Guide: "I just got notified of an orange-alert. This level of volcanic activity isn’t normal. We will probably be okay, but maybe not. Do you guys want to keep hiking toward the volcano?”
Naive tourists: …. “YES!”
I always relish the fact that people put such great trust in their guides. Do you really want to jump off that 60 ft rock into the alligator-infested water? No, of course not, but that reassuring nod of approval from a guide always seems to diminish any instinctual sense of survival. We will do pretty much anything with a gentle push from a professional.
Now, as a river guide, I know firsthand the persuasive power that a guide holds. I’ve managed to convince grown men to play butt darts (the always hilarious camp game). Yet, even with this insider knowledge, I found myself blindly nodding "YES", when our hiking guide asked if we’d like to keep going. Hell, if he was willing to go why shouldn’t I be?
This decision to keep going was more than worth the looming potential of my body being scorched to oblivion by flaming hot magma. Saying yes is almost always worth it. Say yes more often.
Luke and I were picked up from our hostel at 9:00 am- fully caffeinated and mentally prepared for the intense vertical challenge we were about to face. After a short van ride, our group arrived at the base camp of Acatenango and geared up for our scramble to the 13,000 ft summit. We tossed tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads into our backpacks; tightened our shoelaces; and off we went!
We were warned that the first part of the hike would be the most treacherous. And it was. Not only was the gradient practically 90 degrees, but the trail beneath our feet was deep, loose volcanic rock. Meaning that each step we took was twice the effort and half the distance. But we were all in it together and Luke and I found ourselves giggling for the better part of the morning ascent. Our legs trembled uncontrollably at each resting point as we crammed melted snickers into our energy-deprived bodies. Spirits were high though, and my competitive side (the only side I have) gave me the gusto to keep up with the front of the pack.
Our group was quite lucky with the weather, as there was a pleasant cloud covering for most of the lower (hot) section; we happily took the cooler climate in place of valley views. And as if planned by the gracious weather Gods, once we reached the higher/cooler elevations the clouds parted and we were given some incredible vistas.
It was at this point that our guide received a muffled message on his walkie-talkie. His face squirmed with uneasiness as he tried to explain to us in Spanish that an orange-alert had been declared by the tour company in town and that we might have to turn around. Hearing the phrase “orange-alert” in the context of an active volcano is nerve-wracking to say the least. My immediate response came from a place of rationality, albeit a bit dramatic; I conjured up images of myself violently somersaulting down the side of the mountain in a desperate attempt to escape the wrath of raging lava. But then I remembered that I had just hiked the toughest 6 hours of my life and probably didn’t have the energy to outrun lava anyways… so, I voted to keep going. Heck, if the guide was willing to walk toward the danger, so was I!
Not too long after deciding to continue on, we heard a serious rumble and were overtaken by a school-girl-giddiness as we rounded the bend to see smoke and magma bursting from the nearby Volcán Fuego. And like with all bright and shiny things, we picked up our pace and ran towards it. The air became thick with smoke, but the last hour of our journey flew by! The trail flattened out and our curious minds pushed our exhausted bodies to the limit. We made it!
Look at this beautiful beast— Volcán Fuego.
As tents popped up along the ledge and our warm layers were put on, the night sky artfully filled our volcanic vista with a dramatic backdrop. The lava bursts were constant, which apparently is quite rare, and the higher the moon became the taller the fuego flew. I’m not sure what I expected an erupting volcano to look like, but this scene absolutely beat my expectations. With every rumble and explosion, Luke and I turned to each other with bewilderment, “Did you see that one?!”.
Our group snuggled close around the campfire and ate dinner in complete silence as if words would disrupt the eruptions. Before saying our “goodnights” to each other and to the volcano, we sipped on hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows to take in a few more memorable moments. Then, off to bed it was.
Morning brought silence and the most magical sunrise I’ve ever witnessed. The warm rays comforted my chilly cheeks and toes as we unzipped our tent door to reveal the water-colored sky. You wouldn’t have blamed me for wanting to jump right off the side of that mountain into the glowing orange abyss. Luckily, I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet and I can’t do anything THAT ambitious without a proper caffeine overload. I came to my senses in time to pack up and begin the much easier trek down the mountain.
Our 3-hour descent was uneventful but filled with a palpable air of accomplishment. This was a tough hike, maybe the toughest I’ve done. But the reward was remarkable. I feel so incredibly blessed to have been provided a chance to see an active, erupting volcano. Thank goodness I said YES.
Lesson of the trip: Trust your gut, but also your guide. They might encourage wild and crazy behavior, but they probably don’t want you to die.
Want to give this adventure a shot? (logistics)
Location: Antigua, Guatemala – Volcán Acatenango
Duration: 2 days, 1 night/ 6+ hours ascent, 3+ hours descent
Difficulty: Very Strenuous (you can buy walking sticks at the entrance or pay a porter if need be)
Cost: $40/ 300 quetzals (ask around for the best price)
What to bring:
Overnight backpack (at least 40 liters), tour provides tent, sleeping bag and pad.
Warm clothes, including a beanie and gloves.
Snacks!! Tour includes meals but you will want to supplement, trust me!
At least 4 liters of H2O.
Tip for your guide and 50q for park fee.
Most trips leave around 9:00 am and return at 11:00 am the following day. You will be hiking Acatenango- the third tallest volcano in Guatemala at 13,000 ft- not the actual active volcano. The active volcano is called Volcán Fuego and the stunning view of this bad boy is why you are hiking so darn high on the other mountain. It is very warm during the day and very cold at night, so be prepared for multiple climates. Most hostels will let you leave your travel gear with them overnight, so just bring what you need for the hike in your backpack. If you have any more questions, feel free to message me!
* You are required to do this hike with a guide.