Acatenango. One of the highest and hardest hikes in Central America. 13,000+ feet above sea level, it sits the second tallest volcano in all of Guatemala. Gringos have gotten lost, robbed, and died there. Definitely not somewhere to go without the proper equipment and probably not the smartest idea to hike it out of shape, unaccustomed to hiking long distances and carrying camping equipment. And most definitely not for the weak of heart.
Something that I thought I was. But I did it. I DID IT.
I had been up and down for two weeks considering if I would go or not because of what I’d read. The chances of getting altitude sickness, especially with my usually weak immune system, and the sound of 6+ hours of hiking at 40+ degree angle slopes was discouraging, but after seeing pictures of the summit during sunset and sunrise, I thought I would regret it forever if I didn’t give it a try. I wondered how on earth it would be possible without having winter clothes nor a backpacking backpack, but the guys that Emilee work with are the ones who organized it and they offered a grand deal of $40 to take us (instead of the usual $85), while saying that all we needed to worry about carrying were our clothes. They would provide lunch dinner and breakfast, water, and sleeping bags and carry them for us. It sounded like a deal that couldn’t be beat. All I would have to fit in my school-size backpack were winter clothes that I found in the flea market for $15.
It started off as a normal Guatemalan trip (And yes, this is Saturday we are talking about. I skipped writing about the rest of the week this post because it was rather routine and I didn’t do much new.), in the back of an old pick up truck with some bars to hold on to, packed full of too many people. The adventures that I grow to love more each day in Guatemala.
When we arrived in Dueñas, at the project where Emilee works, we met up with the 5 guatemalans who would be coming with us on the hike. Strike 1. They weren’t taking care of the sleeping bags, our lunch, or some of the water. So with a backpack STUFFED full of winter clothes and extra snacks (a short sleeve shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a sweatshirt, a winter jacket, a scarf, a hat, gloves, 2 extra pairs of socks, leggings, jeans, yoga pants, 2 bottles of water, 2 bottles of gatorade, 2 peanut butter sandwiches, 2 granola bars, 2 apples, a few first aid items, and a professional camera), I wondered how on earth I was going to add a sleeping bag, a lunch of 2 sandwiches, 2 apples, and an orange, and a 2 liter bottle of water. But somehow, with some string, we made it happen.
There were 11 of us, 6 gringos and 5 guatemaltecos packed into one pick-up truck, along with all our backpacks and followed by a truck with two police officers to accompany our journey. Yes, two police officers. It is rather unadvised to hike Acatenango without police accompaniment because people are more likely to rob you if you don’t have a police escort. (I have also heard rumors that sometimes it doesn’t matter. If the robbers have guns, they will simply kill the police officers first and then rob you.) After part of the journey, the 2 police had to leave their truck and jump in ours.
And then our truck broke down. Welcome to Guatemala, take 2. Fortunately, we were all in good spirits and had a good laugh about it as we waited on another ride to come take us the rest of the way. It was close to 9 am at this point and I wondered if it takes an hour to get to the trail, how on earth we would get to the top in time to see the sunset. I heard it is a 5-6 hour hike if you go fast and 8 if you go slow and I knew for sure we would be slow because the 3 girls (including me) that were in the group were not in shape for such a feat. But worrying about getting to the top in time for sunset became the least of my worries as the day went on.
Shortly after, a long came our horse and carriage (er.. I mean truck that looked like a cow-hauling truck. Hey, at least that meant more space!) and off we went again. We passed somewhat of a semi-truck along the way and everyone wondered how we would pass each other on the narrow unpaved road, but with my experience in Semuc Champey, I knew these guatemaltecos would make it happen. And it backed it’s way up the mountain a bit and we squeezed on past to continue our journey. Upon arrival, an old local told us that a trail was closed.
I was wondering if we’d be continuing on, but apparently there is more than one trail in the beginning of the hike. So we took a different one and off we went.
We started out on a narrow path that didn’t seem like much of a path at all. It looked like one of those skinny, little, mostly-overgrown paths that you see off a main trail in the States where you wonder where it leads but think you’ll get lost or be committing a crime if you take it.
Next, a barbed wire fence. We have to cross a barbed wire fence? Okay…
So they held the fence for us and we climbed on through, a few of our backpacks getting snagged along the way. We finally reached a wider path, but still.. not really a path. just an area of tall grass in between the trees. It still didn’t really look like a path. It was like being in a Lord of the Rings adventure. Some elves who knew what they were doing, some dwarfs who hadn’t done it before but were strong of mind and body, and some little hobbits (us 6 gringos) who had no idea what they were getting themselves into, but came to find were strong of heart.
