Pacaya: Hiking an Active Volcano

Like many people who visit Guatemala, hiking an active volcano was at the top of our list of things to do.  Unfortunately, the one we wanted was a little too active.  We had originally planned, months in advance, to do an overnight hike on Acatenango with Gilmer Soy and Soy Tours, who I had read nothing but good things about (mostly from Bex at The Ordinary Adventurer).  The plan was to hike Acatenango and get a great view of the uber-active volcano Fuego right next to it.  The night before, from our hotel balcony, we were able to watch Fuego spew lava into the air and got more and more excited for our trip.

Fuego, the morning of our original hike

Unfortunately, the next day, Fuego was shooting out a ton of ash.  There was an evacuation order for the towns below as of 5:30 that morning due to Fuego’s recent activity, and as we waited to be picked up for our hike at 7:30 we got an email from Gilmer saying the government had shut him down from the hike that day.  Perfectly poor timing on our part, but what are you going to do? All in all, it’s a pretty bad-ass reason to miss a hike, and Gilmer offered to take us the next day when everything cleared up—we couldn’t go because it would have gotten us back to town after our shuttle was scheduled to leave, so we had to part ways.

A quick visual guide to the leg pain we’ll be experiencing

We scheduled a hike to Pacaya (the easier of the local volcanoes) for the following day (see below for more information on this)—we were determined to do some kind of hiking and not waste the gear we brought—and were picked up at 2:30 to make our way about an hour out of Antigua to the easier of the volcanoes.

Before you get into the park, it should be noted that there are a bunch of kids out front selling walking sticks for 5Q (about $0.75 US)—buy one.  It’s not only a great investment, but it helps the locals.  There are also people with horses that they will rent you to get you through the toughest part of the hike, which is about 1,600m of climbing in less than three kilometers, repeating “Taxi! Taxi!”and following most of the way up in case you change your mind.  And while I’m not in the best shape—once two other girls in our group rented the horses, I was pulling up the rear—I never fell so far behind that I felt I needed to get on a horse.

The view from one of the lookouts on the first part of the hike

The first part of the climb up, while the easiest of the volcanoes, was still a bitch.  It was mostly sand and volcanic ash, so getting any kind of decent grip was a challenge to say the least.  It didn’t help that there was a horse behind me, nudging me to go faster.  Clearly, he didn’t know what people from Philly do to horses.  But I huffed and puffed—glad to have quit smoking a year ago—and made it to the top, sweating my ass off and wondering why I brought along a jacket.  After we got to the highest point we’d reach,we went back down and ran into the Lava Store, a small shack with snacks and souvenirs (and beer).  After that, down more sandy ash-covered paths, we arrived at a field of lava rocks.

This wasn’t just like walking into a different landscape—it was like walking onto a different planet. The lush forest that had been shading us the first part of the hike was now replaced by an endless field of lava rock, black and bleak. Heavy fog was rolling in above us and the sun was beginning to set, giving the area an even more eerie feeling. We hiked up a path through the rocks to a small vent on the side of the volcano where we did the most touristy thing possible and roasted marshmallows over the heat, all while catching a few glimpses of actual lava rolling down the mountain above us.

As the sun dipped farther, we made our way back. Luckily, I had a light and Kaitie had a headlamp, so we were fine on our walk. After the rocks, we descended via a sandy path down to where our van was waiting, by now in pure black darkness. We arrived back in Antigua around 8:30, so a six-hour round-trip, tired, happy, and ready for tacos.

Post Script: The owners where we were staying suggested Alex at A Viajar Guatemala if we wanted to book a different hike, so we went there to do a hike up Pacaya for $30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US. While we were easily able to schedule the Pacaya hike, Alex tried to push a bunch of other stuff on us, and then even though we had already paid him for the service and were using his company, he started to badmouth Gilmer Soy for no reason, even claiming some random guy sitting next to him was Gilmer’s brother and they didn’t get along, as if that had some bearing on Gilmer’s ability to lead a hike. The whole exchange left a bad taste in my mouth, but we were determined to hike.

