Monday, February 10, 2014

Volcan Atitlan Hike

Originally, the weekend before last was meant to be a relaxing escape in San Pedro at Lake Atitlan.  But then we met Will and Fabian, two US engineers working on a project in Guatemala, and when they posed the idea of coming along with us and hiking Volcan Atitlan on Saturday, Amy and I jumped at the opportunity to use the 5 hour hike as training for our trek up Acatenango the next weekend.  

The plan was that on Friday afternoon, Amy and I would take my car and meet the guys at their hotel at 5pm (the earliest they could be ready to leave) and head for San Lucas Toliman where we would stay the night and depart for the hike early Saturday morning.

Due to intense traffic (and okay, a few wrong turns) what should have been a 15 minute drive for Amy and I turned into an hour and a half crawling through cars that weren’t moving.  When we arrived at the hotel at 6:30pm, we made the joint decision that the best course of action would be to get dinner, then leave the city around 8 or 9pm when traffic would have died down.  (This appealed to Amy and I, as both of us were hungry and at one point in the car, Amy had turned to me as if the idea had just come to her and exclaimed, “I brought an orange.  Maybe they’ll let us sit together in the back and we can share an orange!”  Hunger brings out the silly in people.)  

So it was 9:00pm when we loaded into the guys’ company SUV and made our way to the lake.  I promptly fell asleep, but Will and Fabian kept up steady conversation among themselves for the entire 3 hour drive.  

It was nearly midnight when we pulled into the sleepy town of San Lucas Toliman and found our hotel.  Fabian called ahead to wake the security guard to open the parking lot for us and coordinated with our guide for the next morning (as the fluent Spanish speaker in our group, a lot of the work fell on Fabian’s shoulders last weekend).  We found our rooms and fell into bed, alarms set to depart on the hike at 5:30am.  

Our guide, Juan Carlos, met us at the hotel gate the next morning, and from there we walked towards the giant volcano hulking in the distance.  As we began walking, we realized our hotel, nearly on the lake, was situated about as far from the base of the volcano as you could get in the town.  The first 20 minutes or so of our walk consisted of cobblestone streets as we progressed through town.  Finally, though, we left the streets and began making our way through coffee fields at the base of the mountain.  

Sunrise over Acatenango and Fuego from the base of the our hike

The hike was projected to take about 5 hours up and 3 down, with an elevation gain of 6400 feet.  The hike the next weekend, which Amy, Fabian, and I will all be completing, will include an elevation gain of about 8000 feet and we’ll be wearing packs to stay overnight, so we figured this trip would be a good training exercise.

And I think it was.  It definitely gave me more confidence for the Acatenango hike.  

On the way up, the trail got really steep about 2 hours in.  And it never leveled out after that.  At points we almost had to go on all fours to scramble up the huge rocks or tree roots that comprised the path.  The five of us fell into a rhythm.  Amy and Will set out ahead of us--somehow keeping up a steady stream of conversation (I didn’t have the breath for that), while Fabian and I held back, Juan Carlos bringing up the rear.  

After walking for 15-20 minutes, Fabian and I would meet up with Will and Amy who had stopped to rest, and we’d all sit for a few minutes, maybe pulling out a granola bar or a Snickers (except for Fabian, who won’t eat peanuts).  Spirits stayed high.  We joked about stopping where we were and chopping down trees to build shelter--we’d call our new community “New US,” and it would become an organized country eventually.  We wished for a zipline from the top back down to the lake.  Or a water slide.  Or a helicopter.  And then, after a laugh, we’d continue again.

It had been a little under four hours when we emerged from the trees to the rock-strewn peak of the volcano.  Will and Amy, thinking they were maybe ten minutes from the top, took off on the most direct route: straight up.  Fabian and I started more slowly, each picking our own route.  The going was difficult.  It was steep, and the rocks were loose and kept slipping under my feet.  I was filled with a general fear that I would lose my footing and slide all the way down to the trees--which got farther and farther away as I climbed higher.  

Juan Carlos hadn’t been much of a guide up until this point--mainly just following us up the mountain.  But now, as we scrambled up the peak, I looked to my left, and every time I saw him, he seemed to be nimbly walking--not climbing--up the steep incline.  Every so often, he would stop, take a seat, and look down on me like a wise old mountain man.  Finally I had had enough of trying to find my own way, and I made my way over to him and followed his path up to the top from there.  It was still steep, but my footing felt more sure, and we could go more easily--sometimes even in a little crevasse that gave the illusion of a bit of protection from falling.  

Fabian making his way up the final stretch of the climb

We beat the clouds to the top, completing the hike in about 4 ½ hours.  The view of the lake and the surrounding mountains was spectacular.  

Juan Carlos looking over at Acatenango and Fuego

After a few moments of taking in the view, Fabian (who had joined Juan Carlos and I) and the two of us went off to find Amy and Will, who had summited at a different spot.  They were happy to see us and enthusiastically showed us what they’d found--several fumaroles (hot steam vents) on the top of the volcano.  We sat near the warm, moist air for a long time, enjoying one another’s company--and the view--while the clouds rolled in well below us, eventually covering the landscape except for the tallest peaks and making us feel like we were truly on top of the world.  

Enjoying our fumarole on the top of the world
Photo credit to Fabian Sanchez

Juan Carlos told us we should leave by noon at the latest, so after an hour and a half of relaxing at the peak, we grudgingly started our journey downhill.  

Will exploring a bit on his own

For two hours, we trudged down the steepest part of the path, staying together and moving slowly to avoid injury.  As the path became less treacherous, we started moving a little faster.  From the back, Amy called out, “why are we moving so fast now?”  Looking at Fabian hop down ahead of me, I replied, “Because Fabian turned into a billy goat!”  The closer we got to the bottom, the faster Fabian was moving, and then at some point it leveled just enough to not be suicidal, and Fabian was running, me close at his heels.  He bounced off the sides of the trail--positively frolicking.  After a little bit, he’d stop, we’d wait for the others to get closer, and then we’d take off again--me in the lead that time.  After a stop at which Amy, Will, and Juan Carlos caught up, Will took off in the lead to avoid getting other people’s dust in his eyes.  Again, I took chase.  Will didn’t stop, and we kept running, through a meadow, a corn field, back into the forest, and eventually to a dry stream bed where we stopped.  It was gratifying to find that, even after such a taxing hike, I could still jog downhill for a long time without tiring.  

As Will and I waited here for the others to catch up, locals carrying huge
loads of wood and other goods passed us going down the mountain.

Will and I waited for the others to catch up, and shortly after they did, we emerged dusty and grimy from the forest and onto the road.  Rather than walk all the way through town again, Juan Carlos flagged down a tuk tuk and we piled in, cutting our return time drastically.  Hot showers and good food awaited at the hotel, and we relaxed for the rest of the night.  That evening, we lay on a rooftop patio stargazing and talking for hours.  The entire experience is one I’ll always remember fondly.  

Dinner with a view at our hotel

Photo credit to Fabian Sanchez

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