Three volcanoes tower imposingly above the beautiful city of Antigua, dwarfing its colonial buildings to toy town proportions. Volcan Agua, named for its last eruption of mud and water in 1541, destroyed the original Guatemala City. Volcan Fuego, it’s elemental namesake, is a fire breathing beast currently in a period of near constant activity. The third, Acatenango, makes for the perfect vantage point for views of its fiery neighbour as well as the whole valley of Antigua.
Summiting Acatenango is a popular challenge among travellers – but that shouldn’t detract from its real and present danger. In January, six climbers perished from hypothermia when temperatures dropped drastically and they were unable to get down from the mountain in time.
It’s a gruelling climb, physically and mentally, ascending 1500m to reach the summit at 3376m. Antigua is full of travellers who have just returned, preaching the glories of the experience with a slightly deranged evangelism. All will tell you it’s one of the hardest things they’ve ever done.
The terrain on the ascent ranges from tricky paths criss-crossing gnarly roots to virtually impassable sections of volcanic scree. One step forward, two steps back, goes the saying. But the climb is worth it.
After emerging from dense forest to base camp, the bubbling fount of Volcan Fuego becomes alarmingly apparent. As night descends, the plume of smoke reveals its core of molten lava, backlit by a sky full of stars.
After a few hours attempting to sleep, the dawn march to the summit begins. In fact, we never made it to the top as I was suffering with altitude sickness. It was a blessing in disguise. We forsook the crowds of the summit for a secret sunrise over the dark, inscrutable slopes.
It was a truly beautiful moment for us to witness dawn’s alchemy over the scene. Our freezing bones gladly soaked up the sun’s warmth. We began to see the veins and contours of Fuego’s previously hidden face while the molten streaks of lava slowly began to recede once more into the cover of daylight.