I will set the scene – my first weekend in Guatemala. Antigua town, sun setting over the colonial buildings and ruins.
A group of awesome people have only just met but are already calling each other a travelling family. Relaxing, eating, drinking, smoking. Contentedness. A new arrival, a very good looking Kiwi lad. He suggested I do a volcano climb with him and one other girl in the morning.
I had heard about the volcano treks, one of the biggest attractions to Antigua, a colonial town surrounded by these giant smoking peaks. There are two trails that were most frequently taken, Volcán Pacaya being easy(ish) and Acatenango being ridiculously (effing) hard. He was doing the latter, of course. The highlight of climbing Mt. Acetenango being once you reach the peak you are effectively looking down on to an active volcano – Volcán Fuego – as it threatens eruption.
It was something I had always wanted to do but never really imagined I would. And the guy asking me to join them was very good looking. And I was quite pissed. Gosh maybe I should? Before I really knew what I was dong I had paid the 30 quid (30 QUID!), raided my new travelling buddies’ wardrobes, stolen all of their warm clothes, pulled my Converse (CONVERSE!) out of the bottom of my rucksack and booked with the hostel Tropicana for a 7am pick up, reluctantly refusing another beer and tequila shot on my way past the bar to bed.
My first thought upon waking was what on Earth have I signed myself up for?! Didn’t I say after the pain of Mt. Batur in Bali the previous year that I had ‘done the whole volcano thing’? I ate my breakfast of beans, plantain and eggs (“you must eat all the beans, you will need the energy!”) and ordered some water for the journey. My friend Shea who served me laughed in my face when I ordered only 2 half litre bottles and sent me to the store round the corner for the appropriately needed 5 or 6. So underprepared I was with my litre of agua, my Converse and my hangover. But I psyched myself up. A live volcano! This had been a dream of mine since watching Dante’s Peak! (Don’t ask me why. That wasn’t so fun for Pierce B’s character). I rallied round and psyched myself up for it, managing to shake the hangover cloud by drinking copious amounts of gorgeous free Guatemalan coffee. We were on our way up to basecamp!
Our first encounter with the travellers who had just finished the hike filled me with positivity and dread simultaneously. They had the air of survivors of a tragedy, looked half dead but were full of stories of the beautiful view and ‘all the stars in the sky’.
We hired the ‘Gandalf’ sticks recommended by the exhausted hikers, had the obligatory ‘you shall not pass moment’, packed the tents, sleeping bags, food, water, whiskey and we were off.
Absolutely stunning farmland was the first of many terrains we climbed and the view from there was already breathtaking. Now I am not going to sugarcoat this at all, this was tough. The hardest thing I have ever done in my life by far. The air had felt thinner when we got out of the truck at the starting point and within ten minutes my heart was racing, I was breathless and my pack was heavy. The good looking Kiwi, Joe, and the brilliant Irish lass Aileen were already ahead and although out of breath too, they looked determined. Fear overtook me and I started to panic a little. Was I ruining the experience for these keen hikers? And would I actually able to reach the 4000m summit?
I suggested quietly that maybe I should stop, I didn’t want to hold them back, I was already knackered… etc etc etc. None of it was being had by either. Awesome these two, they really were. I knew I would live to regret it forever if I turned back, and that, of all things, is something I live by – no regrets. You only get one chance for experiences like this. The decision, however, was really made when the guide suggested to Joe in Spanish that we rent a horse for the bags. Nope. I am not having that. I was not going to be the only unfit gringo. No way is a horse carrying my 6 litres of water for me! On we went.
Our guide, Fernando, was amazing. He stayed with me and my converse the whole way. He kept my pace, had no objection to me stopping to catch my breath at any time (which was a lot) and he taught me new breathing techniques to help settle my heart rate. All of this he did not knowing more than 10 words in English, and me at that time not knowing any Spanish at all. The guides that take the tourists up these trails are unreal, they do this 2-4 times a week without breaking a sweat.
