Before I share this story, I would like to let you all know that in conjunction with a group of students in Antigua, we have created a GoFundMe campaign in an effort to raise funds that will go towards the purchase of much needed supplies to aid in the disaster relief efforts here in Guatemala. If you are interested in contributing to the disaster relief efforts, you can find more information at the bottom of this story.
Up until this point on our trip, we’ve pretty much always been at the right place at the right time. For example, people sit and wait for hours for Old Faithful to erupt at Yellowstone NP, however we waltz up to the geyser and it immediately puts on a show for us. There was also that time we just happened to be in Mexico City for the giant monarch butterfly migration, or that time we end up in the Yucatan smack dab in the middle the flamingo migration. Not to mention all those little instances where we need to catch a boat that leaves every 40 minutes and we just happen to walk up to catch the next one with zero wait time. There’s even those times when we’re out exploring all day enjoying gorgeous weather, and the minute we lay our heads down to sleep, the rain starts.
I guess it was all bound to catch up with us eventually!
Volcàn Acatenango & Volcàn de Fuego
When we first crossed the border from Mexico into Guatemala, we couldn’t help but immediately compare the two countries. While there were a lot of similarities, there was one HUGE difference; the terrain. The country of Guatemala is home to 28 volcanoes’, three of which are active. So, prior to arriving in the country, we knew we would be spending some of our time hiking these gifts mother nature has provided us. One particular hike that EVERYONE talks about is the trip up Volcàn Acatenango (AH-CAH-TE-NAN-GO).
Volcàn Acatenango is a dormant volcano which you can hike up and camp overnight at the top where you get stunning views of the very active, and very nearby (~1 mile), Volcàn de Fuego. The hike is not for the faint of heart, and I don’t even know the specifics in terms of altitude gained or distance. All I know is that it normally takes anywhere from 4-5 hours to summit and that it’s uphill most of the way. Our friends described it as something that you didn’t even know was on your bucket list until you experienced it. It’s a popular hike among travelers, so we heard a lot about it, and we were really looking forward to the adventure.
A couple things worth mentioning before I share our story – Volcàn de Fuego has small eruptions every 20 minutes or so. From surrounding towns, when its clear, you constantly see small plumes of smoke coming out of the top of the volcano. Even more exciting, on clear nights, you can literally see lava spewing from the top. Naturally, we wanted to get a closer look. I mean, who doesn’t want to camp at the peak of dormant volcano and watch a neighboring volcano erupt all night long while sipping on some whiskey to stay warm and take it all in?
Normally, it’s perfectly SAFE to do. Hundreds of people come every day to see it for themselves. However, every now and then, Fuego will have a larger than normal eruption, and as it turns out, this time, our timing happened to be a little off….
Unlike our last hike up a volcano (which also happen to erupt recently), we have been preparing for this trip for a couple of weeks. We were 100% ready…. or so we thought!
The morning of our hike we woke up in Antigua, which is an amazing city about 10 miles Northwest of Fuego. From the city streets, we saw a larger than normal plume spewing from the top of the volcano, but strangely, we didn’t think twice about it. In retrospect, a red flag should have gone off right then and there, but it seems our judgement may have been a bit off that day. I think we were just really excited for the experience, we had been planning it for weeks. Either way, we packed up the truck and headed to the trailhead.
As we were driving closer to the trailhead, the environment around us started to change drastically. Grey clouds were filling the sky and everything around us began to get a light dusting of soot on it. Unlike you may have seen in the movies, such as Volcano or Dante’s Peak, the ash wasn’t in big chunks, it was very subtle, almost like light falling snow.
We followed our trusty iOverlander app to a house owned by a guy named Hector. It was a safe place we could park the truck until we returned from the hike the next day. Poppins had been parked there maybe 10 minutes and she was already covered in a layer of ash. In the background, we could hear the volcano erupting every few minutes. Again, no red flag going off, and we pressed on.
After gearing up for our hike, Hector drew a little map in the ash of which campsite to go to once we reached the summit. We asked him if it was safe to hike up, and after ensuring we had a map, he waved us on and told us we would be fine; “Todo bien, amigos!”.
It’s encouraged that you do the hike with a guide – but because we have all our own gear, and we’re on a budget, we opted to do the hike on our own. We’ve also had several friends do it solo and have zero issues, so we felt confident in our abilities to guide ourselves up the volcano. We even had a GPS map telling us where to go.
At the start of the hike, Kevin’s biggest concern was getting to the summit before the rain started. It’s currently the rainy season in Guatemala, so usually around 2 or 3pm, the rain rolls in. Setting up our camp for the night in the pouring rain would have been miserable, so he was trying to hustle us up the mountain to beat it out. At one point he even wanted to go ahead so he could setup before the rain since I was taking my sweet ass time (a bad trait I have when someone rushes me – I usually end up going slower…. just because). I can’t imagine how that would have played out, thankfully we never split up.
