Guatemala - Volcanos, Cats, and a Lake

After a bit over two months in Mexico, we knew we had to force ourselves to leave.  When we were planning our travels and told people we figured we'd spend a month in Mexico, most reactions were along the lines of, "A month??  What are you going to do in Mexico for a month?"  Needless to say, most Americans don't quite grasp how BIG and DIVERSE Mexico is.  We didn't get north of Mexico City - in other terms, we only saw about 1/3 of the country.

Anyways, we loved Mexico, but wanted a few more passport stamps.  Throughout Mexico, we were told by many, many travelers (especially in San Cristobal, which is pretty close to Guatemala) that Guatemala is beautiful, and more specifically that climbing Volcan Acatenango was one of the hardest and most rewarding things they'd done.  Guatemala wasn't originally on our list, but we decided to change it up and head there.  So we found a reasonable, direct flight and headed to Guatemala (note: If you're ever flying out of the Mexico City airport, beware: 99% of the food and drink options are BEFORE security, which makes no sense, but they were packed.  We didn't realize this, went through security with a couple hours to spare, and had very limited (and crappy) food AND lounge options).  Immigration was quick, shuttle was easy, and we were at our hostel by late afternoon.  We knew that Acatenango was the main reason for going to Guatemala and Antigua, and everything said it was pretty cheap and possible to book through whatever hostel you were staying at, so we went with that.  We arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and decided to book the climb for Friday morning, with a return of Saturday afternoon.

A quick note about our hostel:  It's been owned by Raul, a man who was born and raised in Guatemala, for 10+ years.  A few years ago, an American woman, Kerry, was traveling around Central America, stayed there, and they fell in love and got married.  They were amazing hosts, as was Raul's brother, and the place was beautiful - it was more like a B&B than a hostel.  However, the best part of the hostel was easily the eight cats and two rabbits (well, one - the daddy rabbit was really sick and they had to put him down during our stay).  Let's see if I can do this - it's been almost two months since our stay: Mylo, Jo-Jo, Eperanza, Tongo, Gremlin, Stormy, Daisy, and DAMMIT.  I'm missing one (note: THOMAS!  Finally hit me).  Mylo, Jo-Jo, and Esperanza were the friendliest and most curious - they were constantly trying to push open our door and hang out, or sitting on our window ledge.  The first night we were there, Gremlin just walked right up to Adam and jumped in his lap - I'm pretty certain this was the happiest Adam was during the entire three months in Central America.

Adam meets Gremlin!

Jojo or Mylo (creamsicle one - they were pretty identical) and Esperanza sitting outside our window

Now, Acatenango.  Based on what we'd heard, I was not sure that I was going to do the climb.  I'm not in good shape at all, and I was really worried - it's grueling and difficult and cold.  If I had decided not to go, I told Adam he needed to do it anyway.  After a lot of back and forth, I decided to do it.  Thankfully, Kerry and Raul had many winter scarves and hats and gloves that we could borrow for the climb.  So, we loaded up on that, bought 8 liters of water and some Snickers bars, emptied our backpacks, and set out on Friday morning.  The tour company picked us up at A Place to Stay and drove us to their storefront, where we got our sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tents, food, etc.

The climb is HARD.  When you get to the base, you can buy walking sticks from locals for 5 quetzales (about $0.75), which we did.  There were 15 people in our group, along with 2 guides.  Right away, I knew this wasn't going to be good.  I asked the guides if it was a problem that I probably wouldn't go too fast, and their response was pretty much yes.  There was a 20 year old girl from Australia who struggled at times, and a couple from Israel in which the girl struggled a bit at times, too, and other than that, the other 10 people were incredibly fit, and, for the most part, incredibly rude and condescending (particularly a couple from Italy).  Oddly, the most fit guy in our group, a Canadian guy named Aaron, didn't seem too bothered but those of us who struggled.  The guides were also incredibly NOT encouraging.

The food we were given was:
2 sandwiches with a lot of mayo
2 hard boiled eggs
2 bananas
cup of noodles for dinner

If anyone knows me, I hate mayo, hard-boiled eggs (the smell!), and bananas, so I didn't eat much.  The cup of noodles was the best thing I've ever eaten.

