Thursday, September 13, 2012

Acatenango & Fuego in Guatemala

I wrote this after coming back from our trip to Central America, in the hopes that I'd find someone willing to publish it. That time has since passed, and it now feels like the right time to put in up on my blog. Especially since the volcano at hand is currently erupting in a violent rage of ash, debris and lava. To all of our friends in Guatemala, we hope you are safe. Thank you Rolando for taking us up the volcano!

Fuego Volcano, left, with Acatenango on the right. Late-night eruption.
It’s not yet dawn and I’m trudging through a dry cornfield in rural Guatemala. The stars flicker overhead and the only leading lights are the lamps we wear on our heads. With a local guide to lead us through the maze, my partner Ben Ross and I begin our ascent up one of the largest stratovolcanoes in the country, Acatenango Volcano, and we began early to avoid machete-wielding banditos in the hills. Fallen cornstalks crunch beneath our feet as we make our way over the crumbling soil path; I’m already exhausted and it’s a long way to the summit. But this is hiking in Guatemala—it’s strenuous, remote and the land is virtually untouched.

Early morning mist coming off the volcanoes as we begin our hike.
Three hours later past quiet hillside farmland, vine-engulfed forest, and long grass mounds, Julio Rolando Menchu, our guide, points to the sky with his gloved hand just as we reach the top of Acatenango’s lower peak, Yepocapa.

“Escuchar,” he says in Spanish. Listen. Clad in a bright blue Colombia sweatshirt that looks like it was made for the 1980s, and wearing a pair of Timberland hiking boots, Julio and this volcano are old friends. Born and raised in the nearby colonial city of Antigua, he has been summiting the 13,015-foot Acatenango for more than two decades. As he points, a thunderous rumble echoes around us. I look to Julio and leap into the air; we’ve just heard the reason we’re hiking Acatenango. It’s twin sister peak, Fuego Volcano, is active and erupting in a smoking rage. With Julio as our guide, we hike closer to the summit and closer to towering over the 12,346-foot Fuego—the fire volcano.

Climbing through the long grass on the side
of Acatenago. Bottom: feeling heat from the
hot vents of the volcano.
Earlier Ben and I had been touring the streets of Antigua. For the last month we’d been backpacking through the lower Mexican states, and the north and north-central regions of Guatemala, finally arriving in Antigua in the middle of October to study Spanish; the city is renowned for its multitude of Spanish schools. Antigua, the original capital of Guatemala, sits in the Central Highlands region and is surrounded by three prominent volcanoes: Acatenango, Fuego and Agua. The city itself is bustling with artisan markets and astounding cathedrals, and is considered a “must-visit destination” by Lonely Planet. After arriving, though, we quickly realized that Spanish school would not be enough to satisfy us. We wanted to hike a volcano.

After watching smoke billowing from the crater of Fuego while standing on the roof of our hostel one night, we decided to hike Acatenango—it was the closest we could get to the actual volcanic activity. Ben’s desire to hike the volcano alone rapidly died once we recognized the remoteness of Acatenango. The trail is far more removed from the beaten path than the popular two-hour hike up nearby Pacaya Volcano. Finding the trailhead and maneuvering through the high-elevation forests would be impractical and possibly dangerous on our own. We visited several tour companies in town to inquire about the cost of a guide. Julio ran into us on the street; wearing his Guatemalan tourist guide authorization around his neck, he offered to lead Ben and I up Acatenango that Sunday on his own. He did not need other hikers; the two of us would suit him just fine.

Back on the hike, past the cornfields and rows of planted cauliflower, we sit for a few moments near an empty, dilapidated farmer’s hut to regain our strength, eat, and watch the sun rise. To the northwest, Atitlan Volcano, at 11,598 feet, protrudes the morning mist and towers above the surrounding Guatemalan farmland. To the east, Agua Volcano watches over the city of Antigua. Behind us rests Acatenango. The sun hasn’t warmed the north flank where we climb and frost still encrusts the trail.

“Where are the banditos?” I ask Julio, who carries a machete strapped to his back. After drawing us a map of the trail the day before, he informed us that we would be leaving at 3:30 a.m. to avoid an untimely encounter with banditos who may try to rob us.

“They are sleeping. It’s too early!” he says, and laughs before hiking again.

We make our way higher now, where the heavy rains of the wet season has turned the trail into a drainage ditch. Although the possibility of landslides and debris flows generated by heavy rainfall exists, the sun is out and it hasn’t rained for days. With every step forward we slide backwards; the soil is so soft that the weight of our bodies creates miniature landslides beneath our feet. At times we are crawling on our hands and knees reaching for old tree roots to help pull us upwards, or grabbing for Julio’s hand when he offers it. We follow him as he switchbacks through the ditch, surrounded by thigh-high grassland and old forest pines. Bright-red Indian paintbrushes peek through the grass. The forest is bare up here—what would once have been an abundance of green pine was reduced to skeletal tree stumps by a forest fire a few years ago. Now it is ghostly; each dead pine watches as we weave in and out at their bases, treading over rugged territory that seldom sees people. 

Ben next to one of the four craters of Acatenango.
Bottom: our guide Rolando in front of Acatenago.
Of the 33 volcanoes scattered across Guatemala, the Fuego-Acatenango massif (group of mountains) incorporates at least five volcanic vents as a part of the Ring of Fire. This includes Acatenango’s northern summit Yepocapa, the larger summit of Pico Mayor, and Fuego. All have a rich history of volcanic eruptions. Acatenango activity has been recorded as far back as 1924, and in 1972 a series of phreatic explosions from the saddle between Pico Mayor and Yepocapa produced ballistic bombs and heavy ash that fell as far as 25 kilometres away. Fuego, Spanish for fire, has erupted more than 60 times since 1524, some of which were Subplinian—emitting large amounts of gas and ash—and Strombolian, or short-lived explosions. It is considered one of the most active volcanoes in the world and has enveloped nearby Antigua and Guatemala City, nine miles southwest, in ash several times.

