Saturday, February 28, 2015

Volcano Acatenango

Last weekend I embarked on my overnight volcano trek up Acatenango. The neat thing about this volcano is that it is right next to Fuego (the one with the big eruption a couple weeks back) so you have a good chance of seeing an eruption as Fuego is very active. We were not disappointed. 

We met in Antigua at 6am to get our gear together and pack our bags. We would be taking our own clothes and personal items (sunscreen, toilet paper, snacks, etc.) plus a minimum of 4.5 liters of water (1 gallon = 3.75 liters), parts of the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and some of the food/dinner supplies. However I am well aware of my own limitations and for $25, I hired a porter to carry most of my things. I kept my small bag with my water, some snacks and my camera. Even still, it was quite the brutal trek (for me). 

Acatenango is almost 14,000 feet high at the sumit. We wouldn't go all the way to the summit on Saturday, only to camp at around 12,000 feet. (These are all approximations because they speak in terms of meters here.) We had a group of fourteen pretty fit folks from all over. I was probably middle of the pack age wise and last in the pack fit wise. The porters always bring up the rear and I kept them great company ;). They were sweet and had no problem going slow with me and stopping for all my breathers. They climb up the mountain twice a week. 

The guide was good though and we had several breaks throughout. My usual strategy is to use those breaks to my advantage. I don't like long breaks, just short 1-3 minutes. Otherwise I feel like I lose momentum and it's like starting the engines all over again. So I usually ask to continue on ahead knowing that the group will soon overtake me when they are done with break anyway. But, too many trails on this one, so he wouldn't let me go ahead. I was really nervous I was slowing the group down. But they were great, supportive and in the end I wasn't too far behind (10-15 minutes maybe). I've seen the hike advertised as 4-6 hours. I was hoping to clear 6 and I think we finished in about 5. So I was very happy with how I did. 

Upon nearing camp, we were rewarded with a low rumbling. While it was still very cloudy, it was our first eruption observed. There was another biggie while it was still cloudy. At best, you could see one outline of the side of Fuego; at worst you couldn't see the trees just below you on Acatenango. The guide said the clouds would clear by five and be a fairly clear night. I had serious doubts. But what do you know, all of a sudden things started to clear and we got great views of Fuego the rest of the night. Including a couple more eruptions before sundown. 

So during the day and eruption is just a mushroom cloud of smoke that floats out of the top of the volcano. Cool, but not the flying magma you want :). So we wait for the dark which was close to 7. And we wait. We eat dinner (Thai stir fry that was great!) and wait. We each paid about 75¢ to the porters and they had collected wood for us. It gets cold up there, close to or at freezing. So we were huddled around the fire, making conversation and waiting for the amazing eruption. We got to know each other and told many stories. It was a great time. There was cheap boxed wine. But we had to get up at 4:00 to make our sumit before sunrise. So I was watching the clock, tired from an early day and long hike. About 8:45 I headed to the tent. Shoes off. Tucked myself in. I hear the other girls coming back. Glasses off. Trying to sleep. BOOM! Huge eruption. I shot straight up and stuck my head out the tent door. I see splotches of blurred orange. Dang it! My glasses. I'm a blind biddy without them. They flew out of the sleeping bag as I sat up. Find them. Eruption almost over, I saw a little orange/red. Lay back down. Other girls are mad because they were taking a natural moment (pee) and also missed it. We get all settled in to sleep again. BOOM! Again, shoot up. Again, orange blur. Again, search for thrown glasses. Again, miss most of the fireworks. Ok, I'm now sleeping with glasses on. Lay back down. Settle in. BOOM! I see it! Like orange/red fireworks up in the air and then splayed over the sides of the mountain. It was so awesome. But I was tired and I laid back down and tried to sleep. Unfortunately I didn't get any of the fun red/orange eruption pictures from that night. 

I slept ok. I missed my zipperless sleeping bag. We were up at 4 to hike at 4:30. I quickly fell behind and the guide stayed with me. It was harder in the dark to know which route to take. Seeing the sun come up was really cool. I didn't make summit before sunrise, but still had a great view from above the tree line. 

This is where I stopped to take pictures before the last brutal part up the sand. There are specks of people to the left of the pine tree in the middle of the pic and that's where I was headed. 

I made it!!

Some people camped at the summit. 

