IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED
Shivering, huddling in the tent as the nylon fabric buffets aggressively in the wind, nibbling on a slice of cold, plastic-tasting faux cheese, we waited for the icy rain to subside. Not exactly how I envisaged spending my birthday. At an elevation just s
TOURS LEAVE THE bright colonial streets of Antigua daily to climb the volcano. It isn't an easy feat. People speak of the climb as if it were at once the best and worst thing they have ever done. Usually, they describe it as something they would never do again. The selling point? Acatenango's highly active immediate neighbour – Fuego; a volcano belching steam, fire and ash, framed in the doorway of a tent. That definitive photo every backpacker wants on their Instagram feed. At least, that is how the story should go.
After several cloudy weeks, the weather reports were improving. We didn't do anything sensible like booking a tour. Our complete lack of planning found us parked at the foot of the volcano late one chilly evening. Luckily Juan, a friendly local, waved us over and invited us to camp outside his family home. He also arranged for a guide to see us on our way the next day.
The morning dawned, bleak and grey.
The only ray of sunlight was our cheerful guide Sixto, and his energetic dog Nico. Sixto was positive the skies would clear for a view of Fuego. It was a cold, miserable trudge up the steep, muddy paths of Acatenango. At the campground, we waved goodbye to Sixto and Nico and began a hopeless vigil.
We sat with our eyes glued to the white abyss that stretched in front of us. We peered, full of hope, in the direction that Sixto had pointed. He had said, “Fuego is that way. When the cloud clears, you will see it from your tent.” The clouds didn't clear.
“Happy Birthday,” Ben joked as we celebrated with cold ham and cheese sandwiches. The quiet patter of rain on the tent was now drowned out by the howling of the wind and the cracking of branches. As the storm raged outside, we lamented our choice to forgo packing a thermos of hot soup. Instead, our tent was full of heavy camera gear that we weren't going to need.
We awoke early, to the sound of tour groups descending hastily. The weather had become dangerous. Instead of summiting Acatenango, we made our way back down, filled with bitter disappointment. Half a world away from home, we had waited weeks and… nothing. We picked our way through fallen branches, swirling mist and sleety rain. Defeated.
Many would declare this a terrible experience. They would head for the Coast to find a bar that serves ice-cold beers, put their feet up in a hammock and… oh… wait, that's exactly what we did. However, a little over a week later we came back and climbed Acatenango… again.
Outside Juan's home, we filled our daypacks with our warmest gear and snacks – a day trip only. No camping in the cold. The dry ground made the going quick and it wasn't long before we were in the upper reaches of the decaying pine forest. The cloud crept in… again.
Enveloped in mist, we didn't expect to see much. At least we had enjoyed the climb this time if nothing else. Leaving the tree line, we made for the saddle between Acatenango's two peaks. Our goal was Pico Mayor – the taller of the two, with an unobstructed view of Fuego. As we ascended through the layer of mist, far below amidst an ocean
of cloud ‘volcanic islands' began to appear. Towards Lago Atitlán we could see the summits of Volcanes San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlán. The last stretch to the top was brutally steep. Just out of sight, Fuego was grumbling. What better motivation to do the climb in record time!
Not helped by our break at sea level, we were gasping for air. We took determined strides towards the top.
The end was in sight. My legs shook like jelly. Was it with the effort, or the anticipation? Probably both. The last hundred metres were painfully slow. Every step forward triggered a violent slide back. Cursing my choice of footwear, I took the final wobbly strides towards the summit.
Volcán de Agua, which towers above Antigua, was now visible far below, poking out from the swirling sea of cloud. An earth-shaking boom, then a plume of smoke appeared from behind the summit of Acatenango. A few more steps and the peak of Fuego was visible, belching steam and smoke into the atmosphere. Success! Finding a sheltered nook with a view of the eruptions, we settled in for the afternoon. We imagined the tour groups below, pitching their tents in the cloud, hopeful for a glimpse of Fuego. We wondered if the view would clear for them. The afternoon wore on, the cloud ebbed and flowed. It cleared enough that the groups below would have a perfect view from their tents. We preferred our vantage point. Just the two of us. On the summit of a towering volcano amid a swirling ocean of cloud, watching an impressive display of the raw power of Mother Nature unfold right in front of us. “Happy un-birthday”.
It felt like this show was just for us. Every few minutes Fuego would belch more steam, sometimes ash. Enormous rocks were visible, bouncing down the slopes of the neighbouring volcano. We could feel, as much as hear the thunderous, echoing booms that accompanied each display.
As evening arrived, the moving carpet of cloud began to glow all the colours of a majestic sunset. Stars twinkled behind the erupting Fuego. Against the night sky, the glowing fires bursting from deep within the earth became visible. Streaks of fire filled the air. The volcano launched rocks and plumes of hot gas skyward. Fuego outshone the fading remnants of sunset.
As the last light faded from the sky, shivering in the chill night air, we abandoned our lonely perch on top of the world. Heading back beneath the thick banks of cloud, we soon lost sight of Fuego's bursts of fury. But our short time on an island on top of the world will be etched in our memory forever. Would we do it again? Without a doubt.