Home after a night run with friends last winter, I could hear my Adventure Buddy upstairs dreaming the Canadian cold away watching one of those beach relocation shows. As I rounded the corner to chat, the TV literally stopped me in my tracks with a view of water and volcanoes. “We need to go there!”, I pronounced. A month later we were on our way to Guatemala.
Late Jan 2017 we landed in Guatemala City and made our way immediately to Antigua. Not the island Antigua it is often confused with but the quaint colonial city in Guatemala. We were excited to tour this historic city surrounded by volcanoes before we began our trekking adventures. We picked a great landing point in Antigua before and after our treks; Hotel Los Pasos.
Our climb experience began with Pacayo Volcano. This would be a warm up climb and help us adjust to the altitude on the most active volcano in Guatemala. We got to trek over cooled lava flows, roast marshmallows over lava hot spots, watch the firing of the most active volcano from a ridge along with enjoy a gorgeous sunset and descend in the dark with headlamps. Volcano 1 at 8370 feet done, I highly recommend it as an easy climb most people can do without training.
The very next day we were up early trekking the rugged cobblestone of Antigua to the OX Expedition headquarters. You will find walking the streets much easier in hiking boots than flip flops. Not many people wear open toe shoes in Antigua and the only place heels would work is standing still for a picture. OX has a hostel climbers can stay before and after the climb and it looks like they have quite a bit of fun. We met up with our group, our guide Brien and loaded into the vans and were off to the Trail Head. My Adventure Buddy showed much courage agreeing to this climb given he was having knee surgery literally the morning after we arrive home. He would be trekking 5 steep hours to Base Camp up annoying gravel and scree to arrive at THE most amazing Base Camp we’ve experienced so far. Rather unbeatable I have to say with a 3 volcano view, 2 of them the most active volcanoes in Guatemala. Totally worth the climb!
While Acatenango is not quite the highest mountain in Guatemala it offers much more in terms of volcanic activity, views and experiences in the surrounding area. After 5 hours of climbing to Base Camp, Brien was impressed enough to share with us an additional experience that not everyone is offered. Anyone who wanted to climb down again, up Fuego, down Fuego and back up again to Base Camp could have the pleasure of sitting on the skinny ridge of the 2nd most active volcano in Guatemala and watch the sunset. It looked so close surely they could just install a zipline. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to sit on that sharp ridge and feel the volcano erupt but I wasn’t mentally prepared for this extra climb so – YES! Sometimes things are best when you don’t think too much. Brien shared the consequence of attempting this might mean some wouldn’t be able to do the summit tomorrow. It would be a hard steep climb. We’d started the day with 13 climbers to Base Camp and 7 of us decided to take on this extra challenge. The highest point you are allowed to climb on this very active volcano; Fuego. A volcano that had spewed at least 6 times during this day.
My Adventure Buddy and our fellow campers enjoyed a fire and dinner while they watched us small little ants struggle up the scree to the ridge. While it looks so close, it’s truly far away and they could barely make us out. Once back to camp they high 5’ed us and I crawled right into the tent to guzzle water and sleep. That was hard but worth it and I did my best to push aside tiny doubts about taking on the biggest climb in just a few hours.
We were awoke suddenly by Brien popping his head into the tent. One from our team had altitude illness all night and wouldn’t be doing the climb and a few others decided the extra climb wasn’t necessary after the ridge experience. Brien was obligated to stay at Base Camp which meant we would be doing the summit without a guide. He asked if I still wanted to climb and without hesitation I responded, “Why wouldn’t I?”. I think he was surprised as I immediately began getting ready in the darkness.
Some had saved their energy not doing the extra climb so I knew they would be all piss and vinegar while 3 of us from the challenge crew took up the back. As the climb began on slippery dusty scree I was immediately reminded of the steep unforgiving ascent of hours before, it was already difficult to discard the negative foresight of hours more and I immediately started counting steps. Unfortunately within 10 minutes, 2 with me from the challenge team just didn’t want to take another annoying step and turned around. I get it, it is truly mentally tough. Now I was totally alone on a mountain for the first time ever hoping to catch up to the other climbers but knowing that was more a dream than a possibility. I kept putting my sights on trees or rocks and had to concentrate really hard on finding the trail which disappeared quickly after each step. I was very aware that just weeks earlier 6 climbers had died of the elements on this very mountain due to getting lost. Sorry Mom, you didn’t need to know that.
Hours went by, I did get lost, but just kept moving above the tree line. As I would find something that looked like a trail I would be relieved until I noticed it was taking me away from the views of the erupting volcanoes that I could hear back at Base Camp. Thoughts of them enjoying a leisurely breakfast and watching the magical show was ticking me off a bit. I counted 6 eruptions I could not see. Now it appeared I was going to be rounding the mountain and even lose sight of the approaching sunrise unless I stepped up my pace to get to the summit.
I kept trudging and eventually noticed one of my challenge teammates, a fit 26 yr old, sitting on the edge watching the start of the sunrise. He confirmed he was okay and I told him to catch up to me, I had to keep moving. Energy depleted with no site of the top of the volcano, this was absolutely all mental now. Then, the most horrible of sights! Switchbacks of deep scree. Like ice on snow, slippery and unstable but necessary to reach the top.
Finally, I could see the top. I could even see some ants wandering at the top and I knew the summit was all mine. I just kept counting over and over and over again until I hit the edge of a massive crater ridge with a 360 degree view of the whole valley. Wow! And I even made it for sunrise!
Only 2 of the challenge crew made it to the top. The 26 yr old male I passed and my 54 yr old self. He told me he was planning on going back to Base Camp when we met up and seeing me plow on motivated him to continue.
Any doubt age is just a number, there it is!
I was really quite pleased with myself and had the highest point of the summit to myself before walking the circumference of the summit.
