Prior to leaving for Antigua in March, Steve ran across a nifty little side trip for us to take during the only two days off we had from Spanish school. It entailed climbing the third highest volcano in Central America. Acatenango, at 13,041 feet is “sleeping,” as the Guatemaltecas call it (which, in my opinion, is prettier than saying “dormant”). The big draw, however, is the very active neighboring volcano, fittingly named Volcán Fuego. The trip up the mountain is guided and includes a challenging climb, sleeping overnight in a tent at over 11,000 feet, then heading back down the next day. The thrill of this adventure is being crazy close to Fuego as it (hopefully!) does its angry Earth thing. I’m not going to lie, I was totally excited to experience this. Ever since I was a kid, Earth science had been fascinating to me.
The OX Expeditions website describes the trek this way: “Excursion highlight – Toasting a glass of wine on the peak while the suns sinks below the clouds, watching the sun set over all of Guatemala from 13,000 feet.” They do kindly label the hike as “difficult” and “strenuous,” so you know what you’re getting into. Ok, I thought. Steve and I are hikers. We have aspirations this year to complete a couple of pretty significant thru hikes before leaving the country on the motos. I knew it would be a suffer-fest. There would be no acclimation time in order to adjust to the elevation, after all. I had never climbed something so big and wasn’t sure how my body would handle it. Fortunately, I was so infatuated with the idea of having the opportunity to watch a volcano erupt that I eagerly accepted the potential pain and suffering.
After Spanish class let out that Friday afternoon, Steve and I hurried across several blocks of cobblestones and uneven sidewalks to OX Expeditions. After an informational meeting discussing risks to our physical safety, packing enough food/water, and what we could expect from weather and elevation, we felt psychologically prepared to tackle the journey the next morning. The guy running the meeting would also be our guide up the mountain. Tyler, an American with an easygoing surfer vibe, had been living in Antigua for several months, and the climb we were about to embark upon in 12 hours was his 40th time up the volcano. Well damn, how hard could it be, right?
The next morning, Steve and I (and the fourteen others in our group) were loaded up with loaner backpacks carrying food, water, clothes and parts of the community tents. We piled into two vans, were driven around the corner to a cafe for a quick breakfast, then took in the countryside as we made the one hour journey from Antigua to the base of the impressive Acatenango.
Right out of the chute, this “trail” starts off rough. It’s a wide, sandy, uphill sort of thing. For every step taken in this deep sand/ash, your foot slides halfway back to start, making the saying “two steps forward, one step back” a legitimate reality. It was super tough, but we finally reached the tropical cloud forest part of the mountain. High above the fertile farmlands where we began, the environment became cooler, shadier and more jungly. Tyler pointed out various species of plants as we continued to climb higher and higher. The trail was very steep with switchbacks that seemed to go on forever. Luckily, well placed resting points were part of the package. Snack and water breaks kept us going.
My favorite break took place at a clearing where the trees started to thin, in the high-alpine forest section of the mountain. Here, our group got about a half an hour to sit and talk, eat or lie flat on our backs to watch the cotton wisps of clouds racing through the sky, so close you could almost touch them. A couple of wandering dogs joined our party near the beginning of the hike and were content to rest with us while we were on break.
After this welcome respite, it was time to pack it up and head further uphill. With the final push, we reached yet another microclimate, the volcanic zone. Situated above the tree line and windswept, this section is raw and rugged. As we rounded a curve in the mountainside, we were all gob-smacked by our first close-up view of Volcán Fuego, belching black smoke in welcome. Here was what we came for, it was right in front of us! I didn’t want to look away for fear of missing something, but we continued up trail a little more to the flat ledge that would become our overnight camp. The view of Fuego was impressive, to say the least. Several times an hour, this angry cone rumbled and sent smoke and boulders skyward. What a show!
While we settled into camp, the late afternoon weather began to take a turn for the worse. The wind howled, monstrous clouds raced in and the temperature dropped. Our thrilling view of Fuego was no more, and we spent the evening by the campfire, eating great big bowls of pasta that the folks from OX Expeditions had prepared. As night fell and the weather hadn’t cleared up (or warmed up!), Steve and I retired to the tent that we shared with two others guys. We snuggled into our warm, down sleeping bags that we brought from home (yesss!) and listened to the wind batter the sides of the tent.
Suddenly we heard a deep rumble! Was that…? Kicking our way out of the bags and quickly fighting the tent zipper, we opened the flap to the crystal clear view of Fuego erupting, fiery orange lava shooting high into the air. NO WAY! This is what I was here to see, and the weather gods had been kind enough to open the sky to this breathtaking show. Quickly, we grabbed cameras and jackets and gloves (although the sky had cleared, the cold wind still ripped through the camp), and we headed out onto the best vantage point around, the narrow ledge high above the Guatemalan countryside with VIP seats to the coolest spectacle for miles. Trying to ignore the incessant wind and chill, I fired my camera off over and over, trying to capture the small eruptions that continued to occur a couple of times an hour. Frustratingly, not one single photo taken came out. I have pretty good zoom capability on my camera, but I could not capture the dangerous beauty in front of me. At that point, I had to be content with just watching in awe and keeping the memories alive in my mind (where they will be preserved for a lifetime, no doubt). Succumbing to the cold during a particularly quiet moment for the volcano, Steve and I hustled back to the tent and collapsed into our sleeping bags for the remainder of the night.
Way too early the next morning, Steve joined Tyler and a couple of other fellows from the group, for a sunrise summiting of Acatenango. Camping at 11,000 feet, the early morning “sprint” up to the 13,041 foot summit, after the strenuous hike the day before, was not for everyone (hey, I know my limits). We, who were left behind, enjoyed watching the sun come up from our places around the campfire. With coffee and banana bread in hand, we awaited the return of our intrepid group members, while chatting quietly in the strange silence that can only be experienced when outdoors at such a high elevation. When the guys returned with stories of having successfully braved strong, cold winds and resistant muscles to reach the summit just as the sun began to rise, the rest of us pushed lukewarm cups of coffee and banana bread into their hands. Steve, the eldest member of our group, was really jazzed to have made the morning journey, keeping up with, and even besting, the younger guys who tackled the summit. He’s crazy strong that way.
After we broke camp and packed up, we headed back down to civilization; descending the very steep, knee-hating switchbacks of the high alpine and tropical cloud forests, then plowing through the deep sand and ash of the downhill path that leads back to the farmland – and the starting/finish line. On our way down, we passed many other groups, who were just beginning their trek. I silently wished them luck, knowing what an arduous hike they were in for. And although I was thankful to be near the end of my experience on the mountain, I envied the opportunity they’d have to sit and commune with the dramatic and ever-erupting Fuego tonight.