My alarm went off at 6am. Despite how impossible it was for me to fall asleep with the Halloween festivities going on, I tiptoed around the room as I packed my bag for the hike. The tour company I booked with was coming to the hostel at 7am. Side note, I paid 200 quetzales ($26) for my trip. Other hostels / tour companies may charge anywhere between Q150 ($20) – Q360 ($48). My advice is that you go with the cheapest option. The only differences are in the quality of food they give you (you get three meals) and the tents.
At 7:30am, a guy came into the hostel and told me to hop in his van. We drove about 45 minutes away and sat for an hour. “What’re we waiting for?” I asked. “The other people,” he said. A few minutes later, another van arrived with five people inside. “You’re going to go with them,” he said. I wasn’t sure why I waited for an hour for another van to show up, but they must’ve known best, right? Turns out they didn’t and there was some form of mishap that I’d only learn later about. Regardless, no sweat.
I hopped in the van and sat up front with the driver (again?!). “Hablas espanol?” a guy in the back said. “Un poquito, si,” I replied. “Y tu?” “More or less,” he replied. We all became acquainted fast enough. There were three Argentinian girls, and the guy I spoke with was traveling with his girlfriend. They were Belgian. What was most fascinating, aside from the four nationalities in the van, including the Guatemalan driver, was that the Belgian couple had been traveling together for around 18 months. Yes, a year and a half.
“Is all you have that backpack, man?” the Belgian guy asked me. “Yeah, why?” “Because it’s going to be nearly impossible to carry your tent, mat and sleeping bag with it.” I had been told that I needed a proper rucksack for the hike, but that I could also rent one at the bottom of the mountain. So, that was the plan.
“What do you think of Trump?” the driver asked me as we chugged along the bumpy dirt village roads outside of Antigua. By this time, I had spent over a month in Central America and was no stranger to this question. Majority of the people I encountered abhorred Trump. Despite having studied politics in university, I’m not one to discuss them at-length. At least, not on the Internet, because most conversations quickly devolve into a pecking party, of sorts, and end up sucking away my time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere.
A quote on this from Chapter 3: “There’s nothing more ruinous than a shouting match or people constantly vying to be right opposed to actually listening to learn.” So, I typically prefer my conversations to take place face-to-face where someone can’t hide behind a screen and / or Google any self-serving “facts” to prove (or simultaneously disprove) their points. Anyway, I quickly shared my opinion with him and carried on. An hour later, we were at the base of the volcano.
“You need a better bag,” Prudencia, our guide said. He was an older man with small eyes, tanned skinned and a youthful demeanor. There were a handful of young guys with shops around us, and I spotted a rucksack. “How much to rent?” I asked the kid who seemed to own it. “$15” he replied. The money seemed like a lot to me, especially given the fact that I did have my own, albeit small, bag. I shook my head and walked away.
Everyone in the group was securing their sleeping bags, mats and tents to their bags, and I stared at my own equipment wondering how the hell I could make it happen. “Do we each have our own tents?” I asked out loud. “No, just two. One for the three Argentinians and one for the three of us,” the Belgian guy said. Looked like we’d all be getting real cozy at night. Better for warmth. “Okay, I’ll tie the sleeping bag and mat to my bag and walk with the tent up. I’ll hand it off if necessary.” Prudencia then came over, saw what I was trying to do, and helped tie everything together. It wasn’t perfect, but it’d do.
We began our ascent. After only about ten minutes, the majority of us were a bit tired. The sun was beating down on us, and each step we took only made us perspire more. The thing was that when we’d stop, we’d become cold due to the altitude, with the sweat on our skin making us even colder. So, we had to press on. The hike up was supposed to take around four hours, but a few people in the group wanted to take their own time (as they should have, it was also their experience), so we took a good amount of breaks.
