On September 11, 1541 a lahar (a mudflow of debris and water) from the Volcán de Agua destroyed Guatemala’s second colonial capital city, San Miguel Escobar. The capital was moved five miles away to present-day Antigua. Though no longer the capital city, Antigua — as well as San Miguel Escobar — remains in the shadows of Volcán de Agua, as well as its neighbors Fuego and Acatenango. Agua is not active, though the threat of lahars remains; Acatenango hasn’t erupted since 1975; but Fuego is quite active, spewing ash and debris on a regular basis. It last erupted in 2012, forcing the evacuation of 33,000 people from 17 nearby villages.
If you want to tackle Acatenango, or any other outdoor adventure in the region, check out Old Town Outfitters, who helped organize our trip. adventureguatemala.com
Acatenango is Guatemala’s third highest peak, towering 13,041 feet above the nearby Pacific Ocean and about 8,000 feet above the city of Antigua at the mountain’s base. At 13,000 feet, oxygen levels are about half of those at sea level. And climbing Acatenango is no small feat. The two day trek passes through four microclimates, and the first two hours are steep and essentially straight up, with no switch backs. Even the most grizzly of outdoorsmen will no doubt be humbled passing by farmers who, under load, walk this lower section daily as a matter of routine to work their fields.
As we neared higher elevations, the forest thinned and a thick fog engulfed the mountain. Towards the end of our seven-hour climb, approaching our camp site and still fogged in, we could hear explosions from Volcán de Fuego, whose peak was a mere 3/4 of a mile away. That evening, before it got dark, the fog cleared and we were presented with a spectacular view of Agua — itself engulfed in lightning-filled clouds — and the valley below. Fuego’s peak was almost close enough to touch, its barren sides still scarred from recent eruptions. Not knowing much about volcanoes, I wondered to myself if this was the safest place to sleep.