After about an hour or so, I stopped to catch my breath and take it all in. The only thing I can compare it to is a Nor’easter back home. You know in the middle of those big storms when you stick your head outside and you see no one and hear nothing other than the snow falling? It was like that, though not as cold, and way more eerie. There was nobody in sight, and all you could hear was the ash falling on the corn fields. As creepy as it felt, there was still a sense of peace that came with that moment, at least for me.
As we carried on, the hike got harder and harder. We passed a couple groups on their way down from the day before, but nobody mentioned anything or seemed concerned in the slightest, so we just kept pressing on. All we heard was “Poco y Poco”, which means little by little.
About 40 minutes into our summit we cross paths with a tour group containing about 15 people, led by two guides, heading up the mountain. I felt a whole lot better knowing there was a group of people heading up; knowing that we wouldn’t be alone. When we got to a resting point, one of the guides approached us and asked us to join his group, free of charge. He seemed genuinely concerned for our safety when he realized we were doing the hike by ourselves, so we happily accepted. Power in numbers, right?
About ten minutes later we had to pull over to rain proof ourselves. The precipitation had changed and now little black lava pebbles were falling from the sky – basically lava hail. This stuff got EVERYWHERE… it’s still in my hair as I type this out, even after washing it three times. It made its way into every part of our body, shoes, and packs. The worst part was when these stupid lava pebbles would fall down our backs and get caught in between our shirt and our packs, so we constantly had pebbles grinding against our skin.
We kept charging on, even passing one group that had turned around to go back down at the instruction of their guide. Our group was determined to make it to the top, especially after how far we had made it! Whelp, about five minutes before our 12pm lunch break, which was about half way up the mountain, the falling lava rocks started to grow, and were beginning to hurt. We found some shelter at the stopping point, and it’s a good thing we did because now they were golf ball size chunks of lava raining down.
For most of the duration of the hike, the sky was a dull peach color, maybe slightly brown. Almost as soon as we got to this spot, it had turned dark red, even slightly black. It was so dark we needed headlamps to see; it was only 12:30 pm! On top of that, we started to hear loud, cracking thunder every 30 seconds or so, or what we thought was thunder. As it turned out, the sound was coming from the massive volcanic eruptions happening about a mile away. This FINALLY was where MY red flag started to go off!!
We stood hunkered down under the small structure, and things began to get a bit more serious and real. The rocks, seemingly getting larger by the minute, were crashing into the metal roof of the structure with explosive power and sound to go along with it. As they were hitting the tin roof, I just kept imagining one penetrating the tin and smashing down on my head.
To our delight, there was a rescue team from the Guatemalan army that began to gather under the structure with us. Sadly, a man had committed suicide the day before at the top of the volcano, and the Guatemalan army was on a mission to recover his body. Apparently, they had gone on a bit further past this stopping point, but turned around when they realized that it was too dangerous to continue. They were not going to risk the lives of Guatemalan soldiers to recover a dead body.
As unfortunate of a situation as it was, we were very thankful for their presence. I’m not sure what we would have done. They told us we needed to evacuate the volcano immediately, and that there is no way we should have even made it as far as we did. They instructed us to protect our heads by making “make-shift” hard-hats with whatever we had in our packs, so Kevin went to work. He proceeded to wrap my head in a sweatshirt, then stuffed my knitted hat that my grandma made with a towel, put it on my head and secured it all down under the hood of my jacket. For his own helmet, he used a slipper he had in his pack and stuck that in his beanie, then secured it under his own hood – talk about MacGuiver’ing that shit!
I am BEYOND grateful for the Guatemalan Army and a search and rescue team member named Bhanmi, she really talked me off a ledge. I was on the verge of having a full-on panic attack, as I’m sure most of you can imagine! She set my mind at ease when I heard her shout over the sound of rocks smashing above my head; “Out of all the people you could be stuck on this volcano with, you are with the safest people in the world! They won’t let anything happen to you!”
So, with that said, we geared up, turned on our headlamps, and began our RUN down the volcano with the Guatemalan Army! If you’re ever looking for motivation to run down a volcano, pure adrenalin along with an army soldier screaming “VAMOS…VAMOS!” behind you will certainly do the trick.
