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. He was from Denmark and had just returned from the hike. He 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 trip itinerary was as follows.
We begin day one at our hostel, Tropicana, with a full breakfast on the terrace. At 7:30am it was early enough that the halo around the tip of the volcano. We we could see the full glory of the volcano while we ate. It was a very fitting foreshadow of what was to come on our adventure. After breakfast we crammed into a shuttle bus with our packs strapped to the roof. We drive upwards an hour outside of Antigua to the entrance of the Acatenango park.
The Entrance to 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. 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. The thought passed through my mind:
“I came to see this volcano and god damn it I’m going up the mountain”
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.
Our guides stated that we will be taking breaks every 25 minutes in shaded areas on the way up. The 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. They 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 but the air was getting thinner. I was finding it much harder to catch my breath and with nothing in my stomach 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.
I fell behind
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. A 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. I’d 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!
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. His way of articulating ‘should I call someone to come get you?’. 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. The final three hours, despite the trek still proving physically demanding, I found keeping with the group no issue.
The Promise of Base Camp
The promise of base camp was close now and eventually we made it – sweet salvation. Trekking 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. Red hot molten rock exploded from the center of the earth up 60 feet in the air. 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, this would end up being one of the highlights of my trip.
But it is because it was so difficult, then so beautiful, that it was so rewarding. We were so high up in elevation (just over 4,000ft) it was absolutely freezing. Spending the previous few days at a comfortable 27-30 degrees, 3-5 degrees felt positively frigid. However after bundling up with two thick sweaters, a jacket, gloves, and toque I felt comfortable. I was ready for a chilly nights sleep in my tent above the clouds.
We ate, we drank
That night, we ate spaghetti, drank hot chocolate, and even a little wine that the guides brought up the mountain. All the while Fuego spout out intermittently with someone always yelling “there it goes again!”. But no exclamation was necessary. The night lit up red and a growl so deep and loud cracking through the sky. Regardless 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. One of the main parts of this trip was to wake up, huddle around the fire and watch the sunrise. Fuego erupted in the background. This 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. We 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 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. We thanked our patient guides, and awaited the bus to take us back to Antigua.