The cost ($30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US) included a guide but not the fee to get into the park (50Q per person), and a lot of people on our trip seemed extremely unprepared not only to pay the fee, but to do the actual hike (no warm clothes, no snacks, no idea where we were going). Once we got in, our guide turned out to not know any English, but we were able to follow along just fine for what we needed.

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 2

How did we get on a glacier? Check out the recap of day one here.

On Sunday morning, we awoke in the van to a much better day than it had been a night: the rain had moved out and, while it was a bit chilly at the campground, the overcast clouds were not threatening any more rain. We had some granola bars for breakfast and some G7 instant coffees (which we had discovered in Vietnam and are the best instant coffee I’ve ever had) and walked across the campground to the Mountain Guides HQ.

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Climbing on a glacier. Photo courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

After being fitted for harnesses and helmets and crampons, we drove a few minutes away to the base of Skaftafellsjökull, a glacier tongue coming off of Iceland’s largest icecap, Vatnajökull. It’s also the filming location of the ice planet in Interstellar, which isn’t hard to imagine: once you’ve walked a small ways into the glacier, it’s easy to think you’re on another planet.

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Atop a ridge.

The hike we chose was four hours, and was luckily the best weather we had our entire trip.  The sun was out (somewhat) and there wasn’t even the threat of rain.  I think at one point I even got warm enough to unzip my jacket.  We had an intermediate hike, which included being tied off to ropes on the side of the mountain and walking next to some pretty intense-looking cravasses, and even walking down into one.  Being obsessed with Everest, it was a fun experience to be tied to ropes, all geared up and walking around in crampons.

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Walking next to a large cravasse. Fear of heights: activated.

The glacier hike was definitely the highlight of our trip, and I would suggest it—even this particular one—to anyone visiting Iceland.  Our guide was excellent, the hike was more than just a meandering, easy-going sightseeing jaunt, and we got to walk around on top of (and inside) a fucking glacier.  Incredible.

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Exploring an ice cave in the glacier. We assumed it was one of Bjork’s homes.

Afterwards, we stopped by the incredibly conveniently-placed Glacier Goodies food truck right between the campgrounds and the Mountain Guides offices.  Starving from our expedition, I got a cup of lobster bisque (delicious) and an order of fish and chips (pretty good).  I did, however, miscalculate the exchange rate and what I thought was $5 US was actually closer to $50.  Oops.

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After lunch, we took some surprisingly warm showers at the campground (which were added to our camping fee for just a few dollars) and moved on to make our way through more of Iceland.  We stopped at Drangshlíð, a massive rock in the middle of a field with small houses erected around and, it seems, inside part of the rock.  The houses were worn down and covered in moss, and have elven folklore attached to them.  Once again, walking around in the area, with no one else around, seeing this quiet landscape during an overcast day, it was easy to imagine being part of some other world.  Much of Iceland can give you that impression.

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We made a few more random stops to get out, stretch our legs, and take in the endless landscape of overcast green—Andy had become particularly enamored with the local moss—and then found the Skjol Campgrounds.  As we were setting up our van for the night, it began to rain pretty heavily, but the inside of the van stayed dry.  We ended up eating dinner in the small bar/restaurant at the campgrounds, having some overpriced pizza and Gull beers, but they both hit the spot.  We all fell asleep to the sound of rain on the van.

Can we top a glacier? Possibly, since day 3 has a surprise ending…

Trekking with Sapa Sisters

We departed the overnight train from Hanoi in Lao Cai and hopped in a van for an additional 20-30 minutes before arriving at the Graceful Hotel, the headquarters of Sapa Sisters.  We were allowed to offload and lock up our large packs and grab some breakfast at the hotel before we were underway. Once everything was ready, we met up with Zao, our guide, and began to walk out of town.

