We continue my travel stories from lockdown series with a story from peak The Partying Traveler days. I’ve chilled out significantly since starting this blog, but every time anyone questions my qualifications as the self-proclaimed Partying Traveler, I go back to this story.
Flash back to spring 2017. I was in Central America, hopping from town to town wondering why the hell every town decided to set up shop right next to a volcano. Let’s use La Fortuna in Costa Rica as our first example. They decided to change their name to La Fortuna (The Fortunate) because they considered themselves lucky. Why? Because Arenal Volcano erupted and instead of destroying them, they destroyed the next town over. Shouldn’t you maybe consider changing location instead of just your name?
Leon, Nicaragua is another example. People actually surf down the volcano there for fun. Ometepe Island in Nicaragua is pretty much just all volcano. I couldn’t even begin to list all of the ones in Mexico. But anyway, let’s get to the point. This story brings us to Antigua, Guatemala. This beautiful town is nestled in between not just one, but three volcanoes. We’ve got Volcan Agua, Volcan Fuego, and Volcan Acatenango. From what the names suggest, you can probably tell that Volcan Fuego is the one that is still spitting fire to this day. Volcan Acatenango is the one where my poor choices led me.
I was in Antigua and I was running out of time. It was Saturday morning and I had to fly out Monday night for Mexico. There was one thing on my bucket list, and that was the monstrous hike up Volcan Acatenango. I’d leave Sunday morning for the trek, camp near the summit, and be back by Monday afternoon in time to catch my flight.
This two-day hike was meant to be brutal. My friends who had done it told me that it was one of the most grueling treks they had ever done, if not the most grueling. The harsh incline was made even more difficult by the slippery terrain, high altitudes, and carrying your own packs. That includes tent, sleeping bag, and the recommended 4 liters of water. Yeah, it’s a daunting task for anybody.
Let alone somebody who decided that it was a good idea to go to a rave the night before. And then not leave at the strict curfew of 2 AM that he had set. And decided to take MDMA. And after realizing the mistake that he had made, taken another tab of MDMA, completely eliminating any chances of sleep and responsibility. Oh god, who was I?
As much as Antigua is renowned for the epic hike up Volcan Acatenango, it is just as famed among partying backpackers for its Saturday night rave inside an abandoned swimming pool. Yep, Saturday night. Do the math. Saturday night, there would be a wild party. Sunday morning, I would have to leave to go on a punishing overnight trek.
But hey, just a bit of self-control and I would have no problem. I’m actually quite good at self-control if I avoid the party altogether. But alas, I decided to show up for a few drinks at the Lucky Rabbit with some homies from the hostel. And then decided to pitch in for some paraphernalia to enhance the night. And then decided that it was worth checking out the abandoned swimming pool rave for an hour or so.
You see where this is going, right? The FOMO had gotten too strong. Yet, I could feel the guilt and dread bearing down on me with each passing second. Like when you know something is wrong but it just feels too good to stop doing it. That was definitely the drugs, now that I think about it.
Also, this abandoned swimming pool party was surprisingly legit. Like what the hell, they accepted credit card at the bar? On the surface, this definitely looked like some shady, cash-only type of deal that was kept as low-key as possible. However, they had a full on bar, talented house DJs, and even food vendors selling tortas outside the dance floor area. Outside the swimming pool area amidst the blackness of the night, one could occasionally see orange sparks erupt from the active Volcan Fuego in the background.
And every time I saw it, it was a cruel reminder that I was a complete idiot. My 2 AM self-imposed curfew passed quickly. That curfew didn’t stand a chance from the very beginning. Despite not actually drinking anything at the rave, the hours of 3 AM until 5 AM flew by. I was having too much fun. Again, probably the drugs. I was meant to leave for the hike at around 8 AM, and I honestly can’t remember why I didn’t just go home. I didn’t have any quetzales on me, so that might have played a part. Or maybe I decided that two hours of sleep was going to be just as bad as zero hours of sleep. I’ve already made a dozen bad decisions that night. What’s another one?
Finally, the party started to die down as the sun rose. The volcano was still erupting and the sky was lighting up in its pastel colors. The crowd on the dance floor grew sparse as people sprawled out on the open field. My legs dangled over the empty pool, all the while keeping an eye towards the parking lot to see if I could sneak a ride back into town. I didn’t have a phone at this point so I actually no longer even knew what time it was. For all I knew, I wasn’t going to make the hike.
Unfortunately, I did. I hitched a ride back and got to my hostel shortly after 7 AM. I hastily packed all the things I would need for the two-day trek and considering I had no money, had to beg the hostel receptionist to let me pay when I got back. I had never been as much of a mess as I was that morning. I threw my extra stuff into a locker and lugged my 60-Liter pack over to the hostel where I was to meet the rest of my group.
That walk of shame was the most I’ve ever hated myself up to that point. That self-loathing would only grow. Trust me, it did not compare to how much I hated myself on the way up. Breakfast was included in our trek and I sat in the hostel restaurant twiddling the sliced bananas on my pancakes. There was an empty pit in my stomach from how much I resented myself. I’d finally gotten my phone to work and updated my friends on my poor decisions.
The messages they sent back to me included encouraging words like “if you do this hike and die, I will feel no sympathy for you,” and “you will seriously die if you go through with this.”
