We opened up the tent in the morning and had a great view of smoke billowing out from the top of the erupting volcano – quite a spectacular way to celebrate two years on the road! Then it was down to business, and yet another steep climb, this one 750 metres up on a dirt road. It was a tough but enjoyable little road, and fun to be cycling as a group again, and together we reached the summit and the small town of La Soledad. We’d heard it was possible to hire a local guide here cheaply to take us up the volcano, but it was very quiet and there wasn’t much going on, and so we decided to carry on down to the next town, San Jose Calderas, where we knew there were some bigger guiding companies.
Thanks to the power of smartphones we had no trouble locating a reputable local tour company in San Jose Caldera. Most of the people who climb Acatanengo do so through tour companies located in nearby Antigua and take buses to the volcano, but we wanted to make sure we hired local guides (and one of us in particular wanted to avoid taking a bus). We could have climbed without any guides, but we wanted to camp on the slopes of the volcano in order to get the best night-time views, and the only places to camp would be on the areas of flattened ledges hacked into slopes by these people, and we wanted to give something back to their local community (plus, you know, we didn’t really fancy hiking up a volcano with our own heavy tent on our backs.)
And the company we’d found felt right straight away. We were invited into the yard of a real Guatemalan family, full of people and animals. There really were an extraordinary number of people, and we only began to understand who any of them were when Catalino, the father who ran the business and the best English-speaker, arrived home. He explained that he’d worked guiding the volcano for many years but wouldn’t be going with us personally, instead leaving us in the hands of one of his three sons who all now worked as guides too. And as well as us five there would also be a German girl, Susanne, and an American, David, who was travelling in his campervan with his Colombian partner Irma, climbing with us.
But we wouldn’t be going up the volcano until the following day, and with quite many hours to fill I tried my best to get a game of football going. I’d been looking forward to playing UK & Ireland vs Japan ever since we’d been riding with Kazu and Yasu, but it was hard work to convince anyone to play. In fairness we had all been cycling quite a lot of hills recently (we’d climbed the equivalent height of Mount Everest in crossing Guatemala), and we were going to be hiking up the third highest peak in Central America in the morning, so I could understand why they weren’t so keen. But chances to have a game of footy don’t come around every day, and I was delighted when I got one of Catalino’s sons and Ciaran to come with me to the nearby pitch. I’d hoped others might follow, but the only other players to arrive on the dusty pitch were four or five little kids. None of them could have been older than ten, and so we ended up playing a game of UK & Ireland vs Guatemala Youth. Ciaran, in particular, took great pleasure in showing off his abilities to dribble past eight-year olds, and for once we ran out winners. “Let’s get our story straight this time,” he said as we walked back to the house, “there were five of them, and two of us, and we won.”
We were all fed dinner and given a briefing by Catalino about how the following day would go, the majority of which involved agreeing the exact terms of me being allowed to walk from the house to the trailhead instead of taking the truck like everyone else. And there was more entertainment served up on the town football pitch. There was a festival of some kind taking place, and not only was there live music, but there were big dancing cuddly toys. Great pre-volcano-climbing entertainment!
We woke up early. It was a beautiful clear morning at the house and the peak of Acatanengo was clearly visible from the yard, towering over us, teasing us, as we packed our things into borrowed backpacks (thanks David and Irma!), cleaned our teeth, and in my case quickly wolfed down some sandwiches. As everyone else sat down together to enjoy their breakfast I slipped out the gate and began my hike alone. It was a four kilometre walk along the road to the trailhead, uphill all the way, and a good warm-up for the main event. It was a fresh day, and I felt good and strong as I strode along, the great feeling of anticipation that comes with being out early in the morning at the start of a day of great adventure. It had been stressed to me that I shouldn’t be late to the trailhead, but in the end it was me that was sat waiting for twenty minutes or so before everyone else arrived in the back of a couple of vehicles.
We began marching on a surprisingly steep trail, with the addition of my backpack, collected from one of the vehicles, making things considerably more tough. “At least we don’t have our tent,” I said to Dea as we trudged painfully forward, believing the price we’d paid for the guides to have been justified within the first five minutes. We marched rhythmically forward like soldiers up the slope of grey volcanic soil, us five cyclists, Catalino’s son, another guide/helper, and David. But it was soon apparent that Susanne wasn’t with us. Already she was struggling, falling behind and finding it hard to catch her breath. Astonishingly our guides took her backpack and added it to the considerable weight they were already carrying, and on we all went.
