Pachamama Fury: Antigua & Acatenango
Antigua is cradled by three massive volcanoes: Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. The volcanoes seem to rise up right from the edge of town. It is a city trapped in time; trapped between 16th century architechture and the modern day life inside its facades. Colonial-era mansions with brass knockers, elaborate tiled windowsills, and verandas carved hundreds of years ago when Antigua was still the capital. It felt medevil to us. In 1541, a landslide destroyed the city and it was rebuilt. Around 1773, the city was largely destroyed again, this time by earthquakes. The city rebuilt again but never completely, and ruins are a part of the city landscape. Fuego is active, spewing lava and ash every day. Pachamama (mother earth) has messed around with this place for a long time.
Real french bakeries. So good....
We arrived in Antigua after three days of long driving in Guatemala. It is incredibly picturesque. The town has the cobblestone streets and old beautiful colonial buildings with a main zocolo and several other squares and parks. We were looking forward to the city life and all the goodness that comes from being in a destination city like Antigua; namely good food, good drink and leisurely strolls. We arrived in the afternoon and went straight to the Tourist Police station, our camping spot (the only camping spot in Antigua) for up to 5 days (unless you don't mention anything to the TP and they seemingly will let you stay for as long as you like).
Our camping was free and safe. There were several overlanders there from all over the world. No one we had met before so we were able to meet a couple of new folks. As it happened, the best place for us to park the rig was about 10 meters away from a row of outdoor flush toilets and showers - that were for our use and those of the policeman - there were a lot of policemen. Every morning around 6:15 or so the first wave of cops would walk to the bathrooms/showers, chatting with each other, some singing and others seemed to smile a little at the juxtaposition of the campers to their bathing facilities. At least I did. There is one thing I now know - a cop dressed in full black fatigues with bullet proof vest and guns doesn't look nearly as intimidating once you've seen him in only a towel carrying a toothbrush. The facilities weren't super nice, but there were flushing toilets and one even had a seat - although you had to hold the string tied to the doorknob to insure you would be able to handle your business without an audience. This was Paula's favorite part. The cold water, algae green shower was her second favorite part. Like I said, the camping was free and safe.
Tourist police camping. Set in the ruins of an ancient hospital.
While in Antigua we knew we wanted to do some mountain biking and/or volcano hiking as the mountains around the town are begging to be explored. While walking around town on our second day we came across an bike and hiking outfitter called Old Town. We went in and looked through all of the hiking options. There was a 2 hour hike up to some active vents on the Pacaya volcano or there was an overnight hike up to the top of Acatenango – a bit over 13,000 feet. It became clear as we discussed the two options that one wasn't enough and the other would be all that we could handle. We had read an account of the Acatenango hike from fellow overlanders George and Jenine (Traveling the Americas), and it seemed like the real deal. We debated for a short time but decided we needed a challenge, so ‘Hello Acatenango’!
View of Acatenango and Fuego from our camp spot. We are going to the top of that??
We departed Antigua the next morning with our guide and the third member of our expedition, Laura. She was from Holland so she and Paula spoke a little Dutch and we got to know her. Laura was in her mid 20's and had never camped or hiked. We were secretly wondering if that might be an issue, but she is another tough Dutch chick and she did great (with a little help from us).
We reached the trailhead and got geared up. Acatenango was beautiful and impressive. The hike up is stunning. And very challenging. We walked through 4 microclimates starting with agriculture on steep hillsides and eventually entered a cloud forest thick with foliage, bamboo and other jungle type trees; this was followed by an alpine forest, and eventually the top, which was loose volcano rock (scree) above the tree line. Acatenango is an inactive volcano whose last eruption was in 1972. However, it is joined with Volcan de Fuego, which is a very active volcano. Fuego erupts all the time and you can hear it during much of the climb. Two to four times an hour you would hear these big booms, they sounded like thunder but you couldn’t see it until about two hours before we arrived at camp. It made you feel like you were climbing the back of something very alive and possibly a little angry. Fuego has had its angry moments as recently as February of 2015 when an eruption caused some evacuations and the closure of Guatemala City’s airport. But in 2012 Fuego’s fury resulted in massive evacuations of 33,000 people in the nearby towns and villages. Of course, we really didn’t know any of this before we climbed Acatenango.
Fuego doing its thing on the way up.
