Thursday, December 17, 2015


Dan and Delphine and I woke up nice and early on Saturday morning, got the last few things of ours tucked away in the back room of the hostel (since we would be sleeping on the volcano that night, we wouldn't need a bed in the hostel), ate the breakfast provided by the hostel, and hopped in a van to head up to our starting point for our volcano hike.

After an hour or so in the van, including some hills steep enough that we joked that maybe they were just going to drive us up to the top, we arrived... at a little farm. It really wasn't much more than that, and I'm pretty sure it was a just a family who happened to know the owner of the hostel. But when we got there, they provided us with sleeping bags (I declined - I'd brought mine with, which is lighter, warmer, and packs smaller), and told us that the tent we'd be using was with the group that had camped out last night, and we'd meet them on the way up and pack it up.

This guy was a little too friendly as we were trying to pack up and was constantly in the way.

This cute little guy wasn't as friendly as we were hoping.

Under the clouds, getting ready to leave.
I purchased a liter of water from the family there, but declined the $1 they were charging to rent a hiking stick. When I strapped my backpack on my back to get going, it was actually pretty darn heavy. Add in the fact that it wasn't a real backpacking backpack, and that the waist strap was too loose to take much weight off my shoulders and put it on my waist, and it was looking to be a somewhat difficult hike.

As we started off, I immediately noticed the altitude. We'd driven from Antigua at 1,500m (5,000ft) up to the farm at 2,500m (8,200ft), and according to our guide Oscar, we would be hiking up to 3,700m (12,100ft) over the course of the next few hours. It didn't take long before I was huffing and puffing, and with the poor way my backpack was sitting on my shoulders and how steep the terrain was, I was getting pretty tired already.

Luckily, we ran into the group coming down pretty early on. I took a part of the tent and strapped it on my backpack, and the guy who had been carrying it down also gave me a walking stick that he had, which had been given to him when he was on the way up. It helped immensely, even though having a second one would have been great. I mentioned that to Oscar, and he nodded but didn't do anything right away.

We continued upward on what turned out to be a ridiculously steep trail. There were points where we were taking extremely slow, small steps, because you simply couldn't go faster than that. Periodically we would take breaks, but it never seemed to be quite often enough for me. Worse, I was going through my water really fast. Despite it not being too hot, we were all sweating like crazy from how hard we were hiking, and combined with the altitude I was drinking a lot of water.

At one point on the hike, Oscar stopped us for a short (backpacks still on the back) break. He then told us that in the next section, we weren't going to be stopping at all, because there were "bad people." I probed a bit further, but all I could get was that they were trying to get money from people who were hiking the trail. As we rested, he pulled out a machete. Is that for the bad people, I asked?? He laughed and said no, and then walked over to a small tree not much thicker than thumb width, examined it a bit, and hacked it down and then hacked off the branches, and handed me a second walking stick. Awesome!

As we went past the next rest area, the people he had mentioned came out of the shelter and started saying things. It was all in Spanish so I didn't get all of it, but it sounded like they were saying he had to pay, and he wasn't an official guide, and if we're not going up with an official guide than so-and-so isn't responsible for anything that happens to us, or something along those lines. Oscar just continued onward, occasionally throwing back a sentence or two, but mostly ignoring them.

Onward we went, the trail rarely getting any less steep. We were moving pretty good, and while I was probably the one struggling the most, I was still doing okay. I was thankful for hiking advice I'd gotten on the Wilderness Basic Course hikes, because it allowed me to be efficient in my movements and not waste energy, which was at a premium. We ended up passing quite a few groups of people, including one that had a horse carrying some of their stuff.

Eventually, we got up inside the clouds, which was welcome for their cooling effect, and not too much after that we broke through above the clouds.

I had been so focused on hiking I hadn't seen this at first. This was also the first picture I took despite hiking for almost 3  hours already.

Enjoying the view.
Not long after we broke through the clouds, we stopped for a lunch break.

Still feeling pretty good, even if my backpack was a little on the heavy side.
After stopping for a lunch break and chowing down on the fruit and sandwiches they'd prepared for us, we continued up - less than an hour left, according to Oscar. Sure enough, it wasn't that much longer before we made our way around the side of the volcano and found ourselves in a campsite. We dumped our bags, and took some time to relax and take some photos.

Like I said, really happy I had a new phone. The camera on this thing is amazing.
After a short break, we worked with Oscar to set up camp. Besides setting up the tent, we also collected some firewood, and moved a few heavy logs over and set them up around the fire pit as benches to enjoy the fire from.

