A Climb of Great Magmatude

Last week, I spotted some elaborate plumage amongst ancient ruins (no not Elton John and David Furnish), before enduring an inordinate number of hours of local transport to reach a surfing utopia. This week is all about volcanoes, as I set myself the biggest challenge I will face on my entire journey: to get within marshmallow-toasting range of Fuego – one of the most active beasts in the world.

Day 50 – San Salvador, El Salvador

So, volcano week began in earnest, as I commenced preparations for climbing one of the highest in Central America by climbing one of the leisureliest. El Boquerón lies just outside the El Salvadorian capital of San Salvador, meaning that transport links to within a few metres of its summit are well established (unfortunately). This was hardly a test of ‘climbing’ but more of patience, with street sellers clambering over each other to offer you their phone chargers, knock-off CD’s, and/or daughters.

Despite the ease of which you can crest its cone, it doesn’t in any way negate the extraordinary view of its now-dormant crater, which is eye-wateringly cavernous. Until 1917, this gaping bowl was home to small communities of farmers who used to cultivate the land around a lagoon that used to lie at the bottom of the cavity. Then, one grave day, a colossal eruption instantly evaporated the lake, evicted the locals, and eviscerated the nearby city. It must have been some sight.

Almost adjoined to the capital is the city of Santa Tecla, a more ‘tourist-friendly’ locale where you’re far less likely to be shot at, although you’re far more likely to pay to use the bathroom (I’m not sure which is worse). The reason the hostel told me it was more tourist-friendly than San Salvador is that San Salvador could very well be the global capital of ‘not giving a fuck about tourists’ – and I quite like that. A walk through its frenzied market was a highly traumatic back-watching exercise, and I felt thoroughly vindicated in treating myself to a pallet of beers at the local microbrewery. Yes, there is a microbrewery in the heart of San Salvador folks.

Day 51 – San Salvador, El Salvador to Coatepeque Caldera, El Salvador

A relatively short bus right north-west from the city and you reach the jewel of the country: Coatepeque Caldera (trying saying that with a cold). Nicaragua has Ometepe, Honduras has Lake Yojoa, and this is the El Salvadorian answer. I first had to locate my isolated hostel, which had been continually recommended to me since Panama (which feels like several decades ago), and it was quickly evident why.

Built entirely on wooden stilts on the shore of the quite magnificent lake, Captain Morgan ‘hostel’ was anything but. Although, what you gain in location you lose in comfort, as my lodging for the next three days consisted of a tent on the front lawn. Initially, I was positively enthused at the prospect, not having camped since my days in the Cubs (not quite true). However, my enthusiasm literally melted away the following morn…

Day 52 – Coatepeque Caldera, El Salvador

At 6:00 am, as I wiped the first bead of sweat from my brow, I realised that my humble tent had zero protection from the morning rays, and it quickly reached broiling temperatures inside. This actually proved useful, as I needed to hit the road (jokes) early to avoid hiking in the midday sun. My destination: Cerro Verde National Park. The park comprises three moderately-sized volcanoes (whatever one of those is), each with a splendid view of the azure caldera far below. I had little interest in going to the very top of any of these (saving myself for expeditions ahead) but was still required to fork out dollar for a guide to walk me from viewpoint to viewpoint (needless guides are one of my major travel bugbears). It was even more ridiculous given that neither of us spoke more than a few words of each other’s language. It also led to a tricky financial situation.

Due to extremely poor planning, the very last cash I had with me went on that bloody guide, and I soon discovered that the nearest ATM was in Santa Ana: some forty kilometres away. I couldn’t even afford a chicken bus to get down the mountain, and was officially poorer than the homeless man that was sleeping on the pavement next to me – these are the times that humanity always comes to the rescue (I hoped). There was a small café close to the summit, and I endeavoured to tell my story (in textbook Spanish) to the waitress who worked there. Without hesitation, she thrust the bus fares in my hand, explained exactly where the bank was located and sent me on my way. Remarkable. I returned a couple of hours later (cash in hand) to thank her, tip her, and attempt to tell her what a superb example of a human being she was – I think she got the gist. I returned to the hostel and packed my bags once more, for a new nation was on the horizon.

Day 53 – Coatepeque Caldera, El Salvador to Antigua, Guatemala

Despite being only two hundred kilometres away, the journey from the lake to the town of Antigua in Guatemala took me fourteen hours, and six different buses. I could have booked a direct, air-conditioned shuttle, but if there is anything a detest more than unnecessary tour guides its high-priced shuttles. Although the ‘no man’s land’ walk between the two nations was one of the most attractive so far, as the road from El Salvador dropped down into a deep canyon before a hefty suspension bridge connected it to the Guatemalan side. A new nation folks! Oh, the thrill.

