We hear them before we see them. Two pickup trucks come roaring up behind us, their wheels scrabbling for traction on the uneven dirt road. Crammed into the back are an exuberant Guatemalan family who, like us, are on their way to visit one of the country's most revered Maya sites.
Chicabal is one of two sacred volcanoes in Guatemala (the other is Ipala near the border with El Salvador), and there's an easy way and a hard way to get there. You can either pay for a transfer from the car park at the bottom of the access road near the town of San Martin Sacatepequez or you can walk up. The hike only takes 90 minutes but it follows a steep, snaking paved road that turns into an even steeper dirt track.
When Julio, my twenty-something guide, suggests we walk, I'm initially keen. And then – about 10 steps into it – I remember the altitude. We're in the highlands in the south-west of the country, 220 kilometres from Guatemala City, and the volcano's crater is at 2712 metres. Julio, of course, is used to this elevation and chats effortlessly while I nod between gasps and pray he doesn't ask me anything requiring more than a yes/no answer.
This region is one of the wettest parts of the country and the high rainfall and humidity means Chicabal is almost permanently swathed in mist and cloud. This microclimate has bestowed the volcano with a lush, dense cloud forest and as we ascend we're repeatedly engulfed by eerie banks of mist.
We finally reach the volcano's rim and from a lookout peer down through thick vegetation into the crater below. On a clear day Julio says you can see neighbouring volcanoes Santa Maria and Santiaguito and occasionally all the way to the Pacific coast. No chance of that today but we can see Chicabal Lake, the impressive 575-metre-wide body of water that fills the crater. This is the reason the local Maya consider the volcano sacred – they believe the lake is a connection to the gods of the underworld.
A steep wooden staircase snakes down to the lake foreshore and en route we pass the Guatemalan family who overtook us earlier. My initial delight at going downhill soon evaporates when I realise we'll be climbing back up these 570 steps to get out.
Encircling the lake are 20 Maya altars, corresponding to the 20 days in a Maya month. Each day is associated with something desirable, such as health, money or rain. If someone wants better health, they'll pay a Maya priest to perform a ritual on that day at the appropriate altar.
The altars are simple clearings on the foreshore or in the surrounding undergrowth. Many are strewn with flowers, incense and candles while others incorporate Christian crosses – evidence of the religious intermingling that's common throughout Guatemala.
As we walk along the meandering path that circumnavigates the lake, clouds of mist descend into the crater, lending it a otherworldly feel. Halfway around we start to hear chanting and occasionally, when the mist clears, see smoke rising from the opposite shore. As we get closer we spot a Maya priest in a simple red headdress performing a ceremony in front of an altar, chanting and raising his hands to the sky while his client looks on in hopeful expectation.
The only other people we pass are three local men in cowboy hats who've come to collect rubbish. One leads a horse and for a moment I have a terrifying mental image of him navigating those 570 steps on horseback. Julio assures me there's another less vertiginous track to the lake.
When we stop to eat our packed lunch, there's a curious sensory discord – the bright, cheery birdsong from the surrounding forest seems at odds with the ominous swirling mist that flows like a serpent over the crater rim. It lends the setting a palpable sense of unease – like the music in a horror film before something terrible happens. It's easy to see why the local Maya have bestowed Chicabal with such spiritual significance – even for a sceptic like me, there's the feeling that mysterious forces are at work here.
Eventually, it's time to tackle those 570 steps again. Julio skips up them like a mountain goat while I lag behind like an asthmatic mountain sloth. Once again we pass our Guatemalan comrades, two of whom are patiently helping an elderly grey-haired relative. When she reaches the top, the family lets out a riotous round of applause. It turns out she's 78 and has had two hip replacements.
They offer us a lift down and we bundle into the back of their pickup. The descent is a bone-jarring, white-knuckle rollercoaster ride that has us all in convulsions of laughter as we cling on to anything – including each other – to steady ourselves. I don't speak Spanish and they don't speak English but these 20 minutes of shared adrenalin-fuelled hilarity are one of the highlights of my trip.
Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Guatemala itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. Phone 1300 773 231; see chimuadventures.com
Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand and Chimu Adventures
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