Take a hike in Guatemala 

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY MALGOSIA SZAJWAJ
  • Photo by Malgosia Szajwaj
     

I struggle to fall asleep and to stay awake at the same time.

My sleeping bag is broken, the ground beneath our tent uneven and I keep sliding into the middle of the tent and end up spooning the Danish girl. The frequent explosions make my heart race with excitement and worry at the same time.

I zip up the tent for the seventh time to see if the clouds have cleared.

"Lavaaaa!" I yell as promised if any of our group members wake up to a clear sky. About three kilometres from our tent, glowing orange lava is being discharged high up in the air, before falling down the perfectly shaped slopes of Fuego volcano. I am in awe, struggling to find a word that best describes this surreal phenomenon.

This scenario continues for the rest of the night as we fall in and out of sleep, move in and out of our tents. At 4 a.m. our guide officially wakes us up to start our assent to the summit of volcano Acatenango. As our group gets ready, Fuego next door continues its illuminating show, but all I can think of now is the gruelling 1.5 hour climb to the top.

Few stay behind and the thought is tempting. Our guide sets off and we try our best to follow. Some are struggling with altitude sickness; most are just exhausted from the gruelling hike to the basecamp the day before and from a sleepless night.

The clouds have rolled in again and I can't see where I am going. The volcanic soil makes my feet sink and it feels like taking two steps forward, then one step back. Occasionally, something runs between my legs and ahead of me: the dogs.

The local village strays accompany the hikers up to the basecamp, then to the summit, I guess in hopes of a bite to eat. Thin and malnourished, they don't seem to struggle like we do. They enjoy our company and we enjoy theirs.

We stop every 15 minutes to catch a breath and continue up the trail that only seems to be getting steeper. Finally, we reach the summit. Or at least we are told so. The clouds are dense and the air crisp. With frost in my hair, I stand there waiting ... waiting for the promised million-dollar view. Then suddenly, as if a theatre curtain is being pulled aside, the clouds clear and we are shown a colored landscape of endless volcanic mountains with Fuego taking centre stage and performing another eruption. This time there is no glowing lava to see. Instead Fuego spews up a mushroom cloud, like a nuclear explosion.

We are at the top of Central America.

When I first arrived in Guatemala I could not wait to see the colourful markets, stroll the colonial streets of Antigua and take a salsa class, the dancing kind. But unexpectedly it was the landscape of smoke-spewing volcanoes that seduced my heart.

The country is home to some of the best volcanoes in the world, and anyone who's an adventurer at heart will feel the urge to get out and conquer a few of them. At 3,900 metres tall, Acatenango is one of the most popular hikes in Guatemala.

Although popular, it is not to be underestimated by even the experienced hikers. The five-hour hike to basecamp leaves the legs shaking and keeps the mind challenged. The ashy soil, the altitude and the five litres of water that we all must carry in our backpacks make the going slow.

But the exhaustion fades away quickly when, at basecamp, you sit around a fire sipping a cup of homemade hot chocolate watching Fuego erupting for the first time and imagining how the lava will light up the night sky.

Unfortunately on June 3 this year, a violent eruption of Fuego cost many people and animals their lives. Many lost their homes and loved ones. I was lucky to have experienced this unique hike shortly before the eruption and thought long about whether to publish this. However, the community is moving on and tours to the Acatenango volcano are running again.

Locals depend on tourists, hikers and explorers to make their living, and hiking Acatenango responsibly, or visiting any other disaster-struck place and donating time or money can help the local communities who lost everything in rebuilding their lives. When travelling to a disaster struck place like the Antigua, ask your local guide about how to help. I'm sure there are plenty of ways to help if you are travelling to Antigua.

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