“I’ve been coming up here with my father since I was ten.” Lionel told me. “Of course, there was no one else up here then”.
Lionel and his dad used to climb the slopes of Volcán Acatenango to gather hard grass for roofing materials. These days, the villages around the volcano’s base use mostly steel sheeting for building. It’s easy to put up and cheap to replace following the earthquakes, eruptions and wet season weather that are all factors in the region.
As we made our way along a slim path on the mountain’s edge past trees that had seen better days, I asked Lionel about the wildlife of Acatenango. “We used to see quite a bit. Racoons other small mammals and all types of birds. These days the more people come up here, the less we see”. As if to demonstrate his point, a few solitary birds silhouetted against the mist made a pretty, but lonely mating call.
He explained that the sinister-looking trees were a relatively recent issue. In 2005, a fire had decimated much of the flora on the volcano’s higher slopes, leaving burnt stumps and wiry branches. I could see that regrowth was happening, albeit somewhat slower than I would have expected in fertile volcanic soils.
I was curious as to what measures were being put in place to try to keep Acatenango’s native flora and fauna alive and Lionel gave me a whimsical smile. On paper, the local authority limit hiker numbers to forty per day, although he was pretty sure this wasn’t followed strictly. In theory, anyone can set up a business guiding hikes up to the summit and expand their groups as time goes on.
Even the young, fit group that I was hiking with consisted of seven guides and almost thirty tourists. The company I’d opted to hike with was Gilmer Soy, one of the better choices within a collection of Antigua-based outfits who guide tours. Set up locally in his home village of Alotenango, Gilmer employs local people and puts his profits back into improving sanitation, schooling and access to running water in the community.
Although he’s clearly community-conscious and sends cash to good causes, business was obviously booming. This had meant saying yes to much larger groups of hikers than previously. In a year where several global tourist destinations, such as Maya Bay in Thailand, have had to shut completely to save their environment, I couldn’t help feeling like part of Acatenango’s problem.
My spirits lifted when we approached our campsite for the night. Only a small line of tents sat inconspicuously on the mountainside. A tarpaulin sheltered us from the chilling wind as darkness fell and as far as I could tell, we would leave only a small circle of fire cinders behind us. The toilet was of course, a long-drop.
The main reason that people hike Acatenango is to see its very active neighbour, Volcán Fuego, erupt. As the sky turned first orange, then purple around Fuego’s silohuette, I listened to its thunderous rumbles. Smoke and ash billowed from the crater, dispersing into the dusky sky. I felt privileged to be watching such a raw spectacle. Nature at its most threateningly beautiful.
However this same privilege is part of the problem. As more of the global population are able to travel and being outdoors becomes an impressive lifestyle choice on social media, how do we possibly limit our footprint on nature? The Inca Trail, for example, employs a strict process and encourages hikers to take alternative routes, before the Inca’s ancient steps disappear for good.
The next morning at 4am, I began the final slog to the summit. I battled with the altitude and my tired joints to make it before the sun broke over the horizon. Even in the pre-dawn darkness, I knew I wasn’t alone. I saw other groups joining our trail. More guides appeared from strategically placed campsites that we hadn’t seen the previous day. Luckily, I was too focused on breathing deeply to feel guilty about my own impact as I trudged ever upwards.
The view of the rising sun from Acatenango’s ridge above the clouds was reminiscent of a view from an aircraft window. Expansive ranges of more active volcanos created blue waves in the distance. Under my feet, an other-worldly permafrost crisped and crunched. I felt close to the fading moon and could clearly see my summit’s shadow on the clouds below.
It was one of my most memorable travel moments and I could see why this hike had become so popular. With the weather on your side, there’s no other dawn like it. I looked around me at what was definitely more than forty hikers in a similar state of icy bewilderment. Like me, they knew they were lucky. None of us could be blamed for wanting to be there.
So what does the future hold for Guatemala’s most rewarding hike? While Acatenango can never return to the days that Lionel and his father remember, I hope there will be a focus on saving its remaining wildlife and ensuring that generations to come can feel as lucky as I did to visit its summit.
For now however, I’m just happy to have been one of its privileged pilgrims.