I was born and raised on the shores of New Jersey; the highest peak in my hometown is a whopping 29 feet above sea level. So mountains have always seemed like a foreign concept to me. Hiking was not an activity I took part in until college, and now looking back, this might be a reason as to why there are so many literal missteps for me while hiking. There’s always some way in which I find myself ill prepared, even if I’ve tried to prepare for everything.
If I’m not mistaken, I think there was one hike under my belt before going to Guatemala, and now, a couple of years later, that doesn’t seem like I was as prepared for that country as I should have been.
Guatemala is filled with mountains. And the city of Antigua seems to be laid in the center of the hills. During winter break of 2012, I took my first trip abroad, with my best friend Bell, and a fresh passport. We planned on doing volunteer service while there, but we didn’t realize how much down time we would have. We celebrated the end of the Mayan calendar in the center of the Mayan world, we celebrated Christmas Eve with strangers and new friends on the beach in El Salvador, learning to surf on a black sand beach, and not just chasing waterfalls, but jumping into them.
We had a hell of a time.
It felt like most of our trip was one long hike. Our volunteer site was a mile trek to the bus station. The cobblestone streets were strategically laid out for American’s with weak ankles, to twist them while walking home drunk. We walked all around town—to the market, to the volunteer hub, to the bars, to the used bookstore, to the crepe place. I wish I knew exactly how much we walked, but my muscles told me it was much more than I was used to.
Three days before we were due to head back to America for the remainder of our Christmas Break, we took a sunset hike on a volcano. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever hiked a volcano, but it is much different from a regular mountain. The ground changes from sand-like to these airy rocks. At one point it felt as though we were skiing on them, or falling with style. On the way up, I kept repeating, “I’m going to die. This is the end. This is where I die.”
Then we stopped moving. The sun was starting to descend under another far away mountain. Red starting spreading across the sky, mixing with the orange, and making the blues change from light to dark.
This wouldn’t be a bad place to die after all.
Our guide showed us that in the alcove of this one rock, it was hot enough to roast marshmallows. So we sat there, took in the sunset, and ate these rainbow marshmallows. It was as close to heaven as I had ever been.
As the sun left, so did we. But here’s the problem with a sunset hike—there’s no more light after the sun goes away. No one told us to pack headlamps or flashlights. Now this seems like common sense, right? But not a single person in our group had brought one. So there we were, hiking along in the dark woods of the volcano.
About ¾ of the way down, I tripped. There was a snapping sound. And I just sat there for a second. Bell came to my side. She asked if I was okay, and if I broke a tree branch on my way down.
No, that was my ankle. I know that sound.
Everyone in the group stood there with sympathy in their eyes. And Bell and the only man in our group helped me up, put both my arms around their shoulders, and helped me down the rest of the way. Being extra careful not to misstep again. Two sprained ankles on a trip to Guatemala seems like overkill doesn’t it?
The next day, after the last day of our volunteer placement, we went to the pharmacy in town. Apparently Guatemalans have strong ankles because there wasn’t a single ace bandage in sight, nor was there a brace. So I hobbled along, trying to walk carefully on the cobblestones, icing it at night, and hoping for the best. Thank god we were at the end of our trip. I don’t know how I would have made throughout Antigua much longer with a swollen ankle.
After that trip, I have not only purchased a headlamp but keep it in my backpack at all times. Over my dead body will I be caught without one again.
Read part one of this series, Naive Hiker: The Valley of Death.
Want to make sure your pack has got a headlamp, flashlight, or any other gear you need? Head over to REI to get equipped for any adventure. If you want to read more stories like this, check out REI’s Force of Nature blog.
Lauryn Polo is a writer, queso enthusiast, traveler, caffeine addict, YA reader, odd-job-doer, slow runner, too-soon jokester, hammock lounger, ocean swimmer, teen drama watcher, mom bod having, pizza loving, former competitive eater, Jersey girl, quintessential millennial, naive hiker.