“It will be the hardest thing you ever do, but it’s worth it!” This was a sentence we had heard many times from other travellers as Bart and I made our way through Central America. These travellers were talking about a hiking trip to the top of 3,976-metre volcano Acatenango. At the top – if you are lucky – you can get a priceless view of brother-volcano “Fuego” erupting. An opportunity to see an erupting volcano?!! Who would pass up on that?!
Volcano Fuego lies a bit over two kilometres from Volcano Acatenango. Fuego’s new round of activity began on May 19, 2012. The volcano began ejecting ash and lava about 600 metres down its slope, prompting officials to begin a massive evacuation of thousands of people in five communities. The lava flows and ejections of ash continue today.
Our hostel in Antigua, Guatemala, offered the tour for just $20 a person – meals and equipment included – not a bad deal!. We would climb up, camp, possibly see Fuego erupt, watch an amazing sunset and head back down.
The first thing we noticed the next morning was the dreary weather, a bit worried about the dark clouds and impending, tough hike, we got on the tour-bus. Four other tourists, our guide and driver were already on the bus. We noticed that our guide was a little crazy, which I understood afterward – you might have to be a bit crazy to take tourists up a 4,000-metre volcano on a regular basis.
We quickly found out why the tour was so cheap; the equipment was definitely outdated and our meals minimal. We bought six litres of water, a large variety of snacks and at our guide’s recommendation: whiskey. Also we were told that we should rent gloves, hats, walking sticks and a winter-jacket, which we could of course do from the same company. All in all, our “extras” cost more than the tour.
An hour’s drive later, with our backpacks packed, we arrived at the start of the trail. There were various tour companies, ladies selling food and warm clothes; and horses. I had read a dozen blogs about the hike up to Acatenango; most of them recommending renting a horse to take your bags up – you could enjoy the hike more this way, instead of struggling all the way up. My pride said, “Do not rent a horse.” But my sense said, “Get a horse.” Together with two other ladies on the tour, we decided to rent a horse and as soon as we started the hike, I was happy about that decision.
Geared up, our group took off. The first hour was TOUGH! It was so tough that on multiple occasions I wondered, “How am I going to make this?” I knew we had a good four to five hours more to go. After that first hour, the ground changed from sandy to muddy, but luckily also less steep, and it was easier to find our footing. Taking frequent breaks, we trudged onwards.
Besides the tough physical challenge; the weather also was not helping. We were surrounded by mist and could not see more than 10 metres in front of us. This also meant we did not have any rewarding top-views to guide us through the hike. On the upside, it did mean that we focused on our immediate surroundings that were quite remarkable. As our hike progressed, our environment changed as we walked through four microclimates: farmland, lush cloud forest, high alpine forest and eventually – after over five hours of hiking – volcanic desert.
One of my favourite “details” on our hike was when our guide showed us a remarkable flower called “The Devils Hand”. It was fascinating and creepy; a bright red blossom with five pointy fingers. These flowers are used medicinally as a traditional remedy for heart diseases. The bark is used as rope and the large leaves are used to wrap food. The tree also had religious significance to the pre-Columbian Aztec people. Like other cloud forest trees, The Devil’s Hand tree and its striking flowers are becoming increasingly threatened by climate change, our guide explained.
When we finally got to the base-camp, I quickly forgot how tired I was. I felt proud and happy to have made it, and then the cold hit us HARD. The physical exertion had kept us warm throughout the hike, but now that we were rested, our bodies felt the full extent of it. I was instantly happy that I rented all the gear that our guide had suggested. Yet, it wasn’t enough. The only way to stay warm was to huddle near the fire. We also truly appreciated every sip of whiskey that we had brought along, and the warmth of it as it went down our throats that night.
Although we were pleased with ourselves for having made it to the peak of this challenging hike, we were disappointed that the mist enveloped us; after all, we had hoped to see an erupting volcano! After a simple chicken-noodle dinner, Bart and I went to our tent to try and get some sleep. Although Bart had done his best to place our tent out of the freezing wind; it was the coldest and most difficult night I have ever experienced. I had dealt with sleeping on rocky terrain before, but never in such freezing temperatures. Even huddled close to each other; my body had shaking fits throughout the night.
At 2:00am, every hard step, every cold bone and every sleepless minute was worth it as our guide startled us with his loud yell! When we quickly unzipped the tent, the skies had cleared and in front of us was a huge erupting volcano. We watched for as long as we could withstand the wind; looking in awe as bright orange flames burst out of Fuego’s crater.
The show did not end there. At 5:00am, our guide again yelled at us to wake up. Fuego was still making fireworks; but now added to that was a red-hued sunrise that slowly lit up the cities, valleys and coastline of Guatemala. It was magical. With the mist cleared and the sun out; we forgot how tired we were. The hike down was extremely enjoyable and besides Fuego, we also now clearly saw his sister-volcano Agua.
The local Kaqchikel people have always called the volcano Hunapú the “place of flowers”. The Spanish conquistadors also called it Hunapú until a lahar from the volcano in 1541 destroyed the original capital of Guatemala (now known as Ciudad Vieja) and the city was moved to the current site of Antigua following this disaster.
As the lahar produced a destructive flood of water, this prompted the modern name “Volcán de Agua” meaning “Volcano of Water”. The misty volcano Agua was a perfect contrast to the fire-spewing volcano Fuego.
Although we were in high spirits; we soon found out that we were lucky not only to have seen the erupting Fuego, but also lucky to be alive. It was no wonder that we had been cold. That January 7 night, a cold front had hit Central America. A high-pressure system caused a drastic plunge in temperatures, seeing lows of as little as -6 degrees.
As we got closer to the base of the volcano (the starting point of our hike) we encountered more and more rescue-teams. Once we were back in the bus; warm, relieved and eager to get back to our hostel, we saw the first body being carried down, and police stopping other tour groups from starting their hike up.
Later, we found out that several injured people had to be rushed to hospital and the bodies of six people had been recovered during the operation. The victims were identified as Bany Magdiel Marroquin, 35, Linsy Ibania Marroquin, 19, and Axel Carranza, 46; athletes Josselin Yajaira Roldan Velasquez and Lucia Yire Sanchez, ages 21 and 19, and Francisco Javier Velasquez Gonzalez, 23. The climbers had gone up in separate groups and it was believed that they hadn’t brought a lot the appropriate equipment to combat the cold weather.
Hearing this news, we had a mixture of feelings; we were glad to have done the hike and we both agreed it would forever be one of our most rewarding experiences. We would also definitely recommend it to others. On the other hand, we felt so sorry for the hikers that passed away and their loved ones.
We made a mental note: Enjoy yourself to the fullest, challenge yourself to have new experiences but also be cautious. Do your research and be prepared especially while travelling.
Check out more of Laura’s travels on www.laurabijnsdor.com/blog and Instagram: @laurasxm.