High on the Outdoors
Joined: 15 Jul 2010
Posts: 2050 | TRs | Pics
Location: Grand Junction
See part 1 here if you haven't yet!
After a very nice New Years break at our quaint AirBB in San Pedro, we made plans with my friends Kelly and Lorin who were driving down the Pan American Highway. We made a short half day hike up the Indian Nose at the far west end of Lake Atitlan on New Years day, then the following day we took the boat across to Panajachel where they were stationed and we all drove out together to the small village of Aldea La Soledad through the towns of Patzicia, and Parramos (where we stopped for a fried chicken lunch break). At about 1pm we arrived at the 2450 meter elevation trailhead and negociated a price of 50 Quetzales to park their van for one night at a nearby parking lot. We were soon packed up and starting up the steep trail for Acatenango Volcano. We quickly passed a small house a few hundred feet up the trail which sold hot sweet treats, drinks and sandwiches but we were in the zone and didn't stop. 15 minutes or so past this a few guys tried to ask us to each pay a fee to hike the trail but between the 4 of us we got them to give up and we continued up without really acknowledging them. Shortly after that we found where those same guys hang out and collect money from everyone. They must only wait until 1pm or so then hike down for the day. Lucky for us they weren't at their post when we passed them which made it easier for them to give up trying to charge us! It was a smooth and fairly quick hike up to the broad saddle between the main summit and the lower north summit of the mountain. This saddle is right above treeline and at 3770 meters. It was shortly before 5:00pm when we arrived and we knew it got dark early so we located two excellent flat camp spots in an old crater (a hole essentially) which provided shelter from the wind. As the clouds whipped by in the evening light, it was getting chilly so we quickly put the tents up.
Bri and I made the short hike to the top of the north peak to keep the legs going a bit longer and to watch the sunset. It was a spectacular evening. By 6:30pm it was dark and we were in the tent with alarms set for 3am. We wanted to finish the hike up to the top of Acatenango with a couple hours left of darkness to see the erupting lava glowing in the dark coming out of Fuego Volcano (the next mountain just a few miles to the south). Fuego erupted very violently in 2018 in a large eruption that is well documented on video. Some small villages to the south of the mountain were destroyed, but the mountain has remained active ever since, billowing up small plumes and spurts of lava every 30 minutes or so. We would then watch the sunrise before we started hiking down. At 3:30am we managed to get out of the tent and start hiking up the path the final 800 feet to the summit. I had recommended we all bring our sleeping bags so we can sit more comfortably at the top since it was certainly going to be breezy and about 40 degrees out. We got to the top and right as we arrived, a huge spurt of red glowing lava shot up from Fuego which immediately got our attention and our minds away from the cold. We nestled down next to a rock to break the winds coming from the east and huddled up in our sleeping bags and got the cameras ready. About 25 minutes after the first billow of lava another one came out. This was such a sight to see, and was something that has been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember. Seeing an active volcano just always was so fascinating to me.
We got to experience total darkness at the top for about 2 hours, where we got to see 4-5 plumes of lava, some of which we managed to get decent photos of. The lights from all the surrounding villages far below us also added to the ambiance of the experience. We also amazingly also had the summit to ourselves most of the time, but as twilight began to start, more people seemed to just appear out of nowhere. We did not really notice truly how many people arrived until we decided to try and warm up a bit about 15 minutes before sunrise and emerged from our sheltered spot and looked behind us at which point I realized there had been well over 100 people arrive at the summit to watch the sunrise. Most of these people were in guided groups, which we were again thankful that we came up independentely. There are few things worse than guided group excursions!
Almost immediately after the sun rose we ran over to the highest point around the summit crater of Acatenango (which was on the north end) and began quickly running down the scree slopes back to the tents. I noticed people were descending in all different directions which indicated there were many trails and many different camping areas people use. We made quick work packing up the tent and made a very leisurly walk down back to Kelly and Lorins van. Bri and I decided it would be easiest if they took us to Antigua where we could hop on a chicken bus more easily since they were continuing eastward. We had to get back to San Pedro. Luckily there was a large bus station in Antigua and we got on the next bus to Chimaltenango, at which point we got on another bus than sped westward on the PanAmerican highway to Los Encuentros. Next, the bus conductors (the kids whocollect the money) were very helpful and shuffled us onto a bus that was heading south to Soloa (the town right above Panajachel). From there a nice local offered us a free ride down the steep road to the boat dock and we were quickly on the next boat across the lake to San Pedro. We made it back to our AirBB well before dark and had time to share our experience with our host who was incredibly impressed we managed to hike to the top of Acatenango without paying a dime in fees. We enjoyed a nice home cooked dinner as I was preparing to leave the following day for my work obligations in Huehuetenango. The photos below are from our experience on Acatenango, one that I surely will never forget. The first photo shows the route we took up the mountain. There are many trails but this one offered us the most efficient route to the saddle to camp.
