Our final tourist trip in Guatemala was an overnight camping trip to climb the Acetenango volcano, which provided us spectacular views of the nearby active Volcan de Fuego. It exploded in a brilliant display continuously through the day and night, throwing up showers of glowing lava rock which cascaded down the sides of the volcano until the glowing rocks turned grey and black.
(Truth in advertising, the picture above is not taken by us, we stole it from the internet . . . but it is a much better representation of what we saw, then the pictures we took below without a time lapse advantage. . . . )
(Click below right to read more . . . )
In preparing for the trip, our biggest concern was the cold. We knew that temperatures on the mountaintop could drop to freezing, so I spent some time the day before departure going to a few of the local "paca" shops to buy 2nd hand scarves, hats and gloves. Paca's are packs of stuff that are shipped to Guatemala from the US – the overflow from Goodwill-like stores.
We began the trip early on Wednesday morning, departing from Panajachel at 6:30am. We all drove over in the Kelly’s 16 passenger van (Our family of 7, 2 Jensons, 5 Kellys, and 1 Bytheway), and arrived in Antigua at the Tropicana Hostel to begin our tour. We filled out our forms, rented coats, and transferred to the hostel van which drove us to the base of the volcano where we would begin our 5 hour trek up of the top of Acentenango. Another 5 hostel guests joined us on the trip, as well as 3 guides, so we were a rather large party, hiking up the narrow trail. From the beginning, we spread out like a line of ants following in single file up the narrow rocky path, some fast and some slow.
The hike up was agonizing to say the least. We climbed over 1000 meters in about 8 kilometers, to a camping elevation of 3750 meters. The trail was steep, and rocky, and uneven, and long. The path was beautiful, through pasture and cultivated fields, then an amazing cloud forest, then a pine forest, ending in barren volcanic rock and dirt. The weather was nice, overcast and not too hot or humid on the way up. We eventually made it to the top, winded and sweaty, and glad to finally arrive and ready to enjoy the anticipated view.
There was a flat area cut out of the side of the mountain to make a wide space for the tents and sleeping bags, which were already setup by a tour guide at the top of the mountain. In our own backpacks, we had carried only our clothing and extra water. Our arrival was accompanied by medium wind, a little bit of rain, and intense cloud cover blocking our view of everything. We couldn’t even see the Fuego volcano through the clouds, even though it was only about two kilometers away, peak to peak. Due to the zero visibility through the fog and accompanying light rain, we all retreated into our tents. While listening to the intense and intermittent rumbling and explosions from the shelter of my tent, my thoughts were around how unfortunate it would be to make this huge hike and miss seeing what we actually came here to see.
After about 20 minutes though, the rain stopped, and I peeked out of the tent and saw the outline of the Volcan de Fuego, and a red glow at the top, giving evidence of the volcanic activity. I emerged and only about 5 minutes later, the volcano visibly erupted with a red glowing shower of lava rock, which shot up into the air then cascaded down the side of the black mountain. Totally amazing!!! Thereafter, we were treated to a similar show about every 15-30 minutes throughout the evening and into the night. The distance created a sound delay, and the eruption would appear before we heard the explosion. It was a truly awesome sight to see those eruptions, one after another. We had seen erupting lava two times before, in Stromboli, Italy, and on the big island of Hawaii, but these were spectacular, felt close, and surpassed anything we had seen previously.
After a dinner of spaghetti and some hot chocolate, and as the temperature began to drop to the mid 40’s, and rain and clouds cleared and the volcano continued to give us a great show. It was getting late and cold, and people began to retreat into their tents to get some much needed rest. However, once inside the tents, listening to the rumblings and groans of the crater, it was hard to stay in the tent knowing there was a lava show happening just outside the tent door. For me, it was a long sleepless night, and I ended up getting back up, and watching the volcano for about 90 minutes by myself, and then with another sleepless companion in the cold night, stirring our campfire and gazing across the way at the crater. The view varied as little butts of flame licked the rim, then died down, then flared up, then died down, then erupted with force and flame and fire and lava and rocks. Sometimes the lava rocks flew only to one side of the mountain to roll down, other times it erupted and covered the entire visible mountaintop with streaming red lava and rock.
Back in the uncomfortable sleeping bag and pad, I shifted for another few hours until 3:30am, when the entire camp awoke to climb to the very top of the Acetenango crater for a sunrise view. It was another 90 minute hike up 200 meters to a maximum elevation of 3970 meters. The Acentenango volcano we climbed has been dormant since it’s last eruption in 1972. The hike was again incredibly tiring in the cold and altitude. However, as the sun began to cast a warm glow on the erupting volcano, there was a brief period of time when it was still dark enough for the brilliant red and orange lava to glow bright, yet light enough to see the huge explosive cloud of ash tower high above the eruptions. This would have been the perfect time to grab the best pictures with a time lapse camera and tripod that we did not have. We stayed at the top for about an hour as the sun rose over the clouds and brought light and warmth to the morning and spectacular view of the valley below. The volcanic eruptions changed in the daylight from glowing rocks, to eruptions of white, grey and yellow smoke and ash.
The hike back down the mountain was an effortless run for the kids, and killer on my knees. I descended slowly and felt sympathy for those who we passed near the very bottom, who were already breathing heavily, unaware of the intense physical demands what they were in for. But, it was all totally worth it! A fantastic trip, with never-to-be-forgotten views of the force of nature in all it’s majesty.
Plan? What plan?
We've had a fabulous school year of travel, from Texas to Guatemala and back, then to Northern Europe and Iberia and the Alps. Looking forward is Utah, and off to India, Southeast Asia maybe?Whatever it is, it'll be great.