Examining my sleeping bag as I unravel it, I am relieved to see it is a proper sub-minus piece of kit. Not that I’m some sort of born-again Edmund Hillary-type, but you never know with these “adventure tour” outfits — some of them may as well send you off with a handkerchief and a glass egg cup for all the credibility of their equipment.
But nope, not this time. Be gone nature, we have Thinsulate!
I sink back into the legitimacy of down and allow my eyes to close.
Eyes snap open. Bolt upright, I scramble towards the entrance of the tent. Fumbling with the zip, the air fills with whoops and cheers of our fellow campers. Their glee echoes fragile and human above the rumble of earth belly beneath us.
Parting the canvas flaps — and there is no way not to make that sound gross — I gasp. Audibly. Like a cartoon character. Or, perhaps more aptly given the flap-parting, a porn-star.
What. A. Sight.
The moon is rising to the east of us. The sun is setting to the west. A sea of clouds drifts across the floor of Antigua valley, tinged orange, then pink, then violet as night draws in. Gradually stars emerge to pierce the purple blue of a deepening sky, winking coyly to the lightning that dances between distant thunderheads.
Bonfire crackling, colors melting: it’s the magic hour . . .
Then, once again: BOOM!
It’s a rare thing to observe a volcanic eruption at eye level, but this is Guatemala, and I have long since come to expect the fantastical. And indeed, here we are on the side of a volcano, watching another volcano erupt.
This shit just got Tolkien.
As the third highest volcano in the country, standing at 3,976 meters, Acatenango affords unrivaled views of its rather more rambunctious twin, Volcan De Fuego. It is, if you will forgive the metaphor, the relative safety of Middle-Earth to a sinister Mordor.
Having said that, I rescind my plea for forgiveness, for this is Gandalf territory indeed, and I defy you to contest this claim once having made the climb. You are even given a staff to assist you in the ascent for goodness sake. I mean, they call it a walking stick, but it’s so much more than that.
The next morning we rise at 4 a.m. to summit by sunrise. It’s high, its early and cold as balls. But it’s worth it.
The peak offers a terrific panorama of the coastal plains down to the Pacific in the South, and across the Guatemalan Highlands — including Lago de Atitlan — to the south. It is up there with one of the most beautiful sights any reasonable individual could ask to see in a lifetime. A smoking crater, 360 vista, proper breathtaking. Not that you’ll be able to take a picture of it if you are relying on your smart phone. Apples don’t like being chilly at altitude, apparently, so be aware that your camera will likely be hibernating when you need it most. Steve clearly wasn’t a man of the mountains. Or just really liked frozen fruit.
While it might seem that every man and his mother is offering trips up Acate out of Antigua, Guatemala, it really is a case of getting what you pay for. There are plenty of cheap-o alternatives, but having opted for Old Town Outfitters, I can recommend them highly. These guys know the mountains, they know their gear and they know how important it is to work in harmony with the local community.
Unlike the majority of the other tour companies operating this trip in the area, you will start your expedition from La Soledad, a small highland village about an hour’s drive outside of Antigua. Here you will pick up your local porters who, quite honestly, do most of the hard work for you, before setting off through farmlands to the trail, as well as start to get a sense of the role these volcanoes play in the daily lives of the people who live here.
So what are you waiting for? Go forth and channel that inner wizard! Oh, and this is a relatively strenuous hike, so dress accordingly, i.e., don’t be that douche wearing Converse.
P.S. Appropriate trekking attire may also include adorning yourself with a cloak and making the climb as Mr G. The Grey himself. In the event you subscribe to this option, kudos. Also, let’s get married.
[Photos 1 – 2 by David Leonowens; Photo 3 courtesy of Old Town Outfitters]
Old Town Outfitters, Adventureguatemala.com.
A journalist, human rights advocate and development professional, Hannah is currently located somewhere in the vicinity of Central America. As Lead Creative for an international freedom of speech project, she is passionately exploring ways to engage people and instigate positive change through innovative use of media, the arts and story. When she isn’t working, she’s probably scuba diving or being angry about Brexit. Life goal? Owning a house pig.