Climbing Volcán de Agua
Exhaustion, questionable sausages, and a sunset I’ll never forget
By Barry Rodriguez
The first time I came to Guatemala, I felt compelled to climb it: Volcán de Agua, a towering peak dominating the landscape around the city of Antigua. I don’t know why. I’d never climbed a mountain before. I’d barely ever been above 6000 feet. It was just there, and practically begged to be conquered.
So I threw the idea out there with my hosts at Saber y Gracia, and they agreed! We gathered a group of teachers and students, drove out to the village of Santa Maria de Jesús at the base of the volcano, and started to climb. It was an unforgettable experience.
The Journey Begins
The trek started easily enough. Looking up at the peak from our starting point of 6700 feet, I thought, “Sure… How hard can it be?” I mean, I can see the top right there. I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly take us more than, say, three or four hours to reach the summit.
So, with boundless enthusiasm and energy, my hiking companions and I began scampering up the path. We passed countless farms growing lettuce, beans, and coffee on the gradually steepening slope of the volcano. The sun was bright, but a cool breeze kept us refreshed.
After an hour of hiking, we emerged into a clearing and collapsed on a hillside for a breather, smiling and joking about how tired we already were. That’s when I saw it. The volcano. Reaching to the sky ahead of me. It hadn’t moved an inch.
Sure, the peak was right there, but right there turned out to be a lot farther than it appeared.
All told, it took us 7 hours to reach the top. Getting to the 12,400 foot summit required more than a vertical mile of climbing.
Oh, and did I mention that every foot of altitude we gained made it harder and harder to breathe? Above 10,000 feet (the altitude in which WWII pilots started using oxygen), I could barely ever catch my breath. As we trudged up switchback after switchback, my heart beat a mile a minute. Our breaks became longer. The complaints of the high schoolers on our team became a constant din in background.
The top third of the volcano was draped in a thick fog. As we walked past conifer trees and tall, wind-blown grasses, we could barely see 20 feet ahead of us. But we kept at it. Little by little we made progress. At one point, we were trudging mindlessly up yet another switchback when the scenery changed. The ground flattened out and we found ourselves looking down into the volcano’s crater.
Volcán de Agua once had a lake on top (thus the name “Volcano of Water”). In 1541, an earthquake broke open the side of the crater, unleashing a torrent of water, mud, and debris onto the then colonial capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja, below. I was standing right where the lake had spilled out almost 500 years before.
It took me a second to realize what this meant. Was this it? Were we done with the climb?!?
Turns out, no. We weren’t. There was still 15 minutes of climbing left to get to the actual summit. But you know what? I didn’t care. We had reached the top!
The heavy fog surrounded us as we marched up the forested crater walls. When we got to the very top, however, the constantly blowing wind cleared the air. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The view was clear for miles. Stretching below us in every direction was a stunning panorama I will never forget.
1543 – Our view: you can see Volcán de Fuego erupting on the left!
It was like being in a plane. Massive cumulus formations roiled and re-shaped themselves in front of me while Volcán de Fuego and Volcán Acatenango peeked their heads through the clouds in the distance. As I looked, Volcán de Fuego shot a geyser of thick black ash into the sky. I was speechless.
A veritable forest of television, radio, and cell phone towers covers the top of Volcán de Agua, but after walking around for a bit, I found a hillside with an unobstructed view of the breath-taking sunset. I sat there for two hours, in awe of the beauty in front of me.
When the show was over, I headed back to the worker’s shack where we’d be staying for the night (This is the benefit of traveling with Guatemalans. They befriended a worker on the way up and he let us sleep in his building instead of in a tent outside in the freezing cold).
We built a fire outside and began cooking dinner – refried beans, some questionable grilled meat, and tortillas toasted on the coals. After we ate, we spent some time in prayer and worship around the fire. Every now and then, Volcán de Fuego shot bursts of bright-hot lava into the sky. Unbelievable!
Exhausted from our day’s adventures, we piled up sleeping bags and blankets, and slept shoulder to shoulder like sardines in the tiny worker’s shack.
The next morning, we bundled up to watch the sunrise (which was amazing), packed up our gear, and headed down the mountain. One of our team had some pain in his knee, so it took us about four hours to reach the bottom. When we finally arrived in Santa Maria de Jesús, we were sweaty, covered in dust, and completely spent.
Driving back to Santo Tomás, I had a huge smile on my face. Was the trek difficult? Yes. Was it uncomfortable? Totally. Would the sausages we had for breakfast that had been in Rudi’s bag uncooked for 24 hours cause me to get sick? Probably. But would I do it again in a heartbeat?
You’d better believe it!