Up, up, up and up some more.
Antigua Guatemala and Lake Atitlan are the mountainous capitals of Guatemala. We'd been eyeing up a challenging hike since we hit this continent and boy did we strike gold.
Acatanango was not our first pick, in fact we'd been looking further afield, but it had been recommended to us and our hostel offered to arrange it, so we locked in the overnight hike at the modest price of $35NZD per head.
Acatanango is a giant. It's Ngaruhoe shaped cone tops out at 3980m (taller than Mt Cook!), making it the tallest in the country and one of the tallest in Central America. This region lies on an active fault and is dotted with similar peaks, many still alarmingly active. Lake Atitlan is also a caldera, surrounded by peaks and the geograhical resemblance to the Central Plateau is uncanny.
Our two day expedition began with some nervous wees and a shuttle pick up. A shuttle pick up always includes a free tour of the town, as one must navigate as many narrow cobbled streets as are required to visit all the hostels, plus some. This tour continued, picking up food and gear and of course tour guides. The tour company obviously not bothering to do all this before they picked us up. Hot tip: Learn to love a shuttle ride.
Hopefully you're not thinking lesser of us for getting tour guides. Trust me, if they say you need one you most probably do unless you want to get lost, robbed, stabbed or worse.
The start for this hike was at a local's house on the side of a narrow, two-lane mountain road with no parking or footpath. So we parked on the road, unloaded all our gear into the gutter and repacked our bags with the overnight camping gear and food with which we had been provided - all the while dodging trucks, buses and men on horses. Luckily we were able to fit it in the three tramping packs and two day packs we had; the rental packs comprised canvas on a welded steel tube frame. "In my day..." right dad??
After some serious faffing and a $10 NZD park entrance fee we were ready to go. Starting elevation: 2500m (over half way already!). We crossed the road and were instantly funnelled into a steep river of loose volcanic rock. It went straight up. It literally pointed at the summit. As far as you could see. In the midday heat, a rising dust cloud and a pack laden two-forward-one-back step routine, it was undoubtedly one of the most brutal ascents I've done.
And it didn't relent. Up, up, up, rest, repeat. We climbed out of farming pasture (yes, they farm this slope?!), into rainforest and deeper into the clouds. The view disappeared, the temperature dropped and quads and calves burnt like the Great Fire of London. Our group was in surprisingly good shape. The lead pace was slow, and the stragglers were slower still, but we only had one turn back and zero audible tantrums.
As the afternoon dragged on the trail flattened and forest thinned. We tip toed along the top of the clouds, fatigued yet grateful for the break in ascent. By now the thinning air was adding noticeably to the difficulty. Late in the afternoon I heard a few 'bang-rumbles'. I feared the worst; thunder meant rain. It struck frequently and grew in intensity as we continued. I verbalised my fears and much to my surprise, was informed as to what we were hearing. It was the nearby Mt Fuego, erupting from beyond the clouds!
By 5pm we were scaling the final stretch to our campsite. This confused me. The whole day I had not seen a single plot of flat land. Certainly nothing flat enough to pitch a tent, let alone ten tents! And we were currently on all fours climbing in tussock laden scree. Where the hell were we going to sleep?! My confusion was resolved moments later when we scrambled past a homemade timber retaining wall. Genious. There were several of them; a few meters high, constructed of stripped trees from the surrounding forest and cutting into the steep volcanic rock face. Each retained just enough rock to pitch a row of tents on the 'flat'. Hazardous terrain encompassed each site, making even just going for a wee quite a risky exercise.
It was an unceremonius end to the day. We had not yet conquered the beast and the thought of a cold nights sleep on rock wasn't exactly what we desired, although putting down the pack for the last time felt damn good! Our mood was swiftly replaced with excitement by another huge bang from Fuego. Heads swivelled to watch the giant blast another ash cloud into the atmosphere. It wouldn't be the last. As the night fell the blasts became more and more regular, and the lava brighter and brighter, rocketing out of the crater and tumbling down the cone. Explosions of molten orange in all directions. By now the high clouds had evapourated, thousands of stars had come to shine and our fantastic guides had made us a fire. We'd also snuck up a couple of beersies each (cheers Mike!) which had finished chilling in the crisp mountain air.
