Unless you travel around Central America with your eyes tightly shut, you can’t help but be impressed by the magnificent volcanoes that form the backdrop to the many beautiful views in the region. The Central American Volcanic Arc has a length of 930 miles and extends parallel to the Pacific coast line from Guatemala down to northern Panama. The highest peaks are found in Guatemala (the highest is Tajumulco standing at a majestic height of over 4,000 metres).
Some of the volcanoes are a perfect conical (almost cartoon-like) shape; the craters of others have collapsed and are now “home” to colourful lakes while others (including Santa Maria/Santiaguito, Pacaya and Fuego in Guatemala) are still active shooting smoke into the sky at potentially alarmingly regular intervals. Most (but not all) of this region’s tallest peaks are volcanoes although (slightly annoyingly), given it is currently the rainy season, the peaks are often shrouded in cloud. However, if you are up early enough, you stand a good chance of catching a glimpse of the peak before it disappears under its white adornment.
And then of course you start wondering whether simply admiring the landscape is enough or whether you feel the urge to get a bit more up close and personal by joining a volcano hike (or two!) and hiking up them. While we were in Xela, we’d trekked to see Santiaguito in action (see Blog post, dated 3 September, 2018, “Now you see it, now you don’t” and on the way down to Lake Atitlán during our 3 day hike, we’d admired Volcán San Pedro which dominates the lake view.
But in El Salvador we put our hiking boots back on and did a great day trek to see Volcán Santa Ana in the (slightly unimaginatively named) Parque Nacional Los Volcanes. The day walk (yay! No need to start at crazy o’clock in the morning) was not too difficult a climb (albeit let’s face it the climb up any volcano is pretty much straight up and straight down without a lot of flat given their inherent shape) and led us through coffee plantations and wooded areas before arriving at the peak (this is El Salvador’s highest volcano standing proud at 2,381 metres).
L: Cerro Verde and Volcán Izalco; R: Volcán Izalco
From the summit, we got to see an amazing green lake in its crater on one side (such a striking colour) as well as the beautiful blue Lake Coatepeque on the other and, of course, views of its neighbouring volcanoes, Cerro Verde, and the perfectly shaped Volcán Izalco. Simply wonderful. A perfect trip and definitely worth making the final effort to push yourself to the top: any aches or pains that may have started on the climb up (a few of our group had been flagging) disappeared instantaneously on seeing the spectacular 360 degree view. Wowee!
L: the volcanic lake in Santa Ana; R: the super-blue Lake Coatepeque
Back in Antigua, we faced a greater challenge – the 2 day hike up Volcán Acatenango, Guatemala’s 3rd highest volcano (3,976m) including a night spent camping at altitude (over 3,500m). This was clearly the thing to do in Antigua and without exception, everyone who mentioned it, told us it was hard (“it hurts“), that you could get sick from the altitude even if you were super-fit and that it got very cold at night and especially when you start climbing on the second day to get to the summit in time for sunrise. Many said “it was good, but never again” which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence but hey, if there’s a volcano to be climbed, it looks like it’s something that we should be doing and so off we went. And here the altitude was lower than we’d reached in Nepal (5,416m) when we trekked the Annapurna Circuit so I was hoping that would stand us in good stead.
Magical morning views
In actual fact, for all the hype, I found the climb (which is pretty consistently uphill for the first 4 hours without any respite albeit it did then flatten out a little bit for an hour or so before a final killer push to basecamp) was actually ok. I was quite surprised but was also somewhat relieved that the final part of the climb was not how the whole walk had been as this was hard – here we were climbing very steeply on loose gravel/ash which was quite frustrating – 1 step forward and 2 back etc and at one point the tents of base camp seemed to be getting further away rather than closer as I felt I was walking through treacle! But this was only for a small part of that day’s climb and we arrived in good time at base camp. We had started as a group of 8 with 2 guides but unfortunately 1 guy had turned back finding it all a bit much – maybe it was the altitude or maybe it was the physical activity, I don’t know but he was puffing and panting almost from the off.
And again, we lucked out: the night spent in the tent wasn’t too bad: this was not something to which I’d been looking forward (camping is not really my thing although now I think about it, we do seem to have ended up camping with undue frequency on this trip). I’d also found it very difficult to decide what extra layers to take with me bearing in mind that anything I wanted to wear, I had to carry myself in addition to food and water etc. Obviously I didn’t want to be cold but a ridiculously heavy bag was not going to help my climb. In the end, I took lots and wore everything (including the additional down jackets that the trekking agency provided) and also utilised the spare sleeping bag that we had in our tent. But I wasn’t cold which was the main thing, even when it started chucking it down during the night: at this point, my focus turned to checking that the tent wasn’t leaking (and I was mightily relieved to find that it wasn’t thank goodness) and then spending most of the night curled up in as small a ball as possible to avoid my touching the side of the tent even inadvertently! So all in all it wasn’t the best night’s sleep but it could have been far worse!
Unfortunately although basecamp was positioned with beautiful views of Mount Fuego (3,763m), after the sun went down, the clouds completely enveloped us and so we had no view of Fuego’s regular eruptions although we could still hear them from 4 kilometres away. These were like extremely loud claps of thunder and were a little eerie especially when you couldn’t see the volcano itself: sometimes it sounded like the eruption was happening a lot closer than 4 kilometres away – I’m glad I’d seen Fuego in the daylight before the clouds covered it so I knew exactly where it was. Volcan Fuego is one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes and is the one that erupted on 3 June 2018 killing a lot of people (some estimates suggest over 2,000 people were killed although government figures are lower). The relief work is still continuing.
The next morning, we were up at 3.30am and just after 4am set off for our final ascent on Acatenango. Unfortunately another of our group had altitude sickness and so only 6 of us made the final ascent which was harder going, having to climb over loose gravel and ash, but after about 1 hour and 10 minutes we successfully made it to the top. Fortunately, after all the rain overnight, the clouds had passed on and we finally had a night time view of Volcán Fuego (and some of her dramatic eruptions) and also of the wider area. Volcán Pacaya on the other side of Antigua was also busy putting on a own show for us as well with some minor eruptions as well. A truly magical moment (if a little chilly while we waited for sunrise trying to stay out of the wind).
Coming back down to base camp for breakfast was a whole heap of fun and very quick as essentially we just half ran down/half fell down the scree slopes and got back to base camp in less than 30 minutes! After breakfast, we had the long descent back down the volcano retracing our steps to yesterday’s starting point. This was the hardest part for me – it was a little slippery under foot in the loose gravel on the paths and was quite steep which is not a great combination for someone with my sense of (no) balance. However, all in all, the whole hike had not been too tough and if I’m honest, we felt quite proud of ourselves given some of the horror stories that we’d heard prior to the trek.
However, our (slightly smug/self satisfied) smiles disappeared abruptly the next day when we woke up with very stiff legs. It then took 4 complete days for all the stiffness to ease. It seems that no matter who you are, Volcán Acatenango will have the last laugh.