I had been reading that the first part of the hike is the worst part because your mind isn’t prepared and you wonder what in the world you’ve gotten yourself into, but as we reached the first look out point (the mirador), we wondered what on earth those blogs were talking about. We’d only hiked 2 hours and although it didn’t feel like much of a trail, it hadn’t been too terrible. We made it guys!
No. I was wrong. we had only just begun. I would have been content staying at the mirador. It was a beautiful view and it was dry and there was tons of fluffy grass to lay on. We took a nice break there, munched on a few snacks, and listened to Noah (one of the gringos) play his harmonica. A great vibe to a camping trip. Add a campfire and marshmallows and we’d be good to go.
Oh, my bad. We’re not done yet. This was just the beginning. After the mirador, we entered Mordor. Hell. Whatever you want to call it. The blogs were wrong. The first part was the easiest. After the mirador, then settled in the “What have I got myself into?” thoughts. Fortunately, we had a very high spirited group that made a good laugh out about how ridiculous we are to have made a decision to come on this trip and how hard it was. The hike was mostly 40+ degree angles all the way up and I was so glad I had brought my extra food because I was eating like a machine. We also fortunately took plenty of breaks.
I thought for sure we would not make the sunset because it was around noon when we reached the mirador and since we were taking so many breaks, I thought we were definitely going too slow.
But after mentioning it, one of the Guatemalans said we were making great time. We were going at a fast rate? High five yourself. This was an encouraging thought. The longest hike I’ve ever done, I believe, is Buck Mountain, about 3.5 hours up, with only one steep part. But here I was on one of the most difficult climbs in Central America and I was making a good pace. We usually walked in groups. Some people farther ahead and some behind and in the beginning I was behind, but further on in the day, I was one of the 3 people in the front.
The song of the day for the slow pokes became “Tortugita llega tarde otra vez” (Turtle arriving slow again) to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” which always spread a smile across all of our faces, despite the crazyness of the hike. And crazy it was. It only grew colder and colder. I was hot in a tank top and yoga capris, but every time we stopped for a break, I would need my sweatshirt after a few minutes. Hot, cold. Hot, cold. I thought for sure this was a recipe for a cold.
But along we trudged. And trudged. Hike a little. Slide a little. Take a little break. The backpack certainly didn’t help. Me and Emily ran off behind everyone on the trail to use the restroom during one of the breaks and it was a piece of cake climbing back up sin backpack, after having climbed it all day with one.
It did finally get easier as the day went along. Our legs were so sore and tired that we couldn’t feel the pain anymore. And I was ready to get out of the clouds. The further we climbed, the thicker the fog. We were climbing in the clouds. It drizzled at some points and we freaked out wondering if we’d get stuck in the rain. But just as my heart was completely in it and excited to continue on, one of them said “we missed our camp. Let’s turn back.” Camp? already? No way we’re done yet.
So the deal is with Acatenango.. You hike to camp. Set up camp. Climb another hour and a half (You can’t camp at the top most likely due to the windchill) to the summit to watch the sunset if you hiked fast enough to get there in time. But we were already at camp and it was 3:30 pm! And we were still surrounded by fog, mist, and clouds. And were quickly informed that sunset would not be happening. The clouds were too thick and we would waste our energy because we wouldn’t be able to see anything.
No sunset? That was discouraging. We were cold and tired and it was beginning to drizzle enough to where we needed to cover our backpacks and sleeping bags and we weren’t even going to get to see the sunset. One of the main things I came for. Oh well, we were tired of hiking anyways and there was still sunrise to wake up for in the morning. But 5.5 hours. We made it to camp in 5.5 hours. We hiked it fast! And we’re not a group of hikers. And I didn’t get altitude sickness!
I would have been rejoicing inside, but standing around was freezing. All we could think about is get the camp up so we can get out of the cold rain and get the fire going. I was thankful I brought my poncho to cover my stuff.
This was my first experience camping, and ironically, it was extreme camping. They made a camp from a tarp and string. Originally I think they were making one for the girls and one for the boys, but because everything was wet, it became a roof and a floor instead so we’d cover the wet ground. It took forever to get it up and we couldn’t wait to change into our dry clothes. The problem was, I was so cold, I couldn’t tell what was wet and what wasn’t, aside from my sweatshirt. So I simply took off my sweatshirt, the one thing I knew was wet, and put on the rest of my clothes overtop of everything else. Unfortunately, I came to find that my shoes or something must have been wet because it soaked through my 3 layers of socks to my poor little feet. “4 pm and I’m already wearing all the clothes I brought?” I thought. But I wasn’t fully discouraged because a fire was coming and one of the strings for our tent allowed me to hang up my sweatshirt to dry.
