Pacaya and Fuego are the second and third most active volcáns in Guatemala. Pacaya has a continuous flow of lava whilst Fuego erupts periodically like some geysers. At around 4000m Fuego (y Acatenango) is the third highest point(s) in Guatemala (and Central America).
At the trailhead for Pacaya they almost force you to have a guide. It’s really not needed.
Almost everyone I talked to strongly suggested climbing Acatenango with a guide. If you have your own gear, I would strongly recommend against it. The trail is quite straightforward and the different routes are clearly marked on most maps. This way you can enjoy the mountain at your pace. And not have a guide tell you “it’s time to go now” (I literally heard this at the summit). If you do use guides, there was one good company one group used, I’ll try and get the name.
I also met a couple who hiked up early in the morning removing the necessity of camping. This requires an early start (early!). If you do this and are running late, take the trail on the west side of the mountain that passes the commercial camp. This offers faster viewes of Fuego which you really want to see erupting whilst it is still dark.
Part 0: Prelude
The bus from San Lucas L.L. took longer than I expected to reach Guatemala City. Dropping down from the volcanic chain protecting the highlands we passed through some interesting landscape full of tortured rock with lots of places to explore. There were large aluvial rivers of volcanic rock that reminded me of their glaciar originated cousins I’d seen in Alaska and the Yukon.
Arriving at the bus station the plan was to head into the city to make plans with Andy to climb Acatenango. This was my first exposure with Guatemala’s Metro network. Similar to that in México you could travel anywhere on a line for Q1. I exited the bus in the city and took advantage of the free WiFi… The plan had been to stay at the same place as Andy, but it wasn’t to be… What to do? I figured I’d have to find a nearby hostel, but quickly received a reply from Pablo who said it was fine for me to come stay with his family. Frustratingly he lived in Villa Nueva, which I had passed on the bus heading to the terminal… Not having left Plaza Barrios, I simply hopped on the next bus to retrace my last trip. I was famished at this point. It was dark and I still hadn’t had lunch. I caught a bus to the Plaza Santa Clara (costing Q4 for a much shorter journey) to buy food from the Walmart. Pablo would pick me up from a nearby fast food restaurant in half an hour.
Having spent the five days getting from San Marcos to Villa Nueva via a couple of volcanos… I was smelly and knew it. I felt bad greeting Pablo’s mother and sister and quickly jumped into the shower.
Food was enjoyed and after sending a few messages, I think it was pretty much time for sleep. I’d be leaving with Pablo and his brother at 05:30 to spend a day in the city.
I feel like the last true city I had been in was Cancun… And even that didn’t count as I merely walked the beaches in the Hotel Zone. I guess it reflects my general tendency to avoid cities. Like Theroux I didn’t view moving from one big city to the next as travel. Nevertheless, I found the buildings, road sculptures and manicured nature strangely relaxing. I want hauling a heavy pack up volcanoes, walking dirty roads, worried about being accosted by opertunistic farmers, deciding where I’d spend the night, or waiting for a bus. I mearly had the general goal to meander my way to Parque Central. I linked up with the pedestrian 6a Avenida and grabbed some shorts from a Megapaca before meeting up with Andy. He took me to visit a church he liked. It was well decorated, but as with most lavish religious structures I imagined the money better spent in other ways.
Our general plan was to have another rest day and meet up in Antigua on Domingo.
Before meeting back up with Pablo I discovered the outdoor shop La Rocalla, I didn’t grab anything, but noted it down in case I was ever back and needed some quality gear that is often frustratingly difficult to aquire (The French chain Decathlon can be helpful too, they have stores in México, Colombia…?).
The drive back was as slower than the drive in… I would die having to commute 3.5hrs every day! (That’s 70hrs a month). We stopped for pupusas… I really wanted to try pupusas de chipilin but the only vegetarian option was queso… It was still nice and quite a big serving.
We didn’t really do anything when we got back. I found out there was a Assassin’s Creed movie and also a sequel to Independence Day which I watched and mostly enjoyed.
Pablo confirmed he’d visit Pacaya with me and one of his friends the following day. I also convinced Linda from San Marcos to join us.
Part 1: Volcán de Pacaya
After a lazy morning and a big lunch Linda arrived and we headed off. An accident slowed the trip but we soon finished the final section of rough road and arrived at the La Corona(?) trailhead, presumably named so because of the corona that is created by Pacaya. We had driven through rain and ascended into the clouds so little was visible. We paid for parking, and entrance fees, avoided getting horses and guide – trickier then it sounds. It was then a bit of a slog up the switchbacked road. As is somewhat culture in México / central America, Pablo had the tunes pumping. I car passed us on the way up, what contacts did they have? We paused several times putting on and taking off rain jackets eventually arriving at a dirty shelter that Pablo had used on a previous trip. Around the corner dry pyroclastics extended into the mist. It was like a black glacier and brought me back to exploring Hawaii vast volcanic fields. The greyscale landscape made the vivid colours the others were wearing almost surreal.