We eventually made it to a point where there were about a dozen other hikers hanging out; they were on their way down. “Mateo!” I heard someone call from afar. I looked up and saw an English friend I had met back at the Las Marias Caves (Chapter 2) walking towards me. After my past few days of traveling, it was nice to see a familiar face. “Do you have gloves?” he asked. “Uh, no. Didn’t think I’d need them,” I said. “You definitely need them, man. When you get to the summit at 4am, your hands are going to freeze to the point of not being able to move them.” All I could said was, “Damn,” as I thought of a few, or maybe all, of my fingers having to be amputated. “Here,” he said, putting a pair in my hands. “Thanks, man. How much do you want?” He shook his head and laughed. “Don’t worry about it, man. Have fun, it’s a tough one.”
As my group prepared to continue our journey, I spotted a few people holding walking sticks. “Were those helpful?” I asked one of them. “Yeah, take mine,” one guy said as he threw it towards me. “We won’t need it as much on the way down.”
The beginning of our hike up Volcán Acatenango
As my group resumed our hike, I was in a bit of awe at what had just happened. One guy I had met, but barely knew, freely offered me his gloves, and another just gave me his walking stick. The generosity of it all was a bit overwhelming. I heard the words, “This is what it’s all about,” echoing throughout my head again. Helping others without hesitation isn’t a nuisance. It’s not a burden, but more so an obligation as a human. There are always those in need, and if we’re in a position to help improve their lives, even a little bit, why not?
Having worked in New York City for so long, I lost sight of that. We get so wrapped up in what we’re doing. Our current job, project, relationship, etc. And, this oftentimes causes us to block out everyone and everything that doesn’t conform to the boxes we’ve created. It’s sad, but not irreparable. The trick is to be able to view someone as a human, and treat them as such. If we begin, or continue, to do that a little more, the results will surely be surprising.
One would think that with an increase in elevation, nature would begin to become a bit more desolate. But, what was so unbelievable about Volcán Acatenango was that the higher we went, the more beautiful the flowers and trees became. There were these beautiful little yellow flowers (insert photo below) that were swaying in the harsh winds and persisting despite their size. I had to stop and stare and them for a bit. How could something so seemingly insignificant thrive in the harshest conditions? At this point, we were well above the clouds and could make out a handful of other volcanoes off into the distance. It all felt so special.
We stopped at one of the break points, where a man and his children were brewing Guatemalan coffee and warming up tortillas. Pumped up with adrenaline, I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. It’s funny how delicious almost anything tastes when real hunger is present. The group threw back a few cups of scorching coffee (I don’t drink it, but I respect it) and we munched on tortillas and a homemade pico de gallo. With food in our stomachs, we continued.
“How old are you?” I asked Prudencia. “Sesenta,” he replied. “60? No way,” I said, half-jokingly. After going on a few hikes like this, namely one in Nepal with a guide who looked weirdly similar to Prudencia, I trained myself to not be surprised by strong old men and women. Men and women who could outrun me on a mountain just as they could outrun me in patience and understanding. “En serio,” he screamed back as he ran up a series of rocks as jagged as Jaws’ teeth. I jogged after him while almost busting my ass and falling to a painful, puncturing death. “You’re a good climber, Mateo!” he screamed.
Above the clouds
Just as the sun began to set, we encountered a man and woman. The man was carrying a huge jug of rum. For warmth, no doubt. They were part of a larger group of Jehovah Witnesses; about 30 of them. He offered myself and the others a swig and I gladly imbibed. The rum was warm and felt like fire in my chest. My group surveyed the others. Many of them didn’t seem to have jackets, and there certainly weren’t enough tents. “They’ll freeze tonight,” Prudencia mumbled. “Especially because of where they plan on sleeping. On the cold part of the volcano.” “And us?” I asked. “Ten more minutes until we get there. We won’t freeze,” he replied.
