Spending the Night Next to a 12,000′ Erupting Volcano

During my travels I have become obsessed with volcanos, and I have been fortunate to have been able to visit dozens of volcanos all over the world; Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nicaragua, Vanuatu, Montserrat, Russia …….. . But it was here in Guatemala where I visited my first volcano-Pacaya when I was 22. Since then, I have returned multiple times to see more volcanos and I witnessed the most spectacular display of volcanic activity on my most recent trip in early 2021 when I climbed Vulcan Fuego. 

Vulcan Fuego

Vulcan Fuego is a huge active strata volcano (12,346′) that branches off of its dormant but taller neighbor, Vulcan Acatenango (13,045′). Both volcanos, along with two others, another one-Vulcan Pacaya also active and prone to erupting, stand sentry over the 500-year-old Spanish colonial town of Antigua. 

Google Earth Image of Fuego Next to Acatenango 

Fuego is one of the most active volcanos in the world and has a history of eruptions dating back hundreds of years. Its most recent large eruption was in 2018 when Vulcan Fuego violented exploded sending pyroclastic flows of earth, debris, lava into the surrounding villages killing up to 500 people. 

Despite Fuego’s violent tendencies, it happens to be one of the world’s most reliable places to see a volcanic eruption up close. Climbing Fuego involves a 1.5-hour drive from Antigua to the base of Acatenango, and then a 6-8 hour hike up to the base camp where you can safely view Fuego erupting. From base camp you hike up another 3-4 hours up to a steep ridge that approaches the crater of Fuego. 

First Climb Up Fuego 

I first visited Fuego ten years ago when it was less active but much wilder. At the time, there were no tourists, only villagers that would hunt in the forests and bandits that would prey on the few tourists that did brave the climb. Banditry was so bad, that at the beginning of the hike, our guide advised us to leave any valuables behind because based on previous climbs, we stood a 20% percent chance of being robbed. To help lower our odds, our guide brought with us a huge and fiercely territorial Rhodesian Ridgeback dog. On our hike, a sinister group of men with machetes and guns appeared from nowhere, behaving aggressively and asked us questions about our intent. After they passed, our guide, anticipating that the group was waiting ahead to ambush us, frantically diverted us into the forest down an un-marked steep ridge, where we managed to evade the shadowy would-be bandits.

We ended up camping in the valley next to the crater of Fuego.  Although we only saw some ash clouds emitted from Fuego, the incredible views from the volcano over the Guatemalan lowlands and the experience of being in such a rugged place made up for the lack of volcanic activity. 

1st trip hiking to Vulcan Fuego

After the tragic 2018 eruption, Fuego remained highly active and became one of the most reliable volcanos to observe Strombolian eruptions in the world, which involves blasts of lava bombs, cinders and molten ash high into the air. With this in mind I decided to return early in 2021 and climb the volcano again.

Day 1/2: I traveled to Guatemala with a few friends via Miami. We arrived late and spent the night in Antigua at 500-year-old monastery with skeletons of the previous resident monks on display in the chapel that has been converted to a boutique hotel. From my window I could already see the ash clouds billowing out from Fuego in the distance.

View of Fuego from My Monastery Hotel 

The drive to the base of the hike was faster than ten years ago since the road was now paved. When I asked the guide about bandits, he laughed at me and said that bandits were a thing of the past on the volcano and that it is safe now. 

I realized why. The trek had become commercialized with a ticket office, park rangers and groomed trails all the way up the volcano. Also, there were quite a few hikers unlike the first time I visited. Since I was traveling during the pandemic, there were few foreigners and most of the hikers were Guatemalans in their 20’s with what appeared to be inadequate camping supplies. 

View of Agua Volcano from the hike to Fuego

Our guide was 21 and had already crossed into the USA illegally across the desert two times. He told us harrowing stories of survival from his desert crossing, which he said claimed lives from some in the group. Then while he was in the USA, he said he served a couple years in a federal prison convicted for human smuggling. 

View of Fuego Erupting in Morning

Hiking trail to Knifes Ridge

After a 6-hour steep and difficult hike, we arrived at our campsite, a row of small rustic structures with beds where we planned to sleep for the night. The camp was in direct view of Fuego, and we could already observe it’s eruptions. Every 10-15 minutes Fuego would send a volley of lava bombs hurling into the air. We dropped off of backpacks and set off for another 3-4 hours of hiking to what is called the Knife’s Ridge.

Knife’s Ridge

The Knife’s Ridge is a steep and narrow ridge that leads up the crater of Fuego. It is the closest place where hikers can safely observe the volcano. Going any closer would-be suicide. We started the hike at sunset, and the temperature plummeted to near freezing. Strong unobstructed winds added to the frigid temperatures. The hike to Knifes Ridge involved going straight down into a valley that separated the two volcanos. From there we had to hike up a steep path through volcanic sand. Once we reached the top of the ridge, it was dark, and the cold wind was whipping. Our guide said we should wait for a big explosion.

My friend standing on the Knife’s Ridge

We didn’t need to wait long, watching the lava bombs burst from the crater that was now only a mile away from us was better than all of the firework shows I had seen put together. With each expulsion the ground shook creating small earthquakes. I wished we could have stayed here for hours, but 20 minutes was as long as we could handle with the cold. The return hike to our camp left us destroyed. 

We stayed up for a few hours at camp, next a bonfire mesmerized by the eruptions. I wondered if we would have time to escape if there was another large eruption like the one in 2018. According to my guide, there were friends of his on the volcano on the way up and they were forced to evacuate in black out conditions from the ash and they were pelted with volcanic rocks raining from the sky. 

Fuego Erupting

I tried to sleep in my little tin shelter which I was told was built to withstand projectile lava rocks. It was extremely hard to sleep during the night. I constantly had to re-position myself to get warm, and when I did start to fall asleep, my adrenaline would be jolted by one of the larger eruptions. These eruptions were bigger than the others and seemed to be more common late at night. They gave out an earth-shattering sound that would send the ground and my hut shaking. A few times, the explosions were so powerful that I had to get out of my sleeping bag and peek outside of my hut to make sure that the volcano wasn’t raining hellfire down upon us.

Day 3/4: The next day we woke up before sunrise to warm up by the fire and watch more eruptions. Once we warmed up we set off on the long steep knee jarring hike downhill. We made it back to Antigua by noon and explored the town after a long nap, spent another night in Antigua before setting off to San Diego the following day. 

Iconic Old Archway in Antigua

500 Year Old Church Ruins, Antigua

500 Year Old Church Antigua

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