I stood at the side of the street in Antigua, staring at the colossal shape of the volcano in the distance. It rose up into the stratosphere, beautiful and imposing against the azure sky. As I looked at the volcano I knew had to climb one, there was no way I was leaving here without standing on the summit of a fire mountain.
Guatemala is the country of volcanoes, with 14 of them spread around the mountainous nation. Part of the reason I had come to Guatemala was to climb one for the first time, and Antigua was the ideal base to do it from. The scenic colonial city has four volcanoes within two hours, with Acatenango being the tallest at almost 4000 metres. Acatenango also has a twin volcano called Fuego, which is the most active in Central America. The Volcano erupts dozens of times every day. This made it the ideal choice for my first volcano hike.
Planning the Hike
Several travellers had recommend I use Soy travels for the Volcano hike, as the man who runs it uses local villagers as guides and helps with local development projects. The price is very reasonable at just 35o quazales including all food and equipment. I contacted Soy and booked my place for the two day hike starting the next morning.
On Friday morning the two minivans drove into the mountains through the rain, leaving the city behind. Everyone in the minivan was eager to climb the volcano, but also unsure of what to expect. After 30 minutes we pulled into a mountain village to get our bags and equipment. Everyone who didn’t have hats and gloves rented some for 10 quetzales each—we were going to need them.
Soy explained what to expect on the hike, and explained how the profits from the company went back into the local community, including hiring guides from local villages like this one.
Starting the climb
The hike started from just over 2000 metres, where a group of entrepreneurial local children rented walking sticks. We all took one, as we were going to need them. The weather was still bad with light drizzle and thick cloud cover, it didn’t look like we were going to be lucky with the weather.
My lungs gasped for air, sweat dripped down my back and I panted with each step as I hauled myself up the first steep section. The soil was black volcanic ash that was treacherous at the best of times, let alone in the rain. I wondered if the beginning was this hard, just how tough was the climb going to be. Luckily I wasn’t the only one who find the start tough, everyone else was finding it tough, especially a few at the back. We had to stop at regular intervals fro everyone to get their breath back, and for the stragglers to catch up.
After 30 minutes I was finding it much easier to climb, I was getting used to the altitude and terrain. We slowly slogged up the volcano through thick forest, the view down to the bottom obscured by mist. Thankfully the rain had stopped.
At lunch someone asked one of the guides if groups ever turned back from the summit due to bad weather, and he replied it happened sometimes due to safety fears. Only the previous year three people had tragically died on the volcano due to exposure. A torrential downpour had soaked their tent and they died of hypothermia. I was sure we’d reach the summit though.
After lunch we climbed up through forest swathed in mist, getting ever higher up the volcano. The hike became much easier as the path turned left and swept around the side of the volcano. To our left the pine forest carpeted the steep slopes of the volcano, and I knew if it was a clear day the view would be sublime. As it was most of the view was obscured with fog, with just an odd gap giving a tantalising view of what lay beyond.
We were climbing up through the cloud cover now, so I knew that the weather would probably improve. Sure enough the cloud began to clear, and soon there were large breaks in the cloud cover allowing fantastic views. Everyone admiring the amazing views, and the sight gave fresh strength to our legs. Several of the girls who had been at the back were spurred on by the change in weather, and we made good progress. Over lunch the girls had told use they were still recovering from Montezuma’s revenge (diarrhea). It’s impressive they still went on the trip.
Sometime around 4pm we made it to the base camp, a group of 10 tents 600 metres from the Volcano summit. What really caught out attention was Volcano Fuego directly opposite us. As we settled down the huge volcano erupted with a sound like thunder and sent plumes of ash and lave into the clear sky. The sight and sound was awesome, and I was mesmerized by the sheer power and primal nature of it. It soon became clear that the eruption was far from a one-off, as the volcano erupted less than every 10 minutes at first, then every 5 minutes as sunset approached. We ate dinner to the backdrop of the colossal volcano erupting and bellowing like an angry God. Many of the group had their cameras ready trying to capture the perfect shot of an eruption.
At sunset we all sat mesmerised as the golden sun dipped behind the volcano, it’s last rays of light piercing the sky. I soaked in the splendour of it all; I had never seen a more dramatic sight before. As the sky darkened the eruptions became more frequent and powerful, and the lava a lot more visible. With each great blast we saw masses of ash and lava shoot into the air like a fiery ejaculation, then fall onto the side of the volcano and slid down. It was a magnificent sight.
Some of us talked about how we’d never seen anything so spectacular before, but mostly we all just sat and stared in rapt silence, taking in the show nature was putting on for us. I had truly never seen anything like this before, this was nature at it’s most primal and beautiful. It was also nature at it’s most dangerous.
As we had sat there watching the volcano we had noticed by there torch lights group of people from another expedition had climbed onto the nearest side of the volcano. Not long after the sun had set we noticed they had climbed right onto the shoulder of the volcano, close to where the cone started. Clearly they wanted a close up of the show. Perhaps too close, I thought, as they were perilously close to where the lava flowed down the volcano.
Suddenly there was a colossal rumble like Zeus coming down from Olympus, and a massive plume of ash and lava shot high into the air. Tonnes of red-hot lava landed on the side of the volcano facing the onlookers, and started racing down to where the group was standing. There were gasps from among our group at one we were seeing.
