Hiking the Volcano

„…Her spirit did yearn for adventure/ And so she struck out and she followed that nice path/ That took her all the way to Guatemala.“ (Anonymous, Ballad)

Volcano Agua from Acatenango

One reason for travelling to Guatemala was because of its beautiful landscapes, returning to nature and to hike a volcano. Seeking adventures and challenging myself, I therefore decided to go to Antigua, the former capital of the Spanish colony Guatemala until its destruction by an earthquake in 1773. Situated in the highlands of Sierra Madre de Chiapas or Sierra de las Nubes, as it is called in Guatemala, Antigua is the perfect destination as most of the volcanoes of Guatemala are within that range and in proximity to the cosy town.

Being part of the American Cordillera, a chain of mountain ranges from North to South America, the major mountain range of Central America builds the bridge from the Rocky Mountains to the Andes. Parallel to the Pacific coast line, the Central American Volcanic Arc with a length of nearly 1,500 kilometres forms the eastern part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, home to hundreds of volcanoes.

Volcano Agua on the left, erupting Fuego on the right
Photo by Koen Buelens

Guatemala has the highest density of active volcanoes in the world, in total it has 37 volcanoes of which four are active: Fuego (3763m), Pacaya (2552 m), Santiaguito (3772 m, as a new dome of volcano Santa Maria) and Acatenango (3976 m).

Volcán Acatenango

Volcán de Acatenango, a name with Náhuatl origin which means “land of reef”, is joined with Volcán de Fuego. Together they make up the complex known as “La Horqueta”. While Fuego is constantly active at a low level, with gas, lava and ash eruptions occuring every 15 to 20 minutes, Acatenango’s last eruption was in 1972. Acatenango has two peaks to hike, the highest being Pico Mayor at 3976 metres and Yepocapa with 3880 metres.

Enough with facts! Although, trying to grasp this massive connection, spanning the vast Pacific from one side to the other, leading from Alaska down to the tip of the South American continent, makes it even more impressive. Being on the summit at 3976 metres was something I desperately wanted to do, and I forced myself to reach that goal.

Has anyone ever said hiking is meditative?

The start was steep, sandy and slippery from the very first moment. You begin to question yourself how long it will stay like that. Much later, when we had actually returned from the hike, having dinner together, a fellow hiking companion, Susanna, told us that the first 30 minutes had been the hardest for her. She had to take a pill against the altitude and had given me one later as well.

Steep, sandy and slippery
Photo by Koen Buelens

On the way up we passed cornfields and other farms, even at a height of around 2500 metres, surrounded with barbed wire to keep us from crossing them as a shortcut. Along the way we saw local men and women coming down or going up, carrying heavy packages either on their backs or on their heads. It was an interesting juxtaposition as some of the group were complaining about the 7 kilogram backpacks, that some decided to pay a guide to carry it for them. No judgment at all, the goal is getting up there. Though it highlights the difference on what people are used to and able to do, every day and for an entire life.

The loose earth underneath our feet threw us back two steps for each one that we took. The sun was burning brutal but you are so concentrated on every step that you don’t really realise the changing vegetation by degrees. Again, like in Chiapas I was surprised by the familiar vegetation, pine-trees everywhere. The hilly landscape and the pines reminded me of Southern France, only the volcano domes in the distance disrupted that picture. Suddenly we reached the cool deep forest, a delight as it was easier to breathe in the more humid climate.

In the fresh forest
Photo by Koen Buelens

Know yourself

The everchanging terrain led us on a path of burnt rocks where we finally reached our camp for the night. The tiring work of climbing up the volcano, over the loose basalt rocks, was strenuous due to the altitude that had struck me harshly. Breathing in deeply, an air that blew intensely yet was deprived of the oxygen I so desperately felt I needed to fight this invisble enemy. I was surprised by this rough impact on my body. I tried to focus on controlling my heavily beating heart, however as deep as each of my breaths were, a sense of powerlessness grew with each step. Only my iron will forced me to keep on going, although I had to accept that after only every third to fifth step that I took I had to pause to catch my breath. I know my body, and the goal was to reach the summit, and so I never felt pressure to go beyond my own ability. And being part of a group that formed so organically was endearing. We are living like we’re hiking: in our own time. Feeling new strength with every breath pouring into me, it was disappointing that it never lasted for more than those pitiful few steps, though.

