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I have been writing from Antigua, Guatemala. I've been here the past two weeks trying to catch up on the stories of the weeks prior when I delightfully had no connections. I will continue to do so, but I simply could not wait to recount this story:
Volcán Acatenango had been looming, literally to the Southeast, and figuratively in my mind, as my mental list of things left to do before I leave are narrowed down. My time left here seems to lessens faster and faster with every passing day. Being out of class for the weekend, and with the weather forecasts unwaveringly the same bad news: cloudy with afternoon thunderstorms - I decided it was now or never.
Friday afternoon, I left Antigua on the two'o'clock bus towards Yepocapa. A minor transportation hiccup gave me an extra few kilometers to walk, back up the hill from which I'd just rapidly descended by bus. No matter, after asking everyone I met along the way (there were few people to be seen), I made it to the trail head. I began the ascend ever upwards, as the trail winded through fields of maíz.
Within half an hour I was off the main trial, as evident by the overgrown path I currently found myself on. Thunder sounded in the near distance and I readied myself for rain. I knew at any moment the sky could open and unleash its waters upon me. Now surrounded on all sides by dense forest and the milky haze of low hung clouds I considered my options. Trees hung so low I frequently had to crawl underneath and with nowhere to set up my shelter I dreaded the coming rain. I considered going back...
But by the power of stubbornness, or as I like to call it: "brutish perseverance," I kept on not wanting to loose the elevation I gained and the strain I had already endured. Knowing that I even if I returned to the openness of the cornfields I had nothing by which to orient myself, as the the clouds hovered so thick and so low, limiting my visibility to a meager few meters. Thunder now clapped in the tree tops and the sky quickly darkened. The trail split and split again, hopelessly lost in direction but not in resolve, I just figured up was a good direction to go, so up I went.
The rolling blasts of thunder subsided without releasing a drop, but it was now almost completely dark. Just in that moment, the sky ignited into what I can only aptly describe as colors of volcano fire. They shone through the trees fugaciously, as I quickened my step to try and catch a better glimpse. I got there just as the last of rays were to be had.
Now in absolute darkness, I stumbled on to... "I'll be damned! The trail!" Obvious in its width and trampledness that characterize the pathways down here, I knew it to be true! I strapped on my headlamp and hiked a little longer through the night. As I would find out the next day, I made it about halfway up on this "improvised" trail. I turned down a few tempting camping flats along the way before settling down for the night - I wanted to make tomorrow's summit easier, and my efforts certainly paid off.
I awoke early the next morning. After just a little ways, I rounded a bend and crested a hill and the summit came into view high above, however I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was much closer than I suspected. With this new revelation in mind, and my stomach gurgling with emptiness I found a peaceful place to perch and have breakfast. Now above the clouds, the view was spectacular: a condensed and frothy whiteness stretched out in a blanket across the sky, pierced only by another volcano, what I now assume to be Volcán Atitlan far to the West. The clouds were not dark or menacing, yet I heard the crash of thunder once again, and it continued through my meal.
I tried to locate the source of it, but it was muffled and seemingly all around, I stained my ears to hear. Another steep ascent would put me at the top, so I began to climb, resting often but only for a few breaths at a time - The booming of thunder all the while.
When I reached the top the sun was still low on the horizon, but shining with magnificence over the clouds, which continued to congeal in white fluffy masses. I was walking around the rim of the caldera when Volcán Agua came into view, a moment later Volcán Fuego followed suit. Another boom rang out, loud and distinct in its timbre. My head quickly turned, pinpointing the source - Volcán Fuego spit debris from its top, volcanic soot and ash shot up in a plume. It was in that split second that I realized this was the source of the thunder.
I sat for a long while as I watched and listened, considering what it meant to be witnessing this spectacle of earthly might. My heart pounded, the exertion from the climb long gone, my heart beat strong yet slowly in equal reverence, as if it longed to be in sync with the heart beat of the world, the frequent boom of the erupting volcano guiding its pace. I understand the inner workings of volcanos as explained by modern science well, but what I've yet to understand is their true essence. Which, was proven to me in these moments to be something transcendental, something supernatural and nearly incomprehensible in its excellence.
14:00 bus leaves from Antigua's main terminal for San Pedro Yepocápa (10Q, $1.5), there is only one per day but other bus routes are viable. Other option, bus to Chimaltenango (5Q, 80c) leaves frequently all day, then take bus to Esquintala via Yepocápa (10Q, $1.5), also leaves frequently.
When it comes time to leave you have a lot of options, if your lucky you can catch the bus directly back to Antigua. Otherwise take the bus to Chimaltenango and change for Antigua. In the other direction you can catch a bus going to Escuitala and change for Antigua, this route takes a bit longer. Pretty much any passing bus will take you somewhere where you can change for Antigua.There are also busses directly to and from Guatemala City, but I don't have anymore information on this.
The there are two starting points to begin the climb, the most northerly one begins by going up past a small cemetary, the other has no real distinct markers. The trail is a bit confusing to follow at first, as obvious by my mishaps. Many trails cross and intersect so it's not exactly clear which to take. But don't fret, perhaps with better visibility it would be more negotiable (Ojála). Once out of the corn fields the trail is very easy to follow. The trail splits a few times but only into loops that join back together, all are about equal distance so it really doesn't matter which one you take.
There are many places to camp all along the trail. The best ones are closer to the top, where the forest is thinnest but still provides cover. There is a side trail that leads off to the south of the summit where you can camp and see Fuego erupting. I would recommend this only if Fuego is spewing lava to be seen at night, because this is were all the tour groups camp and you'll see Fuego erupting at the top anyways. It is also possible to camp at the top, there is plenty of flat space and protection from wind if you camp down in the caldera. This obviously means you have to carry all your stuff up, and there is no fire wood.
I would recommend an early summit around 7am or so, for the best views and with plenty of time to get down and out. I would also recommend not going on Saturday, I saw only 5 other people the entire time untill I got near the bottom and pasted 70 or 80 people coming up Saturday morning in several large tour groups.
Due to my late arrival, and "improvised" route I didn't pay the entrance fee but I have it on good authority that it costs Q50, $7.
Including food and transportation, but without the entrance fee this trip cost me about 65Q, $9. Tours from Antigua typically cost 250Q, $33, including food, transportation and gear rental, however I'm not sure if that includes the entrance fee.