We past a circular area with stream flowing up through gaps in the rock. Pablo and I crossed a dry lava flow joining Linda on the other side. She went down to ask some others where the lava was… After returning and relaying that the lava cave we were going to visit had collapsed she spotted flowing lava up above us. The mist parted again and I caught a glimpse and then later Pablo. We went up to explore. Walking out onto a large shelf with a deep crack running through the middle, I had a good view of a river of lava flowing continuously down the slope. Pablo soon joined me… Linda was reluctant to walk on the potentially dangerous surface and elected to remain on the gravel.
I probed around trying to find a route closer, studying the flow of the rock, testing the temperature with my hand and tapping with my walking stick. Each time I retreated, the rain hissing on the hot rock in front of me. As darkness settled in, we retreated and followed Linda’s lead up onto the ridge most people seemed to be walking, and where Linda thought she’d camped around 10 years ago. Once we gained the ridge the view was much better, but the mist was fickle and didn’t allow us to study the flows long. Often only a red corona or V of red was visible. The wind ripped though me. Eventually I put on my merino layer, but it did little to help. Like most of the peaks I’d recently climbed, I realised dawn was the best time to visit. At least during the wet season.
We decided to head down and enjoyed a final look as the mist suddenly clear. Dropping down the mountain the wind shadow kept the cold away and we decended by headlamp.
On the way back we stopped at Pollo Campero… A Guatemalan fast food chain. I hadn’t really wanted to visit but was supprised to find vegetarian pizza on the menu. I ordered a large which was accompanied by a monstrous jug of fizzy drink which with a free refill was a meal on its own.
Full we headed back to the house. Lindas phone wasn’t charging… I could see Pablo was getting tired and wanted her to leave so he could get to sleep. The tension was palpable. I noticed water beading on the camera or light and assumed water damage. After going over directions Linda decided to try getting back GPS free. With her phone presumably brocken i still haven’t found if she made it back easily.
Part 2: Volcán de Fuego
The next morning after organising to meet up with Andy and drop off gear with Dieter, Andy later bailed on me citing bad weather. This didn’t make sense to me as his alternative was to climb Tajumulco. Oh well, what was I to do. I was annoyed. A similar thing had happen with Giles for Atitlán… Except in that case he simply didn’t show up where he’d agreed to meet and went to climb it himself, wasting my time.
I decided to proceed and climb by myself. It should be noted that you don’t actually climb the active Fuego, but rather it’s twin peak Acatenango. Roughly the same altitude but not active it is the best pace to view Fuego’s eruptions.
I got a lift into Antigua with Pablo who was meeting up with a friend and thanks to McDonald’s, got in touch with Dieter to drop my gear off. It poured and I was soaked by the time I arrived. We talked for a while and after over an hour the rain finally eased. I headed off to grab supplies. The plan had changed to spend a night in Antigua for an early start in the morning, but the weather cleared up so nicely I decided to start walking to the volcano and find a spot to camp en route. After buying a slightly small down jacket, I did exactly just that, on the way finally solving why my pack seemed so empty… I’d left my sleeping mat at Pablo’s! At 4000m I knew it was going to be a cold night (or two – I’d brought enough food so I could extend my stay). I was now very happy I’d bought the extra down jacket!
It was well after dark when I finally found a spot to camp. I was just outside San Miguel Dueñas… It was a lot further than I thought. Still 15km and about a km elevation gain. I set am alarm for midnight but it was still raining. Keeping my clothes dry was of utmost importance now that I knew I had no sleeping mat as well as bag. In the end, I packed camp at around 6am and walked to the other side of the town.
I’d walked about a km on the dirt road before I got a lift with some road workers. They also thought me crazy climbing without a guide, let alone solo. Jumping out, another ute almost immediately past by. I got another ride all the way to the trailhead where I no longer had my walking stick. Oh well.
The track up the mountain was volcanic gravel with large pits over 2mts deep dug periodically to help prevent erosión.
The walk want particularly exciting. After ascending through corn fields, oak forest finally appeared, followed by coud forest, a name that could have applied to the whole mountain at this particular time. Towards the top, as I entered the subalpine, I caught fleeing patches of blue. I had been a little worried about visibility, but a Belgium couple had just described the clear morning weather.
At la Y I took the route that contours around the west side of the mountain to one of the commercial camps. (I wouldn’t recommend this way unless you’re heading up from the bottom early in the morning). Around the camp trees had been felled which I think was against the park rules… Diego the machete welding guardian spirit of the mountain hadn’t saved them.
From here it was a steep short trip to the summit. On the way up, one particularly large eruption shook the earth (the force from similar booms would later jerk my tent). I was suprised to see a refuge in the crater. (It took about 5hrs for me to get up).
