Last weekend, I climbed Acatenango, the third tallest volcano in Central America. It’s weird to write this sentence and I’m still somewhat surprised that I did this. Reaching the top of Acatenango is an overnight undertaking, it’s over 13,000 feet tall, you camp, you carry a pack and it is steep. I, as of last Saturday, have never so much as slept in a tent. Once I slept on a deck in Delaware but I got cold in the middle of the night and went inside.
So why did I do it and how?
First of all, Acatenango is supposed to be the coolest. From the peak, you can see one of the most active volcanoes, the aptly named Fuego erupt. Right now it erupts about every 20 minutes. Some of the eruptions are small and some are total discovery channel blasts: you hear a boom, smoke rises, rocks tumble, the red lava begins to flow and glow, everyone scrambles to take a picture or just look at it as intently impossible. Words don’t really help but we said them anyway, things like wow, awe, incredible, breathtaking etc.
In a practical sense, I got a facebook message from a group that had climbed San Pedro, one of the two volcanoes that flanks Santiago, a few weeks ago asking if anyone wanted to do Acatenango. I had never heard of it and was surprised at how many people signed up. Lots of people are leaving in the coming weeks after summer internships and such so there was sense of urgency among the group and a company they palnned to do. Then peer pressure kicked in. Two friends who had spent a year and two years in Guatemala called Acatengango the coolest thing they had done in Guatemala. My excuses (that my family was coming the next week and that it would be hard and I had no hiking experience) became more and more stupid sounding. It started to feel like a dare from the universe. One other reason to not go was timing: I’m going to be here for a year and theoretically could climb a volcano at any time (lol). But I did talk to some of the other PiLA’s about doing it at a later date. But somehow everyone said yes. There was a link sent out to register and a warning that spots were limited. Half of me hoped it would sell out and the other half of me clicked the link, wrote that I was a vegetarian and paid a deposit. I borrowed some warm clothes from Michelle, a seasoned volcano hiker (she’s done nine) and bought some snacks, listened to descriptions of the hike and tried to get some sleep, which did not work out.
On Friday after work, we took a private shuttle to Antigua and checked into basecamp, a hostel run by the tour operators. We met our guide who took us through the trail, told us vaguely what to pack and we found a place to get dinner nearby. It was pretty mediocre but still open and we needed to get to bed. We made a late night stop to buy water and last minute essentials (read: small handles of alcohol that our guide assured us would be useful at the campsite).
We woke up a little before 6 and packed our bags. Most of us rented packs and sleeping bags from the company and it was an adventure trying to roll everything up. We stopped at a café to get breakfast (I had a terrible “bagel” because I don’t like to eat eggs in the morning) and then drove to the start of the trail, which took a little under an hour. Then we got started. I had been told by everyone that the worst part was the first hour of the trail and then it would get a little easier so I kept that in mind but was so scared. There was also an option to give your bags to a porter and his horse that followed us up the mountain so I decided to try the first hour and see if I wanted the porter. Now in my limited hiking experience, I’ve realized there are two types of hikes, those you can have conversations on and those you can’t. For me at least, this first bit was a no talking zone. It was steep, hot and not that pretty, we basically walked through cornfields at a steady incline and the soil was loose enough to be a struggle. There were breaks every 45 minutes to an hour, which were good moments to eat snacks, which everyone was good about sharing and talk. There’s one tienda in Santiago, Simone’s, that has lots of imported stuff and we all shopped there for snacks and had a lot of overlap. mentally dividing the time in my head was so important because at the very beginning you are not almost there, you just started, there’s so much ahead of you and it’s really hard. The guide was somewhat helpful at giving road maps as we went, like about how long the next part would be and her time estimates were fairly accurate. After the field part, there was a section that was more tree filled with lots of switchbacks so there was some shade. At some point, we stopped for lunch and then were told we had about an hour and a half to go. Writing that, an hour and a half doesn’t sound long but it really felt long, with a pack to carry, the stress of trying not to hold up the group and the uncertainty about where you were going. The last hour and a half was definitely the prettiest as we entered the cloud forest. It looked like a lord of the rings set or something, spiky trees, clouds everywhere and just great views. Parts of it were very steep and the altitude was more of a factor at this point but we knew the next stop was our campsite.
The soil started to look volcanic, with little black rocks and it got colder as we climbed. Finally, after a really steep part and after feeling totally over this hiking business, we made it to the campsite at 2:05 pm. From this campsite, we had a straight view of Fuego, one of the world’s most active volcanoes and oen of the reasons that climbing Acatenango is so exciting. There was cloud cover when we first got there and we all got to chill, sitting down, taking off our packs, and waiting to see an eruption. We joked about the hike, ate snacks and then the clouds started to clear. First we could see some smoke above the clouds but a little later, we started to see eruptions. They varied in size and went all night, big red loud eruptions preceded by a noise that sounded like thunder but wasn’t.
The rest of the night was really fun, we could see Agua, another volcano on one side, there was a campfire, we had some boxed wine provided by OX and our purchases from earlier and we had some good conversations. Some people took lots of pictures, most while remarking on how futile it was to take pictures of a volcanic eruption. Around 9 we all went to bed, knowing the summit was about an hour away and we were leaving at 4 am.
