Perhaps the most popular activity to do while in Antigua, Guatemala is the Acatenango Volcano hike. Since the day I arrived everyone I met was raving about it. The first person I met at the hostel while unpacking my bag and climbing up to my top bunk was Martin, a guy from Denmark who had just returned from the hike and was beaming at what an amazing experience he had been through the last two days. Every person I spoke to afterwards had the same sentiment towards the trek and I felt it was something I had to do. After talking with a few friends I had met along the way, it seemed that we all had the same idea so we collectively signed up to trek on the same day.
The adventure was two days in duration, and the itinerary was as follows; we begin day 1 at our hostel, Tropicana, with a full breakfast on the terrace, at 7:30am it is early enough that the halo around the tip of the volcano which we looked out on had not yet settled around the summit and we could see the full glory of the volcano while we ate – a very fitting foreshadow of what was to come on our adventure. After breakfast we crammed into a shuttle bus and, with our packs strapped to the roof we drive upwards an hour outside of Antigua to the entrance of the Acatenango park.
Although excited, once we got off the bus I began to feel a little…off. At first, I chalked this up to the erratic driving and winding roads that brought us to our destination, however as nausea slowly but surely crept up on me, I knew this was more than just motion sickness. Food poisoning claimed another victim and I found myself puking over the railing of a lookout point just as we are about to get going – there goes my complimentary breakfast. I managed to do this without anyone noticing, as I didn’t want to be sent back to the hostel and blocked from the trek, “I came to see this volcano and god damn it I’m going up the mountain” I thought to myself. I wiped my mouth, popped some gum in, and grabbed my pack. Although nothing was added to the pack from the time I left the hostel, at roughly 70lbs, it felt a little heavier, even though I was now slightly lighter (it was a heavy breakfast).
After a short briefing in broken English from our guides stating that we will be taking breaks every 25 minutes in shaded areas on the way up with the entire hike lasting around 5.5 to 6 hours, we were off. “Vamos, Tropicana” a sentence I would dread hearing in the hours to come, and off we went, up and up. It didn’t take me long, maybe twenty minutes to lose what was left of my breakfast. The guides said it was normal to get altitude sickness at this height and gave me a powdered drink to dispel the nausea – I knew this probably wasn’t the cause of my illness however I went along with it because I didn’t want to turn back – I was dedicated.
We continued up the mountain and I found myself as the weak link, my face was totally drained of color and I was feeling very rough. We got to the first pit stop, I was keeping it together so far but with the air getting thinner, I was finding it much harder to catch my breath and with nothing in my system now I was dangerously low on energy. After a short rest I hear, “Vamos, Tropicana” and our group grabbed our packs and set off once again.
After two hours I had puked twice more, bringing the count to four since getting off the bus and it was now no secret to anyone that I was very sick. I asked the guide how much longer to the top – bad idea – “quarto horas”, four hours – I might not see this volcano- god damn it. Luckily, I am a stubborn person. As I fell behind the group, I trudged on, slowly but surely with a guide at all times, I had to stop a total of five times, throw off my bag, get on all fours, wretch, pick up my bag again, “ok, let’s go”. On the bright side I thought, between this hike and all the dry heaving I was doing, I am going to be ripped by the end of this!
Just before we stopped for lunch and only about half way to our base camp, I admittedly had my doubts about whether or not I would be able to make it to the top. On a few occasions, the guide that stuck with me pointed to his cell phone as a way of articulating ‘should I call someone to come get you?’ and maybe I should have accepted his offer, but I was determined. Fortunately, once we ate lunch, some fruit and a small burrito, I was feeling much better and the final three hours, despite the trek still proving physically demanding, I found keeping with the group no issue.
The promise of base camp was close now and eventually we made it – sweet salvation. The trip up was grueling and probably one of the harder things I have done in a long time, but it was worth it and god damn it, I saw that volcano – Fuego – erupt almost every twenty minutes. With red hot molten rock exploding from the center of the earth up 60 feet in the air and a lightning storm lighting up the sky in the distance, it was the most beautiful yet chaotic natural scenes I have ever seen. Looking back on this excursion, it would be funny to tell myself at the time that this would end up being one of the highlights of my trip, to this I probably would have responded “my god, what horrible things are ahead of me here?!”
That night, we ate spaghetti, drank hot chocolate, and even a little wine that the guides brought up the mountain, all the while Fuego spouting out intermittently with someone always yelling “there it goes again!” an exclamation not particularly necessary as the night lit up red and a growl so deep and loud cracking through the sky was warning enough, but we oohed and aahed all the same and became positively giddy to be in this surreal environment.
The next morning came early, 4am to be exact, but one of the main parts of this trip was to wake up, huddle around the fire and watch the sunset as Fuego erupted in the background, this surely was the highlight of the trek and the difficulties of the day before melted away – this is what it had all been for. Soon after, we ate some breakfast, an energy bar and a dense piece of banana bread and packed up our bags to descend down the mountain.
The hike down was actually quite enjoyable, doing my best not to fight gravity too much, we trotted down and took us about 1/3 of the time it did going up. My favorite part about this was seeing all the red faced and panting hikers on their way up the mountain. As I passed one person who looked particularly exhausted I trotted by with a smile on my face and simply said, ‘it’s worth it!’ She smiled back and trudged on.
Before we knew it, we were at the bottom, and we all threw off our packs, thanked our patient guides, and awaited the bus to take us back to Antigua.