Fernando and I eventually started to teach each other little bits of Spanish and English, this was to be my first Spanish lesson! Whilst learning how to count to ten, the terrain around me changed completely. Leaving behind the plush colourful farmland with golden crops surrounded by rolling green hills, we entered the first of two forests, the ‘cloud’ forest. The paths got muddy, branches being used wherever possible to pull us up. The first lump of banana bread was scoffed and the first litre of water was now almost empty. My hands were muddy and scratched. The trees soon changed, ‘high alpine’ was the second of the forests. Still in the clouds we discussed the possibility that after all this exertion we would see nothing. We put this out of our minds. The moisture from the clouds was welcome but as soon as you stopped for a second the sweat turned to ice. Fernando drew a diagram in the dirt; one more big climb and then it evens out. It will get easier! We pushed on and the alpine forest turned into, well, Mars. The Volcanic zone. My mind went to the Crystal Maze. That would have been cool. We were above the clouds, all worries of poor visibility forgotten in a second. It was like being on a different planet. Huge mountains and craters of ash and gravel, with a view for miles. It was breathtaking.
In the distance we saw two clouds of dust billowing down one of the two huge alien craters, so monumental were they that I had to really strain my eyes to see the two bodies skidding down the mountain leaving the cloud behind them. Fernando tutted and in broken English and quite terrifying sign language, he explained that lots of tourist like these, without guides, die all the time. Jeez. This colourful translation took us almost all the way to the summit.
The summit. 3976m up. Words cannot describe how beautiful a sight this was. Miles above the clouds it seemed, the sun bright and warm, so much closer we felt to it up there. And all of a sudden there was Volcán de Fuego. In all its glory. Smoking at the peak and glimmering in the sunlight, looking like a sleeping dragon ready to breath its fire at any time.
I think 20 minutes we sat there – the only ones at the camp – just taking in the view. Getting our breath back and letting the achievement soak into our already clammy clothes. We had done it. I had done it. After almost falling at the first hurdle, I had done it. And in only 5 hours! (The average was 7!). Chuffed.
Fernando had a fire going and a tent up within minutes. We celebrated with whiskey and a dinner of noodles, banana bread, hot chocolate and more whiskey. The sun set below the clouds, the stars came alive and a live volcano snoozed only 4km away, occasionally spurting golden lava.
We watched the volcano until our eyes hurt, the glow of the lava at its peak and the millions of stars popping into view behind it. Layer by layer we added clothes, drank the whiskey, edged closer to the fire. It was basically impossible to sleep in the tent, knowing you could be missing an eruption of lava or another shooting star. If only the tent were see-through! That, combined with the cold and my insistent racing heart (that I was sure was keeping my fellow campers either side of me awake) not a lot of sleep was had.
Waking again for sunrise and the whole process of awe and amazement started again. The sky was clear. We felt on top of the world. Views as far as the eye could see of Guatemala and its 30 volcanoes. A whole different section of the horizon now visible, the sun on the left side of De Fuego now and highlighting the new craters made by the eruption only 2 weeks before.
After some magically conjured cheese and refried bean tacos we made our descent. The first part of the descent was interesting. My vision seemed to have blurred considerably since the night before. After changing contact lenses twice to no avail I put it down again to altitude. Not wanting to complain too much and ruin this magical morning, I cracked on. And as we made our way down, my vision did indeed come back. Altitude can do some weird things to your body.
Even with my Converse and eyesight letting me down, the descent was considerably easier. After the first few falls I was used to it. Fernando encouraged me to run. RUN down the volcano. And so for some parts we did. We ran down the trail of the volcano. I assumed it was because it would be easier to run rather than slip down cautiously in my All Stars, which, to be fair, it was. But what I managed to establish later was that Fernando had to get back down to start his day job.
Of all my travel experiences, this has to be the most challenging, for both mind and body. I wonder if I’d had time to prepare for the challenge it would have made it easier. Maybe not. Perhaps booking last minute whilst intoxicated was the best thing for me.
The sense of accomplishment when we reached the family at the farm, exchanged the Gandalf sticks for copious amounts of water and coca cola, was unreal. Exhaustion, shock, relief, pride, achievement, happiness, the overwhelming desire for a shower and bed. We couldn’t help but smile and giggle all the way back to town. Covered in dust and mud and sweat and tears we stumbled into the hostel.
I was asked, ‘Where on earth have you been?!’
‘Top of the world mate!’ I replied. The ache of my muscles and the soreness of the grazes and bruises was nothing compared to my pride and sense of achievement. There was only one thing for it. Time to celebrate.