The fire took way too long, due to the wet trees around us. I thought at one point that it was never going to happen and maybe we should just turn back and try again another day (the thought of having to do that hike again was killer, but what is the point if there’s no view to see?) when there was less clouds, because there was no end in sight to the dense white sky. But I tried to not complain or suggest such a disaster. So I waited in desperation for the fire and it took so long. Probably a good hour, I would say. But we were more than happy when it finally began to burn. We all surrounded it and warmed ourselves up while dinner cooked away. Beans, bread, shishkabobs, and tortillas never tasted so good. The fire and food put us all back in good spirits, but stepping away from the fire would quickly make you frozen again. Warm hands, cold backs.
Then came the disaster. I went back to grab my camera to snap some shots of the fire and realized my backpack was wet. The tarp was wet. The sleeping bag was wet. EVERYTHING was wet. And I had covered mine when it was drizzling, no one else had. And I had dried my sweatshirt by the fire to near dry-ness. And it was soaking wet. HOW CAN IT ALL BE WET? I came back to alert the others who didn’t believe me and told me it’s probably just damp from the mist. But, nope. I was right. When we headed in around 8 pm to set up the camp for the night, they realized I wasn’t crazy. It was wet. So we all spent some time holding our sleeping bags around the fire to dry them up. It never quite reached perfection, but with the exhaustion of the hike, a slightly damp sleeping bag scrunched up with other people sounded like a nice chance to rest.
Wrong again. I set up my bag next to Emilee under the tarp and we started to line up like sardines (the Guatemalans let us 6 gringos have the “tent” while they were going to sleep in the drizzling rain. We never would have all fit.) when I soon came to the realization that sleep was not happening this night. We were on the slightest of slopes and between a slippery sleeping bag and a slippery tarp, I was sliding down into the dirt every time I moved. And I was cold. And wet. And a wet backpack stuffed with water bottles and a camera doesn’t exactly make a comfortable pillow.
So I faced the facts. Suffer in the cold and toss and turn and wrestle the sliding sleeping bag all night or sit warmer by the fire? I knew we needed sleep after a day like that and before the hike the next day, but I also knew I didn’t need to die of hypothermia. So I got up and saw all the guatemalans trying to sleep by the fire and I thought a little drizzle but a warm fire would be the best option. I looked for a spot to bring my sleeping bag, but felt guilty putting it on the mud, when Galleta and Walter saw me shivering and told me to come lay down between them. Can’t complain about snuggling two cuties when you’re this cold. They told me to bring my sleeping bag because they had been laying on the bare ground with a cover and said don’t worry about it getting dirty. So my sleeping back became our mat and the cover stayed our cover and we sat there all trying to sleep.
But again, it was not comfortable. A log doesn’t make a good pillow and despite the fire, it was still cold. Emilee ended up joining us, but after a while of all of us tossing and turning and laying close trying to stay warm, she got up to try again elsewhere. Walter got up too and so I was left with Galleta.
And thank God for Galleta. Most everyone ended up snuggling that whole night, aside from the guys who remained under the tent (the three gringo guys) and the police officers who stayed under their tent. The rest of us found places around the fire and tried to make the best of it. And I’m certain I had the best snuggle buddy.
I wish I had pictures of our suffering, but I’m afraid after taking pics of the campfire at dinner that night, it never occurred to me to take another picture. I even had my camera at one point because I returned much later and found my backpack soaking through to the inside so I removed it to save it and keep it with me, but I was so cold and tired, the only thought that crossed my mind was survive and get home to my warm bed.
I’m most certain no one slept that night (if they did, it was for just a little while), but I am certain Galleta and I made the best of it. We both decided it was impossible to get comfortable and we laughed about it the whole night. We had no good place to sleep. First we started with our heads on a log that was too high up and it strained our necks. We then stuffed my comforter (the sleeping bags we had were childrens sleeping bags so a comforter was also packed for me) to try to make a pillow, but it was still too cold and it was still drizzling rain from the trees. We’d sit up and warm up by the fire, then lay back down again.
