Santa María is one of the most popular volcano climbs from Quetzaltenango , with spectacular views from its 3,772-meter summit. The trailhead is at the end of a paved road in the village of Llanos del Pinal. To get there, take one of the hourly pickups leaving from Xela’s Cementerio General (General Cemetery) at 20 Avenida and 4a Calle 7 a.m.–5 p.m.
Heading out of Llanos del Pinal, the road soon turns into a trail up the steep volcanic slopes, with painted arrows leading the way along this initial section of the footpath. About two hours from the starting point, you reach a flat grassy area known as ”La Mesa,” where the trail diverts to the right and then switchbacks up the mountainside through pine forests.
This part of the climb is somewhat steeper, with the summit about three hours from this point. A few hundred meters from the summit, you’ll see the end of the tree line and the summit itself, providing a much-needed mental boost for the end of your climb.
The best time to arrive at the summit is at sunrise, affording opportunities to take in the magnificent views before clouds start to roll in. From there, you can look southwest into the smoking crater of 2,500-meter Santiaguito Volcano, which has been belching out smoke and ash since its birth in 1902. To the east you’ll see the cones of San Pedro, Tolimán, Atitlán, Acatenango, Agua, and Fuego. If you look west, you’ll see the two highest volcanoes in Central America, Tajumulco and Tacaná, on the Mexican border.
Santa María’s last major eruption took place October 24–25, 1902, when it coughed up 10 cubic kilometers of ash into the stratosphere, covering much of the Pacific Coast and destroying a large section of the volcano’s south face. Ash from the eruption is reported to have reached as far north as California.
The safety situation on the volcanoes in Xela’s vicinity is markedly better than on those around Lake Atitlán, though robberies are by no means unheard of. It’s best to go with a guide. Several outfitters in Quetzaltenango  offer trips.
Quetzaltrekkers (www.quetzaltrekkers.com ) runs a fantastic once-a-month overnight trip up the slopes of Santa María in the light of the full moon, arriving on the summit just in time for sunrise. If peering into the summit of smoking Santiaguito has you itching for more volcanic adventures, you’ll be happy to know it also runs trips to the challenging, ashy slopes of this smaller active volcano.