Clouds surrounding me, I used my GPS to locate Fuego and found a great spot perched on the edge of the crater facing it, but it needed work. I farmed some rocks to build up one end, and moved gravel around to create a flat space. I had almost finished when the rain arrived. Quickly erecting my tent I hid under the nylon… The temperature dropped and the rain turned to haul. The wind picked up and I was soon forced to don my raincoat and very more rocks and sticks to secure the corners and guy lines, I hoped my tent would survive. At 4000m this was tiring work, and I had to rest periodically, the cold biting my bare legs (I needed to keep my pants dry) until my breathing slowed and the pain of mild AMS diminished. Finally after many trips back and forth I again retreated into my tent. A shirt I’d put above the fly screen seemed to be catching most of the drops from a leaky seam, but the water washing down the slope was pooling under the tent, the base of which had small holes of its own. Again I was forced to exit, this time to dig a tench to divert the water away from the tent. I’d seen this in a movie once, but can’t recall every doing it myself. It seemed to work and I soon was back inside trying to walm up despite the damp. Layers slowly went on and I started reading the book Blind Descent about Bill Stone and Alexander Klimchouk’s expeditions to find the deepest cave on earth. These trips into supercaves where a big step up from any of the caving trips I’d been on. And as with the recently read No Way Down, it fueled my desire to explore more and participate in more expeditions. The books also put into perspective that despite no sleeping mat or bag, the night wouldn’t be that bad 😉
(it was probably about -5c)
Lightning cracked around me, (often only dicernable from Fuego because of the preceding flash). I got a few hours sleep before waking. It was pretty much zero visibility. I tried getting a bit more sleep but it was below freezing and I soon woke with numb toes. I took off my socks and massaged them. And spent most of the rest of the night curled up half inside my pack trying to conserve heat, occasionally looking out at the volcano which now and then wasn’t obscured and sent lava shooting up and streaming down the sides.
The sky began to brighten, and I happily put on my shoes happy that the walking would generate some warmth. I was alone on the mountain, but all of a sudden, in no more than 2mins about 60 people streamed into the top of the mountain. I couldn’t believe the influx. Shouts of elation and soon a drone broke the sigh of the wind and Fuego’s grumbling. The best time to get photos of Fuego seemed to be just as the sky brightened and the eye could begin to see colour. It was a short window. The sun rose half an hour later. Minutes after it crested the skyline, I was suprised guides telling their clients it was time to go down. Within half an hour I was again alone on the mountain. I was glad I wasn’t with a guide, not that I was even close to aquiring one.
It stayed clear for many hours, but the clouds slowly rolled in.
The rain started again at around 14:30 after I’d finished reading Blind Descent. Luckily without the force of the previous day. It’s probably become clear that I’d decided to spend a second night of suffering on top of the mountain. I was impressed with the volcano and wanted to experience it again. Even so, I was dreading the cold.
I peered out of the tent around dusk and was supprised to see the volcano protruding from the swirling clouds, it was the perfect lighting. The blue hour. As the clouds swirled higher I watched lights slowly climbing higher on Fuego, I had seen the trail on the map but decided not to risk getting closer, I was happy with where I was. To my disappointment the volcano stayed silent. The light slowly faded and the clouds closed in. I settled in for the night.
The night actually didn’t seem as bad. Maybe this was because of some adjustments I made. My Summit Gear pack had a removable foam pad that I moved to my upper body. I elevated my legs off the ground using a couple of empty plastic bottles, one at my heels, the other at the knee. Up to my waist in my backpack, my feet where a lot colder than the previous night. Sleep still eluded me in the early morning hours.
When I emerged from my tent people where already milling about. I set my camera up on a predetermined rock and waited. The sunrise behind me was nicer than the day before, but again the volcano remained silent during the small window I had with my camera. Oh well. Photos aren’t everything.
As the groups dispursed, guides again telling people to head down (I actually met an Australian who abandoned his group), one group remained.
They were a friendly family from Spain. There guides were the best I had seen. Very relaxed and seemed to impose no time restrictions. I talked with them a while packing up camp before meeting then again on the way down.
Dropping down the other side of the volcano to the side I had come up, I passed a ‘no camping’ sign. Whoops. Supprising no one had mentioned it to me either morning. It seemed like it wasn’t really an issue. Maybe more of a liability thing after six people died trying to camp at the summit (https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/752881/Six-hikers-dead-Acatenango-Guatemala-volcano-temperatures-drop-freezing)
It was a quick trip down. Again the resistration booth was unmanned avoiding any complications with why I hadn’t registered.
Dropping some rubbish I’d collected into the bin, I wandered along the rd soon getting a ride into the next small town. I walked to the junction. Without hitchhiking, a bike stopped for me. This wasn’t overly surprising, it had had happened numerous times hitching through México.
In Parramos I got some bananas, avocados and tomatoes from the market. Food was quite cheap here and I ended up with a crazy amount of bananas. I have a bunch to a guy asking for money and walked out of town fairly quickly getting a ride into Antigua.
I got lost looking for Dieter’s place, eventually correcting my understanding of where north was and making it just after the afternoon rain started. I again felt very welcome and relaxed for a while before heading to the Treck and Travel hostel where you interestingly get to sleep in tents. It’s the cheapest place in Antigua. In the morning I planned to enjoy the sunrise and then head into El Salvador.