All of us along with Oscar

Oscar wasn't very comfortable with them doing this. Honestly, I wasn't either.

Tent set up, resting a bit.
View of the campsite on the side of the volcano.
Once we had everything set up, we rested and sat and watched the volcano across the way. We were camped on Acatenango, and we could see Fuego just across the valley occasionally erupting. During the day you'd just catch a blast of smoke, or maybe see a little bit of liquid rock sliding down the side of the mountain. But the sound was pretty consistent - there'd be 5 minute breaks with nothing, and then the next five minutes there'd be a thump every 10-20 seconds signaling that enough pressure had built up to force some lava out.

As we sat around and waited, the groups that we'd passed (and a few who probably started after us too) started arriving. It ended up getting pretty crowded up on the hill, so we squeezed our stuff in and made room, and Oscar got the fire going. It seemed to me that it was a little early for the fire, but as soon as sunset started coming the temperature dropped rapidly. It very quickly went from "comfortable in a t-shirt" weather to "why didn't I bring more layers" weather. But the sunset was absolutely beautiful above the clouds, so we scrambled to get more clothes on quickly and take a few pictures.

Oscar commented multiple times on how lucky we were - sometimes you get up to the top and Fuego is engulfed in clouds and you can't see it, or worse you're engulfed in clouds and can't see anything at all. But we had beautiful clouds to the south of the volcano and not many off to the north, making for great pictures. As night rolled on, the clouds rolled off leaving things even more clear, and the lava from the volcano became visible.

We huddled around the fire, ate the ramen and drank the coffee that was packed for our dinner, and watched the explosions. Oscar's friend had brought some homemade tortillas and fresh cheese that they used to make mini-quesadillas for us - I was pretty impressed with how they were reaching right down into the coals to put the tortillas down there and then flip them over.

Firelight selfie.
At one point the volcano had been pretty quiet for a while, when suddenly there was a huge eruption. As it went off, I thought to myself "I should take a picture of this" followed by "but I won't have time before it's gone." As it turns out, I would have had time, because it was so huge that it took a good 15 seconds for all of the lava to fall back down to the sides of the mountain. The sound from the eruption was quite delayed from when it shot up, and it was the kind of thump that you feel from only the biggest fireworks. After the lava had hit the mountain and started sliding down, I pulled out my phone and got a picture.

Click for larger, as usual. Seriously, it was far more amazing than this picture can express.
Up at 3700m it gets pretty cold at night, and while Oscar said we were fortunate to not have as much wind as they usually have, it still got pretty close to freezing overnight. We tucked into our sleeping bags, still with most of our clothes on, and set an alarm for 3:45 in the morning.

When the alarm went off, we got out of the tent, put on our shoes, and grabbed a camera and water. Then we headed up the last 300m to the peak of Acatenango for the sunrise. It was windy, and freezing, and a little bit miserable, but was 100% worth it for the views we got. From where we were we could see the Pacific Ocean four hours away, Lake Atitlan three hours away, and a couple other distant volcanoes. There were almost no clouds in the sky in the morning.

Colors just starting to show up.

Sunrise selfie.

Sunrise, volcano, and contemplation.

The volcano still going off as the sun comes up.

The hills in the distance looking pretty cool.

One of the other groups camped all the way up on top in the crater.
After the sunrise, we headed back down to our camp and packed up, and then started back down the volcano. Down turned out to be much easier than up, but much more dangerous. The loose volcanic rock made for a lot of sliding, and my ankle wasn't too happy with it. At one point, Oscar asked if we wanted to take the adventurous detour for the way down. Sure, we said, that sounds awesome!

Well.. it turned out to be pretty difficult. Even though it hadn't rained super recently, the section we went through was very steep, damp jungle hiking that involved a lot of muddy sliding, tripping over roots, and getting whacked in the head with branches. Oscar was in the front literally hacking away with the machete to clear the trail, as this hadn't been used in a while, and all of us (except Oscar) spent quite a bit of time on our butts.

But even with our detour, we eventually made it back down to the farm, dropped off their camping gear, changed into some dry clothes, and hopped back in the van to go back to the hostel. The whole thing was an exhausting experience, but I count it as one of the most awe-inspiring things I've done on this trip so far. The views of the clouds and the volcano, the camping, the company, the eruptions, the sunrise... all of it was amazing. And I'm glad I was able to capture some of it to show to you guys with my camera.

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