Acatenango: For the Love of Lava (Part 1)
Updated: Apr 30, 2019
I’ve been looking forward to writing about Volcan Acatenango, as it’s been by far my most memorable experience in Guatemala. It was terrifying and beautiful- in equal measures.
They say people who like horror films, rollercoasters and anything that envokes fear and extreme emotions in people are actually the most grounded and least dramatic in their day-to-day life. Which I can see, they’re more likely to think of the bigger picture and not stress the small stuff.
I however, despite being a rollercoaster-riding horror film aficionada, will become extremely dramatic and excited when it comes to things like lava and adventure. So whilst most people will probably enjoy an ambling hike up a volcano and perhaps even find nature calming, I have a wild imagination and before we even started climbing, I’d already decided it was going to be something like Moonrise Kingdom but with fire and ash and clouds and explosions, and, and….. anyway...
With a little literary freedom and the fact that each person can experience the same route or trek very differently; I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my experience, unapologetically frank as always, with all my brain-ramblings alongside.
First, before the story begins- the protagonist has never hiked anything, has no sensible footwear (lives in sliders ands skate shoes) and hates carrying things with such a passion that she once suggested that she should hire a hearse to drive her across London on her daily commute during a four-month contract in South East London so that she could wouldn’t have to carry her bag and deal with people. And gets to be horizontal and nap there in the back, perhaps decorated with flowers too for effect and calming fragrance. Her Acton housemates suggested that a limo would perhaps be more appropriate if she were to be so stupidly imaginative, than this morbid horror-film thoughts of a hearse. Plus they could join her and it could be our mobile living room as our teeny flat in W3 didn’t have one. Fancy! Sounds ideal (thank you Fern and Lais for your lovely limo ideas- let’s get one when I come home!)
Another thing she hates is people referring to themselves in the third person, but does like to play with metafiction (is it pretentious writing, or is it ok coz I love literature so much?)
Let's get back to normal: I hadn’t actually considered climbing Acatenango, or any other volcanoes when I came to Guatemala to be perfectly honest- it wasn’t something I’d had on my list. Not because I was opposed to the idea, just simply that it hadn’t been a thought to get to the peak by foot, loaded up with a backpack. I’d spent my teenage years living on a volcanic island and my parents used to drive my brother and I up Teide all the time. It was my favourite thing to do on Christmas day, go for a drive up, play with some snow and then hit the beach in the afternoon. My La Esperanza housemates Pegga and Ryan had booked their hike as one of the “for-sure” things to do here- I kinda just nodded in interest, excited for them as these guys are super active types, a good ten years younger than me. Good for them! I’d quite like to see some lava and camp out but climbing is not my style.
So, what actually put the idea in my head to hike? One weekend in Antigua when I got speaking with an Aussie guy who’d asked me if I was planning to hike Acatenango and when I said, “Nope, not really." Said very straight up, “It’s one of the best thing I’ve ever done.” Well, those be fighting words in my eyes, a pretty big statement. I also happen to find it a bit hot when a guy has a sense of adventure, and so then I become inquisitive about travelling, and end up picking their brain on country-hopping and things like climbing volcanoes. I mean, what could be more exciting than exploring wild parts of the planet?
When I got home, I told Pegga and Ryan and they suggested I come on their hike, and with the amount of BBG workouts we’d been doing, we were in peak fitness to be doing a climb. Pegga is about to embark on her law practice in Environmental Law and is really inspiring when it comes to nature exploration! So, after not much convincing, I said yes, if it was cool with them, I’d love to! I'm re-inventing the John Lewis slogan for myself:
“Never knowingly said no to an adventure”.
Pegga did all the booking organisation for the trip and Wicho and Charlie was a great choice, they were so organised and their guides have clearly done this trip so many times- one of the guys does it twice a week and has done for four years! Plus, I renamed them Witchy Charlie for my own magical amusement.
A few weeks later and we’re taking our first steps of our 3976 metre high giant Acatenango, and I kid you you not within the first few I’m thinking, “No, no, no- I am so not able to do this” My body in terms of muscle strength is fine, my legs are stretching and lifting the weight of my body and my backpack, but my lungs are in complete disagreement. In my head I wonder if it’s the thinness of the air? Perhaps I’ll get used to it? I think and keep going. A minute later I’m telling myself that it’ll be just fine, I’ll get to see lava at the top and that they did say its the hardest part- you can do this! Move your ass and your lungs will just have to catch up. Twenty seconds more and I stop- trying to force air into my lungs, they’re not co-operating and I’m actually wheezing like a 90 year old. Ahhhh shit. I’ve made a proper moron out of myself, “Carrin- you can’t do this, what the hell were you thinking? Get off this climb now whilst you’re near the bottom.” I stop with one of the guides next to me clearly seeing me struggle to breathe. The track we’re climbing is steep with loose sandy dirt, basically like climbing what I’ve decided is the “Desert Slide of Death” I’m certain I’m going to lose my breath, fall over and break all of my bones. THIS. THIS is not one of the best things I’ve done in my life. Why on earth would people do this for fun? Absolute masochists. It's the exact opposite of fun.
“Sorry guys, I think I should go back down, I really don’t want to ruin it for you” Pegga and Ryan are both adamant I can do it, they look disappointed as well. Pegga tells me to keep going and that stopping will make it way worse. I know she's right and I think I really do want to, honestly I do. But I’m also sure that if I continue, I’ll have a horrible panic attack and hyperventilate and really make a massive knobhead out of myself. And safety-wise that’s really stupid and inconsiderate for everyone else. I’m a bit scared and of course listen to my body saying “Nope. I’m not taking you there like this.”
Benjamin, the guide with me says he’ll stay with me and I can go as slow as I like- “Great, I’m the old, inept person at the back” (The guy at our hostel actually told us that mostly its people in their twenties who hike Acatenango, but a few older people do. Like in their thirties! Rude, but I suppose he assumed I wasn’t thirty yet…)
Literally, all the gear and no-idea, what an absolute stereotype I’ve become, fucking great. I'm pretty disappointed with myself. He asks if I’d like a porter to carry my bag, that way I can climb and be 100 pounds lighter. Ugh, I didn’t want to be that person, but at the same time I really want to see an eruption and all the incredible views and camp out overnight, I don’t want to give up! I’ve built it up too much like the over-excited woman I am. Ugh I’m so annoyed at my lungs. Why won’t you work? Also why did you get ahead of yourself before you'd even climbed?!
So there I am, not very far up this volcano at all and having an internal fight with my lungs and my ego over the love of lava...
(to be continued… as this is long and if you’re anything like me- short attention span? Ya’ll know I got to the top in the end if you can’t be assed to read the next one! I’ll make it photo-heavy for you xoxo)
P.S. Also, if you are planning to hike Acatenango, don’t over pack with a million litres of liquid as I did, 4 litres is probably enough.