Just like they say ‘don’t bite off more than you can chew’, don’t pack more than you can carry.
Sweat dripped down my face. I couldn’t keep from breathing so heavily that it sounded like I was hyperventilating. Everything hurt: my back, my legs, my hands still stung from slipping and falling just a few minutes before.
From the outside looking in, it must have appeared that hiking Volcán Acatenango was torture for me. Actually, I know it appeared that way, because the looks on the faces of the two guides and Jonathan, my travel partner, expressed as such. I did my best, but I am not the world’s best hiker.
We were lucky to have been able to borrow a tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads from our amazing Airbnb host, but I completely underestimated the weight of my pack. Regrettably, my backpack itself is heavy when empty. Including only the sleeping bag, pad, food, and a few smaller items, my backpack was probably only a little bit lighter than it is when it’s packed with everything I’m currently traveling with.
I looked at Elvin, our guide, in disbelief as he used a machete to cut away some branches and motioned that we were to make our way up a steep path into the forest. This was not the trail I expected to be hiking on. It actually wasn’t the official trail, it was a more direct, machete-made trail by our guides. I dug my feet into the dirt and tried my best not to topple over with my backpack on, but soon it became apparent that I would not be able to carry my backpack the entire distance up the volcano.
This has to be one of the more humiliating experiences I’ve had while traveling. It’s a hiking no-no to not be able to carry the weight of your own backpack. Our guide insisted on switching backpacks, convincing me that it would be easier and faster for all of us. Reluctantly, I switched with him, and my pride took a slight hit. I wanted to be that cool girl who can hike volcanoes without breaking a sweat. Instead I was essentially drowning in my sweat. It was not the picture-perfect image I had envisioned. Despite wearing trail running shoes, I was occasionally slipping and falling, dispelling all of my energy trying to hike up the hill– and we weren’t even halfway through with the ascent. With every fall, my voice caught as I tried to stifle silent tears of frustration. How was I going to get through this in one piece?
The steep forest section we hiked in the beginning proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the hike. There were no switchbacks; we were hiking straight up for what felt like an eternity. Once we met the real trail, it was much easier to ascend. We trudged along, Elvin keeping our (my) spirits up by singing and joking along the way as we took the occasional break to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and rest.
I watched the forest thin out and the fog roll in, quickly blanketing the tall tree trunks like a wave crashing down on the beach. The rush of cool air was a relief from the heat of the forest and I was happy to use the layers I’d packed. Soon, the tall trees were few and far between. We were above the clouds and all views of the world below were lost.
About five hours after our initial ascent, we arrived at the campground. We would spend the night and wake up before sunrise to summit the volcano. We weren’t finished yet, but I was so happy to rest for the night.
As we feasted on refried beans and tortillas, we watched Volcán de Fuego erupting right next to us. I’d never seen a volcano erupting before. Watching the forces of nature taking shape atop the volcano was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever witnessed. I could feel the rumbling of the volcano in my chest as it prepared to spew out lava. I was watching natural fireworks. I’d heard that sometimes Volcán de Fuego’s eruptions are visible, but I had no idea it would look like this. It was a clear night; the stars had aligned for us, and they were shining bright behind the erupting volcano.
We watched until our eyes were too fatigued to stay open, then retired to our tent to sleep for only a few hours. It was freezing, but worth it. Throughout the night we heard Fuego erupting and I wished our tent was translucent so we could continue to watch the natural spectacle taking place before us.
It was nearly impossible to sleep in the cold tent and I was more than ready to pack up and begin our final ascent. We donned our headlamps and hiked as the sun rose over Volcán de Agua, the stunning sight giving me my final vote of confidence that I’d be able to make it to the top.
The sun rose, and we continued to hike. The dirt and grass turned to slippery gravel, and I had to take deliberate steps so as not to tumble down the steep slope. Finally, we were so close to the top that I saw other hikers finish at the top. Just a little further, I told myself.
All the huffing and puffing, the points at which I was nearly in tears, the slipping and falling, it was all worth it when I reached the summit. The freezing cold was numbed by the sense of elation on top of Acatenango. I could see Volcán de Agua, Fuego, and the volcanoes near Lake Atitlán. Standing atop the summit, it amazed me that I actually completed the ascent.
It wasn’t only the view that took my breath away, but the fact that I had accomplished this seemingly insurmountable task. Without a doubt, this was the one of the most physically challenging experiences of my life and travels. This hike certainly was a test of not only my body, but my mind and soul as well. I worked through the mental and physical obstacles and pushed myself to reach the top, even when I thought my body couldn’t do it. I had to complete the ascent; once I started, there was no other option. After all, it’s the difficult travel experiences that make for the best memories and teach you things about yourself you never expected to learn.
There are a few things I’d do differently, mainly organizing my pack correctly so that I could carry it myself. I also completely underestimated the level of difficulty of the hike, but even with the bumps and bruises and sore muscles in the days to follow, hiking Volcán Acatenango is something I would do all over again. I may not have been on top of the world, but it sure felt like it.
5 hours in ascent, 4 hours in descent, 13,045 feet conquered, and 1 memory I will keep forever.