Photo: Tajumulco, courtesy of PuroGuro/Flickr
In the summer of 2014, towards the end of my month long solo trip to Xela, Guatemala, I decided to spend my second to last weekend hiking Tajumulco- a dormant volcano and the highest peak in Central America.
My weekend excursion with Quetzaltrekkers- an organization whose mission is to maximize the use of ecotourism dollars in improving the quality of life of Guatemalan children- began at 4 AM. After arriving at the Quetzaltrekkers lodge, we boarded a moving truck- think big empty Uhaul full of twelve young men and women strapped into their packs violently being thrown about the inside. Frazzled and now wide awake, we transferred to a “chicken bus” for the first leg of the drive across the Western Highlands.
A chicken bus is essentially a fortified American school bus. The Guatemalans buy old American school buses, refurbish them, coat them in colorful paint, give them funky names, and then drive them 80mph down winding Guatemalan highways, all across the country. Guatemalans use the buses to transport their personal wares of either food or commodities, often purchased on the border from Mexico illegally. So, as you’d expect, the entire bus is packed to the brim.
After the first leg of the drive, we transferred to another bus with a short layover in a rural area that just happened to have a massive bus terminal. During our layover, we ate our first meal, a typical Guatemalan breakfast of beans, eggs, and black coffee. At this point, I was so accustomed to the diet, I scoffed down my meal and drank a decent amount of water in preparation for the hike that morning. One of my friends from home who had been on this exact trip warned me that she contracted some parasite from the food at the restaurant that we visited after the trip.
After the meal, we stood for another few hours on the next bus to the trail head. Eager to hike after such a long day, we headed out and tackled the trail in pieces. About halfway through the hike, I started feeling very queasy and nauseous- thinking back to what my friend had told me earlier. During our longest break, I put some good ‘ole American PB&J in my belly and sucked up the last leg of the hike. When we finally reached the flat campground which was about 30 minutes from the summit. I immediately grabbed the shovel and ran to a clearing to let out what I had been holding in for a while.
The view was sublime. Here I was, facing the peak of the tallest volcano in the region, while suffering from the intestinal effects of the parasite. After a long day of traveling, we settled down in our camp with the intent of sleeping through the night and hiking to the summit to watch the sunrise. However, my condition took a turn for the worse around dinner time. At this point, I started to feel feverish, achy with chills, and the aforementioned loose bowels.
When it was finally dark, I decided to use the latrines that were on the edge of the campground. Essentially, these latrines were three blue-plastic toilet seats on top of a wooden box. They faced an enormous cliff with an insane view of the surrounding mountains. Looking over the cliff and watching the lightning light up the sky below, listening to Born to Die by Lana del Rey- and actually screaming in pain- I had a very powerful moment.
When I returned to my tent, I decided I would take immodium to get me through the night. Physicians typically do not recommend taking anti-diarrheal drugs for potential parasitic infections as they can actually prevent your body from eliminating the bug. I didn’t care. I knew that as soon as I got back to the city I would be sorting bottles of chewable anti-parasitic drugs in the clinic where I worked, and I could easily get away with taking one.
A few hours later, we all woke up to the sound of pouring rain, which meant that our climb to the peak was no longer an option. The winds were too strong, and our best bet to avoid the storm was to pack up our gear and head down the mountain. Although I was upset I never actually climbed to the peak of Tajumulco, I felt relieved that we were returning to civilization where I could recover in the comfort of my own dimly-lit urban bathroom.