There we were, on the side of an erupting volcano, running for our lives like Forest running out of the Vietnam jungle with Bubba in his hands. Except there was one enormous difference (besides Bubba), this wasn’t a movie, this was real life. We ran down that volcano so freaking fast in total darkness, with nothing but our headlamps and voices of Guatemalan soldiers to guide us. The trail practically turned into a mudslide beneath our feet, so every step was a challenge. Lava rocks the size of golf balls pelting us from the sky, and thunder & lightning all around us. Every time I slowed my pace even slightly I had a solider literally screaming behind, “VAMOS…VAMOS!”. It took us 2 hours to make it to the point where we decided to turn around, and only 30 minutes to run down.
It was by far the scariest situation I’ve ever been in, and I’m not just saying that for dramatic story telling purposes. I feel so fortunate, because knowing what I know now about the devastation this eruption has caused, our situation could have been a lot worse. If I was scared, I can only imagine how those people felt that were on the other side of the volcano, in the path of the lava flow, with no warning, and nowhere to run.
The conditions improved as we ran down the mountain out of the storm. After about 20 minutes of downhill sprints, we no longer needed our headlamps, and the bigger rocks stopped falling. We continued to run because our adrenalin was still pumping, and we wanted off that fucking volcano, but things were looking up! At one point when stopped to gather myself, I wasn’t sure if I should cry or laugh, so I opted for the latter… crying would get me nowhere.
When we finally got down to the base, we were soaking wet from head to toe, and covered in dirt. I literally had handfuls of lava pebbles in each of my boots. As it turns out, my rain jacket, nor my boots, are fully volcano proof. We got back to Hectors house and I’ve never been so happy to see Poppins. Like I said before, our judgement was way off on this one, and of course, we lived to tell the tale, but holy cow what an experience. We most certainly dodged a bullet on this one.
Poppins the Truck
Once we finally got off the mountain, the next concern was our truck. Thank goodness she was okay, just extremely dirty! There was an inch of heavy dirt and rock covering the entire thing. We couldn’t even get the doors open at first because handles were jammed up with mud and rocks. Hector and his son helped clean it off so we could see out the windshield, but as soon as we would clear it off, the ashy rain would cover the windows again. We finally got to a point where we could see enough to drive and blew that popsicle stand.
We were so muddy and wet that we just took all our clothes off, threw them in a trash bag, and drove in our underwear until we were clear of the storm. As we drove through the small towns on our way back towards Antigua, everyone stopped to stare; not sure if it was at the truck covered in lava mud, or the two half naked Americans behind the wheel. We wanted nothing more than a beer, or seven, but we knew we had to take care of the truck, otherwise that layer of mud and rocks would practically be cement the next day.
Lucky for us, the car washing industry in Guatemala is on point. We found a car wash that had a power washer, and Kevin and the guys went to town! It took them an hour to get all the lava off. At one point, Kevin was on the roof of the camper with two Guatemalan’s scrapping off the lava with metal spatulas. It was such a spectacle that the entire neighborhood came out to watch.
There was lava mud and rocks in every crack and crevasse you could imagine. Even after the deep cleaning, you can be sure that we will be cleaning out lava for months. I have to give those guys credit, they were committed to see this through, it was no easy job – and it only cost us $8, a small price to pay.
Currently, we are safe and sound in Antigua. We rented a room for a couple of nights so we could get the truck back into livable status and clean things up. The air quality is awful around here – and everything has a layer of ash on it. From what we have now learned from the news, this is the largest eruption Volcàn de Fuego has had in 40 years. On top of that, we learned that the major eruption occurred at 12pm, the exact time we were at that stopping point with the Guatemalan army!
When we first got down off the mountain and back to Antigua, we had no Wi-Fi and no access to the news to know exactly how bad this all was. All we had was our eyes and our experience. As we drove back, we found all the neighboring towns were absolutely covered in layers of ash. We had zero idea of all the devastation the eruption caused.
We lived through this crazy experience and can tell the story about it, but it was terrible decision on our part to hike that day. We are so grateful that we made it out of there intact, but there are a lot people that didn’t. So many people lost their lives and their livelihoods, and I most certainly don’t want to take anything away from that.
As with any natural disaster, the relief efforts are underway, but need more support. We have teamed up with some friends in Antigua and created a GoFundMe campaign to collect donations for the relief efforts. All the funds we raise will be used to purchase much needed supplies that will be donated to a local school that works first hand with the affected communities.
The campaign will run until this Saturday, June 9th, at 10 am MST, at which point we will be taking every dollar raised and purchasing much needed equipment that the school will deliver directly. What may seem like a little amount of money actually goes a long way in this community, so If you are interested in contributing to the cause, the link here will take you to the donation page:
We’re sending all our love to those who have been affected by this disaster. Guatemala is such a magical country, and it breaks our heart to know see the devastation this has caused. We thank you for anything you can do to help!