We headed back down and there were a couple large explosions while we packed up camp. A super fun hike I would highly recommend. But nap when you arrive, so you can stay up later in the dark and watch for explosions. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Sleeping in the Dark

I've had a crazy time sleeping while in Guatemala! The first two weeks I probably didn't sleep until between 2 and 4 am every night. Then of course I would sleep in until mid morning or lunch time. I've never been one to easily fall asleep. At a sleep over, my friends always fell asleep first. I started to either read or play sudoku....something to focus my mind. Otherwise it runs wild. I think of all sorts of things and never sleep. Focusing allows me to get tired and then fall asleep. It usually takes at least half an hour for me to wind down. I've always envied those people that can lay their head down and be out in a minute.

But here, even reading and sudoku weren't helping. And my room doesn't have any outdoor windows (one window faces inside into the 'courtyard' of the house), so it will stay pretty dark all day if I let it. It is a bit of a vicious cycle too, sleep late, stay up late. 

It was getting annoying though. I was on Twitter and came across an advertised tweet about an app to help you sleep. I checked it out, DigiPill. The app was free but then you pay for the 'pills'. There is a heavy sleep pill. It's almost half an hour of a man talking to you with calming music in the background. I was skeptical but ready to try it. I've used it for almost a week now to get myself to slow down and fall asleep. I've been surprised how well it has worked. Some nights I think it must be at 25 minutes and I will hear it end, but the next thing I know, I'm waking up from having been asleep. There was truly only one time where I listened to it all the way through. I was wide awake then, got up and did something and tried to sleep later. 

I am a little nervous though because it seems like it could be a little hypnotic :). I try not to think about it, lol. 

There are other 'pills' for anxiety, depression, relaxation, a power nap. It is an interesting concept. I don't know if I'll try any others, but I thought I would share my luck with this one. My sleep schedule has been getting better, which makes it easier to get more out of my day. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Botas Nuevas (New Boots)

Last week, the other houseguest and I explored a couple towns nearby. Jocotenango you can walk to. It has a grocery store, some dollar stores and some wood shops - they are primarily known for wooden fruit. We also spotted a piƱata store on our walk through town. It made me laugh how many different kinds they had and the characters.

Then we took a bus from there to Pastores, which is known for leather goods, primarily boots. I haven't been shoe shopping for a while ;). The buses here are old school buses, some of which are painted with all sorts of designs. To get to Pastores it was between 25¢ and 50¢.

We went to lunch in Pastores. It's a very small town and not many places to choose from. The menu was fried chicken, hamburgers or pupusas. I went with a cheese pupusa. It was a tortilla stuffed with cheese that was melted inside. It was pretty good. Only a little over $1.

Some of the boot stores were quite impressive. This one in particular has lots of colors to choose from.

I settled on these (on the floor, front left) at a different store. I went with a pretty plain pair. These boots were actually a little too big (which also had me suspecting they were mens), so they measured me to make a custom pair. I'm pretty excited and a little nervous to pick them up.

In the front of the store the guys were working on different pieces of leather.

On my walk home, I was a little hungry (one pupusa wasn't supper filling and it was close to dinner time). There is a hot dog stand on my street and I walk by it everyday. The door to the house where I stay is just two minutes past here. I stopped and asked for a chevere. It was 8 quetzales for one or 9 quetzales for two. Unfortunately I wasn't that hungry and went with one (~$1.15). It's a very tall bun. They put the hot dog, the ketchup and mustard, then chopped something (I thought she said onion but it looked like cabbage maybe?), then ketchup, mustard and green spicy sauce on top again. It was okay. Definitely a mouthful!

Wednesday I went back to pick up my finished boots (botas). It took them only from Friday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon! And they were under $50. They fit great. And I love them :). They even burned my name on them - so no boot thieves! ;) 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Volcano Pacaya

While we're on the topic of volcanoes, I have plans to climb Acatenango and spend the night the 21st (this weekend). Acatenango overlooks Fuego (they are right next to each other). I'm hoping for a little activity that maybe during the night I'll see some red/orange flares. 

This hike is 4-6 hours (am guessing closer to 6 for me) and climbs I think 1500 meters to 4000m (roughly 5,000 feet and 13,000 feet respectively). I've hired a porter so that I'm not trying to also do this with 40+ pounds of gear. But I'm still nervous. As I've said before, I'm a slow hiker and I'm guessing the other people will be super fit 20 something's. 

There is another volcano, Pacaya. For $10, you can get there and be guided up (plus the $8 park entrance fee). A lot of people do this option. You can do it in half a day, only an hour or so climb up and there are horses available to ride if you're having trouble hiking (for a fee of course). 

There are overnights on Pacaya advertised but they are much rarer. So I decided to use Pacaya for some practice/training.  