Things were looking bleak, but I figured I could surely turn back if I felt I wasn’t fit enough for it, hey? I weighed the options in my mind, and as usual, probably made the wrong decision. After eating about 6% of my breakfast, our guide hauled us into the van for the bumpy two-hour ride to the trailhead. As luck would have it, my entire trekking group was a hyper-athletic group of rugby players from Ireland and the hostel receptionist who was a local Guatemalan. There goes all of my hope of maybe having a slow group that I could keep up with.
It took me no more than ten minutes of hiking before wanting to cry and give up. I hoped I could sleep on the van to the trailhead, but those of you who have taken MDMA before probably know that buzzy feeling where there’s no chance in hell you could sleep no matter how bad you wanted. Not to mention the comedown, which I was currently and unmistakably in. I was in rough shape, that much was undeniable.
I remember that first stretch of volcanic terrain so painfully clear. For every step you took, you’d fall back about 75% of the way. It was like hiking on sand but worse. The nearly 20kg pack on my back was brutal, and I had the bad luck of getting the poles of the tent to weigh me down even further. Despite how badly I needed water, perhaps 4 liters was a bit excessive. And of course, the altitude was playing more of a factor the higher we went up. The summit of Acatenango sits at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. My legs were on fire and we had barely begun.
Once I reached the end of that first stretch, all I could do was shake my head. I wanted to give up so badly, coming within seconds of blurting out that I needed to go back. I shouldn’t have even gone on this hike. Everyone was right and I was a complete idiot.
And yes, spoiler alert, I do finish the hike in the end. I say that now because I am not trying to make this sound like an inspirational story of mental fortitude and pushing through adversity. This is a story of an idiot who made bad decisions and suffered way too few consequences for his bad decisions.
To make things easier, it started pissing down rain. Your boy couldn’t catch a break whatsoever. The only benefit of the rain was if I started crying, I could blame the rain. I don’t remember much of the actual way up. It was one foot in front of the other for hours upon end, and I didn’t have the energy in me to even look around. I remember long stretches of green jungle, wide-open spaces on the face of the volcano, and the occasional shanty shelter to protect us from the rain.
My phone was also going through some stuff at the time and would occasionally just not even turn on for days at a time. This was one of those times. My pictures of Acatenango are limited to the ones on my GoPro that got swept away by a river in Laos a few months afterwards. I didn’t even have the prospect of taking Instagram bangers to keep motivating me along the way. I was just straight up trying to survive at this point.
I welcomed every break that we had along the way. At some point towards the end, I had lagged behind so much that the guide just straight up took my pack for a few minutes until I caught up. In my defense, he commented that my bag was way heavier than it should have been. I had legitimately made this trek as difficult as humanly possible for myself.
We got to base camp at around 4 PM. After setting up our soggy tents in the rain, I passed out immediately. The pitter-patter of the raindrops lulled me to sleep, although at that point, I probably could have fallen asleep inside the world’s loudest vacuum cleaner. The skies were gloomy and you couldn’t even see Volcan Fuego. It seemed like this entire journey was for naught.
I was woken up around 8 PM for dinner, a hot cup of Ramen noodles. I slurped it down before immediately passing out again. The rain had stopped and it had grown chilly, so there was no better reason to cozy up inside the tent and just go to bed. Since I had slept for the better part of the past dozen hours or so, I finally woke up in the pitch black darkness. I needed to go pee and fumbled my way out of the tent.
Those gloomy skies and that endless rain? Gone. The volcano obscured by those clouds? In plain f*cking sight. The mouth of the volcano? Ablaze with violent sparks. The clear sky was littered with stars like I’d never seen before. The rest of the campsite was dead asleep and I had this whole damn view to myself. Volcan Fuego erupted every few minutes. I had never seen anything like this in my life.
It was unfair. Everything had worked out so perfectly for me, and I quite frankly did not deserve them to. Like seriously, I would have slept through this entire thing had I followed a normal sleep schedule and decided to not go out the night before. I’d be asleep at 2 AM like a normal human being instead of gaping in awe at a freakin’ volcano erupting and lighting up the the clear night sky. But here I was. Blessed far beyond what I deserved.
Thankfully, the travel gods evened it out by completely destroying the sunrise hike the following morning. We reached the summit of Acatenango and instead of being met with epic views, we were trapped inside a cloud the entire time. It seemed like the only time the skies were clear and the volcano was visible was from midnight until around 5 AM. My trekking crew really got the short end of the stick.
After the sunrise summit without the sunrise, we packed our bags and headed for home, triumphant.
“Somos soldados,” uttered our guide just before we set off. I basically sprinted down the mountain, my spirits lifted by the ten hours of sleep and significantly lightened pack. Volcanic ash was much, much easier going down than going up. It took us about five hours to reach base camp and only about two or three to get back to the trailhead. The van was already there, waiting to whisk the conquerors of Acatenango back to safety.
“You know, you actually look better after the hike than you did before.” My trek mate couldn’t have summed it up any better. I was thankful to be alive, although I wasn’t sure that I deserved to be.
This was still the craziest thing I’ve ever done to this day, and maybe will be the craziest thing I ever do. I mean, I’m not getting any wilder. Truth be told, I’m probably on my victory lap as The Partying Traveler, but I’ll be telling this damn story to all you youngin’s for years to come. Don’t ever tell me I don’t deserve this blog name.