BY PAUL GIFFORD
A year ago, I left my job to travel with some friends through Central and Latin America; I often heard tales about the Acatenango hike and the exhilarating encounter with Volcan de Fuego. After traveling north through Nicaragua and Honduras, we arrived in Antigua. The twin volcanos, Acatenango and Fuego, sit about 16 kilometres outside of the city. Acatenango has the highest peak (3976 meters) and has been dormant since its last eruption in 1972. It’s next door neighbor, Fuego, is an active stratovolcano that has been erupting since the Spanish conquest. The volcano pair is unique because it allows for the opportunity to summit Acatenango and watch Fuego erupt from a safe distance at an equal height. Fuego is famous for being continuously active at a low level. Small gas and ash eruptions occur every 20 to 30 minutes. Larger eruptions are rare.
Even though we were only hiking approximately 10 km, there was a large elevation increase. The hike took the group about six hours to complete, with a couple of breaks to rest. During the hike we hit every type of ecosystem: first farmland, then cloud forest, then high alpine forest, and finally through the volcanic zone to the summit. Shortly before we arrived at the campsite, Fuego’s peak began to shoot out smoke and rock. The explosions sounded like a loud artillery barrage as molten fragments sprayed into the sky. The camps located near the top of Acatenango had a clear view of the active Fuego from just a 2.6 km distance. We sat at the campsite and relaxed from the strain of the climb and watched Fuego spitting out materials from inner earth every 30 minutes. Our guide, Elmer, mentioned that we could hike to the mirador (lookout) and stand next to the crater. He pointed to our destination in the distance, a small hill with a narrow path next to the crater. I had heard that we could hike up to Fuego but I was shocked by how close our viewpoint would be to the crater. After weighing the risks we decided to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
At sunset, the materials ejected from Fuego’s crater showed their incandescent characteristics for the first time. Glowing pieces of lava rolled down Fuego’s slopes, creating smoke that climbed back up towards the crater. At 8pm, it was completely dark and our group of five began to descend Acatanango and hike through the valley separating the two titans. The hike to Fuego’s mirador was three hours down Acatanango’s peak, through the dividing valley, then back up Fuego’s slopes.
As we reached the top of the mirador, Fuego’s massive stature was unveiled and the reality of our proximity to an active volcano began to sink in. Equally stunning was an approaching cloud with an occasional burst of lighting in the distance. The wind was heavy and I began to shake my head in disbelief at the imminent encounter. Once we made it to the end of the path, the group sat on the gravel and realized that a nearby bank of clouds was closing in. Lightning began to strike around the crater as though a battle of the elements had begun. Suddenly the red glow began to swell and magnify as the lightning raged around the crater. I sank to the ground as anticipation weighed me down. BOOM! The crater blew molten rock and lava in a vibrant clash with the lightning in the background. Hell unleashed as an intense wave of heat hit my face while the sound of the explosion pounded into my chest. The molten rock tumbled down the side of the volcano and I sank into the gravel as we watched the theatrical play of lightning and fire. I had no words, and simply watched and stared in silence. The visual spectacle was accompanied by the rumbling and hissing of the eruption with vicious flames shooting out at an incredible speed. The hissing was replaced by deep, loud and clear bubbling sounds while the whole peak around the crater appeared to be on fire and melting away. I shook my head…I could not comprehend this experience and was grateful for the luck to be there on that particular night. We stayed for the performance until our feet and hands went numb. We walked back down the path with one last explosion as the volcano bid us farewell. The unique experience of that night is, without a doubt, the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed. Some experiences are so humbling they forever change our perspective towards our world and our place in it.
On June 3rd, 2018, exactly 23 days later, Fuego suddenly produced its most powerful eruption since 1974. I contemplated how I would write about my own awe-inspiring experience when so many people had lost their lives, homes and loved ones. The fatal eruption buried towns and killed many of the unprepared residents. Fuego had turned deadly, and the results were truly tragic. Donations of time and money are still needed to help the local communities who lost everything in the eruption. If you would like to help, GoFundMe has compiled a list of verified campaigns to help those affected by the Fuego volcano eruption.
Paul Gifford was raised in Los Angeles and has been based in San Francisco since 2014. He works as a multimedia designer and creative strategist exploring the intersection of art, design, and technology. He is passionate about travel and the interrelations between cultures and their environments.
Paul Gifford 成長於洛杉磯，自2014年起在三藩市生活。作為一名多媒體設計師與創意策略師，他探索藝術、設計與科技之間的交叉點。Paul 對旅行還有文化及其環境之間的相互關系充滿激情。