Getting High in Guatemala

My plan to climb Central America’s tallest peak, Mt Tajamulco near Xela, Guatemala, were quickly dashed when I read that the mountain was closed due to bandits and unsafe trails. Even local guides were not risking taking people up to Tajamulco’s peak. I quickly changed my Guatemalan itinerary and settled on Antigua, a beautiful town just an hour outside of Guatemala City.

My first exploration of Guatemala took me to Lago Atitlan, a crater lake that is bordered by small towns. I paired up with a French couple, and we hired a boatman to take us to several villages. A cool trip, and well worth the 2 ½ hour bus ride there. Panajchel apparently livens up on the weekend, but on a sleepy Monday, I was one of only a handful of tourists there.

Next stop: volcano hiking. This is the stuff I love. Even though I’ve yet to have a decent night’s sleep in a tent, I love walking through different microclimates, watching the sun rise and set from above the cloud line, and building a fire at night with a full blanket of stars and planets above base camp. If it snows, even better; that’s a guarantee for a clear sky the next morning. I mean, where else would you be able to walk through Guatemala's cloud forest in shorts and a tank, then ascend above the cloud line, then watch a breathtaking sunset while freezing in 4 layers!?!?!?

Antigua has four main volcanoes, and I decided to hit the 2 highest: Volcan Acatenango and Fuego. Volcan Acatenango stands at 3,976 meters, and Fuego is an active volcano just 200 meters lower in altitude.

My Guatemalan guide and I set out for Volcan Acatenango on a clear Tuesday morning. For such a short trek, I loved the climate changes. We started off crossing through farmland, then moved up through what the Guatemalans term a cloud forest, which is just a cool, dry, and insect-free forest that, for the majority of the day, is shrouded in clouds. Once you break above the cloud cover, you’re still within alpine forest, but it gives way shortly to scree and barren slopes that leave you sliding back a half step for each step you take forward.

Oh, and all those tall tales you hear about bandits on trails in Guatemala, waiting to attack foreign tourists who intrude? Well, that's why I paid my guide to be my weekend bodyguard. He carried a loaded gun, handcuffs, and a machete - yeah, man, nobody was getting to lil' Mindy! Over the entire two days, we only ran into one other trekker who had been doing some research on the volcanic activity of Fuego, so my guide never had to bust out his machete-whacking skills on anything other than the underbush we hiked through. Check out my machete skills while climbing this tree to get better views, heehee!

We set up base camp at the mouth of Volcan Acatenango, just before the stretch that Guatemalans appropriately name “Purgatory”. Within 20 minutes of setting up the tents and gathering dry firewood, it began to hail. Both the Guatemalan guide and I were equally ecstatic, feeding off each other's giddiness as snow piled outside of our tents. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why we were so happy at the hail that turned into a soft layer of snow; it was ruining our firewood and pelting our tents! After huddling in our tents for about 30 minutes, the hail finally stopped, and I quickly geared up for a quick hike up to the peak to watch the sunset.

An hour-long hike through a trail called "Purgatory" because of its steepness and its toll on your already-exhausted quads led us to the peak. I love moments like this. Everyone should experience a sunrise or a sunset on top of a peak at least once in their lifetimes. It never gets old for me – the altitude, the euphoria when you summit the last pitch to get to the cairns marking the peak, huddling behind a rock so that you block the wind while you wait for the sun to disappear behind the horizon; it’s so worth the frozen fingers and baby wipe showers you suffer through.

Volcan Acatenango is definitely the windiest peak I’ve ever summitted, and there were moments when I was leaning heavily to my right just to counteract the wind blasting from the left. I even got to the point of self-pity when I thought, “Now I know what it would be like to stand at the top of Mt. Washington.” But I know that’s a stupid comparison; the winds here are strong enough to knock off my visor, but nothing compared to the 200 mph winds recorded at Mt. Washington.

From the peak of Acatenango, I could see the Pacific Ocean, ranges of volcanoes dotting Guatemala's landscape, and the daunting Volcan Fuego. Man, what a volcano. The recent hail had cleared the skies for the entire night and next morning. Fuego is an active volcano that erupts every 20 minutes to an hour, depending on its mood. As my guide would say, “BOOM BOOM BANG!”, the only three words of English he spoke in our two days together. Watching a volcano erupt is awesome – first you feel the rumblings, followed by the puff of smoke, rocks, and lava that erupts from the crater, and then a finale several seconds later of the sound of a gun going off. Lovely.

The next day, we bushwhacked our way through some underbrush to meet up with the Fuego trailhead. Hikers can’t approach the peak of Fuego due to its regular activity, but we got as close as possible on the ridge line that basically would guarantee us not getting hit by any falling lava or rocks. Another hour of bliss before we descended from Fuego to the main road.

Climbing Volcan Acatenango and Fuego was the perfect ending to my short Central American stint. Once back in Antigua, I treated myself to a chocolate galleta, café con leche, and pepian, a traditional Guatemalan stew. Oddly, as I write this, I realize that I ate them in that order as well (Word of warning: I consider myself to have a strong stomach, but there were some rumblings the next morning from the pepian!).

Treks always make me think about what to conquer next. So now, the next item on the Bucket List is Patagonia. Just need to find a 2-month break from life and work to dash down to southern Argentina!

Click here to view photos from my trip to El Salvador and Guatemala!
And here to read other stories from my adventures in Central America!

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