As any experienced hiker will tell you, always make sure to book a 13,000 foot climb as late as
possible and with as little preparation as possible. Following this guidance we booked our tour the day before our ascent and filled out the hiking questionnaire as vaguely as possible. O.X. (the tour outfitter we chose solely based on the fact that their dog is great) gave us a questionnaire Friday when we (Lindsey, Tim, John (friend from school) and I) told them we were going. The questionnaire asked things such as "How many cubic centimeters does your trekking bag have?" or "What kind of high altitude climbing experience do you have?" As there was no space to answer the questions with "I don't know what you are talking about" we left them blank and crossed our fingers for the best. Additionally, one of the tour guides said, with a completely straight face, that he wasn't sure if he was physically prepared for the climb as for the past couple of weeks he has had a glass of wine with dinner. I interpreted this to mean he had a glass of wine with his dinner of twinkies and ho-ho's ... i find ignorance to be the best strategy in these situations.
That Friday night we met at O.X. headquarters in Antigua to go over the plan and pack our bags. With us on the trip we had one "master" tour guide, Kevin, two trainees, Stefan and Ed, a french
couple, a just out of the army swiss (i didn't know that was possible), a somewhat know it all American medical student, an English pansy, and an African razorback dog named Shyla. All in all a rather ragtag group of people. Kevin took us through what we could expect on the hike including talks about "the first 45 minutes are the worst," "purgatory is just a name," "the trail is only 4 miles long which means every step is about 8 inches tall(!)" and, my personal favorite, "sure the banditos on the mountain shot a tour guide in the face last time we went but we have tourist police this time." After all the formalities were out of the way we got to packing. Since we were camping overnight on the mountain we needed to be prepared for the extreme cold and wind. Therefore we got to take our pick from any of the outdated down jackets and a rather expansive collection of neon colored winter hats.
As you will see in the pictures, we chose wisely. Once packed, we were wished a good night sleep (aka don't drink too much tonight - unrelated story, everyone in Antigua thinks tourists drink non-stop, i must get asked about 5 times a day "so you pretty hungover eh?" its a bit of an insult when Ive only drank probably twice in the month I've been down here and they are pretty much insinuating I look like crap) and ushered out into the street.
Sleep was a little rough that night as Tim and I had to help out at a fundraiser for the school we volunteer at and the neighborhood dogs/cows/roosters/fireworks were more active than usual. But by 5:30am the next morning we were up and going and within an hour we were driving towards
Acatenango. The drive was on mostly unpaved roads with no signs or indications that we were going the right way except the enormous volcano getting closer. Along the way Volcan Fuego decided to erupt and give us a nice view of what we were in for (Fuego is the active peak that is actually joined with Acatenango, their peaks being about a mile apart) The car climbed about 7,000 of the 13,000 ft (phew) and stopped at a random corn farm in the middle of no where. Turns out, thats where the hike begins. Grabbing our hiking sticks, donning our larger than i remembered packs and with an armed police officer in the front and back of the group we headed off for our hike. I'm not sure if any of you have had the experience of hiking in the wilderness with armed police officers but I have to say, it made me feel pretty special.
Most mountains in the states have some information or signs leading you to the mountain.
Acatenango has a plastic baby hanging from a tree limb. So, as predicted by Kevin, the first 45 minutes of the climb were awful. We walked pretty much straight up hill (Guatemalans don't believe in cutting trails back and forth) through corn fields in dirt that, had it been a little lighter, I would have thought was sand. The pace Kevin set, however, was decent and we stopped for breaks often enough to not feel like we were over exerting ourselves. Along the way we were greeted by several Guatemalan farmers carrying huge machetes and wished "buene suerte!" by each. Guatemalans as a whole are an extremely friendly people. I wish I could say the same about our canine companion.
We found out, as more and more evidence continued to pile up, that Shyla is an extremely racist dog. Every Guatemalan we met along the way was barked, growled or chased at and at no point in time did she show any aggression to non-Guatemalans. Selective man's best friend.
We finally reached the "jungle" area of the climb. The trails here were often washed out and overgrown and it took enough of our attention just to keep from falling.
When asked by the tour guide what we thought of the view Lindsey replied "you have really nice dirt here." We trudged on and found a few really nice spots to stop and take in the view. At this point we were above the cloud line and had a great view pretty much all the way to Mexico. Dotted in a line were volcanoes all the way up to the border that make up the Volcano Complex of central America. Everyone, with a few exceptions, was tired but in good spirits. The swiss guy seemed like he was too cool for the group and decided to walk about 200 yards in front of everyone else and the french guy continually said, i live in zzee alpzz thiz izz eazzy. Great people. We stopped for lunch at a clearing on the side of the volcano in order to get acclimated to the altitude. Trust me, we took full advantage of the opportunity to rest.