Once again, we were off. Ten minute later, we made it to a clearing that had a perfect view of Volcán Fuego, the active volcano we came to see. Before setting up our tents, the group took a long look at where we were. The sky was a fiery orange like I had never seen before (seriously), and Volcán Fuego began to erupt. Not lava shooting into the sky eruptions, as it had been doing days before, but large plumes of smoke that looked like a house on fire. The view mixed in with the altitude made the whole scene feel dreamlike. “How did I get here?”
Breathtaking sunset with clouds hovering over volcanoes in the distance
Volcán Fuego doing its thing
The tents were pitched and Prudencia had a fire going. To be honest, fire has always been somewhat of a nuisance to me. Too smoky. Too hot. Too much. But, that night, it was my savior because the volcano was extremely cold despite it not being the “cold part,” as Prudencia told us. We passed around rum, boxed wine (the Argentinians had the foresight to bring it), Quetzalteca Tamarindo (Guatemalan liquor made from tamarind) as well as a joint (the Argentinians were well-equipped).
With the fire licking and cracking at the air, the atmosphere was sublime. So much so that I was inspired to tell an entire story (my Yerba Mate journey) in my imperfect Spanish. While I know it wasn’t perfect, it ended in clapping; perhaps they were clapping because it was over. Who knows?
Prudencia after having lit our fire. “It’s lit!”
We all climbed into our tents and a gentle rainfall ensued. At 4am, Prudencia started the fire back up and screamed for us to wake. We were heading to the summit. A few people opted out, so it was just Prudencia, two others and myself. “It’s dangerous, cuidate,” Prudencia warned us. And, it was a bit dangerous, but not an overwhelming amount. With each step we took, loose lava rocks slipped out from beneath us. The best way to counteract this is by testing each step before you actually take it. And patience.
Sticking to this formula, and shining the light of our iPhones, we made it to the top. Once there, it was honestly like a different world. The fog was the thickest I’ve ever seen it. To the point where someone would be arms-length in front of me and disappear (see photos below). The wind was raging and there was no way we’d be able to see Volcán Fuego, even if it was erupting before our very eyes. We stayed a while and then decided to descend. I realized that, despite the fog, I was still able to take some photos. So, I began to stop and snap a few. Eventually, I lost the group. “There’s only one way down” I told myself.
Selfie on top of the volcano with fog thicker than molasses
After slipping and sliding for ten minutes, I heard Prudencia’s whistle (it was very distinct) and the others calling me. I hiked towards their voices, and we eventually reunited. We made it back to camp, sat around the fire, dried off, and descended back down to the bottom in three hours. It would have been easier to have never started. It would have been easier to have quit. The novelist and poet, Ranier Maria Rilke, says that we must do the difficult things in life. That they are the only worthwhile endeavors to ever pursue. I like that. Whether it be a volcano or a seemingly-impossible task, the only choice we have, if we want to truly grow, is to rise and surmount it.
I started off this entire series with the question, “Why Guatemala?” After having traveled a portion of the country, I already feel confident in my ability to answer. The country was unlike anything I had ever imagined. It is a place of beauty that sports ways of life as varied as its landscape. The people were relentlessly kind, the other travelers I met were exciting and there was never a dull moment at any point (you know it was a good trip if you can say that and mean it). It’s on the top of my list of countries to visit again, because there’s so much that I wasn’t able to see, e.g. Lake Atitlan, Volcán Pacaya, Guatemala City.
A corny, but true, public service announcement (PSA): If you open your heart and mind to the world in the ways you do your ears and eyes, you may be surprised at what enters you. By “you,” I mean your whole being. Your soul. In Guatemala, I learned to trust the world again (remember all of the times when I forced myself to fight apprehension?). Something I had forgotten long ago. Trust the world and you’ll be amazed by what you’ll see, learn about yourself and, most importantly, who you’ll meet. The cost-benefit analysis of trust fluctuates, but if we can train ourselves to see the best in others, I’m sure it’ll work out in our favor more times than not.
Mateo Askaripour is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanoes in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his book. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at www.SwagPapi.com. Check out the original post of Adventures in Guatemala! bjorgbud made a real revolution in the industry.