I had first learned about volcano Fuego while I was in Costa Rica and the images the story painted in my head made it hard to ignore so I made a dot on my map, created another deviation on my plotted course north to Mexico and a few weeks later I was in Antigua Guatemala getting ready to hike a volcano – something that I never thought I would do, especially so spontaneously. Antigua is an amazing city, its old architecture, cobblestone streets, town square, and colorful local culture makes it impossible to forget the first time you experience it. I arrived in Antigua through Honduras and El Salvador and spent the first night on the roof of our hostel (where the kitchen was located) enjoying the night air and cooking pasta with some new friends when all of the sudden bang! Fuego erupts.
I had completely forgotten it had existed, the sun had gone down and without the large volcano visible in the background it disappeared from sight and mind and it wasn’t until the neon red lava pouring down the side of the volcano did it all really set in. It erupted and in doing so became a real life volcano to me. I enjoyed the view for a few moments before running down to my room to grab my camera bag and setup. Just when I thought I couldn’t be any luckier, as I sat with my camera shutter open in the middle of an exposure Fuego exploded in a way that it hadn’t before sending a beautiful fountain of red magma hundreds of feet in the air. I anxiously waited for the exposure to finish and after what seemed like an eternity the shutter finally clicked shut and I went straight to check the resulting photo like a kid at Christmas. We had been in Antigua 8 hours and I had just gotten the most amazing volcano photo from our hostel roof while cooking dinner and I didn’t even have to put my boots on. Guatemala was treating me well and I was left wondering if the volcano would be as active the following day for my attempt at hiking to it.
The next morning I would be picked up by a shuttle at 8am for a 10am start up the volcano. I was instructed when signing up for the 2 day hike to bring a jacket, hat, gloves, and warm pants. What I had was a pair of canvas boots, pretty ripped up jeans, and a denim button down shirt so in the final shopping hours of the day the night before the hike I frantically ran around Antigua looking for something that would be warm. I didn’t have much luck in the adventure outerwear department – I settled for a snazzy knockoff womens Dolce & Gabbana vest that I found in the back of a grocery store and decided to layer as much as possible, luckily locals were very entrepreneurial and had grown accustomed to ill prepared hikers like myself so it was pretty easy to get a pair of gloves.
At 10am the group of a dozen or so of us started up the Acentenagno, a dormant volcano that almost mirrors its active neighbor Fuego. The one extremely valuable piece of advice I got from a hiker who I had met in Nicaragua that already made it up was to stick as close to the guide as possible, with the way the breaks were fit into the hike you would get the longest stretch staying glued to the front guide, we would only wait a few minutes after the last hiker in the group made it to the break site before leaving again so I made it my mission to stick to my guides heels and max my breaks out. You would think that after spending 24 hours with someone, 8 of which were spent walking within 10 feet of each other I would be able to tell you my guide’s name, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. Its not really surprising, we didn’t talk much, he was a lot like me in that he seemed to really enjoy the peace and quiet that being somewhere remote brings. I really value silence in grand places, listening to the wind swirl around us, feeling the intermittent rain showers from the clouds we were climbing through, it was a beautiful accent to basecamp at 13,000ft that was about 8 hours of hard hiking. We would spend the night at camp and in the early morning finish the last hour to the top
My night spent sleeping next to the volcano Fuego was unforgettable. I do not have the words to accurately describe the sound a volcano makes from inside itself. The sound was industrial at times and often sounded like giant metal gears slowly grinding and turning in a rhythm that sounded like water reaching its boiling point only to cool off moments before and repeat itself. I was too excited to sleep and spent most of the night poking my head out of the tent to try and catch a glimpse of whatever the volcano was doing, even though I couldn’t see it through the heavy clouds that had set in. After an attempt at sleep I eventually gave up entirely and left the tent to go sit around the fire with the guides and sherpas who were chatting amongst themselves and poking at the fire until the sun finally came up, the clouds broke and volcano Fuego finally showed itself after a night of angry sound.
My clothes were still damp when we set out for the summit of Acentenagno, directly across from the summit of Fuego. The hardest part of the hike for me was undoubtably this final push to the top, above the trees and clouds the mountain side we were trekking vertically up was made of loose volcanic soil that felt like walking on sand with made every step up feel like 3 but eventually I found myself at the top.
The summit of Acentenagno was a massive black cap of tiny lava rocks with a small sunken crater in the middle. The wind was extreme and made every loose piece of clothing snap loudly as I stared over to the neighboring peak of Fuego which just a night before had been violently exploding with lava but now seemed as calm as it had ever been. We only had about ten minutes at the top before we had to start the hike back down but even in that small window of time my luck had not run out. In the early morning hours as the dark blue sky slowly turned light volcano Fuego once again erupted, almost as if to say goodbye.