If we covered ourselves with the blanket, it was hard to breath. If we uncovered it, we got drizzled on like the chinese water treatment. It became a night of “Uy” “AHH!” “MIERDA!” “EEEEEEEEEEEEE” every time the raindrops fell in our eyes or ears. We began talking to the tree and telling it it was stupid and that the raindrops were melting us and the raindrops were rude. We joked about the cold and the rain and not sleeping all night and laughed through the misery. I suppose it’s possible that we were just on the verge of crazy from the cold and wetness. The ground soaked through our comforter and the rain drops dampened our blanket over top. I was soaked through to my clothes, but didn’t even realize it ’til I sat up and looked at our comforter at one point to get closer to the fire. My feet were numb by around 3 am and I had to warm them somehow. I stripped off my shoes and put them by the fire to warm up.
I stripped off my 3 layers of socks and laid them gracefully near the fire to dry off. And I stuck my feet as close as I possibly could to warm them up. They were warm by the fire but would quickly get too hot, but if I took them away, they’d be cold again. So it was a game of trying to get warm. Trying to dry my hat, figuring out that my hair was soaking wet. Trying to dry my gloves. Everything.
Soon after, I discovered that I burned two pairs of socks somehow and scalded a chunk of my shoes. Again, things I’d love to show you a picture of, but it never crossed my mind. So I was down to one pair of socks and some shoes, but it was fortunately almost time to hike again. Galleta and I wore ourselves out talking all night and I was thinking how much I’d rather sleep than hike to see the sunrise in wet clothes, a sunrise that I was pretty sure wasn’t going to happen.
But I collected myself once again and we began the trudge up the next part of the mountain, in the cold foggy darkness. 9 out of the 13 people on the trip even attempted to go. My stomach was killing me. From hiking all day, eating a lot, shivering all night, and wearing 4 pairs of tight pants, I was bloated to the point of bursting. I had no idea what I was doing. Every step was suffering. And it only got colder and windier.
About an hour in to what would be a 2 hour hike, Sari, one of the girls, could no longer breath well and we told her she needed to stop before getting altitude sickness. I quickly volunteered to take her back because even though the only thing that convinced me to come on the hike was to see the sunset and sunrise, I was pretty discouraged that we wouldn’t be seeing a sunrise either, whether we hiked to the top or not. And my stomach was killer. All I could think was get back and rest or I would get sick too. Julio was on the point of throwing up and after I leaned on Galleta for a minute out of exhaustion, he was discouraged to continue as well.
So the 4 of us turned back, just an hour from the summit, but thank God that I did. Emilee, Noah, Danny, Walter, and the two swiss guys continued on, but one of the swiss guys ended up catching up to us after changing his mind a bit later.
And how glad I was that I turned back to camp. I looked for a dry place to crash and found a semi dry (but still cold) blanket under the tarp away from the fire. I laid down trying to relieve my stomach pain and tried to pull my coat above my head and my sleeves over my hands (Thank God I had purchased a mens large jacket) trying to warm myself (My gloves were soaked at this point so they were hanging to (never) dry and my hat kept falling off so it never fit well, but I only shivered and tossed and turned. So a while later, I was up again and turning miserable. My stomach only hurt worse and my head spiraled with worry. I could not stop shivering. I hugged on Galleta and Oliver, but I could not get warm. Everything I had was wet. I could not relieve my stomach ache and my head and eyes were burning with lack of sleep. When people looked at me, I looked back at them like a zombie.
I wondered how I was ever going to make it down the volcano. Let alone, wait for the summit-hikers to come back and then wait on breakfast to be cooked on the slow fire, and then still have the energy to make it down. It’d be a good three hours before we could head down. The police headed down when I came back to camp and I wondered why they got to leave so early. I guess we assumed we wouldn’t be running into any robbers due to the weather. I thought I’d be the one sending for an emergency helicopter, made a joke of it, and heard that helicopters can’t find us there. I had no idea how I’d be getting back, but I thought for sure it would be some sort of emergency vehicle or I’d be left to die.
Finally, I finally had relief when I found that Julio somehow had a sliver of dryness near the fire and I could lay there with my head on Galleta’s lap. As I dozed off to a half-sleep, my head kept falling off his lap and my arm towards the fire ’til he turned his body so my head would stay put against his stomach and grabbed my hand so I wouldn’t burn it off in my sleep. And it was the comfiest lap I’ve ever laid on. I finally dozed for a little while. Maybe a half-sleep, but enough to pass the time quickly waiting on the summit-hikers. I was awoken asking if I wanted bread because the fire was too small to make breakfast by the time they returned to camp and no one had the energy or time to wait to make wet wood burn again.
