Up close an active volcano
I’m primarily a photographer and not a hiker or climber…I don’t enjoy hiking up mountains and it’s a challenge every time. Having said that, I’m still doing it over and over: Cruz del Condor in Peru (5022 m) in 2011, Mount Fuji in Japan (3776 m) in 2016, volcano Pacaya in Guatemala (2552 m) also in 2016 or my last one which was the volcano Acatenango in Guatemala (3976 m) in early 2017… I do it because I want to be up there to experience the exhilarating feeling and…to capture pictures that you wouldn’t be able to capture otherwise. Does that make me seem crazy? Maybe. But apart from the images I take up there, it is always a deeply meditative experience. You get in touch with your body and you test out your limits. And when you get to the top of one of these stunning mountains, it’s like a drug: the air is thin, the wind cold but you feel this intense relief and sense of achievement. Every muscle hurts, your’re out of breath and along the way you asked yourself a million times “what the hell am I doing here”…still – standing on the peak and looking down onto the landscape beneath makes it all worth while!
GUATEMALA AND VOLCANOES
Guatemala is among the countries with the most volcanoes – you can find a staggering number of 37 volcanoes in this little country which is insane! Antigua Guatemala alone lies in the middle of three huge volcanoes: Agua, Acatenango and Fuego. Fuego is one of three active voclanoes in the Central American country. It has very active times, when it errupts almost every 20 minutes and spits out lava and smoke, and sometimes it remains quiet for 2 weeks or longer. The last bigger eruption happened in January 2016 when a 6 km ash cloud came out the crater and covered the surrounding villages with volcanic ash and dust. When I was there in February last year, I could see it erupting all the time from Guatemala City and Antigua Guatemala. It was an awe-inspiring sight!
The other two active volcanoes are Pacaya also in the Antigua area and Santiaguito – a very active volcano which can be looked at from the slightly higher Santa María next to it. The highest volcano in Guatemala and Central America is Tajumulco with 4220 m of altitude.
PLANNING YOUR HIKE
If you happen to visit Guatemala, you will surely pass through Antigua at some point. Make sure to reserve two days for a hike up Acatenango – you won’t regret it. There is a ton of travel agencies that offer tours up the mountain – I booked mine with Eddy at the Hostal Los Amigos by recommendation and it was a great deal. It will cost you around 30 dollars for the transport to the mountain (approx. 1 hour), a two day hike, a lunch bag, tents, a sleeping bag and the guide. The hike itself will take you around 5 hours on the first day, 1.45 hours up the peak on the morning of day two and 3.5 hours down to where the bus will pick you up and take you back to Antigua. What you should definitely bring is plenty of water, cupnoodles for dinner, sandwiches for lunch and some protein bars and snacks. You will have a campfire going but you can’t really do much more than heat up water (the guide will do it) … so make sure what you bring can be eaten cold or prepared with boiling water.
Temperatures might vary – when I was there, it cooled down to 8 degrees Celsius during the night and during the day it was around 25-27 degrees Celsius. A layered look is the way to go. I brought a windbreaker, gloves and a beanie for the night and the morning, a warm long-sleeve shirt, a couple of shirts to get changed when all sweaty and wet and plenty of snacks. Also make sure to bring good sturdy trekking shoes and something like a cargo pant. You WILL get dirty and dusty. Another little tip: bring a cotton face mask. It will keep the volcanic ash away and prevent you from cooling down too much in the morning during the most strenuous part of the hike when you’re heavily breathing. I learned that lesson in Japan when I went up Mt. Fuji. Some people I hiked with, used a walking stick. I don’t use one – but that’s a matter of preference. You can do it without one. Down at the base of the volcano, locals will offer you to rent walking sticks, backpacks and gloves/beanies in case you forgot to bring it.
We started our hike in the morning at around 10. We were a group of 7 plus the guide. The first bit is a bit tricky. You’re gonna be walking up a gravel path which is hard on your muscles as you’re constantly sliding back a bit. After 2 hours, you’ll be past this section and it gets a bit easier as you’re making your way around the mountain. It’s a wonderful hike on a relatively flat and solid path that partially takes you through pine forests with amazing views of the third volcano in the area – Agua.
After another 3 hours (with breaks) you’ll get to the back of Acatenango and the campground where you will set up the tents and spend the rest of the day. After getting changed, it was time to enjoy the views. The photo up top is the view I had from campground…it was simply breathtaking. We spend the afternoon watching Fuego erupt, sharing travel experiences and sitting around the fire. It was really a perfect day! We went to bed early, as we had to get up at 3.30 to start our hike to the summit at 4.
After a short night, we had coffee at the fire, watched the dark starry sky and Fuego spitting out molten lava before getting ready for the last stretch. The last 700 m of elevation were the hardest ones. Still sore from the day before, we had to go up very steep slopes on gravel. The summit and the awaiting sunrise were what kept us going. The wind was getting colder but we made it up the peak just in time for sunrise. There’s not much I can say about how I felt – look at the photos and let them do the talking!
After spending some time on the peak and watching the sun rise, Fuego erupt and a Norwegian guy getting naked for the ultimate volcano selfie, we did probably the most fun thing you can do going down: we sled down the gravel slopes. The gravel is really soft and you sink in knee deep and get really dirty – but it was one hell of a ride! Back down in camp, we packed up the tents and had breakfast. After that, we made it all the way back to the base of Acatenenago – happy, proud and stunned by what we had been able to experience!