Up the summit

After enduring an almost five hour journey we reached the camp at around 3600 metres, with a welcomed rest before summiting for sunset. A thought crossed my mind whether I should or even could make the final hour long climb and in the end my wish to reach the peak proved too strong. I grabbed my stick and joined my other daring companions, who yearned for experiencing the achievement waiting above and being rewarded with natural spendour.

While slowly trekking up, struggling greatly with my breath which blocked me and kept me from my usual stride, I was thinking about the first climbers who discovered an unexplored area, not knowing about what to expect and the consequences of altitude. About the men who climbed mountains without oxygen bottles. Carrying food, clothing, camp-beds, water and other necessary gear. I thought about my companions who carried their big and heavy cameras to take the best pictures. I was regretting and enjoying the fact that I didn‘t have mine at the same time. Although the weight of my bag didn’t affect me, maybe because I am already used to carrying my backpack and I didn’t feel any pain in my legs nor in the rest of my body, but a sense of powerlessness, impotence and faint.

Shortly after embarking, I fell behind the group and remained in the company of Marv, the Guatemalan guide. Without any words he followed me in silence, stopped when I had to stop, started walking again as soon as my feet went further. My heart was beating even heavier than before. Then, seeing the endless sharp, rocky and sandy ground I felt “that’s it, I can’t take any more steps“. Suddenly, I realised that someone was coming up behind me: Rachael, my partner in crime from earlier in the hike. When I saw her, I felt motivation reinvigorating my, not tired, but breathless body. Together and with Marv we struggled up that mountain slowly yet steadily.

Together the strongest

Sitting only 100 metres away from the summit, Rachael and I started laughing wildly and soulfully. Desperate but determined, we were sitting in the dust looking across the valley and making light of our situation. We both wanted to succeed, not only to prove to ourselves we could do it, but to be on top of that damn Acatenango. Acatenango! “That is the hardest thing I’ve ever done“, Rachael said to me. I agreed, only pausing to mention “Except for my ex boyfriend“. We both laughed even harder, liberating our lungs that could barely breathe.

Again, we hiked up further, reaching around 20 metres from the summit. After the sand, rocks to climb. Not high, but after 6 hours of climbing I struggled to raise my legs. Rachael, reaching out of despair, burst forward, in a sprint before falling down under the weight of her bag. While at first I was doubtful, to see my new friend struggling pushed me to continue. Screaming to myself, willing myself with an er of frustration, not joy, by thinking of the struggles that had happened in my life and the difficulties I had managed and overcome. All only to stop, step after step. Finally encouraged by Marv who had now found his voice, I fought my way up to her. I forced myself to her. I overcame.

We made it!
Photo by Bettina Momm

With the final metres to go, so close to our goal, I saw the sun shining on Susanna, its rays lighting the little group that had already reached the top, like a beacon of accomplisment. So close yet so far. Together again, Rachael and I climbed the last few metres next to each other and finally, just as dusk descended reached the highest point: 3976 metres. Acatenango, we mastered you.

That view is worth all the struggle
Photo by Jessica

With the view to the erupting Fuego, freezing cold in the strong wind that took almost all our attention, we all enjoyed this magical moment of the last reflections of the sun that gradually sunk beneath the thick clouds. The thunder of our Earths breath, sprayed lava out of the depths and high into the twilight sky, painting the starry night with a fierce and impressive energy that roared, rumbled and shook our bones. And finally I could breathe again, relieved and liberated from every struggle which now felt so distant.

To Rachael and Marv

Cheers, Nicole


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