While sleeping in a tent might not be terrible all the time, in this case it was. The ground was hard despite mats, it was cold, the tent was cramped. I don’t think anyone got much sleep. Our tent unfortunately got a few minutes of extra sleep because no one woke us up. When the other Santiago tent finally came to get us, some people had already started on the trail to the summit. We were told to get up right then or else we wouldn’t be able to make it. I put on shoes, threw in contacts and grabbed some water, leaving my godsend of a hiking stick sitting uselessly next to the tent. We put socks over our hands as makeshift gloves and headed out into the darkness with a headlamp. The first 10-15 minutes of the hike to summit were the worst part of this whole experience. Several members of our group felt awful due to altitude sickness and decided to stay at the camp or turn around partially. I couldn’t see where this trail was headed and the soil was loose and unstable and there was no way to tell what was next. I also felt that the entire group was basically at the summit already and that I needed to rush, which was pretty difficult to do as you gasped for breath in the dark. I kept going for a few reasons. One was that Celine and I were together after some others had to stop and I wasn’t alone with the stressed out guide. The other was that I felt tired and breathless but not nauseous, which was sheer luck, by the way, so I didn’t have a truly compelling reason to stop and I wanted to get to the top. I also had developed camaraderie and support with the ten members of our group, and some of the people we didn’t know before: they knew this was very foreign to me and they were somewhat impressed and surprised that I took this on as my first hike.
Finally after some shitty shitty moments, things got a little better. It got a little lighter out and we got to this part that was a semi flat ridge (another thing I learned about hiking, whenever someone refers to a part of a trail as flat, they are most definitely lying. It will be flatter but the goal is ascending here) with beautiful views of the mountains below and the clouds rolling in (the clouds looked like an ocean wave because we were above the cloud layer). We also started to see the headlamps of others and realized we were not that far behind at all. There was a really steep part at the end and then an almost sheer incline up volcanic soil which was so freaking slippery but then you’re there. I made it to the top of the third tallest volcano in central America. That feels good to type.
Being at the top was so much fun. Everyone was so excited that we made it. We took pictures, used the word awe so many times and tried to soak it in. I felt giddy and surprised that I was there and could not stop looking. WE could see fuego erupting, Lake Atitlan and its surrounding volcanoes in the distance and the sunrise. I remember learning about volcanoes in 7th grade science class and thinking how cool the ring of fire was, the area where the earth got messy as it formed. And I saw it in real life.
Telling you about the way down is anticlimactic but to be thorough: I slid down from the summit to the camp, literally on my butt. The rocks were bouncy and I kept falling and I have no regrets. The rest of the way down was pretty, since I had less anxiety about what was coming but some of the downhills were hard and I fell a bunch, as did lots of people. The last little bit sucked just like the beginning did. The cornfields are hot, the soil is loose and we were running into groups just starting out. We reached the road at noon and I was somewhat shocked to have made it, there and then back.
What I thought about:
-Mentally: Honestly, spin class helped me so much with this hike. Having the experience of so many classes at flywheel in new york and philly and soulcycle in new york gave me ways to compartmentalize the time in 45 minute chunks and to remember that the hard parts wouldn’t last forever. I also thought about things various instructors said, random songs, peer pressure, the concept of taking one step at a time and tried not to look at my watch too much when the guide gave us time estimates. I sometimes feel like I missed out on a formative experience by never being on a sports team but I’ve learned a lot in dark rooms on stationary bikes and it felt really good to take that up a mountain.
-The tour company and route: OX expeditions, which we used, came highly recommended by other Santiago dwellers. Our guide was nice but definitely overworked with a group of 23 (her assistant was fairly useless) and there were definitely communication problems within the company. I relied much more on the other hikers for advice about how to pack my bag, what to wear, and how to proceed on tricky parts of the trail. There was also some pressure to be faster which I did not appreciate at all. The plusses of OX are many though: they leave early in the morning so you have time to relax and appreciate the view at camp, they have better food than other companies, according to some girls we met at the summit, their campsite location is prime real estate, the other groups were slightly below with inferior groups, the porter they use has a horse so you aren’t handing your stuff to a Guatemalan man for him to lug up the mountain. Some of the other practices they had are hard to evaluate given my limited experience and the differences between national parks in Guaemala and the US. I wish that money from havin this beautiful volcano went more directly into Guatemalan hands and I know ox employs Guatemalan guides, we didn’t have one though and I missed that context throughout the experience.
-The physical undertaking: Hiking Acatenango is hard as fuck and your body will be in lots of pain afterwards. You need lots of endurance and you also need to be lucky. Altitude affects everyone differently every time so it can be really terrible or you can feel relatively okay. You also have to take care of yourself and drink lots of water, eat your snacks and accept that the pain you feel is part of seeing something incredible. Advil also helps.
–The group that I hiked acatenango with was amazing, woo Santiago crew! My 11th grade English teacher hated the word amazing but they were. I knew everyone before but something about all of us being in such an uncomfortable environment, smelly and tired and all that, really forged great bonds. I was glad to spend time with people who will be here all year and really talk more with those here for the summer. We were pretty silly at lots of points and that made everything easier.
-Ever doing this again. (probably not, a group is going in November but I feel like I got great weather and got to the top, so I’m good).
When I was scared to sign up for this, Leah told me that I was a strong woman and should roar at the top of the volcano. I accidentally blurted this out on our way to Antigua and it became a thing that was happening. I hate disappointing people and someone had volunteered to take a video and honestly the thought of this stupid roar did help me on that dark morning. So here’s how to end this epic post: I roared on the top of a volcano right after Fuego erupted and it felt great.