The perilous trek to see Volcan de Fuego, just months before it exploded

One crook journalist stands in front of Volcan de Fuego in March. Two months later, it exploded, devastating Guatemala and killing hundreds in the surrounding villages.
One crook journalist stands in front of Volcan de Fuego in March. Two months later, it exploded, devastating Guatemala and killing hundreds in the surrounding villages.

I’m on all fours as my stomach turns itself inside out, cursing the oddly-tasting carbonara I ate the evening before my hike.

As waves of nausea roll over me and waves of fellow hikers trudge past my crouched figure, I succumb to the moment of indignity. 

Flashing back to the evening before, in a restaurant in Antigua, I remember the owner’s slippery grin growing as I told him my plans to trek the volcano. 

Volcan de Acatenango eh?” he’d said, somehow both leering and talking at the same time. “Come and see me afterwards for a good meal, you will need it!”

I felt my hands prickling as the volcanic rock beneath dug into my palms. In a few seconds of reprieve from my nausea, I looked up feebly at the hike that was still to come. I was just 500 metres up – I had 3,500 to go. 

Acatenango is a dormant volcano with two other distant peaks, just visible on a clear day. Pico Mayor (Highest Peak) and Yepocapa are, together with Acatenango, known as Tres Hermanas – the Three Sisters.

Two of the Three Sisters, just visible in the distance.

Two of the Three Sisters, just visible in the distance.

But the reason travellers do the overnight trek to the top of Acantango is to see Volcan de Fuego, an active volcano situated right next to Acatenango that intermittently spits small amounts of neon up-chuck out of its mouth.

A little like what I was doing. 

I pulled myself vertical with the help of the younger of our two guides, a young Guatemalan teenager who smiled at me gently. My head hung weakly and I noticed he was wearing converse sneakers. 

A bold choice for a four kilometre overnight hike, I thought. I suppose he thought the same looking at me, my sickly frame determined to go forward, not back down.

I caught up with my group and we powered on up the volcano. One by one we marvelled as we walked through the changing landscape. Dense rainforest surrounds gave way to sparse rocky inclines, and we gulped as we looked down sheer drops from our man-made pathways.

There were so many ways to die – it was dizzying to comprehend it. Our cockiness melted away as we felt ourselves at the mercy of the landscape. 

Our two guides, from a locally-run tour group named Gilmer Soy, didn’t speak a lick of english. But they coaxed us on encouragingly, gifting us rest stops every 15 minutes as we caught our breath in the changing altitude. 

As we climbed higher, we also needed to catch our breath as the view opened up in front of us. A brilliant expanse of the warmest green country below – rolling mountains, distant volcanic peaks, hanging mist. Guatemala is beautiful.

After a day of trekking, we reached our campsite. A few guides from Gilmer Soy had left when it was still dark to beat us, carrying the entire campsite on their backs so it would be waiting.

Tired trekkers embrace the flame

Tired trekkers embrace the flame

There were 12 tents situated along a long, thin plateau, with a common area in between that held a crackling fire. 

We huddled around the flames with relief – the temperature had been in the high twenties at the bottom, but at around 3,500 metres up, it was low teens and due to drop lower as the sun set.

“Fuego”, one guy pointed out, looking at the crackling licking flames in front of us. “It means fire”.

We knew our campsite faced the active volcano, and we waited hopefully for the blueish afternoon fog to dissipate. It was the luck of the draw. Many people trek Acantenango only to get to the top and see nothing; some days were foggy and Fuego did not reveal itself at all.

There was nothing for it: they turned around and trekked down. You can’t make a deal with the devil and cash in your four kilometres for good weather. Humbling thought. 

Fuego peeks through the fog.

Fuego peeks through the fog.

As dusk grew, the fog cleared, and suddenly there was an active volcano in front of us.

It spat small jewels of glowing lava every ten minutes or so, some more spectacular than others, a gun shot into the night. We weren’t going to sleep much that night: away from the fire the temperature was in the single digits and we slept in tents beneath sleeping bags meant for a much warmer climate. But we didn’t mind. 

The tour guides gracefully got on with the task at hand; preparing dinner for us in two large pots over the fire. We ate a black bean stew on flat bread and rice, greedy from our depleted energy, and talked over each other excitably; a bunch of young backpackers, free and easy. 

One of the group suddenly called out across to the older of the two Guatemalan guides ¿Con qué frecuencia subes este volcan? How often do you climb this volcano?

Every two days he responded in Spanish, looking at his teenage counterpart who had helped me earlier. He nodded earnestly. We all pondered that for a moment.  

The fog doesn't always clear, but it did for us.

The fog doesn't always clear, but it did for us.

Fuego continued to shoot into the night. A bang, and then a collective noise of admiration. A bang, and a scramble of people with iPhone cameras. A bang, and 20 heads would snap up excitably. 

Once we were well-fed and nursing chipped mugs filled with hot Guatemalan cocoa, someone suggested the inevitable – a name game. Instead, I piped up nervously, what if we said our name and then shared one proud moment in our life? 

A murmur of agreement as everyone pondered the question. There were tales of all kinds; a Swedish teenager who’d skipped his small town to travel, only to fall inlove with the French girl sitting coyly to his right, an Irish couple who revealed they’d ridden from Brazil to Guatemala – some 5,300 kilometres – on bicycles, an Australian woman who’d started a jazz bar in Antigua at just 22 years old. 

We cheered on the guides to answer too. Blushing slightly, shifting in his seat, the older guide looked away in thought. Boom! went Fuego in the background. 

