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Guatemala (part 2): volcano hike

By on Sunday June 10th, 2018

It’s one of the activities I’m already looking forward to since a couple of hundreds kilometers. I’ve met many other travelers who reported greatest stories from their hikes up to the Acatenango near Antigua. The hike up the Acatenango is already pretty impressive, but the actual highlight is to watch the nearby volcano “Fuego” who is bursting fire and gigantic clouds of ash into the sky.

There are several agencies in Antigua who provide guides and all the necessary equipment to tackle this mountain and stay on the top over the night to enjoy the amazing pyro show. Except for a big backpack I have all I need to hike up that mountain. I know from other travelers that it’s possible to do this on your own, but unfortunately you can only rent a big backpack in Antigua if you also book the tour with an agency. Since it’s too much hassle to redesign my little 25L backpack to fit all my gear in and on to it I finally decide to book the tour via my hostel. It all starts on the next morning after my arrival in Antigua.

Our group consists of 12 people. “Woody” is the name of our guide. He is from the US and a very funny and likable character who creates a great atmosphere amongst the group. He just recently finished the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and his next adventure will be to cycle down to Santiago de Chile and walk the “rest” till Ushuaia. He is supported by Milton – a local Guatemalan guide – and Philippe who is volunteering in the hostel.

After a solid breakfast in a café in the old centre of Antigua we take the shuttle bus which brings us to La Soledad, the start of the trail. Here we are already at 2400 meter. Some of the locals rent wooden hiking sticks for 5 Quetzal (approx. 80 Cent) per piece. Most of us take two, but I only go for one since I want to have one hand free to use my camera. The trail starts very moderate through farmland. The biggest danger at this point is to ruin your gear at the barb wired fences on the narrow path. After a while and without damage we reach the first trees of the cloud forest. The path gets steeper now and on the loose gravel it’s often hard to get the necessary grip. The hiking stick turns out to be a valuable investment now. Around 4pm we finally reach our base camp at 3300 meters. From here we can already enjoy a perfect view on Fuego. Every 30 to 40 the volcano is throwing a big load of lava and ash into the sky followed by an extremely loud explosion. As long as it’s still bright the lava is difficult to see, but that’s the reason why we are staying overnight.

Even though we have already a pretty good view on the Fuego from the base camp we decide to try and get a little closer. After we have setup our tents and prepared everything for the night we head out again. First we have to descent 300 meters before we have to hike them up again on the other side. From time to time we can hear the explosions but unfortunately we’re not able to see them anymore. The peak of the Fuego is covered in mist now. And shortly after it gets even worse. Shortly before we reach our destination to enjoy a perfect view on the erupting volcano we got surprised by a heavy rain shower. Woody is looking more and more concerned into the sky. The rumbling noise we hear now more and more is not coming from the volcano, instead we find ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm. Other than the explosions from the volcano the roaring thunders don’t echo.

Since we would be pretty exposed to the thunderstorm further up, we decide to wait 100m underneath the top until the weather clears up a little bit. A few other groups lead by local guides ignore the bad weather conditions and go past us up the hill. They don’t seem to be as bothered by the possible struck of a lightning as we are and also the clothes some of these people are wearing is a bit optimistic considering the rain and the temperatures in this altitude. Some of them are only wearing shorts and T-Shirts and are clearly freezing. After a while the weather clears up a little bit and we decide to hike up and return to our base camp quickly. For a few seconds we have a clear view on the crater but when I ask Philippe to take a picture of me and “Fuego” it’s all covered in white mist again.

Now we track back quickly to our tents. The last half hour we have to hike through absolute darkness. The way there was already difficult, but after the rain and with the lack of daylight it’s a different challenge. The hardest part is a little canyon we have to pass via a tree which creates a bridge. We are all exhausted and happy when we finally meet camp again. Milton has setup a campfire and is preparing our dinner already. We huddle around the flames and try to dry our wet clothes, layer by layer. We celebrate the end of the day with some wine out of tetra packs and grilled marshmallows. Little by little the clouds around Fuego disappear and we can finally enjoy the pyro show. And this show is absolutely amazing. The sky around the volcano turns red with every outburst, followed by an extremely loud bang and excited people shouting all over the camping area. After a while the clouds return and the visual show for the night is over. While all the others have to share a tent with three other people I enjoy sleeping in my own tent.

It’s a short night. Woody wakes everybody up around 4am in the morning and shortly after the whole group is underway to the summit of Acatenango. With every meter we gain on our way up we get hit harder by the cold wind blowing this morning. On the crater it’s blowing so heavily that I have to take breaks from taking photos to warm up my hands again. But the view we are enjoying is making up for that. We have a perfect view on Fuego and also on volcano Agua. After approx. 30 minutes on the summit we descent back to base camp. We breakup the tents and pack our backpacks. As breakfast we get banana bread and coffee. I was often complaining about bread and pastries in central America but this banana bread is the best I ever had. And with Nutella or peanut butter it tastes even better.

The final descent down to La Soledad is very slippery as I already feared on our way up. Despite my hiking stick I fall several times but luckily without severe injuries. Our shuttle bus is already awaiting us in La Soledad. And while we’re waiting for the rest of our group to arrive and our backpacks get mounted onto the roof of the bus I enjoy a cold beer. It’s only 10am by now, but after this long adventure it feels like “beer o’clock”. Except for chilling out I don’t do much for the rest of the day. I feel pretty exhausted – similar like after a long mountain stage. But this time with the bonus of slight muscle pain I can already feel in my calves. That will help me to remember this hike for the next days.

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