I heard the sunrise hikers telling of their adventure. Emilee didn’t make it much further than I did and couldn’t go on because of the cold wind. So she had to sit by herself for an hour waiting on the 4 guys to go see the top and come back. She thought she was going to die as well because she was shivering to death and couldn’t feel her fingers and was left alone in the fog. I finally woke up for good when they said we had to get going, although I could have probably slept there forever. I grudgingly dragged myself up and still felt not so great, but better enough to trudge on. A little drier, a little less pain in the stomach, and a little less crazy in the head.
With a few lies of encouragement that it only takes an hour and a half to get down (I’d say more like 2.5 hours), we cleaned up the camp, strapped up our soaking wet sleeping bags, and headed out. I ended up walking all the way back with Galleta, partly because one group went ahead of us and we stayed to help clean up the rest of the camp unknowing that the last 2 guys would be running back down the volcano, and partly because apparently snuggling over night trying to survive hell can make you click rather well with a person. I spent most of the rest of my trip near him and felt like we’d been buddies for a while haha. I was so thankful for him that awful awful night.
It was true that it didn’t take too long to descend. We slowly peeled off layers as we warmed up and after about an hour or so of hiking, we were already at the good ol’ mirador, bathing in the much needed sun. How thankful I was to see the sun again. And dry off. And lay down. We took quite a long break there because it’s a good place to rest and we’d have to wait ’til 11:30 for our truck to come and we had only roughly an hour more to go. And oh what a break it was. I don’t think I’ve ever been so thankful to rest and take in the sun.
We planned to take a picture of how dead we were when we got to the bottom, but I think we were actually more dead that morning when we left the camp. All the girls hair was crazy from being wet and sweaty as we slept on it and wore hats and we all looked like zombies. Cold, wet, unhappy zombies. But the sun on the way down cheered us up and the exhaustion made us not even want to pose for another photo.
We reached the bottom at around 11:30. Or I should say most of us reached the bottom. We went off in groups as usual and Noah and Danny (one of the Guatemalans who we thought knew his way) were the last two to come. The first group waited on us gringa girls because they knew we didn’t know the way, but when we arrived to one of the turns in the trail where they sat, we all went the rest of the way assuming Danny knew his way back. But as the truck pulled up at noon and they still weren’t there, we wondered what happened because they weren’t too far behind. And everyone that had Noah’s phone number’s phone was dead.
Fortunately with the SIM cards in Guatemala, the numbers are saved to the SIM card so we were able to put the card in another phone and call him. And what happened? They had gotten lost and returned by accident to the mirador once again. So they would be another hour.
Another hour? We all died. We were so close to freedom and getting home to our warm beds and there we had to wait another hour.
When the two finally arrived, they were warmly welcomed with a “Que PUTAS, cerrotes?!” which I won’t translate for the conservative of minds. And also, of course, the traditional song of the trip “Tortugitas llegan tarde otra vez!” and we finally, FINALLY, were able to head home after our near-death experience of climbing Acatedon’tgo.
I nearly fell asleep in the truck on the way back leaning against the backpacks. On a bumpy windy unpaved road. Sleeping in the back of a moving pick up truck. I’m pretty sure, if nothing else on this trip has, that makes me a true Guatemalan.
Coming back was like heaven. I don’t think I’ve ever been so thankful for anything in my life. Coming back, Emilee and I were so thankful for our beds. For being alive. For not being sick. For having a store across the street to buy snacks. For sleep. For everything.
And when we awoke this morning, 14+ hours later (I haven’t slept longer than 7 hours straight without a break to go to the bathroom in 6+ years, nor have I EVER in my life slept more than 13 hours in one night), we were so thankful for breakfast and a hot shower and being alive again. And very VERY thankful that we’ve never been homeless.
So it was decided that if you ever need a reason to be thankful for anything, ever need a challenge of mind, ever need to break yourself of insomnia, or ever want to test your faith in God (Yeah, I was chatting it up with Him quite a bit up there), Acatenango is the way to go. Otherwise, it’s Acatenogo.
Even though I’ll go again.
One day. Not anytime soon. Not on this trip. Only when I know the weather will be okay and maybe when I have more proper hiking gear. And hopefully with the same loving group that became instant friends through roughing it juntos. I may have to start going to Emilee’s project just to see them some more before I leave Guatemala. <3 I'm sore as hell. I want a massage. I don't ever want to think about hiking again. But I'm the happiest person ever for accomplishing such a feat and will forever look back on it in good memories and laughter. [caption id="attachment_1103" align="alignnone" width="580"] a group of kids i will likely never forget (missing sari, oliver, and walter!)[/caption]