When I decided to study abroad in Guatemala I really didn’t think about much else other than hiking volcanoes. I can’t explain it (much like I can’t explain my obsession with wanting to see a real life tornado), but I knew I wanted nothing else out of the trip if not to hike at least one volcano (and not get kidnapped and sold for drugs).
I made that decision before even applying to the program, and even though two weeks in I was getting sicker by the day, and even though a volcano literally exploded 4 days in to my trip, I was not about to NOT hike a volcano while in a country with 37 volcanoes in it, so I started to research.
I got three of the girls in my program to agree to go with me (because my mom said I couldn’t hike a volcano alone…kudos mom…I probably would have died), and I found the prefect hike.
It was up the 12,375 ft elevation El Volcán de Santa María in Xela, a city 3.5 hours outside of Antigua. Overnight. (Which mom also probably would not have let me do, so I didn’t tell her that part…sorry mom).
I ecstatically relayed how I found a reliable travel agency through yelp, and it wouldn’t be *too* expensive if we split the costs and brought food with us, and all I got in return was:
I explained how the clouds roll in around 8 am and since we would be at such a high elevation if we hiked during the day we would spend hours in excruciating pain to get to the top and see nothing. If we started the 5-6 hour hike at midnight however, we would spend hours in excruciating pain and arrive at the top for sunrise. It was a perfect plan.
I emailed the tour agency and set up transportation and a guide, and we spent the week waiting in anticipation. This was happening.
My immune system was weakening, but I was not about to back out of the best trip of my entire life, so I ignored my pain during class, went with the girls to go shopping for food, packed my hiking bag, and on Friday we went to the square to meet up with our shuttle driver.
We waited a while until this man approached and asked if we were waiting for *insert tour agency here*. We confirmed, and he led us to the shuttle. We drove the 3 and a half hours in a packed van, with our driver and his daughter code-switching between Spanish and English in the front seat. It seemed reliable enough.
When we got to Xela around 7 the driver explained he was the owner of the tour agency, which also happened to be a room at the front of his house, and that we could wait there until midnight and try to get some sleep if we wanted. We had only been there for around 45 minutes when the man came back and said change of plans…his family was going out to dinner and we had to leave until 10 pm.
(This was also the first time we got to see him smile, and he had a legitimate fang in the right side of his mouth. Not that this is an important detail, but this may have been the only time in my life I will ever meet a vampire, so actually it is important).
As we came to grips with the fact we were going to be tossed out on the street in a city we knew nothing about, at night, we refused to panic and decided to go eat dinner.
We wandered the city for a while, I ate what would be my last full meal for 4 weeks, got momentarily lost, then returned to the house at the same time as the family, and with just enough time to try to get 2 hours of sleep before the adventure. The travel man was nice enough to loan us sleeping bags that had probably been there since 1993 (and probably hadn’t been washed since then), and we camped out on the concrete and made a fruitless attempt at sleep.
Our tour guide, José arrived right at midnight, and we bundled up and headed out in the van towards the base of the mountain. It was pitch back, so we didn’t see the looming volcano as we drove up, but we did hear what sounded like a pack of feral dogs.
When we got out of the van we realized it was in fact a pack of feral dogs, barking and running around us in circles. The tour guide explained (in Spanish) that they liked to do the hike with tourists because of the chance for food, and sure enough, three dogs took off running toward the “trail.”
We began the climb at 12:37 am, led by the dogs and José. We quickly realized we had on too many layers (failing to put together that it would be cold at the peak not at the bottom), and probably frustrated José as we stopped about 5 times in the first hour to shed clothes and tears.
José told us stories, and we asked him questions. We asked about the dogs and if they would hike up the whole volcano. He said they would, and would probably go again tomorrow if there were hikers then too.
As we sat down to wheeze, he told us how he had climbed the volcano in 2 and a half hours before, but he didn’t mind going slow with us cause it was relaxing (hahaha…seriously…relaxing). We named the dogs and snuggled them to keep them warm, feeding them trail mix. We made the most of the darkness.