I don’t have one proud moment, he began in Spanish, but I am proud to work and provide for my family. I feel proud each day about that. It’s not one big moment, but a lot of little moments, in my life. I am lucky, he finished with a smile.

Ruby jewels spat out of the peak.

Ruby jewels spat out of the peak.

We peeled off to bed one by one only to be shaken awake what seemed like moments later. It was 4am, and time to trek the final 200 metres up to the peak. 

Grabbing our walking sticks – pieces of long, thin timber branches – we begin the journey to the top. If yesterday was tough, this last 200 metres felt almost insurmountable.

Every step forward on the blackened volcanic pebbles below our joggers pushed us half a step backward. Smoke sizzled up as we disturbed the ancient rock beneath our steps. 

It was almost as if the volcano was urging us back down. I thought of a film I’d seen years before called Sherpa. Jamling Norgay had explained gently to the camera that you don’t ‘conquer’ Mount Everest – “When you climb this mountain, you have to climb this mountain as if a child crawling up to its mother's lap”.

We all fell into a huffing reverie, ignoring our pleading muscles and collectively pondering the same thought: can I do this? 

Finally we trekked onto the peak. It was like being on the moon – deep valleys and mounds of inky rock, dipping and burgeoning like a frozen black ocean all around us.

Turning around, we were met with a 270 degree horizon. The sun hadn’t risen yet but the night had relaxed into a dark blue, and the lights of the villages were visible, matched by the concave spate of stars above us.

The sun begins to rise.

The sun begins to rise.

We admired the outlines of the neighbouring peaks – the other two hermanas – in the distance, and marvelled at the clear, unfoggy morning. A gift. 

Fuego, unrelenting, sat to our immediate right, throwing small tantrums. The lava was less obvious in the light, but the puffs of smoke rose high into the air, like a man with his cigar. 

Suddenly, a sun peaked over the horizon, and the sky was a dozen shades. Gold intermingled with pink, purple, red, orange, blue. The stars twinkled goodbye and disappeared as the sun rose strong and piercing. 

Puffing.

Puffing.

And still Fuego almost burst at the seams. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Two months later, on June 3, Fuego exploded with a terrible fury.

The explosion coated the surrounding villages in a seemingly innocuous but deadly ash cloud, followed by a volcanic lahar – a mudslide-like flow of ash and other debris – snatching a nearby river and coating San Miguel Los Lotes, now under three metres of debris and white dust. A modern Pompeii.

Official reports as of June 25 put fatalities at 112 dead and 197 still missing, but many people believe the death toll in the surrounding villages is significantly higher.

Villages surrounding Fuego, one of which was home to our two guides. I don’t know which one.

The Electoral Court confirmed on Friday that 2,181 people were registered to vote in the five communities that were destroyed by the eruption, though the state has not provided any official numbers of people living in the communities.

A vehicle sits partially buried in volcanic ash spewed by the Volcan de Fuego. Photo: AP

A vehicle sits partially buried in volcanic ash spewed by the Volcan de Fuego. Photo: AP

Despite warnings from scientists at the National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology in the early morning on the day of the eruption, the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction failed to issue a red alert and evacuate communities.

Many believe it’s symptomatic of the government’s disregard for the indigenous people in the villages. When I think of our guides, one older and one just a teen, making our trek the incredible, moving gift it was, I feel despair.

Where are they now? What have they lost? Their home? Their family? Their lives? 

The aftermath is mass devastation for Guatemalans. Widespread respiratory complications, PTSD and related symptoms, burns, high blood pressure, diabetes complications, as well as pregnancy complications plague the survivors.

A man cries after seeing the condition of his neighbourhood, destroyed by the erupting Volcano of Fire, in Escuintla, Guatemala. Photo: AP

A man cries after seeing the condition of his neighbourhood, destroyed by the erupting Volcano of Fire, in Escuintla, Guatemala. Photo: AP

There also also critical gaps in health services that existed prior to the disaster, including limited access to health services for communities with high-poverty and illiteracy rates, a lack trained specialists for both physical and burn rehabilitation, and severe malnutrition.

An estimated 1 million people have been affected by the eruption – displaced from their homes, losing family or friends or suffering illness and disease.

Ruth Rivas, who has two missing children, is consoled by a neighbor in a shelter near Guatemala's Volcan de Fuego. Photo: AP

Ruth Rivas, who has two missing children, is consoled by a neighbor in a shelter near Guatemala's Volcan de Fuego. Photo: AP

“Families have lost everything, and children are especially traumatized. The cramped conditions in shelters are a breeding ground for disease. In El Rodeo, a community close to the volcano, the area is covered in ash and the main community has no water system or access to health care services at this time,” said Nicole Merrill, Project HOPE volunteer nurse practitioner.

We didn’t conquer Acatenango that day. We crawled into it like a mother’s lap. And I know now that we never had the upper hand on nature. We are at the mercy of it, always. 

If you’d like to donate to the Fuego relief fund, the following three funds are verified by GoFundMe. 

The Eruption Guatemala Longterm Aid fund has put together a support plan working with 3 organizations to provide water filters, eco-stoves and new housing.

The Fuego Eruption Emergency Relief fund is raising money to help affected families with immediate needs and future rebuilding. Donations wlll be dispersed through the Foundation Vamos Adelante.

Helping Gautemalan Volcano Victims fund is planning to provide aid through a partnership with the national co-op credit union federation MiCoope and their national fundraising campaign.