The Road to Antigua
I didn’t want to spend much time in Guatemala. After visiting Guatemala city to get some parts for my bike I didn’t even want to go to Antigua since I have been there in 2003. I have now been in Guatemala for over two months and in Antigua for just over a month. And after what I experienced in the night of February 24, 2017 it was more than worth it!
I am in Guatemala City with Shawn, my riding buddy whom I met in Mexico. We’re told about the Volcano Fuego around Antigua which has been very active recently. Apparently the hike is pretty tough but there is also the opportunity to take an expensive 4×4 road through private property which will cut the hike short from 5 hours to about 90 minutes. With my current level of shape I consider this an option if I decided to go to antigua. Since I am so close and Shawn wants to go there and also other moto travellers are sticking around I decide to head to the former capital for a few days.
Already on the first day we walk around Antigua talking to several tour operators about the Acatenango hike. Acatenango is a dormant volcano which rises to 3976 masl. There are camp spots up there at 3660 masl from where you have a clear view on the active Volcán de Fuego from just 2.6 Km distance. After seeing the pictures of Fuego erupting we do quite fancy to get up there to see it for ourselves.
How to climb Acatenango?
Tours of the Acatenango hike vary in prices from around 30 USD to 125 USD. The operators offering the cheaper prices tell us the hike is easy, we’ll have no trouble getting up there and we’ll be provided with all the camping equipment and freshly cooked food. The latter is the quote we get at Outdoor Outfitters, a outdoor store in Antigua which also organizes hikes. I am choosing the direct way of asking them why they charge so much more than all the others, knowing that of course they are trying to sell their package. While the cheaper tours provide you with local spanish speaking guides, they have trained and bi-lingual guides which might be helpful if you do not speak spanish and have not much hiking experience at greater heights. Also they say they do have better equipment than the cheaper operators. They seem to be a bit more honest about the hike saying it is not easy but we should be able to make it. For 20USD you can also hire a porter who will carry up your gear they tell us. To the question how often Fuego is actually erupting we get the answer “all the time” from all the operators. Of course they want to sell their packages but Fuego has been quite active before we came to Antigua.
Some days later we meet up with Chris, who I have been recommended to meet by friends on Facebook since he also rides a DR650 and lives in Guatemala City. He also happens to run the “Outdoor Outfitters” so I am curious to get his perspective on the hike still bearing in mind he probably wants to sell his tours, but I do expect more honesty from a fellow rider than from someone who works at the store just selling stuff. He does stress that the hike is actually quite tough and especially for Shawn who is older than me he would recommend to hire a porter if we decided to do the hike. I ask chris about taking the private road up Acatenango to cut the hike short to 90 minutes. He says the best thing is to rent a 4×4 car to go up that road. However the road has been closed by the family owning the property as requested by officials.
The reason that the road is closed is that there has been an accident just a few weeks before I came to Antigua. This is what I heard about the accident: The group of young Guatemalans climbed Acatenango during a cold snap, meaning temperatures being lower than usual. Apparently they also tried to set up camp above the normal camp sites on the top of Acatenango where you have no wind protection at atll. They were surprised by strong winds and could not set up their tents but still decided to hang out for the night. When temperatures dropped significantly at night they started to suffer from hyperthermia and started to panic, trying to descend in the dark. Acatenango is quite steep and apparently they fell over and broke their necks. If not that then they died from the cold. It’s very sad to hear that 6 young people died, while 4 could be saved by a 60 man strong rescue team. It must be said however that obviously they did not play by the rules or recommendations.
Shawn already started to have a cold when we reached Antigua. Back home I used to have a cold at least four times a year and now I have made it to 300 days without having a cold. Must have to do with stress back home and being way more relaxed on my journey. However having my buddy constantly throwing around viruses my body cannot hold up to the challenge and I get sick too. Being weakend from the cold a stomach flu decides throw a big party in my tummy as well. For a week I am just sleeping and sitting around waiting to get better. Luckily the stomach flu is gone after a couple of days but the cold puts me definitely out of doing a hike to almost 4000 masl for almost two weeks. Within those two weeks Fuego’s activity started to decrease.
