On day 2,632 of my sobriety, at nearly 46 years old, I hiked up the Acatenango volcano in Guatemala for a front row seat to eruptions from the nearby active volcano named Fuego. The two-day hike took five hours with an elevation gain of 3,700 feet to base camp, at 11,800 feet by the end of the first day. It was difficult for me. It was so cold up there and the air was noticeably thinner. But it was worth it.
Fuego gave us a show of lava, boulders, and ash plumes before sunset. Luckily, it didn’t rain at camp until nightfall, when our tents were already up.
I listened to rain pelt the tent and rock fall against Earth for a long time while cocooned in my sleeping bag under layers, scarf, hat, gloves. I slept a bit.
There was a break in the rain around 2:00 a.m. and I saw lava spew from the volcano against the night sky. It felt like I was on another planet. Then the fog rolled in and gave the sky a red glow until the white mist became so thick I could no longer see anything. I dozed off again in the tent, cold and stiff, but dry.
Before dawn I tried to climb up wet volcanic pebbles for another 40 minutes to reach Acatenango’s summit for an even better view of Fuego. I couldn’t do it. So I turned back and watched the sun rise give a new day’s light to the volcano. I gave thanks for that day, number 2,633 in my sobriety. Summit or not– the view was spectacular and I’m lucky to have seen this – to have experienced this.
That I accomplished this hike at all leaves me in amazement and keeps me in gratitude. There was a time I could not walk down a hospital hall and back without my heart rate approaching a danger zone from alcohol abuse. Today, I can hike up volcanoes in altitudes that make my heart pound in all the right ways.
Near the end of my steep hike down 3,700 feet in three hours, I fell so many times I lost count. My legs burned, my knees throbbed, my ass got muddy, my hands were filthy. Yet I felt good at what I had accomplished.
Sobriety, like my volcano hike, has had its glorious peaks, mellow valleys, and some muddy falls. It’s all good. These life experiences are gifts compared to what it was like for me 2,634 days ago.
Nearly everyone in our group was in their 20s. One man was 30. There were some kids who told me the appreciated our presence – that they were impressed we were able to keep up on the way up. No offense, one German young man said. It felt odd to be looked at in that way – as an ‘old’ person – but I understood they were complimenting me.
One of our Guatemalan guides, Florencio, was 55 years old! I took that as a sign from the Universe: age doesn’t determine ability. Our second guide was Florencio’s son, Moses. I don’t know how old Moses is, but he was super thin yet super strong. He ended up carrying tents and gear at different points of the trip for some young people.
We hiked a few days before my spouse Tedly’s 54th birthday. Before we left he said the hike would be like a “walk in the park.” His quads are in excellent shape, having played ice hockey for many years. I never took care of my physical fitness the way he did throughout life – until I got sober more than seven years ago.
Tedly carried up our two-person tent, sleeping bags and foam mats. And, he carried the extra weight all the way down. The bags and mats were super light, so I know I could have handled them, but the lightweight tent was still a couple of pounds and that extra weight might have been a deal-breaker for me.
Tedly was the oldest man in our group (aside from our guide Florencio, who does this hike twice a week and lives at a high elevation); I was the oldest woman.
We decided to make this hike as cheaply as possible because June is the wettest month Guatemala and we didn’t know if we would even see anything. There are several tour companies in town offering “deals” and also hostels arrange tours. We found hostels offer much cheaper prices.
We booked with the Hacia El Sur Hostal on the ground floor of Sky Cafe. We paid 145 quetzales for the adventure – only about $20 USD each! We expected to pay another 50 quetzales ($7 USD) to climb Acatenango. However, there was no one collecting admission fees at the volcano, so we ended up giving that fee (plus another 50 q) to our guides at the end of the hike. (Side note, only two young people tipped our guides – even though they were saved the entrance fee. Not cool. There were 16 people in our group.) We also paid a few dollars for a walking stick — which I highly, highly recommend you do.
You get what you pay for. The price included a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, a tent. As a married couple, we had a two-person tent. There were people in our group who had to share a six-person tent that was much heavier than our tent. Our guide Moses ended up carrying it part of the way up. That helped the young women in our group – they didn’t have to carry up a tent. They only needed to carry their sleeping gear, which was pretty light.
The price did not include warm weather gear. Some hostels have gear for sale or loan. In our case, our wonderful Airbnb hosts lent us coats and rain ponchos, and I also had a hat and scarf. We bought yoga pants for me and gloves for each of us at Antigua’s market.
The Acatenango tour price also included food. I had the vegetarian option. It came with two sandwiches on small hero rolls. One had jelly; the other had avocado and tomato. I ate the jelly roll for lunch half way up the volcano, and the other for dinner. Also included: a banana and a cup of yogurt, which I ate in the morning before our hike back down. It was enough food for me, and I also ate a granola bar on the way up and a hand full of peanuts once we reached base camp, before dinner.
Tedly’s bag had the same, but some kind of meat sandwich, minus the jelly sandwich, and with a cup of instant chicken noodle soup for dinner. I was a bit envious of his hot dinner. The avocado sandwich was cold and slimy.
The bags of food also had a package of hot chocolate mix for the morning (no coffee) and a small bottle of water.