Starting to climb after resting for an hour was torture. The hour allowed all the muscles in my
body to come to a collective agreement and cause me as much pain as possible if I decided to continue hiking. The volcano apparently was in on the joke as it decided to create the illusion of a peak every 20 minutes. I'm pretty sure there are 12 peaks on Acatenango. After another 2 or 3 hours of climbing we finally reached the first peak. Very drastically the environment around us went from green lush trees/plant life to dead trees and low shrubs to the final stage of absolutely nothing. Reaching the first peak looked like reaching dark desert sand dunes.
There are no trees, shrubs, small plants, nothing just volcanic ash. However, we were greeted by an unbelievable view of the country. We were probably about 4,000 feet above the cloud line and could see every volcano poking out up to Mexico. We were also greeted by the second peak of Acatenango which actually looked like a pretty easy hike from where we were. Again, a joke that the mountain thought would be funny.
This is probably a good time to bring up the concept of altitude sickness if you haven't experienced it. Climbing to this altitude or higher does some funny things to your body.
Normally they say that you will experience headaches, nausea, dizziness or just an overall bad feeling. The cure we are told is to take breaks, become acclimated, and drink as much water as possible. Lindsey decided to create her own symptom for altitude sickness that I can only call complete and utter drunkenness. Along the way up the hike I started to notice that Lindsey was laughing at more and more of my jokes. For those not familiar with our relationship this does not normally happen. For a while I just figured I was on fire today, but when we reached the top of the first peak I looked over at Lindsey and noticed her patented "I may have had a little too much" look.
Lindsey was literally high on life. So we took a little longer of a break, took some stupid pictures on the edge of a 13,000 foot cliff and tried to keep Lindsey contained and not doing kartwheels on the top of the peak (a much harder task than it sounds). (For further information of the effects of altitude sickness please esee the video entitled "Im just having a nice time")
In order to climb to the highest peak on Acatenango you must first go downhill into a lovely area the tour guides have named "purgatory."
Its a mini valley between the two peaks that you must first enter before you start the hell that is the final climb. I found purgatory to actually be quite delightful. A nice downhill climb with great views and you walked towards two massive craters in the volcano that were caused by the last two eruptions on the volcano. These eruptions literally took a massive section of the volcano and sent it curtailing miles in the air. Its unbelievable to think of the force necessary to do this.
The final climb to the peak was less than glamorous. We were exhausted, cold (the temperature dropped drastically near the top), feeling a bit sick, and being very careful to watch a very intoxicated Lindsey teetering on the edge of a cliff with a thirty pound backpack.
We walked along a ridge line that was pretty much sand, so every step we took ended up being about a half a normal step with double the effort. The peak that looked so close before was taking us about an hour to get up, but it was well worth it. The final peak is exactly what you would think a top of a volcano looks like. A massive moon like crater with absolutely nothing.
Everyone just stood in awe of the place, well almost everyone. Lindsey made it to the top and ran into the crater flailing her arms like a crazy person landing on the moon for the first time and saying something incoherent (this may be an exaggeration). In the end we all made it safely and were extremely excited to finally be at the top.
After setting up camp, we took a walk over to the other edge of the crater to get a good look at Volcan Fuego and pray for an eruption. We basically crawled along a cliff face, found spots that would protect us from the wind, and celebrated our victorious climb with some wine and shots of Guatemalan rum. We were rewarded shortly thereafter with several eruptions of Fuego.
We weren't able to spot any lava but seeing a volcano erupt about 1 mile away from you at the same altitude is a pretty surreal. As the sun started to set and the alcohol entered our blood stream, the idea of mountain bowling was born. Soon, large boulders were sent flying down the volcano by a few of our companions and we watched in enjoyment. There are nasty rumors going around that I attempted to mountain bowl and was only able to get my boulder to go about 20 feet, but I assure you these are all falsities.
Watching the sunset along the horizon with an erupting volcano
in the forefront was a perfect way to end the day. The wine was a nice touch, although completely unnecessary as we were all feeling a little loopy at that point. For your viewing enjoyment, we attached a few videos below where you´ll notice by the commentary alone that we were feeling pretty good.
As soon as the sun was out of sight it became ridiculously cold.