After I sart to feel better I meet up with Moritz, a motorcycle traveller from Munich who has been on a journey for 5 years already. He is also very keen on hiking up Acatenango and says it can be done on your own without going through a tour operator and even without hiring one of the local guides which you can find at the starting point of the trail in La Soledad. I thought that this was not possible but after searching google I find out that you can do it on your own though it is just recommended for experienced hikers. Although I am from Switzerland, the country of the Alps, I do not consider myself a very experienced hiker but I do understand to follow rules and recommendations, listen to my body and the equipment I have is certainly better than any of the gear you get from the operators. The main concern I have is my level of fitness. I have to think back that my plan for the journey was to go running once or even twice a week. So far I have not been running a single time after 300 days into my journey, maybe I better should have.
The Draw to get up
The more I talk to Moritz it becomes more and more obvious how keen he is to get up there. Around the weekend of February 18 I start to feel better and to get more commited to actually go on the hike. I am feeling quite keen to get out of Antigua eventually but being just there next to an active Volcano I also do fancy to go up and see it. Also it has been pickung up activity again. Shawn as well wants to go up there, he always wanted to see lava. Unfortunately he got some trouble with his knee which definitely puts him out for the hike, even the short cut hike of 90 minutes is currently not an option for him.
After I meet Moritz again at the Londoner, our favorite bar in Antigua, I return to the hotel and Moritz shoots me a message: “Lava, NOW!!!”. I head to the corner of the patio from where I can see Fuego, but I only see dark. “Over already” I get the next message from Moritz. Just before I leave the corner it happens, a obviously huge eruption appears in the dark. It’s almost midnight but I can’t help it to go “LOOK, NOW!” pretty loud. Shawn jumps up from his chair limping over as fast as he can. There it goes, a clearly big eruption with lava flowing down the slope of the volcano. The girl working at the hotel also comes out of her room to see why I am going nuts. Being quite far away from the volcano it is still amazing to see a lava eruption from the crater for the first time in my life. “We have to get up there”, Moritz shoots me another message. I completely agree and my commitment is now stronger than ever.
After checking the weather forecast we decide that coming thursday or friday will be the day. And we decide we will do the hike on our own without a guide. Moritz has downloaded some gps tracks and on my OSM maps (Pocket Earth) I can see the trails and even the camp sites are marked on there. Also we expect not to be the only ones going up so we could always ask some of the local guides for directions or just tag along for a while. There are several splits in the trail going up but all trails are supposed to reunite again towards the top, so getting lost should not be a problem. It’s not that we have no experience in reading maps and handling gps devices and my spanish is good enough to talk to the local guides.
The day is getting closer and closer, we discuss what to bring and how to pack. On wednesday night we decide it’s gonna be friday instead of thursday, it will turn out to be the luckiest decision we could make. We decide it’s better to share the tent instead of carrying up two tents. Next to bring cerealbars, chocolate, bread and salami we think a can of ravioli would be perfect since we just need to bring a pot to warm it up on the fire not wasting any of the valuable drinking water for cooking. Unfortunately the only can food we can find are beans and so we decide we’ll survive with cold food as well. In hindsight, sitting up there at night I wish we would have had a warm dinner but it didn’t really matter in the face of our experience.
I’m going on a trip and I’m taking…
Thursday. I have not even “test” packed my backpack yet. So after our shopping tour and splitting up the food I head home, get all my gear together and start filling up my 35L hiking backpack. After putting in my tent which is about 13L of volume the backpack feels quite full already. I add my pretty small Exped UL sleeping mat, all my layering wear I need, my 3L hydration bladder and some of the food. Full! And I am still missing my sleeping bag and my camera gear. I start to fiddle around with my 13L sea to summit drybag, using Rokstraps to attach it in various spots on my backpack to extend storage space to almost 50L. Except the bread I manage to put in everything I need, but lifting up the whole package I start to roll my eyes “Oh boy this is so heavy”. It’s not just the weight but also that my backpack is a bigger daypack and even though it has some padding the backpack and padding are probably not made for that amount of weight. That must be easily 20 – 25 Kg.
I suddenly start to feel quite nervous about the hike of tomorrow. I ask around to see if I can organize a bigger and better padded backpack but I have no luck. I am starting to send messages to Moritz moaning about the weight of my backpack, it feels like I am looking for an excuse not to go. He just makes fun of it but I am sure my backpack is heavier because I have all the camping gear. After talking to Shawn about it the whole evening it’s probably the best option to hire a porter who will carry up my heavy pack. If we’d share a porter we could still switch back and forth carrying the second backpack so that each of us would get some hiking time without carrying a load.