It’s recommended to take four liters of water per person. Tedly thought that was too much, so we each carried about 2.5 liters, and I only used nearly two liters. Water was the heaviest thing we carried. Some people in our group carried a whole gallon of water and regretted it. Still, I suppose it’s better to have too much water rather than not enough. I’m sure the guides know what’s needed. Perhaps that four liter recommendation is for when it’s not rainy season and the sun is beating down on you.
It did rain for part of our hike up. Thankfully, it mostly came as we started an stretch of easier trail with less of an incline, and it only rained for less than an hour. I can’t believe how lucky we were. The rain stopped by the time we got to the base camp, which gave us a bit of clear weather to enjoy more eruptions and a view, and pitch our tents. Then it rained again after sunset.
Final summit push
There are several base camps in the area of 11,800 feet. Some are a little higher, some a little lower. I never made it higher than 12,000 feet the morning of day two.
Part of the reason was that I was so tired. I didn’t sleep great, and had no coffee. More importantly, the last part of the hike was in the dark. I can’t see well at night (ok, I can’t see at all) and while the small flashlight I held helped, it was not nearly enough. (Some tours provide headlamps – ours did not.)
I was also incredibly winded during the first part of the steep hike up out of base camp. After a few switchbacks I had to stop to catch my breath while everyone else kept going. I just could not breathe. Tedly literally tried to push me forward, to my displeasure.
When I started going again, I went up a non-trail – I couldn’t see where I was going. I then had to double back. By that time, most of the group was well over my head and I couldn’t see the trail to find how they got there. I tried a bit more, but was still winded and lost the trail again in the dark. Basically that is when I gave up. I wasn’t eager to go off-trail on wet volcanic pebbles, gasping for air and feeling oh, so tired.
I do believe I could have made it with a slower guide. Much slower. But the group was young and spry and they were racing for the sunrise. A thick mist prevented a 4:00 a.m. start because there was zero visibility. By the time we started up at 5:15 a.m., there were precious few minutes before sunrise.
Tedly wouldn’t go up without me. Part of the reason was I needed the flashlight to go back down, and he needed it to go up. So he refused to leave me. He was disappointed, of course. He could have made it up with no issue. There was another smaller group that headed up shortly after dawn that we passed on the way back down to camp. He could have followed them up, but he didn’t. He wanted to stay with me.
There was another woman who came back down from our group, also unable to reach the peak. And there were several people in a nearby camp who watched the sun rise close to the top, like us. Sunrise is to the east of the Agua volcano – another volcano you can see from Acatenango, pictured below.
Back to the summit push. For older people, or for people not in the greatest shape, I’d recommend you make sure your guide will stay with you at your pace to reach the top. Again, you get what you pay for.
The hike down
I kept up great for the first 2,000 feet down. Then my legs started to get tired – real tired. My quads were on fire, and my knees were weak and a bit sore. Florencio led the way down (sometimes on a different and faster, but steeper, trail) and Moses took up the rear. At one point, Moses passed me by. He had a lot of gear and his legs were strong enough to go faster. The faster you go downhill, the easier it is, as long as your legs can handle it.
By the time we were into the last 500 feet or so, I was dead last and falling on my ass every few feet. The steep trail was slippery from the rain the night before and my cheap sneakers weren’t exactly getting a good grip. I can see where hiking boots would be ideal – but we don’t usually hike so we don’t carry hiking boots. I probably would have fallen as much with the proper shoes because my legs were so tired and sore.
Near the end we passed people starting out on their hike up. Out of several dozen people, only one woman looked to be about my age. I’m sure I looked like hell, but when she looked up saw me standing to the side of the trail to let the group ascend, her face lit up and she gave me a huge smile. I smiled back and told her: she’s got this.
Would I do it again?
This was quite an experience I won’t ever forget. I loved it – pain and all. I’m not really a hiker. I’ve done Observation Point and Angel’s Landing at Zion Park in Utah, along with the whole Bryce Canyon. I hiked up Guatemala’s Pacaya volcano. Those hikes were all like ‘walks in the park’ for me compared to this one. My legs are so stiff that while I write this the morning after, I have to stand and stretch every few minutes.
The views the entire way are incredible – not just Fuego and Aqua. The various forests, the volcanic scrub areas, the incredible feeling to have hiked up high enough to be above clouds.
Of course, Fuego is the absolute best view. At the first moment we saw it on the hike up – there was an explosion of lava that we could see in daylight. It caught us off guard that first time, and I jumped. It looked like red vomit coming from a mountain. I never got used to the subsequent eruptions throughout the night and next morning. It’s pretty crazy to see an active volcano.
Yes, I’d do it again. But not in June, and not without a more personalized guide or at least a smaller group with people closer to my fitness level and age. I’d also train a bit more for this adventure. This experience has encouraged me to keep on keepin’ on with the exercise – with my resolution to be the healthiest I can be as I continue to age so I can enjoy an active early retirement lifestyle.
I’m just grateful I was able to go most of the way up – despite not hiking up that last 40 minutes to the summit. I pushed myself, and I did the best I could. And that’s more than good enough for me – that’s fantastic.