You all know I hate descents. The summit of Kilimanjaro had similar scree and it took me forever to get down. This time I taught myself to skate through the mess and got down so fast that I had breakfast in me before the others appeared. Not that it’s a race but I really enjoyed this descent. I will never forget the look of surprise on Brien’s face as he heard someone approaching through the gravel and looked up from Base Camp. Jeff later told me that he said, “your wife is a badass”. Love it!
We packed up then began the final descent back to the Trail Head. Hours and hours of messy terrain, aching knees and mushy muscles but we did it. My Adventure Buddy is the bomb! Volcano #2 Fuego ridge 12,000 feet and Volcano #3 Acatenango 13,045 feet I did not even want to add up the extra altitude from the unexpected challenge, it was a lot of steep mileage.
We definitely discovered that you cannot measure a mountain by it’s height. Volcanoes are much steeper and the duration much shorter so the altitude can whack you in the face. After a day of lounging in bed and ordering room service back at Los Pasos we packed for our journey to Lake Atitlan. We would now begin the lazy part of our trip … or so I thought.
Lake Atitlan is the image on the tv that got us to Guatemala. It certainly is one of the most beautiful sites, a circular volcano range with the World’s largest volcanic lake dotted with small villages at the shore. There is only 1 road into the site via Panajachel then you get a boat to your destination. I was super excited about this portion of the trip since the whole area had a hippy vibe and every location had volcano views. No cars, you could walk or stand on the dock and wave at a boat for a small charge. We began our stay at Lomas de Tzununa which required climbing 350 stairs to get to the resort. This was our view!
A view that despite being in recovery mode from 3 volcanoes had me dreaming about getting to the top of San Pedro volcano. The ninny in me posted to social media a simple question:
The next morning at breakfast I asked our host Thierry if it was possible to arrange a guide to climb San Pedro for sunrise. He said in 11 years, he’d never had anyone make such a request LOL and described what it would involve. First descend our stairs in the middle of night, arrange a boat to meet at the dock for 1am to take me the 30 minute boat ride across the lake, then arrange a guide and a ride to the Trail Head. Thierry looked toward Jeff, who had already made it clear he wouldn’t be climbing, and Jeff said, “She’s her own woman, I’ll be sleeping.” Thierry was instructed to only book people he would want his wife alone with in the middle of a jungle and off he went to make arrangements. They both thought I was a bit crazy, Jeff was already rolling his eyes at what he knew would be a sleepless night.
It didn’t strike me how nuts I was until after I climbed down those 350 stairs after midnight and got to the lonely dock waiting for a stranger to pick me up (created a video). I was all in now, said a little prayer and hopped into the back of the boat. Tip: In Lake Atitlan, if the boat is empty do not sit near the front unless you want brain damage! Once on land I was put into a van with 3 other men who didn’t speak english (hmm I wasn’t prepared for that) but could tell they were all talking about the crazy woman as they checked out my gear. A couple of them had clearly just finished a night of partying and this was their ride from a friend, or, perhaps the drivers security from the crazy woman LOL. My guide and I got dropped at the dark Trail Head and quietly began our trek through the dark and surprisingly quiet jungle.
This climb was a steep 4000 feet of ascent before sunrise. My guide did not speak english and we would be in the dark jungle all night climbing together. The beauty of this volcano is the vegetation and it’s pronounced pitch. Beautiful to look at more than to climb. At night you can imagine climbing through a jungle with no view to the lake. Jeff and I had planned to do headlamp signals through the night but that plan failed. I hoped he wouldn’t worry but knew he would and willed he would find drinks to keep him company on the balcony.
It was a steep climb for hours but we were fast, too fast and ended up at the summit an hour before sunrise. It was quite cold and we bundled up with everything from our backpacks. There was nothing to see, we were surrounded by trees and large rocks so my guide collected sticks and made us a fire behind a large boulder to stay warm. What a blessing! I shared the language of sugar with him which got big smiles and we just stood there until the sun rose to get some pictures.
We were the ONLY people on the volcano all night. We did not see others until at least an hour into our descent after sunrise. I was so relieved to get down, that climb really put a kink into my planned week of being lazy.
Finally back on the boat so exhausted I didn’t have the energy to stop my head from slamming with the boat, I arrived at our dock to struggle the 350 stairs back to our room. Water, shower, food and alcohol were recovery heaven. Volcano #4 at 9910 feet. At this point I was absolutely all volcano’ed out!
To say we fell in love with Guatemala is an understatement. As I write this 14 months after our visit, we still research and fantasize a longer return to Lake Atitlan when our lives become less about work and more about adventure. We so enjoyed all the villages along the lake, San Marco (hippy vibe), San Juan (Women’s Weaving Cooperative), Panajachel and San Pedro. We were hesitant to leave the lake for a day but truly enjoyed our day trip to the famous market town of Chichicastenango ‘Chichi’. The whole town is a market and we overloaded on beautiful handcrafted items and walked through the famous cemetery.
Our last 3 days on Lake Atitlan we moved to the gorgeous yoga resort Villa Sumaya. We would do yoga, learn to meditate and chant and eat a completely vegetarian diet for 3 days. Could not think of a better way to cap off the end of a truly great trip. This retreat earned 5 stars from us, everything about it rocked.
Our last day we had booked in the old area of Guatemala City. We were well aware this city has 16 murders a day however we’ve been to several dangerous places in our travels and did our research so we could travel smart. That is until we heard 5 bus drivers were targeted and several murdered where we would be sightseeing. $100 booking or our lives? Easy decision, keep our calm vibe and end our trip in beautiful Antigua before our flight back to Canada.
We will be back to trek the ruins of Tikal and maybe stay a few months 🙂 Guatemala is a treasure!