Then there is the question of how much water to bring. Tour operators say around 5L but you will have to give some of that to the guide to prepare the meal at the top. A friend of mine who has done the hike says he carried 5-6L and already used 2 of them after one hour. Many other recommendations say around 3L for drinking should be enough. I decide to go with the 3L in my drinking bladder and maybe buy a Gatorade to carry along. I guess this is also quite personal, I actually do not drink that much water as everybody says one should and I am still alive so 3L should be good enough for me.
Also, what I do not know at this time, on the trail we were about to take there are two “tiendas” on the way up, locals carrying up water, sodas, gatorades, snacks and coffee that you can buy. The upper one even has a grill where you can get grilled meat or a hot coffee or tea.
The Hike is On
Friday morning, the day has come. I wake up still feeling nervous about the hike. I don’t really know why I feel so nervous, I have hiked before and if a bad case of altitude sickness should surprise me I can always turn back. It’s a strange feeling but I figure it’s mainly because of my lack of fitness that I feel. Certainly at 39 years not having done any sports for almost a year I am out of shape, but then I have always been doing sports all my life so there must be some basic level of fitness left somewhere. Also I know I can overcome my inner temptation of giving up as long as I feel I can make it. The average time to complete the hike is 5 hours, if we start early enough we have plenty of time to take a lot of breaks and I expect that I’ll probably need something like 6-7 hours due to my lack of recent excercise.
I usually don’t eat breakfast just after getting up, but today I need it. At seven I head over to Kaffee Fernando’s to eat some pancakes accompanied by fruits. Maybe not the best to choose a sweet type of breakfast but it’s what I feel most like eating right now. I head back to the hotel to get “dressed up” with my hiking gear and contact lenses before Moritz stops by at 8am to “pick me up”. I’ll tell him to come inside and check out my backpack. “Ohhh”. He agrees it is quite heavy and heavier than his and we conclude we might just share a porter who will carry it up. I strap everything on the back of my DR, Shawn and Robert, another canadian rider at my hotel, wish me luck and off we ride to La Soledad to tackle the climb of Acatenango Volcano.
It’s about a 30 Km ride and there is some private property next to the road where you can park your car or bike for the night. For a bike they charge 25Q (3 USD). We talk to Hector who turns out to be a guide (he shows us some sort of licence) and we ask him where we can find a porter rather than a guide. After some talking he says he would carry up my heavy backpack and leave us at the camp site to return back down afterwards himself for 200Q (25 USD). I discuss with Moritz but we both feel the same way: Even though it would make the hike easier to have someone carry our heavy stuff we both prefer to do it on our own. I know from the past that it is a much more rewarding feeling if you can make it all yourself. Hector gives us his phone number so just in case we needed help he would catch up with us and help. Also up the trail it is possible to find guides and porters but he says they will charge more. So no worries anymore to tackle it on our own.
For the first part Moritz agrees to carry my heavy backpack while I carry his lighter but cheaper one. It turns out that my backpack is actually more comfortable to carry since it is made for hiking while he’s just got a city type of backpack. We rent some walking sticks for 5Q each and then head off towards the trailhead. I completly forget about getting a Gatorade, must be that I am still feeling a bit nervous. But this feeling disappears quickly when we hit the first part of the trail. It’s quite steeep and goes straight up the mountain. The underground is pretty sandy so getting a solid grip is not really easy and the walking sticks already come in pretty handy.
There is also one other group we meet on this part of the trail, they are doing the hike with a guide and the guide seems to carry someone’s backpack on top of his own backpack. For a short moment I might regret not having paid a porter, but it’s a only very short moment that my ego allows it to come up. Those guys are amazing, how fast and easily they can climb that volcano with all that load that they are carrying. But of course that’s what they’ve been doing for a long time.
