was worth all the uncertainty and difficulty. And, we had a truly one of a kind father-son experience, to boot.” One glimpse at the look on Konrad’s face and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, with his consent.
Following the photo opportunity, we hoisted our packs up onto our backs and headed down, probably around 8:30AM. It was again confusing to navigate our way through the section that corresponds to the Plan de las Adrillas, but once we cleared that, it was fairly easy to pick up the trail path again. Of course, going down was about twice as fast as going up. By noon we had dropped down to approximately Papales where we stopped for lunch and a good last view of the Volcan Tajumulco. Two and a half hours later we were walking through the steamy and bamboo like vegetation that signals our pending arrival in the base communities of Las Hortensias and El Caracol. Around 3PM, we emerged from the milpas that surround Chiquihuite and saw Herbie, our rented beetle bug. What a happy sight as our out of shape legs had, over the course of the long descent, turned to jello. The even happier sight, however, came when we saw that the rain we had trekked through for the last hour had not, as we feared, turned the dirt road between Chiquihuite and Talquian Viejo into an impassable mud pit. Hitting the paved road on the outskirts of the community of Cordoba, we knew that it was just a matter of minutes before we found ourselves taking warm showers, enjoying the breeze of a ceiling fan, wolfing down a hot parrilada, and relishing the comfort of a bed in one of the rooms at the Hotel Santo Domingo.
Looking back, the points that most stick out in my 11 year old son’s mind with respect to the trek are as follows:
1. Great scenery
2. Hard work going up
3. Fast and easy going down
4. Go prepared (food, gear, condition)
5. Being the only 11 year old American kid on the trail isn’t all bad
6. The sense of self satisfaction that comes with having successfully completed the climb is awesome
7. Interesting Indian groups encountered along the way
Another noteworthy point that I think should be addressed involves landmines. Somewhere, prior to our trip, I had read that another climber had heard that there might be mines – particularly on the Guatemalan side – dating back to the time when anti-government rebels took refuge on the southern flank of the Tacana. While we didn’t go up the Guatemalan side, I can, with all the confidence of a former Marine (and hence somebody who knows what a mine looks like), say for a fact that we didn’t see any indication of landmines on the Mexican side.
Additional information on the Volcan Tacana and the Soconusco region of south western Chiapas can be found at the following sources:
Carlos Helbing, El Soconusco y su Zona Cafetalera en Chiapas
Carlos Helbing, Tapachula, La Perla del Soconusco