The full album of photos can be seen here.
My pre-arranged ride picked me up directly from our AirBB in San Pedro the following afternoon to take me to Huehuetenango and I said my goodbyes to Bri, who would hang around another couple days before she would get a ride back to the Guatemala city airport and fly back home to Bozeman. We would soon meet again though in only a week and a half time in Chile however!
After working at a now inactive mine for 6 days about a 90 minute drive northwest of the city of Huehuetenango, I was back in Huehuetenango and had a couple more days before my flight to Santiago. I really wanted to hike Tajumulco volcano, since it was close to where I was on the western end of Guatemala, and it is also the highest peak in all of central America. I managed to find the correct chicken bus at the main bus depot in Huehuetenango with the help of some locals roaming around. I kept asking which bus would get me to Tajumulco, but I realized that asking for the direct bus to San Marcos was easier. The correct bus takes the route through Sipacapa and Tejutla before going through the small village of San Sebastian then turning southeast to San Marcos. I got off in San Sebastian though and managed to find a place to grab some food at a gas station. I had done quite a bit of reading about this area of Guatemala being unsafe as it is right in the crossroads of major growing fields for two large mexican cartels. I saw a heavy police presance but they seemed to be doing a decent job of keeping the peace. Just 6 month prior to my visit the area was a warzone.
I hopped on the next chicken bus I saw heading west on highway 12N towards Tacana near the Mexican border. O only rode for a few minutes though and got off at the Hotel Villa Real a few hundred yards from the top of the mountain pass. The village of Tajumulco was just a few minute more drive from the pass west down the other side but I did not need to go there. A knocked on the door of the Hotel Villa Real which was a somewhat rundown place with way more rooms than ever would be utilized, but no one answered. Google reviews of this exact area spoke of a nice resturant called Resturante Puerta al Volcan that was supposedly directly across the street. After walking around a few minutes I found it up a small road and above the highway tucked away. No one was there, but the ladies inside were excited and served me up an awesome steak meal. The old man who owns the hotel was walking down the path as I walked up and greeted me. He said he will be waiting at the door after I finish eating.
I walked back to the hotel across the street, and he charged me just 70 Quetzales (about $10) for a night stay. Granted the hot water did not work, it smelled like mold and most of the lights didn't work, I could see this was once a nice place. The tile work was very well done and the exterior walls nicely finished. There was no heat though so he gave me a stack of blankets. He did not understand or speak one bit of english, and seemed to enjoy just rambling on to me in some form of spanish I couldn't understand. Either way, it was a bed and a roof over my head for the night, which it rained quite a bit. I set my alarm for 5am to get up and start hiking up the trail.
5am came, and it was intensely foggy. I could barely see across the street so I decided to give it another hour. 6am and some light was starting to illuminate the clouds but it was still foggy. By 7:30am it was go or go home. I figured after thinking to myself for 20 minutes I may never get a chance to be in this place ever again so I decided to start walking up the trail (which began directly across the street from the hotel). I hoped I would hike above the clouds and they were just hovering down in the lower altitudes. The trailhead at the mountain pass was at an elevation of 3020 meters. The initial part of the walk followed a steep 4WD road which continued well beyond what I had expected. I was not feeling super speedy this morning, and the fog gave me a bone chill especially on my exposed hands since I didn't have gloves. I slowly made my way up the switchbacking road in thick fog with water dripping from all the trees. It had also rained the previous night so the ground was muddy and slick. I just kept hoping I'd break through the clouds at some point.