About an hour after the hike we hit a hut and there is quite many locals around. Some of them are there to cash in the 50Q park entrance fee, others are guides and porters to wait for their opportunity to help some exhausted tourists that want to get some weight of their shoulders in turn for cash. At this point I don’t even think about a porter anymore, even though I am already a bit exhausted my ego has taken over completely. Others run a small “tienda” selling water, sodas and snacks. Now I have the chance to get the Gatorade that I forgot about in La Soledad and 15Q seems a pretty fair price for being up on the mountain already. If you go up on the mountains in Switzerland they make you empty your wallet since they take advantage of the “monopoly” up on the mountains. Same here but on a much smaller scale, so I decide to get a Gatorade to keep me feeded with some carbs for the next section of the hike.
We’ll head off at the same time like the group we’ve met before and shortly after the tienda we hit a trail split. While all trails are eventually leading to the top (not Rome for once, luckily) I ask the guide from the group about the trails. The one to the left towards the east is easier and since his group is full of girls this is the better choice he says. The trail to the right will lead straight to the west side of Acatenango and looking at the map it seems a fair bit shorter though steeper. That’s the one we pick and so we part from the group and constant passing and being passed by other people.
About three hours from the trailhead we hit another “tienda”. This one is the last chance to stock up on water, soda, Gatorade and chocolate bars. They also have hot coffee or tea and they even grill some meat which looks bloody good but I am not really hungry. I just get some chocolate bars for us to get some sugar into the blood and Moritz now gets a Gatorade as well.
The trail keeps a quite steady incline for the rest of the trail but luckily it is not as sandy as in the start. But also the air gets thinner. Getting higher up we can now hear Fuego errupting. On one hand this makes us wanna go faster but on the other hand I know I have to distribute my power for the rest of the hike. While Moritz is ahead of me I walk a little slower and take a short 2 minute break in every turn of the switchback style trail to let my heartbeat calm down a bit. I can now start to feel the heartbeat in the back of my neck and head so I feel this is the right thing to do. Just take it easy and take those small breaks.
I walk up slowly and suddenly I hear Moritz laughing loudly on the trail above me. Is he starting to go nuts because of the altitude? I am too focused on wandering the trail up step by step, slowly like being in a trance so I don’t even bother asking him what’s going on. Later he tells me it was because he could not see me but just hear the walking stick pounding into the trail in a quite slow rythm with like 5-7 second intervalls. Before the hike I thought it will probably incorporate a lot of swearing and such but I actually keep pretty silent for the hike just focusing on every little step and listening to my body while once in a while looking around enjoying the views.
We finally make it to the end of the trail’s incline at around 3650 masl. From here we could turn left to go around the peak of Acatenango to get to the east side camp site but we already planned to go to the west side. To get there the trail continues for about another 1.2 Km between 3650 masl and 3700 masl so just a bit of up and down. This part of the trail is also a little more dangerous since you follow a narrow trail on the sandy gravely slopes of Acatenango’s peak. You certainly don’t wanna take a slide down that slope as getting up there would be a major pain in “where the sun don’t shine”. This is also one reason why most tour operators and guides take hikers to the east camp site because it’s less dangerous they say.
There it is!
Shortly before we arrive at the campsite we can now finally see Fuego’s peak for the first time. It is already a beautiful view and we can see Fuego squirting out lava material, though you cannot see any of the red-yellowish colors due to daylight. Impressive nonetheless. Being almost too tired to take off our backpacks we do so to get to our cameras in fear the clouds in the valley will pull up on Fuego’s peak and we won’t get any more chance to document that beautiful event. Then we head on to the campsite. There, they had built some sort of plattforms on the steep slope for quite some tents to be put up and cut down trees to make for a clear view on Fuego’s peak. On the lower platforms there are also big trunks around the fireplace so this must be the campsite Outdoor Outfitters had told us about. Next to the fireplace on the lowest platform there is also quite some firewood nicely cut ready to be burned. While I feel completely exhausted and out of power Moritz climbs around the platforms to find one with a clear view on Fuego and we choose to put up our camp on the second level of platforms.
For a while we just sit there and relax from the strain of the climb and watch Fuego spitting out materials from inner earth. Then Fuego goes bang! A big rumble and it’s shooting up loads of what looks like stones in daylight accompanied by a big grey and dense cloud of smoke. Yes, this is so spectacular already! Since we arrived around 3pm the sun is shining down on us quite heavily. We try to build up some shade with the small tarp and the limited amount of ropes we brought. It works out halfway ok but Moritz retreats into the shadows of the trees next to the campsite while I cramp myself on my helinox chair into the shadow of the small tarp. Around 5.30pm the sun is finally setting lower and it’s not that brutally strong anymore. Moritz starts to collect some firewood from the fireplace below, noone else has arrived so far, while I start pitching the tent.