That evening was worth every step of the climb. We sat around the fire drinking beer, eating ramen noodles and toasting marshmellows, with the mountain of fire providing endless spectacle under the starry night. Truely incredible.
During our earlier excitement, our guides had snuck off and felled a tree each for firewood. They'd made good use of the scree and dragged the 5m long trunks back to site. Their evening's entertainment was letting the more foolhardy of us chop them up with a machete. Hard work for the days end, but it generated heat we much desired, especially Cat who had brought up and worn every item of clothing she had plus some of mine!
To say we awoke the next morning would be misleading, as most of us never slept. The freezing cold, continuous blasting and a rocky bed countered our fatigue and prevented any decent rest. 4am slowly drifted around and we were roused back into the icy wind for the summit climb. It was cold. Really cold. And pitch black, thanks to the rogue head torch straight to face, abolishing any form of night vision that might have developed under the half moon.
The ascent started slowly, as we slipped and scrambled and bumped into each other. With no cloud cover yet, the sparkle of distant towns was our only reference point, and progress was faster than it seemed - especially with no packs. It only took an hour and a half before we were making the final ascent to the summit, with the sky glowing orange, blue and black under the rising sun. In an unworldy coincidence, with the sky still half black, we popped over the summit of Acetenango to witness Fuego in all her might; firing lava high into the sky and down her slopes in a fashion only hollywood could recreate. By this stage, low level cloud had drifted in, soaking the lowlands in a fluffy white blanket. The only land visible was the peaks of numerous mountains, poking up from the mystery below. Peak elevation: 3980m.
We sheltered from the roaring sub zero winds in the lee of some rocks, tucked into some banana bread and muesli bars whilst watching the sun rise over Mt Agua, a nearby peak, and Fuego continuing to announce its presence. It was a morning I will never forget.
Moments before frostbite cut through my cotton socks (yes, yes, no cotton on the mountain - sorry mum and dad!) we were hustled to the start of the descent. The triple head count that ensued was by far the biggest indicator of the guides' care for our wellbeing I had witnessed all trip. That quickly went out the window as we burst into a free-for-all descent. Shoes buried deep into the soft scree as we ran, jumped, skidded, slid and skied down the mountain, narrowly missing rocks and on occasion, each other. The hour and a half ascent obliterated by a fifteen minute run-tumble back to base camp.
By the time we got back, we'd all warmed up, the sun had turned on the heat and the wind eased. We drank hot chocolate on heaven's porch, soaking up the sun, the view and the morning that was.
A lot more faff followed as we packed up camp and readied for the descent. The packs were much lighter without the water, beers and food yet the legs were suffering from the previous day and descending was no less brutal. We had one fast guide (running fast) and one slow. The fast guide set a pace almost impossible to match; ascending the steep, slippery narrow and winding track like we had the summit earlier that morning. Very impressive. Meanwhile in the middle of the field, the quads had packed in and a combination of fatigue and lack of coordination saw Cat rack up quite the number of spills. Perfectly acceptable under the circumstances, I might add. In fact, by the time we reached the bottom, at around midday, I was thoroughly impressed at the state the team was in. Well, except for the fact we looked and smelt like we'd been dragged through a chimney.
We were spent and ravenous. We loaded up the van and prepared to depart. The thought of jacuzzi and pizza were making my mouth water. However, it was not to be. Our van crapped out (for lack of a less vulgar phrase) leaving us tired, hungry and stranded on the side of the road for nearly two hours. Aid came in the form of cold beer and it would have taken a lot more than a broken bus to bring me down from that high (no pun intended). A huge thanks to nature for nailing the weather and the tectonic activity and to our legendary guides/Guataninjas for putting up with useless gringos and learning english for us!!!!
By the time we made it back to Antigua in our rapidly repaired bus, we were hangry, busting for the loo and in need of a shower. After much debacle, our needs were met (in that order) so we put our tired, wrinkly feet up in newly appreciated comfort and relived the day that was.Read more
Volcán de Acatenango, GuatemalaFebruary 17
Up, up, up and up some more.