However, living near one of the most active volcanoes in the world does not deter the people of Antigua. As we near the summit of Yepocapa, I pause for a few seconds to catch my breath. Julio asks if I am feeling well.

“Absolutely,” I say, breathing hard but finding a hidden energy to continue. My legs no longer ache the way they did in the cornfield.

“The mountain gives you energy to climb, you can feel it inside you,” he says, placing his hand on his chest. Julio tells us what Guatemalans in Antigua believe: volcanoes are protectors of the people. While the rest of Guatemala experiences flooding and landslides during the wet season, Antigua is tranquil and impregnable. The volcanoes provide fertile soil that gives Guatemalans a chance to survive where they do. The volcanoes give the people of Antigua strength. Perhaps it is the same strength, as Julio says, that carries me further up the volcano. That, and the sugar gummies he feeds me at every stop.
At 42, Julio hikes with no less vigor and self-assurance than he would if he were 20 and just beginning his guiding career. He has no record, he says, for the number of times he has hiked Acatenango and the other volcanoes. He is faster and more agile than Ben and I, who are both nearly half his age and trail behind him sloth-like.

We reach the saddle—called La Horqueta—that acts as a barrier between Yepocapa and Pico Mayor, and as I walk on flat ground for the first time in four hours I gaze ahead at the collapse scar of Acatenango. Four craters that run vertically from the top of Pico Mayor stare back at me, parading the power that the volcano contains within it. The smallest is at the base of Pico Mayor and is the size of a large swimming pool. To the south is the perfectly cylindrical Agua, 650 feet shorter than Acatenango. Just over the summit is the fire volcano—Fuego. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there; smoke lays suspended above the summit overhead. Julio points to where we will begin our final ascent, on the left side along the edge of the collapse scar where the rock is more stable. We start up again past the butter-yellow flowers that grow in patches along the saddle, bursts of yellow that paint the hillside.

The air is thin and my breath heavy as we near the summit of Pico Mayor. Julio and Ben round the top as I trudge slowly behind, counting every 25 steps before breaking for a few seconds. Volcanic scoria conceals the path and slides easily beneath my feet, clear evidence of past gaseous eruptions. I look up at Julio, who has just reached the summit with Ben.

“Aqui, aqui, Jessica!” yells Julio. He motions with his hand to come towards him. You’re almost there.

As I emerge from the trail onto the summit, I stand on the brink of the crater of Pico Mayor. It dips shallow but stretches as far as the length of two football fields, blanketed with small volcanic rocks. It’s 13,015 feet above sea level, five-and-a-half hours high above Guatemala. Exposed, unguarded, and beautiful. We stand above the clouds up here. Although their fluffy whiteness moves up the slopes of Fuego they cannot creep high enough to devour it. White smoke emerges from the summit crater and suddenly a large plume billows into the air.

At the top of Acatenango watching Fuego erupt. Best day of my life.
“Jessica, Jessica!” yells Julio as he reaches for my camera, signaling for Ben and I to get together for a picture. “One, two, three,” he says, counting before each photograph he takes and instructing us where to stand so that Fuego is behind us.

We round the crater and reach the south end of Pico Mayor, the closest point to Fuego. Sitting amongst large boulders, we stare at Fuego and eat our lunch. We’ve just arrived in an outdoor theatre to witness the power of plate tectonics, except the volcano we watch erupt isn’t on a high definition screen being filmed thousands of miles away—it’s nearer than two-and-a-half miles, and we can feel the ground shake beneath us during eruptions. Even at its quietest, hot gases spew from a small vent on the northern flank, the red and black rock swallowing up vegetation that inches upwards on the steep slope.

“This is your job,” I say to Julio. I envy him. He says he is fortunate. Most Guatemalans in Antigua never get the chance to hike where he does: Pacaya, Fuego, Acatenango, Agua. He has conquered them all. And still, at the summit, he has the same look of amazement that we do, as if it were the first time he’s stood on the edge of Acatenango’s crater, watching an erupting volcano.

We walk across the summit crater and begin the climb down Pico Mayor an hour later. We are reluctant to leave but the sun will set in only a few hours. Julio stops for a moment, puts his hand into a shallow hole in the ground—there is many around us—and tells us to do the same. The holes are searing hot with steam rising out as though from the spout of a teakettle. I imagine a fiery chamber broiling beneath Acatenango, a sleeping giant not yet ready to show Guatemala its fury, but still a strong protector of Antigua below.

We continue down through dead pine forest and tall grassland before reaching the cornfield, where white calla lilies grow in clusters among the corn stalks. When we reach the trailhead that opens to a lonesome dirt road, Ben and I sit to undo our hiking boots as Julio walks around a corner, looking for a truck that will take us back to Antigua. A long-skirted Guatemalan woman and her two daughters walk past us and up the road, bundles of chopped wood balanced on their heads.

Julio waves down a passing truck and with an okay from the driver, we jump into the canvassed back. We join a few men and woman who look surprised to see Ben and I, flashing us hesitant smiles as we sit among them on empty crates once filled with lettuce leaves. Exhaustion has invaded my muscles, and dust rushes up from the back wheels covering our bags, our clothes, and filling our lungs each time we breath. Even so, the dirt feels good. Watching a volcano erupt and riding in the back of a pick-up truck: this is Guatemala.

 "Volcanoes are one way the earth gives birth to itself."

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. Sounded like an amazing time. Definitely magazine quality.


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