Around sunset the materials ejected from Fuego’s crater now show their incandescent characteristics for the first time. Wow, this is simply beautiful and already more than I would have expected after friends who did the hike before said that they did not see or just a little bit of lava. Even though Fuego is in an active period now I knew before the hike that it is still hit and miss wheter or not you will get to see lava. It is definitely a hit already! The sun is set now and the specatcle is amazing. Smoke is shooting out the crater and glowing pieces of lava shoot out of the crater and roll down Fueg’s slopes creating smoke that climbs back up towards the crater. Once in a while we just sit around our bonfire and watch, while sometimes we walk around with our cameras to try catching the event from different angles.
It’s 8pm, completely dark and Fuego does not stop! It is erupting in a constant stream and I almost can’t believe the luck we have to see that. It’s not that Fuego just doesn’t stop, it seems the eruptions get stronger every half an hour or so! I enjoy the spectacle shaking my head in disbelief of the luck to wittness that moment that is hard to almost impossible to describe in words. The visual spectacle is accompanied by rumbling and hissing noises of the erruptions which add to the whole experience being unbelievable.
Then at 10pm, BOOM! What the… is happeing? Fuego is going crazy now, lava is thrown higher up above the crater, vicious flames shoot out at an incredible speed while dark smoke twirls around what looks like a hellfire escaping inner earth now. Wow, wow, wow… I don’t know what to say and just watch that epic moment in between trying to get some shots and footage of it.
Moritz meanwhile got a case of altitude sickness, mainly a pounding headache and has retreated into the tent to relax and watch the specatcle from there. I made sure to set up the tent so that we could always take a peek on Fuego during the night. While Moritz once in a while comes out he spends most of the night watching from the tent while I mostly sit around the fireplace and revel in the spectacle going on just 2.6 Km away from us. At this moment I have no words to describe the feelings that this is triggering inside me. I have seen many things on my travels that were mindblowing but this is like no other. I am completely out of words and simply watch and stare in silence.
11pm, Fuego’s constant stream of eruptions has not stopped, and it is still getting stronger! I believe it must be throwing out the vicious lava meterials at least a hundred meters above it’s crater. But it’s actually ejecting the glowing pieces up to 300m above the crater, still accompanied by huge flames that reach almost the same height. More and more, lava also starts to run down from the peak creating an incredible image of a glowing peak with an unbelievable firestorm and black clouds shooting from it’s center.
After 12am Moritz comes out of the tent to check if I am still around. I have been almost totally quiet, I am simply to blown away to shout by myself in amaze. Just been watching in trying to comprehend what’s happeing without being very successful at it. Moritz joins me at the bonfire and we witness a different type of activity now. The rumbling and hissing noises suddenly stop and are replaced by deep, loud and clear bubbling sounds while it now looks like the whole peak, not just the crater, is on fire and melting away. Once more I am shaking my head… in not comprehending this experience and again in disbelief of the immense luck to be there on that particular night.
A bonfire is a beautiful thing, we all love it, but what a contrast to the fire in the background! Even more so as the night sky above is almost crystal clear and unveils thousands of stars. It is simply… magical! All the good stuff I already appreciate is right there. Camping under the milky way, on top of a mountain with a beautiful view, a bonfire to keep your warm, a buddy to share the moment… But added that one variable called Fuego, making that moment so very special!
Around 1am I start getting colder even though I always tried to keep the small bonfire going. I retreat into the tent to warm up in my sleeping bag and get some rest after struggling with myself wheter or not to stay up all night until Fuego stops, if at all. But being exhausted from the hike and getting cold I feel I need to get at least a bit of rest. Also I somehow believe that I have seen so much more than my wildest expectations would have ever allowed me so it is ok for me to take a break.