Here we are at the top and some guy from another group is trying to stand on his horse for a photo op. (Side note: He was from Wisconsin.) It was really cloudy that day. One of the few cloudy days. So you can usually see Guatemala City and I think Antigua but you couldn't see anything. It was fun to watch the clouds moving and we were able to see the top of Pacaya a couple times.

One of the horses and some of our group - there were fourteen of us.

Headed down to walk on the lava rocks. And hopefully find a hot spot. 

Success! We roasted some marshmallows from a hot spot in the rocks. That's our guide in the green vest. 

A break in the clouds!

I made it :). It was tough. I was last. But I didn't need a horse. They certainly expected me to because one guy kept right on my heels "taxi, taxi" and it was super annoying. 

Taking a break up top. We couldn't see anything. 

This is what the view is suppose to look like with both Fuego and Acatenango in the background. 

This is what it actually looked like :). 

I was back in town by 12:30 and had the whole rest of the day! Actually I tried to nap, couldn't and then was pretty wiped out when Spanish class came at 3:00. 

I jotted down some thoughts throughout the morning to help me with any memorable moments. My Fitbit showed 13,697 steps for the morning (5.8 miles) and 179 floors climbed. I got my first bridge badge!

There was a couple from Minnesota who sat in the front of the van and were the only talkative ones at 6am (they were in their 50s I'd guess). She asked me if I was a student? No. Was I working? No. Oh, was I looking for work? Umm, no. Did I have rich parents? Haha, no. Then I finally explained myself and my 'delayed gap year'. Then some girls behind me said it wasn't delayed - that gap years are for everyone and they want to have one every few years :). (They were Canadian and Australian.)

There was another girl who I got a bad vibe from in the morning. And later on she was telling someone from another group it took us an hour and a half but if you went at a normal pace, you could do it in an hour easy, probably less. I was a bit annoyed since clearly I was the one restricting us from her 'normal pace' and also she was telling this to a lady that looked 60ish and was on a horse. Clearly that lady didn't fit her 'normal pace' either. Unfortunately when you pay the cheap, bulk group price, you get people of all levels. I get annoyed all over again just typing about it ;). 

Hopefully on Acatenango the others will not have hired a porter and their pack weight will keep them from bounding too far ahead of me!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Volcano Fuego

Antigua is surrounded by several volcanoes and there are volcanoes throughout Central America, including Guatemala. The one that is most active around Antigua is Fuego. Some days you can look up and see what appear to be clouds but it is really small levels of activity. Yesterday, I saw this. 

But generally, there's no noticing the activity. Until a couple of weekends ago. Below is a picture I took from the balcony/patio at the house where I'm staying. It is a typical beautiful day here. 

That Saturday, I walked to the nearby town, Jocotenango, to explore and have lunch. I actually came back early (around 2) because my tummy was a little upset about my lunch choice. Then I planned to head back into Antigua for the afternoon. Until I went upstairs and caught a glimpse of this. 

I thought maybe it was haze from smoke. The farmers here still use a slash and burn technique to clear their fields. In Singapore it was similar and you can get really hazy days from this smoke. But then someone in the house said no, it's the volcano. All the wet clothes that were drying outside were brought in, all windows and doors shut and I decided I'd be staying indoors. 

After a bit, I went back upstairs. It was similar to a storm passing through. I found a fine layer of ash over everything. Everything. 

Not sure if you can see my footprints well.

The cars need to go for a wash because it can harm the paint.

The lady next door cleaned up her patio area and ended up with a huge bucket full of ash to dispose of. For a couple days, you could feel the dirt in the air. It was like little bits of sand still in the air, blowing at you when a breeze came. It looked clear, but you could feel it. I went to McDonald's (I think it was Monday) and between eating and reading some of my book, there was some dirt from the air collected on anything laying out. Here's the lid of my cup and my iPhone. Hard to see, but enough that my phone felt gritty when I picked it up and I was glad to have a lid on my drink. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dinner in Santa Ana

Daniel and Paola, my hosts, took me and the other guest to Santa Ana last night for some local food. 

I had actually walked to this town one day to see the church. Not many tourists head this way :) and during the day, nothing much is going on. But at night, the food vendors come out. 

We ate at this lady's grill. I had a sandwich that sounded like 'boofalo'. I don't know exactly what was in it, but it was good. She was also making large, thin hamburgers. The fried eggs are for the burgers. Yum!

Across the way some kids were playing basketball. 

This is one of the other grills. Some tortillas, sausages and other meat. 

Here is Daniel and Paola with their son Oliver. The other lady is Carin, who is the other guest staying here too. 

My boofalo ;) - it was 15 quetzales (local currency) or about $2.25. I was stuffed!