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Sapa Sisters is a trekking company in the Sapa valley owned and operated by female Hmong guides.  The company was started by two visiting artists and four Hmong women to empower native females in a culture that traditionally sees them as belonging to their husbands.  The company gives the women an opportunity to make a fair salary by using their knowledge of an area they’ve spent their entire lives in. They offer multiple treks and tours, homestays, and other activities.  We chose a two day/one night tour with a local homestay.

mudWe were offered the option of sticking to roads or taking a more difficult path through the valley.  We initially chose the more difficult path, but after sliding repeatedly down a hill and starting to get a little too muddy right off the bat, we went back with the roads.  Usually, I’m pretty steady on my feet, and I just couldn’t stay upright. We felt this was a bad sign for LeeAnne, who is as clumsy as they come. It had just rained and everything was wet and overcast, so we decided to play it safe.

As it was only the two of us with our guide Zao, we got a very personalized experience.  We could have a chat if we wanted, ask questions, and hear her story. We made our way down winding mountain roads, mostly dirt, through rice paddies and past oxen.  Even when drab and overcast, the beauty of the valley was apparent. It was unfortunate that some people didn’t see the value of not throwing trash everywhere, whether it was in the streams or on the side of the road.  I wasn’t sure if it was the tourists or the locals, but it was sad to see nonetheless.

Around lunchtime we came upon a small village and had lunch at a local restaurant. The noodles were delicious and the beer was cold, which was pretty much all we were asking for at that point.  It was nice to have a few minutes to sit around.

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As we walked the second part of the day, we moved into a more populated area known as Ban Ta Van. We passed a schoolhouse and learned more about the area from Zao before eventually arriving in the early afternoon at our homestay. The place seemed large by local standards, and had two floors with probably eight beds in total – it was clear this woman ran a homestay as her job.

Left on our own, LeeAnne and I decided to walk around the area for a bit and see what there was to see.  We talked to some people who were staying and working for free room and board, and stopped at a bar across the street for some local beer.  When we got back, we found out two German girls were sharing the homestay with us after originally being put in another home that they had misgivings about.  We hung out, drank beer, and then the homestay mom cooked us dinner.

homestay dinnerAs someone who loves food–especially Vietnamese food–it was a treat to watch her cook.  All she had was a wok and an open fire, and she made us a feast. We were taught how to roll spring rolls, and she made those in addition to tofu with tomato, chicken with veggies and fruit, garlic fried cabbage, pork with onions, and rice.  After stuffing ourselves, she offered us a round of “happy water” – a local type of moonshine.

We slept well. The heavy blankets at our homestay kept out the cold, and after a day of trekking and a night of drinking with our new friends, we were ready to pass out.  Our sleep lasted uninterrupted until about four in the morning, when the rooster next door started to crow. And apparently, roosters aren’t like they show in cartoons – they don’t only crow once when the sun comes up.  They start crowing when it starts to get light, and then continue crowing forever.

breakfast

After a breakfast of banana pancakes (which seems to be the accepted idea of a Western breakfast) and instant coffee (G7 brand, which I still buy), we decided to team up with the German girls and their guide for the last part of our trek.  We walked through some more scenic areas (which was pretty much all that Sapa has to offer), snacked on raw sugarcane, and generally enjoyed being where we were, as David Ford sings, “Far from the traffic and the smoke and the noise.”

bikeAfter stopping at a small hut for lunch, we were able to choose either taking a van back to the Sapa Sisters HQ or hopping on the back of motorcycles and riding back that way – LeeAnne and I, of course, chose the motorbikes. Winding back down through the hills, watching the scenery go by, and enjoying all of it; once I figured out how to balance, the ride was amazing.

Once back, we hung out in Lao Cai for a few hours with our new friends, having a few drinks and some food until it was time to take our van ride back to the train station. Once in that area, we waited once again for an overnight train back to Hanoi, of course accompanied by more drinks with our travel friends.

Zao

If you’re going to be in Vietnam, especially in the north, Sapa is absolutely worth taking the two or so days our of your trip for a visit.  The area is quiet, friendly, and above all else, beautiful. Sapa Sisters would also be highly recommended – you will get a very knowledgeable guide, a great time, and you’ll be helping local Hmong women who really need it. Make this a part of your experience.