After being unceremoniously dropped off somewhere in the capital, Guatemala City, I then had a thirty-minute walk (I also avoid taxis wherever possible) through the ‘most dangerous’ city of the entire trip (coming in at seventeen in the latest homicide charts). Although, I felt far safer on the streets than on my final bus to Antigua. Sat eight abreast with no standing room to spare (or oxygen), the driver drove as if every second was a matter of life or death. It was almost certainly death as we nearly toppled over several times before we bounced into Antigua under the cover of darkness – and breathe.

Day 54 – Antigua, Guatemala to Volcan de Acatenango, Guatemala

So, here we go. The big day. The moment of truth. The primary reason for my coming to Central America: climbing Volcán de Fuego. That’s Volcano of Fire to you or I, and it has that name for a very good reason (which I will get to later). Well, I wasn’t actually climbing Fuego, that would be suicide given that it is very much active, but Acatenango: its taller, but dormant, next-door neighbour. I firstly met back up with my favourite travel companions Tuur and Bri (can’t seem to get rid of them), and we made our way to a small town in the foothills of the volcano, where the guide for our adventure lived with his extremely large and welcoming family.

At the first rest spot (a couple of hundred metres up the rise), we came across a young boy selling beer and thought it would be rude not to buy a few cans from him, just to take the edge off climbing four thousand metres. It also happened to take the edge off breathing too but what can you do. Sweaty step after sweaty step, we crawled our way through the cloud forest until we emerged at a small clearing for lunch: the military standard rice and beans. It took us about six hours to reach base camp, and the closer we got, the louder the murmurs and rumblings became – Fuego was alive!

As we started setting up camp, our raucous neighbour was mainly hidden from us, due to lingering wisps of cloud. But, as the sun started to set, all was gloriously revealed: from foot to cone. That’s when the eruptions began, and they did not cease! As darkness fell, and a campfire was established, every ten minutes was punctuated by a catastrophic boom, followed by unnerving silence, followed by the sound of boulders crashing and rolling down the side of its precipitous slope. The dimmer the light became, the more spectacular the sight, and I can honestly say that I have never been so continuously awe-struck in all my life – well not since Brexit results night anyway. This was like nothing I had seen or experienced before. Only downside, the thunders didn’t stop…

Day 55 – Volcan de Acatenango, Guatemala to Antigua, Guatemala

A holler from our guide at three in the morning was meant to signal that it was time to wake up. But I was already wide awake, and had been most of the night. Regular explosions, uneven ground, and the bitter cold (despite wearing every warm layer I had brought with me) meant it was a rather uncomfortable ‘sleep’. Although I was too excited/delirious to care – it was time to summit the beast.

All the difficulties from the night time ascent of Kinabalu two years ago came flooding back, though this may have been even more difficult. The absolute key to a sunrise summit is not to arrive at your destination too early or you will freeze to death at the top (as happened to me in Malaysia). This time, I kept a keen eye on the clock, making sure the same thing did not happen. Despite my best efforts, it did happen. As the sun appeared a full half an hour later than we had anticipated – and only moments before my limbs started to fall from my torso. But what a view it was.

With Fuego’s constant eruptions in the background, the vista that greeted me was unmatched by anything I have ever witnessed – including my aforementioned favourite: Kinabalu. After the sun had thawed us just enough to function once more, we circumnavigated Acatenango’s ethereal crater before beginning the long slide down – I could have done with my volcano board. Upon our return to Antigua, I did have a look around the city (which was actually one of the prettiest urban locations I had been to so far), but everything seemed oh so insignificant now…

Day 56 – Antigua, Guatemala to Santa Cruz la Laguna, Guatemala

After a full night’s rest, perspective was restored, and I was ready to undertake a road trip with my long-term companion’s to Guatemala’s own jewel: Lake Atitlan. As Bri is from Guatemala she brought the car, and as Tuur is from Belgium he brought the beer (and plenty of it). I was extremely grateful that, for once, I was not stuck on a cramped, clammy, malodourous chicken bus and I was even able to stretch my legs and arms in a regular fashion.

Following our ridiculous purchase of matching Guatemalan hoodies, as I was told all tourists must do, we reached the misty shores of Atitlan and boarded the last boat to our hostel on the other side of the lake. With every muscle still aching from a week of scrambling up volcanoes, it was time to let the hair down and hit the bar, hard…


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