Shockingly, the 4WD track continued all the way to 3550 meters in elevation! With a truck this makes the hike to the 4220 meter summit laughably short for being the highest peak in all of Central America. At the end of the road there was a small parking area, and a flat meadow with a nice trail continuing through the meadow. As I walked through this meadow, I could see the clouds thinning above me, and just as quickly as they thinned, I was above them! I was elated and a burst of energy allowed me to hike substantially faster. I caught up to a local who had passed me on the road below while I was taking a break, and passed him. The trail reached a ridge crest (the east ridge of the mountain) at 3740 meters and continued up the scenic ridge as the trees began to thin out. At the surprisingly high elevation of 4000 meters I finally made it above treeline and the final 200 meters were a steeper class 2+ scramble on stable rocks. The upper park of the mountain was littered with little Virgin Mary statues, typical of Latin American culture. I made it to the summit after passing a couple large groups of high school aged kids (good for them!) and enjoyed the views in all directions as the clouds gently whiffed in the light breeze. I was not able to see any of the other volcanoes off to the east due to lower cloud layers, but nonetheless, I had a clear view. The summit was a very large area and the crater was filled with words people had spelled out with rocks in spanish. This is apparently a popular place for locals even more so than foreigners.
After a 30 minute summit stay, I made quick work of the hike down. I ended up descending down the whole east ridge instead of taking the trail back to the pass so I could directly hike to San Sebastian to directly catch the bus back to Huehuetenango without having to take another short bus ride. There is a good road that ascents high up onto the SE slope of the mountain reaching an elevation of 3540 meters before descending all the way down to 2100 meters elevation way down the SE flank of Tajumulco and just dead ends there! Crazy I thought, but this road connects San Sebastian with remote farms down there. I continued down along the ridgecrest, following a small trail until I ended up traversing to the right and bushwhacking down a little bit to meet the road close to where it crosses the east ridge of the mountain near a small gap at roughly 3500 meters. I then walked the road all the way back to the town of San Sebastian and waited for the next chicken bus back to Huehuetenango. I did not have to wait long thankfully, as the next one came at noon only 20 minutes after I got the the crucero. By 3:30pm I was back at my hotel and had another nice dinner at the resturant. As a bonus treat, my client provided a private flight back to Guatemala City from the tiny Huehuetenango airport which offered me a unique experience to see all the Guatemalan volcanoes and the landscape from the air! This small 8 seater plane was perfect for getting some low altitude aerial vantages of a huge part of the country, and of the mountains I hiked during the trip.
The photos below are of my hike up Tajumulco.
Map of our route with the red arrows
Boating across Lake Atitlan to Panajachel
Small villages on Lake Atitlan
Atitlan Volcano from the highway
Lake Atitlan below from highway
Starting up the trail to Acatenango
Informative signs about the flora
A plume of ash coming from Fuego
Informative sign about the geology (it was not 100% correct lol)
Taking a break in the afternoon light
Hiking towards the ash plume
Nearing the broad saddle at treeline
Acatenango summit 800 feet above the saddle
Volcan del Agua off to the east
Acatenango summit from the north peak
Clouds off to the west and north
Views from the north peak
Acatenango from the slopes of the north peak
Volcan del Agua
At the saddle
Sunset glow in the clouds
The best photo I got of the glowing lava at night around 5am
Twilight begins to the east
Fuego burping just to the south
Volcan del Agua with twilight glow
Bri and I atop Acatenango
Other people coming out of the woodworks at the top
Acatenango casts a shadow at sunrise
Sunrise from the true summit of Acatenango at the north side of the crater
Sunrise as we begin walking down
We hiked that one a few days prior!
Back at the saddle
Tajumulco (my next objective) way off in the distance
Indian Head (which we also hiked) from the boat back to San Pedro
The following photos are one I took from the sweet flight from Huehuetenango to Guatemala City. The last few were sunset photos taken from the commercial jet I was on when I flew out of the country later that evening. Overall it was a very cool trip to Guatemala, which is a place I may not have ever travelled to if it weren't for the work project that sent me there (and covered the flights!)
Entering the flat meadow just before breaking above the clouds
Hiking on the east ridge
First look towards the summit
Nearing the summit
Final slopes to the summit to the left
A look into the crater
A tiny bit of frost on north facing slopes just below summit
Hiking back down the east ridge
Super cool trees
The road I was aiming for
Walking down the road
Back below the clouds walking past quiet farms
Near San Sebastian
Acatenango and Volcan del Agua
Closing in on Guatemala City