“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” – Jack Kerouac
When I started planning my trip to Guatemala, it didn’t take much research before I was dead set on hiking Acatenango. One of the hardest climbs in the country, you say? Must be really in shape? Camp overnight at 3,400 meters? Watch the sunrise at the summit of the crater? Hell yeah, I’m in.
I would like to say that I trained for the hike, but now having done it, I realize that was a joke. Running stairs in Indianapolis and training on a 7.0 incline on a treadmill didn’t do jack squat. Even if you are in shape, there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for altitude like that. There’s a reason that athletes train in high altitude and I had trained at 218 meters… quite different than the 2,400-3,900 that Acatenango offered.
We met at OX Expeditions in Antigua (I highly recommend them) where we packed up, loaded up and grabbed breakfast on our way out. By that point, I was already making friends with several of my fellow hikers. One of my favorite parts of traveling is soaking up the stories of the people I meet along the way and where they are in their journey. I could already tell the vibe of the group was going to be fantastic.
In less than an hour, we were on our way up the trail. And just a few minutes after that, I could feel my chest tighten and I was having a hard time breathing. My pack felt so tight across my chest and stomach and I started to panic. How was I going to make it up this mountain when I already felt like I couldn’t breath? I loosened the pack and kept trucking along. Needless to say, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to climb at the pace that I normally would. So I slowed it way down and made it my objective to try and not get out of breath; just focus on a slow and steady pace.
The fog was thick on our hike up. It was overcast and even started drizzling a bit, which was perfect hiking weather. I can’t imagine what it would be like to blaze those trails in the hot Guatemalan sun. Although it was cold at points, we were fortunate to have clouds. The first hour of the hike was through farmlands and fields, and the fog laced the landscape with a mystic glow as we ascended. Our surroundings looked like a whimsical painting. It was beautiful.
There was a lot more greenery than I expected on the trail. The trail went from steep sand where you took two steps up and slid one step back, to built-in log stairs, to switch backs of dirt trails. I had to remind myself to look up and enjoy the view as I went along, since it was so easy to just stare at your feet, trying to focus on the next step. I certainly wasn’t the fastest in the group, I was a solid “middle-of-the-pack” girl. The entire climb was such a mental challenge. I would tell myself the same things that often go through my head during a race: “You are strong enough to do this,” or “steady, steady, steady,” or “just one more step.” I also spent a lot of time doing breathing exercises that I practice both during runs and pilates. It’s fascinating how so many of the challenging things in life can be overcome with the same mental and breath work. I guess I should keep practicing those habits.
Including a few stops, it took us about six hours to get to camp. At that point, we were at 3,400 meters. The wind was ferocious, but the sun and blue skies were out. It was breathtaking to say the least. I was immediately overwhelmed that beauty like this exists. It’s so incredible to be pulled out of your daily world to experience something so immaculate and inspiring. The colors, the textures, the lighting. I couldn’t help but gasp aloud and continued to pace from to every angle of the cliff, making sure not to miss a single detail of the view.
Let me take a moment to tell you about the incredible group of people that I hiked with. Of the 20 of us, we represented at least 9 different countries, plus several provinces in Canada and at least five different states in the US. There was very little overlap in place or origin and it was especially fun to meet other women who were traveling solo. Some were studying Spanish, some on vacation, most were traveling for several months all over Central America and not one of them was dull. I had a fantastic time listening to everyone’s adventures and swapping advice of the best places to visit. Best part of being taken out of your comfort zone with a bunch of strangers: they immediately turn into friends. I have an immense amount of respect for every person who accomplished hiking Acatenango, including our guides (thanks Will, David and Patrick), and I am so grateful that the energy of the group was positive. We had a ton of fun, which could have easily been a very different story – so thank you, hiking buddies! And thank you for all being my 2016 valentines!
