It was getting harder to breathe, and I could feel the loose volcanic tuff of Mount Acatenango in my hiking boots. I had taken them off a half-dozen times to get rid of the rocks that poked the bottom of my feet, only to have to do it again a few miles later.
The day had been interspersed with light rain, which served nicely to cool us off in the humidity on our way up the mountain. My boyfriend and I had signed up for this climb with only a passing glance at the difficulty level in the brochure provided to us at our hostel, and I was beginning to question whether I should have paid the money for this particular adventure. I was an avid hiker, but Daniel was not, and I could hear his swearing mixed with the rumble of the nearby volcanic Mount Fuego.
“How much longer?” he asked as we stopped on a flatter section of the trail and we were allowed the opportunity for some deep breaths.
“Not much,” I lied. I had no idea. Our guide had left us far behind after realizing that we weren’t going to match his speedy pace. We still had plenty of light, and it almost seemed a shame not to take our time, enjoying the views and strange wild flowers that dotted the hillsides.
We had chosen Guatemala because it seemed a bit more off-the-beaten path than some other Central American countries like Costa Rica or Belize. I had also wanted to test myself after hearing that the hiking here was some of the best in the world. For me, traveling is about pushing your own boundaries and discovering what you are capable of. However, this expedition was challenging me in ways I wasn’t expecting—and clearly testing my relationship, as well.
A cool mountain fog began to creep in and cover the trail. I loosened the straps of my pack to set it on the ground and situate myself on a nearby boulder. Daniel did the same, and we passed our large bottled water back and forth in silence, overlooking the valley beneath us. We were so high up that we could barely make out the undisturbed villages below, nestled amongst the layers of jungle. Birds called to each other above us in songs that sounded very foreign.
“Don’t ever make me do this again,” Daniel finally commented. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not—he had been very excited about making it up to Mount Fuego and getting the chance to see some lava erupt from its cone. However, from the look on his face, I could tell he was wishing he had opted to stay back in Antigua.
“Okay,” I replied. I couldn’t say I blamed him. The fog was now beginning to cling to our clothing, wrapping us in a wet blanket that we couldn’t shake. I found myself shivering and eager to get to the top of the volcano.
After strapping on our packs again, the rest of the hike seemed easier than the beginning. Though the air was thin and the fog made it impossible to see farther than 30 feet in front of us, the gradient remained about the same. Only when we reached a last, steep scramble did we realize that we had reached the campsite for the night.
We huddled by the fire with the rest of our group, drinking cheap wine that stained our lips and kept us warm. Mount Fuego and the views that we were promised seemed like a sham, and the constant drizzling of the rain was enough to make me wonder if I had challenged myself too much on this trip. Nature had won out—and now I had a cranky boyfriend to contend with, to top it all off.
That night, the tent shook with wind and rain that kept us wide awake. No matter how we tossed and turned, we couldn’t seem to find relief in sleep. It was several hours before we were awakened by shouts and murmurs from the other campers at the site. Groggily, we opened the flap to our tent to see that the clouds had cleared, and that the morning light was starting to emerge.
Mount Fuego stood before us, hidden until this moment. A large plume of smoke crept up from its opening. It was massive—I had to crane my neck just to get the full view. Grabbing my camera, I gently nudged Daniel awake.
“I think you should come outside,” I said softly.
The sunrise now decorated the sky like a bold work of art. Deep oranges, pinks, and yellows served as the perfect backdrop for the dramatic Fuego. I snapped some shots as Daniel climbed out of the tent, rubbing his eyes.
“Oh,” he said.
It felt unreal. The ring of volcanoes remained peaceful, with only the smoke show of Mount Fuego indicating any sense of life. The colors of the sunrise grew brighter as the sun began its own climb to Acatenango.
I glanced over at Daniel. He was smiling broadly, the tiredness suddenly gone from his eyes. After a moment, he looked back over at me.
“You know,” he said. “I think I could do this again.”
Header image by Alex Schnee.