Guatemala is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. There are over 30 volcanos dotted around the country’s rugged highlands, some of which are active. Marshmallow roasting on molten hot lava is permitted (not for the faint hearted) so make sure you pack some vegan marshmallows.
I absolutely love volcanos. There is something magical about all that energy, even when they’re dormant. I’ve hiked across many old lava fields in Guatemala and beyond. It’s tricky to describe the terrain—it’s almost unearthly, like nothing else you’ll come across on a regular hike.
I most recently hiked Acatenango volcano in Guatemala. There was a lovely mixed bunch of us, vegans and non-vegans. The trail up has four distinct microclimates, each of which took us about an hour. We began by walking up a steep trail through local farms, armed with cameras, snacks and water. We were happy volcano hikers.
The second phase of our ascent was fascinating. It was amazing how quickly the terrain changed from green farmland to cloud forest…quite remarkable. Our local guide was quick to point out that the cloud forest was home to Acatenango’s oldest trees. Breathing in plenty of fresh mountain air (not because we were huffing and puffing of course) we all marveled at the towering volcano and the challenge that lay ahead of us whilst keeping an eye out for Guatemala’s most famous bird, the Quetzal.
As we left the cloud forest, we were rewarded with the most amazing views of other highland volcanos. Having hiked this volcano before, this was the first time there was such a clear view of the mountain range. It was magical, and then it got even better when had a picnic lunch!
Temperate coniferous forest and tropical dry forest characterized the third phase of our ascent. Our campsite was perched just below the tree line with sweeping views of the Antigua valley. After setting up camp, we relaxed with hot tea while the local guide prepared a fresh vegan camp dinner, and after a few games of cards we retired to our tents.
After an early camp breakfast, three of us opted to embark on the forty-five minute ascent to the summit. It’s a tough climb, there’s no denying it. The trail is literally made up of sand, gravel and scree which leads to a rocky summit. However, when we got to the top we were lucky to have a clear 360 degree view of the Guatemalan highlands.
It took us three hours to descend again before arriving back in Antigua late that afternoon for a well deserved shower, rest and lunch (in that order).
There are a few things I wish I had know prior to setting out on my first ever volcano hike many years ago that I’d like to share with you. I hope the following tips will help and I would love to hear about your experiences. Happy vegan volcano hiking!
Get Geared Up Properly
Just because it’s warm at the bottom doesn’t mean it will be warm at the top! Volcanos are very high and tend to be extremely cold at the top, which is where you’ll be spending the night. Most tour companies will provide you with a coat and sleeping bag, which in my experience are both nearly always down (duck / goose feathers). So to save any last minute drama just check with your tour operator. You can then make an informed decision as to whether you would prefer to bring your own gear. When looking for vegan-friendly outdoor gear, synthetic materials, cotton and canvas are all vegan-friendly. Companies such as The North Face, Mountain Hardware, Marmot and Decathlon have a wide range of vegan-friendly sleeping bags, coats and clothing. For more information on how to wear vegan, check out this great article from PETA.
An important rule here is, whatever you do, don’t buy new shoes a week before you’re due to hike. They will give you blisters, and blisters will bring you down. If you have a comfy pair of old hiking shoes or boots they’ll do just fine. I have a pair of cross trainers that I hike, bike, trek and climb in which cost me $65 five years ago, and they are still going strong. To put it into perspective, you’ll see locals walking up and down those mountains every day in regular $20 sneakers or open-toed sandals. The UK based outdoor specialist brand Merrell has a small but good range of vegan-friendly outdoor cross trainers, boots and sandals for both men and women.
Depending on where you intend to hike, check with your tour operator if there are weight restrictions on the bag you’ll be taking with you (if it will be carried by local porters). For many years, the Inca Trail in South America had a weight restriction of 5kg for bags which the porters carried. Forget about packing too much and invest in a pair of waterproof trousers. You can easily wear the same clothes for a few days, but you can’t make wet clothes dry.
Be realistic about how hard you can push yourself when climbing at altitude. If you feel breathless, just remember your body is telling you it needs to slow down as the oxygen in the air is thinning. Listen to your body and set your own goals. High altitudes are not the time to race (unless you have been training and are competing in a high altitude race…then go for your life).
Look After Your Knees
For those of you that have ever been grazed by coral (by accident because I know you wouldn’t be touching coral with intent of course) whilst snorkeling or diving you’ll understand the following; the rock of old lava fields is like glass. If you trip or stumble and go down on your knees wearing shorts you’ll really graze your legs up. Not the end of the world, but easily avoidable by wearing proper trousers.
Snacks & Shoelaces
What comes to mind when you think about hiking snacks? I always take trail mix and nuts. Whatever you take, just be aware of other people’s food intolerances and allergies to certain types of food. There’s nothing like spending $25 on nuts and snacks only to realize that your hiking and camping partner has a severe allergy to peanuts.
Dried fruit, dark chocolate, nuts / trail mix, roasted chickpeas and whole avocados (which, if you have a small inexpensive penknife, you can make a cut at the top of the avocado, peel it, and eat it like and apple) are my go-to vegan-friendly hiking snacks. For an extra special treat, have a look at these nirvana nutmeg cookies from Trinity of Trinity’s Conscious Kitchen. They’re healthy, taste amazing, but more importantly, travel well.
Shoelaces are easily overlooked. Have you ever seriously tried to hike with no shoelace? It’s not pretty. If you are on a popular hike you may very well see shoe laces being traded like currency. If some poor hiker has done 20km without a lace, be compassionate—share your spare shoelaces!