Our group had almost an immediate shudder crawl up our collective spines and without saying a word we headed back to the campsite. The guides prepared our stir fry meals over a mini camp oven and as soon as it was done everyone headed for their tents and crashed for the night. In my tent it was Tim, Lindsey, the tour guide Kevin and the dog Shyla. We had specifically picked this tent thinking 1) the best place to be is next to the most experienced tour guide and 2) the second best place to be is next to an extremely protective large dog.
Both reasons were flawed. Shyla, along with being racist, is an extremely selfish sleeper. Originally sanctioned to the bottom of the tent, she ended up making her way to between Lindsey and Kevin and systematically pushing Lindsey into me thereby pushing me into Tim. At around midnight, I woke up to find Lindsey pushing against me with her hands out, me practically spooning Tim, Tim´s entire body completely mushed against the side of the tent and Shyla spread out across two sleeping mats. After determining that some careful maneuvering would not solve anything, I got up and tried to move Shyla. This dog would not be moved and it took me waking up Kevin and us literally picking up a 100 pound dog, that was practically just dead weight, for us to reclaim our beds. The rest of the night was littered with several similar incidents which all resulted in us (Tim, Lindsey and I) getting a collective 4 hours of sleep. Kevin, we found out the next morning, had an amazing nights sleep and felt great.
At around 5 in the morning the tour guides woke us up to watch the sunrise.
Freezing, tired and extremely sore we climbed up what seemed to be the hardest incline of the trip (maybe 100 yards of slow incline) and sat to watch the sun come up. Before it made its appearance we had a view of the lava flowing off Pacaya and a great view of the city of Antigua. Taking it in, as best you can when you feel like you were just leveled by a ton of bricks, we enjoyed the view and took some decent pictures of the shadows playing with the landscape.
It was really an amazing sight to see I just wish that I didn't feel like absolute trash when it happened. We didn't have the type of patience or general health necessary to watch a sunrise.
After the sunset we all packed up camp in kind of a collective "i feel like crap" silence and started our descent.
The ascent was difficult, but as I said earlier, we ended up taking enough breaks that it ended up being an enjoyable experience. The descent would not be the same. Kevin, who the entire time during the ascent was an extremely amicable and caring individual, suddenly turned into this crazy "we need to make the bus deadline" monster who started the descent by saying things like, "what the hell is taking these guys so long," or "we need to meet the bus at a specific time" or, my personal favorite, "i like to run down this part." I think of the 4 miles of trail we probably ran down about a mile of it. This was not out of desire but out of a necessity to not be left behind.
When we entered the area that the banditos normally rob people we were so scattered I felt as vulnerable as the hunters from Jurassic park 2 being picked off one by one by the velociraptors (bet you didn't think you would hear a Jurassic park 2 reference today). In all honesty it was a bit concerning as the trail passed through some overgrown jungle and we all had a really difficult time seeing the person ahead of us let alone a guide or police officer. I'm sure we were safe at all times and they took the necessary precautions, just would have been nice to hear it. By the end of the descent (6.5 hrs up 2 hrs down!) peoples legs were in shambles, Lindsey´s toe´s were pretty much bleeding and all good will for the tour guides had gone out the window.
But we made it and it was an unbelievable feeling to see that tour bus ready to take us back to civilization.
When we returned to Antigua, we all gathered at a favorite breakfast spot, Rainbow Cafe, gorged on food in silence and thought about how much we dreaded the walk home. Lindsey gave Kevin a little candid feedback on their approach to the descent, but all in all we thanked them for an amazing trip.
It is now a week after finishing the trip and I am not lying when I tell you I still have soreness in my legs. The first few days after our return I walked around the city, as Lindsey so elegantly put it, "like i had a big crap in my pants." Just recently I stopped grunting when walking up or down stairs. I had to brace myself for any sitting or standing movements and I felt like a broken man. But, I will say to anyone that asks, it was absolutely worth it. If you ever have a chance to visit Guatemala I would highly recommend doing the Acatenango trip, just make sure you don't sleep with the racist dog.
Hasta tiempo proximo,
For those of you who have not figured it out yet, Guatemala is home to a crap load of volcanoes. 37 to be exact, 4 of which are active. The largest volcano in the Antigua area is Volcan Acatenango located 45 minutes west of the city. It's a commanding 13,045 feet tall (taller than Fuji), boasts two peaks, is home to numerous banditos, and is joined with an active volcano, Fuego. Luckily, I have a tendency to overlook minor details such as these before agreeing to partake in an overnight trek to the top.