For the first section the trail took us up through fields. It wasn’t long before we began to encounter hikers that had been up the previous night who were now descending. Such was the steepness of the slope that many of them came running down at great speed, kicking up great clouds of dust as they did so that choked us. “They could lift their feet up a bit, couldn’t they?” Ciaran complained. Every so often we would stop and take a break, and wait for Susanne to catch up. Even without carrying any weight she was still struggling, arriving exhausted at each rest point, but we were grateful. The guides seemed keen to move us along quickly, and Susanne’s struggles bought us some much-appreciated extra rest time.
Beyond the fields we hiked on up into what was effectively a cloud forest. The moisture in the air here meant rich vegetation, a veritable rainforest in the sky. It was a beautiful place for a walk, to be sure. But the going remained tough, and I began to think maybe a walking pole wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. I’d never used them before, but the people in our group that had them seemed to be benefitting from them here. I began scouring the sides of the trail for a suitable natural alternative, and it wasn’t too long before I found what I wanted – a sturdy stick of the right length that even had a handle-like dip at one end. Now I was a real hiker. Like I said, I’d never thought much of walking poles before, but I was an instant convert – this really did make the going a lot more enjoyable.
We continued on through a pine forest and then finally up to the exposed higher reaches of the volcano. By now clouds had rolled in and Fuego, the volcano we’d really come to see, was hidden from view. That didn’t stop us feeling a sense of joy to eventually make it up to our campsite, a row of tents perched on a ledge some 3,600 metres above sea level. It had taken us six hours to get here and we were all pretty exhausted. Dea was feeling worse than most, with an altitude-induced headache certainly not helping. We retired to our tent to rest. After a while another group of backpackers arrived to share our campsite.
The clouds were mostly blocking the views of Fuego, although after a while they cleared enough to get a view of some eruptions. And the guides thought it worthwhile to take us on a sunset tour. Dea wasn’t feeling up to it, so I went along without her. It was a ten minute walk along the side of the volcano to another viewpoint where, unfortunately, we got views of nothing but clouds. Half an hour later we wandered back to camp disappointed. I knew the reason we were here was to see the eruptions at night-time, and I wanted so much to see this volcano erupting close up, and I hoped we weren’t going to be left disappointed for all our efforts.
It was still overcast as it grew dark and we sat and ate dinner together around a campfire. The food provided was really excellent, and there was even hot chocolate, which was quite welcome as the temperatures were dropping very low at this altitude. Dea was feeling better now, thanks to some medication provided by one of the better-prepared backpackers, and there was a nice atmosphere around the campfire. There was only one thing missing. But then it turned up. “I think now the clouds are clearing,” one of the guides said, and sure enough the peak of Fuego was suddenly becoming clear, lit up by the light of a rising full moon. It was amazing how quickly the clouds were gone, how quickly the perfect cone of Fuego appeared before us, and then in an instant suddenly there were orange sparks flying out from the top. The volcano was erupting, and it was genuinely one of the most amazing moments of my life. “WOW!” “OOH!” “AAH!” chorused the crowd, every bit as stunned and mesmorised as I was by the show. The lava fizzled out on the slopes of the volcano, there was a pause, and then, with us still in awe, it did it again, but twice as big this time, like the greatest firework display you could ever imagine. This was a volcano alright, a real volcano. Nothing could look more like a volcano. We kept staring, the volcano erupting like this every few minutes, the greatest show on earth.
After a while I went to get some blankets from our tent. It was positioned away from the campfire, higher up and with a slightly different angle, and when I walked up there and looked out I was taken aback by what I saw. It was truly a breathtaking vista, the most extraordinary, the most amazing view of my whole entire life. I hurried back and got Dea and told her that she really must come up and join me, and together we sat, perched precariously on a narrow trail on the edge of one volcano and looked out. To the right of our field of vision was Fuego, still erupting every few minutes, but from here also we could see yet another volcano, away to our left. In between them lay a blanket of white fluffy clouds, lit up by the light of the full moon that was glowing centre stage. It looked like a fantasy land, another world, a place that I could not have believed until this moment actually existed in this world.
