Guatemala: How Not to Climb a Volcano

Hiking up Volcan Pacaya, near Antigua, Guatemala-- a challenging experience but definitely the best trip for casual hikers. Kris Fronzak photos.
Hiking up Volcan Pacaya, near Antigua, Guatemala--a challenging experience but definitely the best trip for casual hikers. Kris Fronzak photos.

Guatemala: Home to a Black Diamond Volcano: An unexpected hike 13,000 feet to Acatenango

By Kris Fronzak

A giant crater
A giant crater that made Pacaya feel like walking on the moon, only with much more gravity and lava.

It's just past 5 a.m. and my two hiking companions are about 10 feet up the trail. Quite literally; they're 10 feet above where I'm standing, waiting for me to catch up for probably the sixth time that morning.

"Mas despacio?" (more slowly?) suggests our guide Elvin, a wiry kid who earns a living ascending this volcano twice a week.

We haven't been on the trail for long -- 18 minutes, by my estimate -- but it is steep, shaly and utterly dark, and I'm worried I may not be cut out for this.Using broken Spanish and expressive gesturing I ask Elvin how many more minutes until we reach a flat part, and distract myself by silently counting to the number he quotes in Spanish.

It's 40, it turns out. Forty more minutes of what I've calculated is a 24 degree incline before we reach what turns out to be one switchback. I slip in the shale and lie flat in the dark for a few seconds. Only four more hours of this; five if I'm slow.

My backstory

The steps that brought me, totally unprepared, to that frigid volcano were as follows: finish college, start exhausting journalism job, stay for three years in the hope that things will improve, finally quit, then smash some clothes into a backpack for an extended visit to Central America.

At that point, I was only 10 days into my six week trip. I'd started by snorkeling with sharks and drinking gallons of fruit juices in Belize, then spent a gorgeous 5 days in El Petén, Guatemala, where I hiked to overlooks, swum in lakes and explored massive Mayan ruins.

I was in decent shape, so when I arrived in Antigua, Guatemala, with only two days before immersive Spanish lessons started, I decided to take advantage of some of the area's hiking.As a small city in the highlands, Antigua is a perfect way-station for travelers, with day trips in virtually every direction. A few blocks from my hostel was one of dozens of tour operators, so I headed over talk about the options.

Pacaya, a friendly employee explained, is the area's most popular volcano. Acatenango, on the other hand, is the third tallest volcano in Central America, and brings climbers up close and personal with Volcan Fuego, a stratovolcano that spews ash and lava every few hours.

Better yet, the trip up Acatenango had an English-speaking guide, could be done in a day, meaning it wouldn't prolong my expected agony, and cost only $30 that weekend.

"I'll take it," I said, feeling bold. Pacaya sounded pleasant, and would be the perfect hike to do later that month with a few friends visiting from the U.S. The 4 a.m. departure for Acatenango wasn't ideal, but I still came away from the interaction feeling pretty pleased.

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As I saw it, the only big downfall would be missing my hostel's included breakfast that morning; free breakfast is a Big Deal on a backpackers budget, even if it simply means access to pancake mix and bananas. This was disappointing, but not a deal-breaker.

A black diamond volcano

Most visitors to the area choose Volcan Pacaya for their first hike. The views are stunning, you can roast marshmallows over lava vents and, best of all, Pacaya peaks at a totally reasonable 8,400 feet. The hike takes about an hour and a half.

Acatenango, in contrast, rises to about 13,000 feet and takes at least five hours to ascend. The trip is not recommended for those in average shape, particularly if they're already running on adrenaline from two nights of sub-five hours of sleep in raucous hostels. Trail rating systems label it a black diamond, a term I'd only ever associated with skiing. All things I wish I'd known prior to embarking on the hike.

A man in an unmarked van picked me up at 4:00 on the dot and we bumped through the cobbled streets of Antigua to pick up one other passenger -- Marcel, a middle aged man from Holland who was midway though a solo cycling trip from Alaska to Argentina. Marcel remarked that having a small group is better for strenuous trails because you can only move as quickly as your weakest link. I am your weakest link, I realized immediately.

Becca Lang Photos
The author, roasting marshmallows and trying not to melt her shoes on one of Pacaya's lava vents. Becca Lang photo.

The driver stopped in the middle of an unlit street, with no explanation. A few silent minutes passed before a boy who looked to be about 16 emerged from the darkness and introduced himself, in Spanish, as Elvin. How fun, I thought, he's trying to help us learn his native language.

Marcel and I responded with our names and pleasantries, and the boy launched into a rapid-fire explanation of the trail, entirely in Spanish.

Apologetically, I asked if he could repeat that in English, as my Spanish was mediocre at best. He looked at me, uncomprehending. "No hablo ingles," he said.

This was a setback but there was nothing to be done for it, so we headed off by the light of a crescent moon and Elvin's mini mag-lite. The trail started directly off the road as a steep incline made entirely of loose lava-scree.

Marcel set the pace, seeming unconcerned that we were basically running up a sand dune. Every step forward also meant sliding backward a few inches, along with the risk of falling into holes in the darkness.

Regret

Half an hour later, I was actively questioning my decision to hike. I'd already had to stop to catch my breath several times, and my companions were patient but obviously eager to continue on.

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But having quit my desk job a few weeks prior, I disliked the idea of quitting again, in part because there was no way for me to get back to Antigua or back down the trail alone.

On the other hand, I'd probably never see Marcel the Hollander or my energetic boy-guide again, which was heartening. I stumbled another half-mile before asking for a stop and breathlessly admitting that I might not be able to make it.

Marcel was clearly relieved, but Elvin seemed concerned. He said a phrase I didn't understand, and then the words "hombres malos" and "robar," which I definitely did. After some confusing negotiations in Spanish, we agreed that Elvin would walk me back down the trail, and I could either take a bus or hitch a ride to Antigua.

The hike back down was comparatively blissful, as it mostly involved sliding downhill on my noodley legs and Elvin making Spanish small talk with me (How many siblings do you have? Do you have a boyfriend? Why not?).

We made it to the bottom of the volcano, with the sun finally rising, just in time to see the rear end of the hourly local bus. Elvin, still loathe to leave me alone, explained that his friend William would meet me on the road. I thanked him profusely, tipped him, and watched him start laboriously back up the trail to find Marcel and finish the hike.

Back to Antigua

William made his appearance a few minutes later, warned me of these ubiquitous hombres malos (bad men), and we waited for more than an hour for someone named Edgar to head over from Antigua, my home base.

Edgar, when he arrived, was willing to take me back to Antigua for about $30 in Guatemalan quetzals. I only had $20 total after tipping both William and Elvin, but my exhausted desperation must have moved Edgar (or perhaps he thought I was haggling) because he accepted the payment and deposited me back into the city a little before 9:00.

I walked back into my hostel coated in grey volcano dust, feeling relieved. Quitting was still defeating, but I figured I could try again in a few weeks, if I wanted to redeem myself. And hey, at least I still had free breakfast.

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