You can learn more about Sapa Sisters on their website, which has all the information you need about their history, their mission statement, what they offer, and even transportation.  Do check them out.

The Inca Trail

To quote Jim Gaffigan, “I’m what you would call ‘indoorsy'”—but when my then-wife LeeAnne suggested we take a vacation to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I agreed instantly.  I’ve always had a thing for seeing historical sites, and Machu Picchu is right up there among the best of them.  The fact that we would have to hike for four days to get there just added to the allure of the place.

As the Inca Trail is well protected, there are a limited number of passes issued to hike the trail each day, and you must go with a registered guide.  We picked Intrepid Travel based on a friend’s recommendation, and they were great.  From our tour guide Elias to the unbelievable porters, the trip was made much better with them in it.

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We began with a day and a half in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude.  At the time, we were both smokers and had had almost no experience at altitude (we did all of our practice hikes outside Philadelphia), so the day and half was not enough.  But we made it work with plenty of altitude medication and coca tea.

The night before our trip, our guide dropped off the bags we were to give the porters with extra clothes, snacks, or whatever else we wanted during the hike as long as the bags were under 6 kg. We could also carry our own backpacks with whatever we wanted to have on us.  He went over the route and what we could expect from day to day, and then we were left to pack up.  The hotel we stayed at would be stashing most of our stuff while we were away, so we’d be bringing minimal gear with us.  From Intrepid, we were able to rent sleeping bags, a sleeping mat, and hiking poles.  Everything else, we had.

And then, just like that, it was time to embark.  The hotel let us in the breakfast room early so we could get some food before we left, and that’s when it hit me: diarrhea.  That’s right: I had felt fine the past few days, and then just as I was about to embark on a long trek where I’d be outside in the middle of nowhere for four days, I get hit with a bad case of the tummy struggles.  I went from excited anticipation to absolute dread.  Was it the nerves? The aji de gallina I’d had the night before? The alpaca burger? All the coca tea I’d been pounding? Who knows.  Who cares.  This was about to suck.

11134144_10153145221022209_2780531494105828084_nWe took a two-hour van ride with our guide to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we stopped for a more substantial breakfast, a few trips to the bathroom, and to meet up with the rest of our group.  There were eight of us total, and we’d be joining a group that was on a longer Intrepid trip.  They were nice enough people, but we didn’t end up spending much time with them outside of our camps each night.

We drove up to the trail entrance, had our passports stamped, and were underway. The first day was hot and arid, mostly uphill.  I made the mistake of trying to keep up with the more fit non-smokers on the trip and ended up getting winded pretty quickly, and the altitude (even though we were nowhere near as high as we would eventually go) was getting the best of me. It wasn’t long before I fell behind.  Luckily, LeeAnne was there to keep me going, because I almost immediately wanted to give up.  I absolutely hate the feeling that I am holding someone back, and I didn’t want to feel like that with a group of strangers the entire time.

We stopped to see some ruins, and then we stopped for lunch.  I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I ate what I could in order to have as much energy as possible, and then took a quick nap in an adjacent field.  One of our follow hikers gave me some coca leaves to chew on. They weren’t as good as the tea, but they definitely helped.  Now, the coca leaf is indeed the raw material for cocaine, but the amount in a leaf is miniscule.  The leaf itself is a mild stimulant that combats thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue, but is nothing like cocaine.  Although I did become pretty addicted to coca candy while I was in Peru.

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Day two started with a great breakfast and I was feeling much better, but our guide sent us out with one of our companions a bit early so I could get a head start.  It wasn’t long before the rest of the group caught up with us, though, because we kept going higher and LeeAnne started developing some altitude sickness.  We were slowed immensely by this, and now it was she that needed the convincing not to turn back.  She stuck it out, though, despite having to stop every few meters on our climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which tops out at 4,215m/13,829ft above sea level, the highest I’d ever been outside of an airplane.

