Volcano Hiking: Sleeping with Fire – Volcano Acatenango, Guatemala

(This is part one of a two-part story. Read about Volcano Pacaya here!)

How many people can say they have felt their tent shake as the volcano next door spewed ash and lava into the night sky?

I couldn’t have done. Until that is exactly what happened when Candace woke me in the middle of the night to tell me the volcano was erupting. I shook the haziness from my head and sat up. My head spun from a combination of the altitude, the early hour and perhaps the amount of Fireball whiskey I had drunk after arriving into base camp the evening before.

We were sitting at around 12,000′ (3600m) in altitude, this is where base camp for Volcano Acatenango is located, just a few hundred metres from the summit. We spent the next few hours admiring the orange plume of fire that the neighbouring volcano – ‘Fuego’ – was throwing into the atmosphere. The evening before, the cloud cover had prevented us from having a good view, but now, despite the darkness, we had fantastic views of the eruptions that happen several times an hour on average. Each eruption was accompanied by the low-bass rumbling of hundreds of tons of rock cascading down the mountainside.

Sleeping at any point the rest of the night was out of the question, but, by 4:30am we found ourselves trudging through the inky, pre-dawn darkness making an attempt on the summit in time for sunrise. The slope was steep and hard work, compounded by the fact that it was made up of loose, volcanic dirt that gave way with each step – for every two steps forward it felt like we took one step backwards.

I thought I had altitude sickness until Candace kindly reminded me that perhaps hiking up to almost 12,500′ the day before while not drinking enough water, but plenty of Fireball could potentially be the culprit to me not feeling well! We were above the treeline, but the landscape around us was invisible outside of the narrow cones of light cast by our head torches.

The wind howled with a ferocity I had not felt before as we skirted the knife-edge rim of the Caldera, the force of it threatened to topple us over the edge and into the abyss. We all adopted a ‘three points of contact’ method of hiking, hunched over and scrabbling with our hands and feet up the unsteady ground.

The guides had had reservations about making the final attempt on the summit due to the inclement weather, but as we sat hiding behind a rock for a little respite from the wind, I am glad we did it. It was bitterly cold and ice crystals formed in our eyebrows and clothing, any exposed skin went painfully numb in moments. But it was an achievement!

Ciarán, one of our group, braved the onslaught of sideways ice particles and got his phone out to take a photo of Volcan de Fuego during a rare moment when it wasn’t obscured by clouds. The picture above is the fruit of his efforts – unfortunately she was not erupting at that moment.

As we began to lose all feelings in our extremities, and coupled with the knowledge that viewing the sunrise was a write-off, we headed back down to camp for coffee.

The descent back to base camp was effectively a controlled fall on the loose scree slope. I did manage a couple of times to get a variation of skiing going, but inevitably I fell ass-over-tit and ripped a hole in my new jacket as I went somersaulting down the volcano rock.

Back at camp a short while later, nursing our hands back to health wrapped around mugs of crappy coffee, we used the opportunity to take some photos. The clouds had finally begun to clear, and it was turning out to be a gorgeous morning! We spent a happy couple of hours admiring the force and beauty of nature, and when that became too much – we played with the campsite dogs. I braved the out-house at one point, but it was so vile that I retreated back to the safety of camp. I swear actual ghouls and demons came flying out of the hole when I lifted the lid on the long-drop.

What is really cool about hiking Acatenango is the various eco-systems you pass through during the ascent and descent. From the frigid and icy summit, through grasses and stunted trees just below it, then into alpine forest and meadows. Then you go lower still into cloud rain-forest complete with dense vegetation, huge trees, vines and creepers, and ferns. Within just a few hours, you see so much variety, it is as if you have actually crossed vast distances.

We tackled this hike during our time living in Antigua, Guatemala. It is offered by most of the numerous tour operators in the town, and the price usually includes transport, guides and equipment.

A good level of fitness really helps but is not essential. A couple of folks in our group suffered as a result of not being in the best shape, but ultimately were able to complete the climb, albeit in a fair amount of discomfort!

Good shoes really help. I did it in skate shoes as it was all I had and I definitely felt I was sliding around a lot! I believe I had an excuse for not having boots however, considering we had just cycled to Guatemala!

Enjoyed reading about and seeing the photos from our trip to Volcano Acatenango?

Click here to read about the trip we did the following week to Volcano Pacaya. A much quicker, simpler (not to mention easier), half-day hike up active lava flows! A real highlight of our time in Guatemala!

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