2.5 hours in I stopped and took this photo of the shimmery lights of Xela underneath us.
It was slow going. I had to use my inhaler. My friend had to use my inhaler. The dogs had to *physically* nudge us from behind to make sure we all stuck together. José held in his laughter as we stopped every 10 minutes or so to breathe in the thin mountain air.
The hours felt like days as we kept on. My sunny disposition cracked a little bit, though I would be hard pressed to admit it at the time. It was my idea after all. I had to pretend I was having at least a little bit of fun.
I silently wiped my tears as I hummed any song I could think of to get me through. (Mainly the 1978 Gloria Gaynor hit “I Will Survive,” and the classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”).
It was around mile 5 that we hit the boulders. It was also around mile 5 that I regretted carrying a 35 pound pack on my back mainly because I had convinced myself that I would need 5 layers of clothes, and snacks, and 2 liters of water, and a camera bag, and a first aid kit, plus hand-sanitizer and chapstick and all of my hopes and dreams.
We rock-climbed up the boulders for TWO MILES, then we reached an opening and could see the light streaming through the trees.
5:23 am we caught a glimpse of the sunrise. I *audibly* sang Eye of the Tiger until the peak.
5:38 am I reached the top. The after-glow of the sun’s appearing caused everything to be tainted a pretty pink-ish hue.
From the top you could see 13 other volcanoes.
It was by far the most breathtaking thing I have ever seen in my whole entire lifetime.
The pinks turned to oranges, and I watched the clouds moving around me. I was enveloped in mist and cool air, and I had never felt more peaceful.
The volcano connected to Santa María, Santiaguito, was (is) an active volcano, that erupts every 30 minutes. I went to check it out and found José standing there watching Santiaguito erupting, and he told me about the red dust that comes out and sprinkles the surrounding boulders, making them rusty.
I was able to get close enough (safely) to see the scarlet inside of the volcano as it erupted into smoke.
I wandered around for another hour taking pictures, and taking in the experience. I got to see the shadow of Santa María outlined on the landscape beneath me.
After the sky was enveloped with a blanket of clouds, the girls and I ate our stale PB&J’s, relieved our bladders (Yes. I peed on top of the world. I had never felt more invincible…Like I could shot-put a horse or something), we made our descent.
It only took us four hours, compared to the 5 going up, but the hike down was arguably harder because it was so wet and muddy, not to mention straight down. Our knees couldn’t handle it, and neither could the grips on our shoes. We practically slid down the side of the mountain, making a game of counting the amount of times we fell (until we lost count probably due to the rattling of our brains in our heads).
The dogs would run ahead and take short naps while waiting for us, then meet back up and walk with us for a while (being significantly less helpful on the way down, tripping us more than guiding us).
Several twisted ankles later we made it back to the bottom and said goodbye to our three furry friends who had stayed with us the whole 12 hours, then we loaded into the shuttle the travel agency provided for us.
An hour in, the shuttle stopped at a gas station and we were told to get out and wait for the next one (which would come 2 hours later; which we were not told about by the travel man). We called in a panic and they said they would send a taxi for us, but it would take some time. So we waited in a gas station in yet ANOTHER town we knew nothing about, and played cards for over an hour until the taxi came and drove us home.
I got back to my homestay around 10 pm. It was my last night with my first host family but they had long since gone to sleep, so I took a cold shower (and a power-sleep in the shower until the water turned off on me), then passed out.
The next day I moved in my new house, into a room with a curtain instead of a door and a dog with fleas that slept in my bed but I was too tired and sore and elated to care. I had just hiked the 5th tallest volcano in Guatemala, in the middle of the night, seen the coolest views probably on the planet, and lived to write about it on a mediocre future blog. I was living my best life.
This post is dedicated to Tiny Dog, Mouth, and The Coyote. Thank you for keeping us safe, and encouraging us along and walking the whole 10 miles with us. Y’all were troopers.