“Oh my God, that group were stood there just before” gasped one woman in shock.
“Yes, it looks like it may have reached them” I agreed, worried at the thought people may have just died, and thinking about what we could do to help.
I thought at least some of that group may have just been killed. Thankfully a few seconds later we saw torch flashes from the group signalling they were ok. Thankfully the lava must not have been able to reach the vantage point they were watching from. Talk about a close call. Shortly afterwards we saw the groups torchlight swiftly descending the volcano. They had wisely decided not to tempt fate twice in one night.
That evening we roasted marshmallows and continued to watch the show. At one point the volcano erupted none stop for 15 minutes: a constant jet of lava spewing out of the cone like a gigantic sparkler. I was the last of the group to go to bed, finding it hard to bring myself to leave the fantastic sight. Sleep was hard to come by, the temperate was so cold I had to sleep with all my clothes on plus my had and hood up. During the night I went outside and marvelled at the sight of the dark volcano framed against a clear, star studded sky. Occasionally the serenity of the scene would be punctured by the flash of the volcano erupting, closely followed by the thundering noise of it washing over me a second later. Despite my tiredness I felt completely alive, and so glad I had decided to climb this volcano.
The final ascent
Around 4am I was awoken by the guides calling for people to get up. It was time to climb up the Volcanos cone in time to see the sunrise. Once everyone was ready we started our ascent. The ground was soon devoid of vegetation and had turned into the bitty, black volcano soil that we had experienced at the very begging of the hike. This made the going even tougher, as the ground was extremely steep here. I almost stumbled as I groped my way upwards in the dark. My walking pole came in very handy to help drag me upwards. As we got higher I found more strength, and was soon near the front of the group hauling myself towards the summit. At times I used my hands to dragged myself up quicker, exhilarated by the prospect of reaching the summit.
After an hour of climbing the sky had begun to lighten, signalling the approaching dawn. It wouldn’t be long before the sun rose above the horizon. Ahead of me I saw the summit of the volcano. I felt renewed energy in my legs and powered up the last steep inline, no longer feeling tired or light headed. One of the guides was at the top and high fived me as I walked past to walk onto the summit. I felt relief and a great sense of achievement at reaching the top. It felt like I was on the roof of the world, and that I could achieve almost anything after climbing the towering volcano.
As we stood on the top of the Volcano rim I witnessed the most dramatic sight of my life. The sun rose above Volcan De Agua, sending shafts of golden light across the horizon. We had an almost perfect view of three volcanos from where we stood: the active Fuego which continued to periodically erupt; Volcan De Agua from behind which the sun had risen and the more distant volcan Pacaya. It was a stunning sight, made all the more dramatic by the clouds that drifted between where we stood and Volcano De Agua. To the south I could even see the Pacific ocean sparkling in the distance. Everyone was awed by the sight, taking pictures and marvelling at the views. It’s moments like this which make all the hard work and risks worthwhile.
After almost an hour on the summit the guides started signally to us to move. I thought they were going to lead us to the other side of the summit, which was the highest point. Instead everyone started descending the volcano, clearly some of them were cold and suffering from the altitude. I felt great though, so I decided to climb to the highest point by myself and took off at a jog. It took just a few minutes to reach the highest point of the volcano rim, but the altitude meant I was out of breath by the time I pulled myself to the summit. Ahead of me I could see lake Atitlan and the three volcanos around it. Even more amazingly I could see Volcano Santa Maria in the western highlands, which was 60 miles away. Talk about a stunning views. That meant from the very top of Acatenango I could see 7 other volcanoes. No wonder one of the Mayan names for their country was ‘the land of fire’.
Below me in the crater I could see volcanologists measuring equipment used to monitor how active the volcano is. The Volcano has been dormant since 1973, but there have been 3 major eruptions in the last 8000 years. Another major eruption would threaten the lives of over 100,000 people in Guatemala. It’s amazing to be standing on something that demonstrates the raw, awesome, yet creative power of nature: to be standing here during an eruption would mean instance death. I stood transfixed by the view, it was intoxicating standing there surrounding by beautiful views in all directions.
The way down was very steep and slippery, with the daylight revealing just how steep the ascent had been. I soon go into a stride that allowed me to cover the stride quickly without the risk of falling forwards. As I caught up with people from another group that had reached the summit I heard about the risks. A man had fallen and badly injured himself while running down the steep, ash covered slopes.
The descent was much quicker than the ascent, with barely any stops as we quickly descended through the forest that covers the side of the volcano. On our way down we passed 6 or 7 people carrying down the injured man in a stretcher, he looked in a bad condition. Hopefully he will make a full recovery and live to talk about his close scrape in years to come.
We took a different route down the volcano, cutting through humid cloud forest. The trees were gnarled and twisted here, and constantly damp from the ins scent cloud cover. Although we were making rapid progress the steep descent was harder on the knees, and in places it was easier to run down. I wasn’t sure why we were in such a rush to get down, as it would have been nice to savoir the unique environment more.
Less than two hours after leaving the camp we were back at the start, stumbling down the black volcano ash path to the road. By this point my legs ached, and I was desperate for a shower and long sleep.
Before getting back in the van I turned and took one long last look at the volcano. I felt I great sense of pride at having conquered it’s heights, and despite my tiredness was still buzzing from the experience.
It had been two of the best days of my life.