We set up camp and a few of the hard core hikers took off to continue up Fuego, which was another 1.5 hour hike up and 2 hours down in the dark. I had planned on joining them, however, with the nausea I was feeling, I didn’t want to risk pushing myself too hard at that altitude. Turns out, several of them ended up puking… that definitely would have been me too.
When it got dark, it got very cold. It was probably around zero Celsius, not including wind chill. My guess is that wind gusts were around 30 miles per hour. Yes, I am from Minnesota, and yes, I know how to handle the cold. However, I had not prepared for it to be this cold. I hovered as long as I could over the fire throughout dinner and did my best to stay up late and hang out… but after a few swigs of rum, I went to sleep at 8pm. Fortunately, once I was in the tent and sleeping bag, I was toasty as a marshmallow.
I drifted in and out of sleep that night. The wind was loud and flapped aggressively against the tent. There was a lot of snoring. Regardless, I was able to collect enough energy to wake up at 4am for our hike to the 1.5 hours to the summit for the sunrise. This portion of Acatenango was the steepest and sandiest of the entire trip. It was pitch black. And although it didn’t bother me the day before when I ended up alone as I jugged along the path, this time when I found myself completely alone, I got nervous. There was a point where the terrain was slightly more flat and I ceased to hear anyone either behind me or ahead of me. I started to wonder if I had gotten myself off the path. I looked to my right and there was a steep drop off. I looked ahead and saw nothing. No lights. I heard no voices. I yelled out “hello” to see if anyone would respond. Silence. I was told that this climb was straight up, but it seemed to be that I was walking on a moderate incline. I was sure that I had made a mistake. I looked at my watch – according to my estimations I should be at the top in roughly 15-30 more minutes. I had no choice but to continue.
I’m going to die on the top of this volcano.
I fully expected that when the sun rose I would find myself on the complete opposite side of the mountain, lost, with no one in sight. There’s also a chance that I am a bit dramatic at 4 in the morning before I’ve had any coffee.
As you may have guessed, I was not lost and shortly after caught up with the overachievers ahead of me. Once we reached the summit, the wind gusts got even more intense. 35 or 40 miles per hour and the temperature dropped another 5 degrees Celsius. I had to fight between not wanting my fingers to fall off and taking photos.
All of the pain began to fade as the colors of morning emerged from the skyline. I have an overpowering and probably unhealthy obsession with morning light and although I was freezing and all I could think about was a hot shower, I was still in awe of the sun rise. That 30 minutes on top of the volcano embodied just about every color you could imagine. It was glorious. You could see the surrounding volcanos from the summit: Agua, Pacaya and Fuego. In typical Fuego fashion, there were thick smoke clouds pouring from its peak. It had erupted several times the week before and is known to be very active. There’s a certain air of arrogance that surrounds Fuego, and you could see it owning its bold reputation as the glow of morning crept up its neck.
Shortly after the sun poked its head above the horizon, I began to make my way down the mountain. I had to get moving. The hike down was quick and easy and I made it back to camp in about 15-20 minutes. The trees were surrounded by fog and the plants were coated in little ice droplets. It looked like a fairy land.
Back at camp, we made coffee and ate banana bread, followed by tearing down the tents and packing up. Even though the trek to the bottom was supposed to only take 2.5 hours, I was struggling to muster up the motivation to do even that. The nausea was still heavy, but as soon as we got going, every step I felt a little bit better.
We took a different path on the way down and got to enjoy a more shadey wooded side of Acatenango. It was quite lovely and reminded me of the kind of hikes I enjoy at home in the Midwest. I was able to put in my headphones and listen to music most of the way down, which helped me zone out.
Our guides were awesome enough to have beers waiting for us at the bottom.
I am so grateful to have been able to experience Acantenango. This is truly an experience that will stick with me forever. If you are planning on doing it sometime in the near future, I would say, absolutely go for it. You won’t regret that you did it and it will be one of your greatest accomplishments.
“There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.” – Jack Kerouac