Fuego does not stop being in ballestic mode until 5am. It wasn’t a problem though to fall asleep just waking up once in a while hearing Fuego still giving all it has…
What a Morning View
Waking up with a clear view on Fuego, still showing us some lava, from the tent just around sunrise is also quite an experience! Due to being exhausted and Moritz having a case of altitude sickness we decide not to do the last section of the hike to Acatenangos crater to watch the sunrise from there. It must certainly be an impressive view for a sunrise but I feel I have seen so much more of what could ever exceed my wildest dreams, there simply is no need for me to go up there. Even though we cannot see towards the east where the sun is rising, we do have a beautiful view towards Lago di Atitlan in the west with it’s surrounding volcanoes peeking out from the morning clouds. And of course Fuego, which has now calmed down but still punching out big clouds of smoke every once in a while.
After having some bread with avocado, salami and cheese for breakfast we pack up our stuff to head back down. While walking down is certainly not easy on your knees it’s much more relaxed regarding the heartbeat and it took half of the time of the climb. After 2.5 hours including a coffee break at the upper “tienda” and a few more breaks further down we are back in La Soledad. On the way down the guide we met on the way up tells me, he has only seen Fuego like this once before. And as said before, friends of mine who did the hike a couple of weeks before me have seen only small squirts of lava or even no lava at all. Again I can’t believe how lucky I have been!
Being back in Antigua Shawn almost felt he was up there living with me when I was sharing some pictures and a live video. I am really sorry for him he could not join the hike because of his knee, he always wanted to see lava and this would certainly have been more than he would ever expect. The following days I spend sitting and laying around the hotel to recover from the hike. I still keep shaking my head once in a while still trying to comprehend. Sometimes I almost have to cry… Being so grateful to have experienced mother earth alive more than I ever did before.
You remember, I neither did I want to visit Antigua nor staying that long, but after this unique experience it was all worthwile. If you ever get only the chance to see something like this you have to take your chances no matter if you need to spit your lungs to get there.
This night, that unique experience is without a single doubt the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed!
Facts about Fuego Eruption February 24, 2017
1) Incandescent lava material was ejected up to 300m above the crater and falling down on Fuego's slope up to 500m from the crater.
2) Ashes were rising up to 4500 masl, other sources even say up to 5800 masl.
3) Ashes travelled as far as 25 Km in directions between N and E. Ashfall has been reported in areas around Aletenango and San Vincente Pacaya.
4) Thre lava flows have been reported:
a) Towards Santa Teresa with a lenght of 1.2 Km
b) Towards Ceniza with a length of 1.6 Km
c) Towards Las Lajas with a length of 1.3 Km
Pracical Info for the Acatenango hike
I am male, 39 years old, regular smoker. I have not been doing any exercise in the last 300 days but I do consider to have a basic level of fitness since I have been doing sports all my life. I come from Switzerland and even though I am not a big hiker I do have some experience of being in the mountains and hiking trails in the Alps. It took me 5 hours to complete the western trail. in the lower part we took some 15 minute breaks and on the upper part I took more frequent 2-3 minute breaks to have my heartbeat clam down (I could start feeling the pulse in the back of my neck, so many short breaks helped me a lot).
- Tours can be booked at various prices from 30 USD to 125 USD
- Good reputations: OX (75 USD) or Outdoor Outfitters (100-125 USD)
- If you have your own hiking and camping equipment you can also hire a local guide in La Soledad
- Guides can help carry part of your gear or you can hire a porter who will carry your stuff for about 25USD
- It is possible to go completely on your own but you still need to pay a park entrace fee of 50Q (about an hour hike from the trailhead)
- At the first rest stop (Where you pay the entrace fee) you can buy water, sodas, Gatorade and snacks.
- Further up there is another place where you can stock up on liquids and snacks and you can also buy meat from the grill or hot coffee or tea (this one is however on the most western trail so I don't know if there is another "tienda" if you go the eastern trails)
- There are two camp sites, one on the western side and the other on the eastern side of Acatenango summit. A guide told me the eastern one has usually more people since the trail is a little easier and safer and the view should be better. The western trail is steeper and I was perfectly happy with the view on Fuego, but you won't see sunrise from there. The western trail is supposed to be a bit more dangerous since there are some drop offs on the upper section, though they are not vertical you don't want to fall down having to climb up in the loose vulcanic gravel.
More info on summitpost about doing the Acatenango hike on your own.