At some points, our guide had to make LeeAnne smell rubbing alcohol to keep her wits about her, and it took us way longer to get to the pass than everyone else.  It was also a complete climate change from day one, being freezing cold and windy at the top of the pass.  Having not prepared as well as I should have, our guide lent me his gloves.

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After a brief rest, we went down the other side of the pass to where we were supposed to stop for lunch.  Recognizing that we were struggling—as well as a few others in the group that had some problem—Elias made the decision to camp there for the rest of the night.  This did, however, mean that the porters who had gone on ahead to set up camp for dinner would have to break down the camp and come all the way back.

It should be noted that these porters are nearly superhuman.  They wear sandals for the entire trip and carry 50 kg of gear on their backs and practically run the trail in order to get to the next stop, set up camp, and cook the next meal.  And the meals were not your typical camping food—they were miles above what any reasonable person would expect on a trip like this.  Watching them get through the trail was awe-inspiring, and if you do it be sure to bring enough cash to tip them well.  They are amazing.

Day three, our guide had LeeAnne and I get up even earlier.  This time, we set out with a porter to accompany us and woke up while it was still dark and while everyone else was still asleep to get a 2-3 hour head start.  It was slow going, and we were able to meet pretty much everyone else on the trail with us because we had to stop so frequently and all the groups passed us, making sure we were okay.  Right before our lunch stop (which was supposed to be our dinner stop and camp the night before), the rest of our group caught up with us. Right after we stopped atop the high pass for the day for some yoga.

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Just kidding, we only watched other people do yoga. After lunch, Elias and a porter accompanied us once again as the rest of the group went on ahead. We were slow as cold molasses, but we made it through to camp eventually—tummy struggles, altitude sickness, and all.  Luckily, even though we were there right on the edge of rainy season, it didn’t rain at all.  The combination of being wet and miserable with being on slippery rocks next to some pretty heady cliffs (I’m afraid of heights) would have made the trek that much more nerve-wracking. We heard later from some folks who had experienced rain on the trip that it made everything excruciatingly worse.

On night three, we had one last group dinner and tipped out our porters, who would be leaving the next morning in order to get a train back to the city. That morning, we woke up early—probably around 3am—in order to get in line to get into the actual national park that includes all of the sites.  We climbed along cliffs, up higher, finally coming to the “gringo killer” stairs that lead up to the Sun Gate, which are so steep they basically need to be climbed like a ladder.

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It should be said that, with all the struggles we were having, I was pretty nonplussed by the idea of seeing Machu Picchu at this point.  I stopped caring and figured it would be anticlimactic at best.  At the Sun Gate, which looks down upon Machu Picchu, the clouds were still in and we could see nothing.  We stopped for a brief snack, and at one point the sun came out and the clouds parted and we could see it, and I was immediately enthralled.  The whole thing was so incredibly impressive, it was almost breathtaking.  Once I saw it, all the hard work and the talking myself out of leaving and the diarrhea and everything else suddenly became worth every minute.

We took the walk from the Sun Gate down to Machu Picchu, where we got some touristy pictures and proceeded down to tour the city.  I immediately hated all the people who had taken trains and buses to get there—the ones in jeans, wearing perfume or cologne, the ones who had clearly bathed in the last three days—they didn’t deserve this! They didn’t suffer for it! Jerks.

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Though I don’t have much hard going to compare this to—running a marathon probably comes the closest—hiking the Inca Trail was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  With everything we had to deal with on top of the altitude, it was a struggle to say the least.  But the struggle paid off with one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  If only to prove that I could do it a little quicker.

After leaving Machu Picchu, we grabbed lunch in Aguas Calientes, the town below, and then hopped a train back to Ollantaytambo where a van drove us back to Cusco.  Back at our hotel, it was immediate showers, followed by devouring two massive Peruvian pizzas and a long, hard sleep.  By morning, of course, my tummy struggles had ended—but not my love of coca tea.

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All photos taken by LeeAnne.