Dea’s head was hurting again and she decided to go to bed. I was surprised by how many others did the same. By 9:30 there was only me left, everyone else presumably keen to get an early night ahead of our planned 4:00 a.m. climb to the summit. But I couldn’t do that. How could I sleep when the night was still clear, when the volcano was still erupting? So I sat alone and stared at the peak, amazed by every eruption, every flying piece of lava, every hot orange rock dancing down the slopes. Each eruption was different, each one mesmerising in its own way. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an incredible sight, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I got to know its patterns, noticed that the longer between eruptions, the more spectacular the show would be. I was willing it to be bigger, more impressive, but the words of our guide stuck with me. Over dinner he had told us that there had been a major eruption last June, less than a year ago, and 3,000 people had lost their lives in the valley below. Interestingly, not something anybody had mentioned to us before we got up here, but a stark reminder that this was nature at its most formidable, its most angry, its most destructive.
David was feeling sick and couldn’t sleep, so he joined me outside and we watched the eruptions in silence, the only noise being the thunder-like rumble of each eruption, which reached us moments after the light show. At 11:30 I saw Dea emerge from the tent. I thought she was coming to watch too, to enjoy the show, but instead she was coming to tell me that she was feeling awful. The altitude was really affecting her now, her headache was really bad and she was starting to have difficulty with her breathing. For the first time in five hours my attention was diverted away from the volcano and I took Dea back to the tent and did my best to comfort her. I knew the only real cure for altitude sickness was descent, and my mind began to play over how quickly we would be able to get Dea down, and how we were going to do it if her condition worsened and she wouldn’t be able to walk. Our guides had limited knowledge of altitude sickness and had even told us it wasn’t any problem here, so they perhaps weren’t going to be much immediate help. In any case the best thing seemed to be to wait until daylight before beginning the descent. We both fell asleep, worried.
We were awoken by an exceptionally loud bang. I was up like a shot and looking outside. Fuego was half orange with all the lava that was flowing down it. It had been a massive eruption, the biggest of the night, and I was disappointed to have missed it. But there was great news. Dea said she was feeling much better after a little sleep, and that, while she wasn’t going to, she thought I should still go to the top at four with everyone else. That didn’t seem like so far away now, so I got up and sat and watched the volcano again, hoping for another spectacular show, but the big eruption had taken the steam out of it, and for the next hour and a half it only coughed and spluttered.
At four people stirred and got themselves ready, and at half past we struck out for the summit by the light of the moon and our headlamps. To my consternation Fuego became more active as we traipsed away around the side of our volcano, taking it out of our line of sight. But at least it meant a good show for Dea, who was now up and awake and enjoying a tremendous spectacle.
The hike to the top was very steep on loose scree, but I still felt good and within a couple of hours we were summiting, just as the sun rose over the clouds to the east. Fuego was in sight again, still erupting. There were spectacular views in every directions, a plateau, a crater, and a Japanese man smoking a cigarette. Kazuhiro had climbed this volcano in his usual laid-back style, and this was, for him at least, just another place for a fag break. He was one of maybe a hundred who had made it to the summit from all the tour groups, but there was plenty of space for all of us. Even so it was quite nice to stay a little longer than most, and to run up and have the highest point to myself. From here I had an amazing 360 degree panorama of the whole fantastic scene, and it was here that I witnessed Fuego producing a massive eruption that had cloud and dust rolling down the sides.
I descended to camp with another guide, and this was perhaps the most fun part of the whole trip. It was certainly a lot faster than going up had been as we ran and slid down the loose scree slopes. The two hour hike up took less than 20 minutes to descend, and we were all back in camp. We sat and watched Fuego some more over breakfast, and then began to descend. Dea was thankfully feeling much better now, which was good because the trail down through the forests was steep and slippery, especially with our less than ideal trainers. It was a relief to get down through this section and back to the gravelly trail through the fields, where slipping wasn’t a risk, and you could run down as fast as you wanted. Coming up in the opposite direction as we stampeded past were groups of hikers heading for the place where we had just been, and oh boy, they had no idea how lucky they were to be going up there, for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience awaited them.
“Lift your feet up, Ciaran!” I shouted. “Try not to cover them in dust!”