April 7, 2016
Our next folly after the kayaking jubilee was Volcán Acatenango. Acatenango, at 13,041 ft (3,975 m) is the third highest mountain in Central America. Its great views and proximity to Antigua has long made it a popular hiking destination, but it is especially attractive now because its sister volcano, Fuego, is extremely active and hikers can get great views of the action from the summit.
The topography in the Guatemala highlands is ludicrous. It’s really beautiful, but all the land seems to be at a 45-degree angle. We entered the country on the Panamericana Highway, so the grades weren’t too bad, just a few sustained 8% ers, but once we got onto the back roads, whew! We thought the climb out of the lake would be tough because it’s a huge caldera, so entirely surrounded by huge cliffs and mountains, but that was actually one of the easier parts, just under 10 miles of consistent climbing.
Shortly after clearing the rim of the caldera we dropped into a deep gorge to a river where some women were washing clothes and then had to climb right back out of it on roads with grades often far exceeding 10%. This could have been ok but the pavement was crumbling with huge sand and dust pits everywhere. Our heavy loads make riding this kind of surface almost impossible, so we ended up pushing a lot. Our energy was totally sapped and we had to take several breaks and even considered hitchhiking. We kept going up and down and started looking for a place to camp, but of course any bit of flat land in these parts is in use. We kept at it but then started up a long climb and when we rounded a corner and saw a road cut way above us with tiny little trucks that looked like Matchbox cars, we knew we were done, even though we were only a couple miles from the next town. Luckily this gorge was completely uninhabited and the only sign of use was some woodcutting of the pine forest and a few small coffee groves. We managed to find a very nice little spot on an overgrown and unused footpath that was completely hidden from the road. It was wonderful and we were in bed by 8:30.
April 8, 2016
We were hoping this day would be easier, and yes, we were quickly able to make the climb out to the town of Patzún and sudden civilization and quaint farm lanes, but immediately after town we dropped into yet another gorge for more climbing. We weren’t really expecting this little gorge and the climb out was tough on the hurting legs before we got to enjoy the nice flat, straight road into Patzicia. The cosmos must have misread my thoughts as saying, ‘too flat, fire up the wind!’ because any time we were on a flat stretch, we had a fierce headwind. We had our first view of the twin volcanoes Acatenango through a gap in the terrain as we approached town, and they were beautiful. We stopped in Patzicia and started thinking that maybe we should find a hotel so that we could rest the legs. Unfortunately the only places in town were a couple of sleazy auto-hotels on the nearby Interamericana. Auto-hotels are the kind of place where you rent by the hour and each room has its own garage so nobody can see your car there. We checked them out nonetheless, but we weren’t about to pay 100Q for a windowless dungeon, so we went back to the center of town and took a good break in the central plaza.
We had another solid climb out of town, albeit only for a couple miles, and then it was a brake roasting descent down the side of a steep mountain. We were barreling down and around a corner and boom! there was Acatenango looming massively in front of us. It looked unbelievably huge, like a wall of land filling the entire sky. We both gasped. When we stopped a little later the view became proportionally more believable and we realized that it must have been the ridiculous grade we were descending that had made it appear to belong in some sci-fi story like Ringworld. At the bottom we hit a couple more outrageously steep, but brief climbs that tested our limits. You know you’re about done when you stop three times on a quarter-mile climb. We stopped at a large coffee finca to ask if we could camp. The manager agreed, but the spot she offered was a bit too rustic for even our tastes. She then verified that there was a hotel in Acatenango and that it was only 2 km away! and that it was mostly flat. We know not to trust locals with distances, hills, etc, but we’ve realized that we choose to believe them when they tell us what we want to hear. Luckily this was the rare piece of accurate info we’ve received and we arrived in no time. The hotel was cheap (80Q / $11) and lovely, so we decided to take a day off to rest the legs before hitting the volcano. The owner is this really charismatic 70 year-old gringo, known locally as the Gringo Loco, and we spent the evening hanging out with him and a couple doctors from Antigua drinking beer, watching Fuego erupt and listening to Phish. We’ve found people down here to be more receptive to Phish. They don’t have any silly preconceived notions and are simply excited for someone to share their favorite band with them and most people really enjoy it. Karl Denson and Galactic have also been very well received.
April 9, 2016
We used our day off to ride out with the Gringo Loco to some volcanic hot spring baths and tenderize the poor muscles and chill out about town. We also discovered something that we feel like fools for not having before – choco-bananas! They take frozen bananas on a stick and dip them in chocolate sauce. F##k quinoa, they’re the perfect food! They are phenomenal and cost only 1 quetzal (~12 cents). We will eat them every day until we cannot find them again.
April 10, 2016
We chose to give our legs a rest and catch a chicken bus up to the trailhead. Gringo Loco gave us directions to find a lovely family who would hold on to our stuff and although they never got his message that we were coming, they took us in with a huge smile and made us feel very welcome.
There is not much to say about the hike except that it was four and a half hours trudging up the side of a friggin’ volcano on a surface that alternated between six-inch deep volcanic powder and hard-packed dirt with a nice thin layer small loose stones. Regardless of the surface, dust was constantly blowing in our faces. It was tiring, but really beautiful as we passed through the milpa (corn fields) on the shoulders, through the dense cloud forest and then into the thin pine forest above the clouds. Near the end of the hike as we were traversing Acatenango below the summit we began hearing the booms and feeling the shaking from Fuegos eruptions. Suddenly we rounded a corner and there it was, spewing volumes of smoke and giant boulders into the air.
When we got to the campsites on the back of the mountain there was one other group set up. The guide, Oscar, tried to tell us that the campsites were private, but that we could camp with them. Obviously the campsites in the national park are not private, as any local will tell you, but we figured it would be nice to hang out with some others and not build our own fire. Oscar was friendly and shared hot chocolate and tortillas with us and offered to help set up our tent, which we declined. Of course we later discovered that his interest in our tent was so that he could rob us while we were hanging out at the fire with the others. Luckily we hadn’t left anything really valuable in there and he only got Brandy’s sunglasses, but it was quite disheartening so soon after the previous robbery.
We didn’t discover the missing glasses until the morning, so our evening was unmarred as we sat around the fire chatting with our new friends watching Fuego erupting every few minutes. It was even more impressive at night. We couldn’t tell during the day, but those massive stones were glowing hot when they shot out. At night we were treated to geysers of bright orange blasting out the top and showering down the mountainside. Each eruption shook the ground under our butts and rumbled like thunder.
April 11, 2016 etc.
We stayed up “late” chatting with one of the other travelers and elected to skip the sunrise at the summit which would have required packing up at 3:00 AM and hiking an hour up steep, loose sand. We enjoyed a beautiful sunrise out the front door of our tent from the warmth of our sleeping bags and indulged in a couple more hours of sleep. When we finally got up and discovered the missing sunglasses we became paranoid that Oscar had called his buddies to mug us on the trail, so I spent the slog to the top looking ahead for people peeping out from rocks and trees. It was a hump up there, but definitely worth it for the great views.
We were pleased to not get mugged on the hike down, but it was slow going on the loose gravel that was even more treacherous in that direction. It was too late to ride by the time we got down, but the family who was holding on to our bikes let us sleep in an empty storage room they had. The next day we had a beautiful, mostly downhill ride to Maya Pedal, a non-profit that makes bike-powered machines and hosts cycle tourists, where we nursed our tattered legs for several days.