Missing Out on Fuego from Acatenango

In Mexico, we started to hear about travelers hiking a dormant volcano to watch the very frequent eruptions of another nearby active volcano in Guatemala.

Everyone: “It’s hard, but it’s worth it.”
Some: “The food is terrible. Bring snacks.”

All of these conversations with people occurring while they proudly held up their phones to show beautifully captured photos and video of Fuego erupting, the vivid red of the lava exploding in the darkness. We were enthralled. Okay, we’re hooked.

We picked Agencia de Soy after numerous recommendations. They provided great food and had all the camping equipment at their basecamp on the volcano already. We learned once we arrived at their headquarters/Gilmore’s house that they hire single mothers as cooks and men as guides from the community. They also fund community development projects such as a playground for children. After seeing too many Gringo-owned hostels, where they charge for everything, it was nice feeling that some of the money from a tour returned to the local economy.

Our group was small, six in total. Our guide, Rudi, was knowledgeable and made sure we moved up as a group. Patricia and I saw about seven different people we have met along the way through Mexico and Guatemala during the first half of the hike.

I feel like I’m in pretty decent shape. I don’t consciously exercise but we eat well and obviously walk around a lot, usually with a 55 liter backpack. We have both commented on how light we feel after switching to a 100% plant-based diet. But, it was still a slog. The weather turned bad about an hour up. The backpack with rented winter clothes weighed me down. Me legs burned with fatigue.

Four and a half hours later, we reached basecamp. It wasn’t at the peak, but an hour down from it. When groups camp out, they wake up early to hike the remaining distance to the summit and watch Fuego’s eruptions. Basecamp is simple; some tents tied down and to each other to prevent the strong winds from taking them, a big tarp over a fire, and tons of firewood. Rudi chopped wood as we huddled around the fire or took naps in our tents and waited for dinner. The mist and clouds were too thick to see Fuego. A little after sundown, we ate pasta, mashed potatoes, and beans.

Rudi and another guide who met us at basecamp explained that if Fuego wasn’t visible from this altitude, it would be even worse at the summit. He said sometimes this happens and it’s disappointing and “Es naturaleza.” But he would stay up all night and wake us up if it cleared up. We were too tired to be bummed and most of us thought it would clear up at night. We all went to bed, destined for a sleepless night. Fuego erupted constantly, with a thunderous sound but any shred of light from the lava obscured by the thick mist and clouds. The rain howled, almost flattening for a few moments before popping back up again.

We woke up on our own. It had not cleared up. We ate our breakfast — cereal with milk and coffee — and prepared to head down. The disappointment would hit me later when we reached Antigua. We had still accomplished something: hiked 3,500 meters. Before we left, as if some small mercy for us, the clouds broke and we saw how close Fuego was to us. A few seconds later, it disappeared once again.

The hike up was difficult and the way down was strenuous, especially on my knees. It continued to rain. It wasn’t as cold as the day before. Along the path, we saw how many trees fell to the wind and rain. It looked apocalyptic. Closer towards bottom, the trees were thicker and there was more forest cover.

After about two and a half hours, we reached the bottom and were picked up by a shuttle to head back to the Agencia de Soy headquarters to give back the rented clothes and do a little debrief. After that, they dropped us off at our hotel. Two of our friends were there who we had seen the day previous. We explained what we didn’t see and they thought it was strange that the guides could not have predicted this storm that had came through Mexico. I’m not sure.

Either way, we were treated to Fuego’s eruptions from our hostel terrace that night. It was a small consolation. The day after, we left Guatemala and its volcanos behind.

Fuego Volcano

Unfortunately, this was the most we saw of Fuego. Hiking Acatenango, a dormant volcano next to Fuego, took us 4.5 hours. It was the toughest hike I’ve ever done. More photos and a proper post to come, after I sleep.