On the way up we passed an old man hiking down. He was carrying a large bundle of wood using the typical method of the Mayan people. He wrapped the wood in such a way that the wood was tightly bound and the rope had a longer loop attached. On this loop they add padding so that they can hold this loop around their forehead. He was carrying this stack of firewood using his head, neck (and to a lesser extent his back) with a strap. All the folks here prefer this carry technique versus a standard backpack. "Its just the way they have been doing this for a couple of thousand years" our guide said. The old man's name was Martine - he was 82 and had lived up here his whole life. It's said that Martine quit counting how many times he had been up and down the volcanoes here after 5,000. Once again, traveling experiences leave me awestruck. For these weren’t just jaunts up a volcano to take a few snaps, this was his way of life and he climbed to provide for his family. It seems like a hard life to me. But when our guide asked me to take a picture of him with Martine, Martine happily obliged, while still carrying his firewood with a warm smile and a flower. He was inspiring to say the least.
Martine. 82 years old and going strong.
Martine and our guide, Luis.
There is a lesson here about the physicality of living. A body in motion stays in motion. Martine certainly exhibited his strength at an older age that comes from being consistently active and moving. We have also seen this in our neighborhood back home in Mill Valley. Many of our neighbors are in their 70’s and 80’s, and they hike on Mount Tamalpais most days of the week and have been doing so for 30+ years. Paula will tell you that there is great motivation to get out of bed and hike when you hear your 84-year-old neighbor leaving the house at 7am to go for a 3 mile hike up the ridge.
Martine headed back down the mountain...with a little firewood.
We started volcano the hike somewhere around 7,500 feet or so, and we hiked straight up for 6+ hours to our camp for the night at around 11,500 feet. It was pretty challenging for sure, but when we got our camp spot we were rewarded with an incredible vista of the valley below, Volcan Agua and an erupting Fuego. Fuego was, well, on fire. It was a stunning site. Every 15-30 minutes a big puff of red lava rocks, smoke and ash would billow from Fuego, followed by a wicked boom. When you are that close and you can see what is actually occurring on the mountaintop adjacent, it’s pretty awesome. We set up camp, kicked back for a bit and then had dinner all the while being fully entertained and awed by Fuego's demonstration of the raw and uncontrollable power of Pachamama. Once the sun set, the biting cold kept us close to the campfire until bed. That night we went to bed listening to the relatively frequent eruptions and at least once I felt the earth shake after a big boom. It was one of the coolest experiences we have had in our lives.
Still smiling on the way up...it was early in the climb.
Lunch break. Legs were already a little shaky.
This is the first thing we did when we got to base camp. Rest...with a view of Fuego.
View of Agua vlocano
Our camp as the sun started to set. Then the wind picked up and it got bitter cold.
Base camp with Agua in the background. Incredible views. Well worth the effort!
View of Fuego
Feugo as the sun was setting
Amazing to be camped so close.
It was cold!
The next morning started at 4:10am with a wakeup call followed by a dark, early morning slug up an extremely steep mountainside en route to the summit. We had a slow but steady pace to the top and we were rewarded with a clear weather summit. The sun rise was truly amazing. I believe from the top you can see 14 or so other volcanoes and if it’s really clear you could see the Pacific Ocean (it wasn't that clear for us). It was amazing, windy and cold…but beautiful. We walked around the rim and took photos from all angles, and then we finally made our way back down to camp.
Past the tree line up to the crater.
A guardian canine showed up out of no where to give Paula the extra push to the top. (a Roxy Proxy)
We made it!
A view of Fuego from the top
The only thing that lives on the top of a volcano. crater..moss.
Views out to Lake Atitlan
After breakfast we packed up and headed down. Down always seems to be more difficult then up. It was a long 3+ hour hike down the mountain on different and what seemed to be steeper trails. We felt every agonizing step. I can say we were all very happy to be back in the van to Antigua.
And as Paula and I tend to do, we rewarded ourselves with a stay at a very small but nice hotel in town where we continued to enjoy Antigua. The hotel was a 16th century renovated mansion. It was great to have a king size bed, Wi-Fi, and a bathroom with a toilet seat and locking door.
Our door at Mil Flores hotel. Heaven.
Last footnote. Two days after we climbed Acatenango, Fuego had a huge eruption that seemed to cover a lot of Acatenango in ash. Timing is everything and this time it was in our favor!
Fuego really blowing its top the day after our climb.