Anyways, the climb sucked.  There's not much else I can say.  It took about 5 hrs, 20 minutes, with five stops along the way.  Everything you read says the first hour or so is the worst, and then it gets better.  Not true.  Only the last 45 minutes are okay - the rest is incredibly vertical.  I broke down crying several times, and Adam was a rockstar with staying with me and being supportive.  When we finally got to the campsite, we set up our tents (which was a whole other issue - apparently one of the tents that we as a group were given did not have poles and the guides blamed US for not checking before we hiked.  REALLY?  We're paying you guys for the equipment, and it's OUR fault that one of the tents is incomplete?  I can't stress enough how much these guys sucked), bundled up, and hung out, watching the view of Fuego, the active volcano that Acatenango is attached to.  This, I'll admit, was pretty damn cool, especially the darker it got - you could see and hear explosions, lava coming out the top and running down the sides of the volcano.  We were low on firewood, so they chopped down a tree (also pretty cool).  At some point, one of the guides and the incredibly fit Canadian went off for a few hours to get very close to Fuego - the guide even said that this wasn't something he did often and that you had to be in incredible shape to do that, mostly because there's a chance you'd have to sprint away from the lava).  The rest of the night was spent just chilling - it was COLD, probably down in the 20s-30s.  There were two positives from the night.  The first was that due to the tent mix-up, Adam and I got our own tent - it was one of the guides' own tents, but for two people, so we took it.  The other was that, despite it being rainy season, we got no rain over the 24 hours we were gone.  I can't imagine how broken I'd have been if it had been pouring as well.

The beginning.  It did NOT get easier.

Near our campground

Setting up the Guatemala flag at the campsite

Need firewood?  No problem, just chop down a tree.

Fuego - you can see where the lava runs down regularly!

Volcano selfie

Fuego at night

Breaking down camp

Morning action from Fuego!

Did I mention it was COLD??  Probably around 35 F.

After a very sleepless night, you get woken up at 3:30am for the final ascent to the top, another 1.5 hrs of hiking.  I had made the decision before bed that I was not going to do this - in addition to the freezing cold, it's also the hardest part of the climb, and I knew I wouldn't be up for it.  After they got back, Adam said I made the right call, but he was also pretty proud of himself for being able to keep up with a lead group for most of the trek.  He did say it was really cloudy and overcast at the summit, and I did get to see a bit of a sunrise at the campsite, so it was okay, and I don't regret not going.

Summit - Adam said it was like you were on the moon.  I sat that part out.

Walking down from the summit as the sun rises.

The climb down also sucked, but for different reasons.  I knew going up that it was going to suck and I'd fall a lot, but it was even worse.  I kept up for the first hour or so, and then the falling started.  One of the guides stayed back with us, and was super encouraging - when I asked about how much longer we had, he said he couldn't guess because we were going really, really slow.  Thanks for the encouragement, asshole.  I was covered in bruises for the next few days - covered.  We did eventually make it down in about 3 hrs (the rest of the group probably took 2.5 hrs).  For perspective on the climb, the guides say it typically takes between 4-6 hours to climb up, and 2.5-3 hours to climb down, so we weren't really that terrible.  Apparently they had an international race in the spring, and the winner made it UP AND DOWN Acatenango in 1 hr, 58 minutes - one of our guides participated and finished 6th, with a time of 2 hrs, 15 minutes.

We boarded our bus back to Antigua, and decided to get food before we got back to our hostel.  After lunch, we went back, showered, and collapsed into bed - not even out of sleepiness, but out of pain.  By that night, I couldn't walk much, and the next day was worse (but expected).  We spent a couple of very lazy days in Antigua recovering, which was necessary and worth it, before heading to Lake Atitlan for a few days of more relaxation.

Lake Atitlan was great - it was absolutely beautiful, incredibly relaxing, and just peaceful.  It was so nice to just chill out and recover.  Our hotel had kayaks, so we took those out at some point, but mostly just wandered around the town, relaxed in hammocks, and chilled out.

Lago Atitlan

The view from a hammock outside our room - much needed relaxation!

On our last day, we took a boat across the lake to the main port, where we took a shuttle to Guatemala City, where we stayed at EuroHostel, a hostel in a gated area of Guatemala City that was about 3 minutes from the airport with free shuttles at any time you needed - our 5am trip was not even the driver's first one of the day.  It was clean, convenient, and cheap - while there wasn't anything to do and you had to have food delivered, I would highly recommend it to anyone needing a place to stay before or after an early or late flight.

Guatemala was a quick 10 days.  The food in Antigua was fine - we had traditional Guatemalan food once and it was adequate, but nothing too exciting or unique.  Everyone says the food in Central America is meh once you leave Mexico, and I'd agree with that.

Adam's traditional Guatemalan lunch.  I got the chicken Milanese.

Yup, that's a big-ass jug of horchata.

Shukos - Guatemalan sandwiches that were really tasty.

While Acatenango was not my favorite thing I did on our trip (that's a toss-up between the day we spent at cenotes in Merida and surf lessons in San Juan del Sur), it is what I'm most proud of for doing.  As Adam pointed out, it was way more of an accomplishment for me to do that than it was for any of the assholes in our group, and I'm glad I pushed myself to do it.  However, I don't know that I'd say it was the most rewarding, most beautiful thing ever - to me, the cenotes and waterfalls in Mexico and the sunsets in Nicaragua were just as rewarding and beautiful.  I will say, when climbing and camping, I did think that I should tell Chris and Sus about this and that they would love it and think it was so cool - they're a bit more outdoorsy than I am.

Nicaragua's next - and a bit different than Mexico and Guatemala.

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