Last week I had what was almost certainly the most intense experience of my life so far, and may well prove to be the most intense experience I ever have… ever.
I spent four days in Flores, mostly sitting in cafes failing to write. I drank coffee by the gallon and ate lots of cake.
One day I went to visit the ancient ruined city of Tikal with an Australian girl called Maddie and a Frenchman named Arthur. They were great companions and we had a grand old time, but I won’t write too much about it here because I’ve already written lots about Monte Alban, Chichen Itza and Palenque, and although each ruin has a unique character, describing yet another might not make for the most thrilling read. We saw monkeys, toucans, and some strange mammals called coatis.
Next stop: Antigua.
Antigua is an antiquated little city full of colourful colonial churches and cobbled streets. Almost all of the city’s buildings are single-storey, and though they appear squat and small, open up into magical courtyards busy with flowers and festoons and fountains. The streets hum with motorcycle traffic and camionetas, retired US school buses repurposed for public use, pimped out with explosive paintwork and gleaming fake chrome. And above it all, beyond the criss-cross of the power lines that zip back and forth across each street, beyond the white church spires and the red clay tiles of the rooftops, sits Volcan de Agua, a dormant volcano, its summit four kilometres above sea level.
Antigua is a beautiful town, but most travellers are there for one reason only: to hike. After checking into my hostel, which was owned by a jovial man with a wide mouth named Caesar, I decided to book a guided trek to see a nearby active volcano, Fuego. Caesar helped me sort it: a two-day excursion, with an overnight stay on an adjacent (dormant) volcano from which you can watch the active Volcan de Fuego burn throughout the night.
The tour included three meals, a rented jacket, hat and gloves, as well as a tent to sleep in at the top of the volcano; they’re permanently erected near the summit, which I was glad about as nobody is tasked with lugging hefty gear up and down every day. With my tour booked, I had dinner and went to bed early, ready for the day ahead.
My hostel included breakfast in the price per night (£9), so in the morning I ate two thick pancakes with jam and drank two coffees. I packed my valuables into a locker, shoved a few essentials into my rucksack, and at 9.30am got a minibus from hostel. It was full of backpackers in hiking gear; six French and four Polish. I got nervous upon noticing that the others all had actual hiking gear; fleeces, windbreakers, mountain boots. I was in jeans and a shirt and trainers, well-prepped as ever.
We drove an hour to the volcanoes, and my ears popped as we wound up from Antigua. We parked in a breezy valley, lots of other people congregating with hiking poles. A little Guatemalan kid sold me a hiking stick (a branch stripped of bark, painted yellow) for 5 quetzales. Two local guides introduced themselves: one was called Juan, the other’s name I didn’t catch. They gave us our safety and preparation talk entirely in Spanish; I got the gist, but giant chunks went over my head. I asked a tall, moustachioed French guy called Pierre to translate; he was a solo traveller too, and we bonded over the fact that we were the only two idiots who wore jeans to hike a mountain.
The mountain we’d be hiking was called Acatenango, a dormant volcano covered in dense jungle, from the summit of which you have a clear view of Fuego, the active volcano. I’d been warned it was a hard climb, but I hadn’t anticipated how hard. We began the hike and the trail went from flat to 45 degrees instantly. No warmup, no stretching, no casual ramble before the real work began: it was simply up, up the leafy slopes of a mountain so huge we couldn’t see the peak for the clouds that strafed it.
The first portion of the hike was up a muddy path through a cornfield, and my calves began to burn after a hundred metres. My backpack was far heavier than I’d have liked; alongside everything I’d packed, our guides gave us each 3 litres of water to carry.
For five hours we strained and sweated our way up the volcano, weaving through jungle in breathless, concentrated quiet. Finally, we reached our camp. It was a couple of huts made of corrugated iron, tarpaulin and rope, alongside a sheltered fire area. Although Acatenango’s summit remained hundreds of metres above, we gazed out over a blanket of clouds far below, twisting over the earth, revealing brief glimpses of green. Two sights dominated the view: Volcan de Agua, looming verdant over distant Antigua, its great shadow blocking the sun over the town, and Volcan de Fuego.
Fuego is not verdant. It is black; a furious pyramid, piercing the clouds to spit smoke into the freezing clear sky above. As I watched from the camp, I saw it erupt for the first time: a trickle of smoke blossomed into a dense brown cloud taken away by the breeze, upon which came a great delayed boom and a rain of jet-coloured boulders, hurled from within to tumble away down the mountainside. The mouth of a dragon’s lair.
We’d not rested for thirty minutes before the guides asked us whether we’d like to do the extra, optional portion of the hike: onto Fuego itself, to stand on the slopes of the volcano.
It’s funny – often on my travels this year I’ve talked to people about the nature of adventure. “There’s no such thing as a safe adventure,” I’ve said on multiple occasions, feeling smug at coining my own devil-may-care catchphrase. But when it comes down to it – when you’re standing there, when somebody’s asking if you want to go further – you really do feel the fear. I watched those black rocks soar from the mouth of Fuego and sail down into the clouds, and I felt a chill of fear run through me. I told the guides I’d do the hike.
The four Polish guys stayed; I went with the French and one guide, Juan. The sun was setting, and Juan hurried us back down Acatenango – the opposite face this time – towards Fuego. We stumbled our way through along a winding forest path, slipping and falling regularly in our haste to beat the sun, and we scrambled over sections of path that had slid away with the many earthquakes that shake the area.
Upon crossing the land-bridge between the two volcanoes, it was time to climb once again. The sun was slipping away, turning the sky golden, and as we climbed the air grew chilly. I saw from the lights across the valley that we’d already climbed higher than our camp on Acatenango. My calves were screaming – I swore I could feel them tearing, my feet at a constant 45 degree angle – and we took frequent, short breaks to catch our breath as the peak above us seemed to recede with every step.
An agonising half hour later we emerged beyond the treeline. All vegetation stopped, everything was dead and black. Another scramble of four hundred metres, tripping over naked rocks in the failing light, and we emerged at the false peak. Fuego isn’t a conical volcano like Agua; instead it has a pre-summit – a smaller mount, connected to the erupting summit by a long, narrow ridge. Cresting this flat mount, I looked down upon a sight that might have been heaven or hell or the end of the world: tumultuous clouds haloed in deep browns, reds and purples with the last light of the sun, clambering over one another in one great rolling bulk above the twinkling lights of towns and cities and villages. In the gaps between clouds I saw glimpses of other volcanoes, hundreds of miles away, black in the twilight.
And then, Fuego itself: a titanic silhouette, leaning over us and blocking the stars. There was a soft belch of flame as I stared, and for the first time the darkness revealed the glow of lava arcing from the top; the rocks that were black in the day glowed with heat in the night, leaving trails in the sky. I laughed to see it, dumbstruck.
Though I’d believed we’d be staying on the mount, our guide and my group pressed on across the ridge. I hadn’t the time to steel myself, and the walk shook the life out of me. With the sun all but gone it was hard to make out the sides of the path: the ridge was barley five metres across, and on either side the ground dropped away at the kind of incline that would accelerate you as you tumbled, down and down for a thousand metres.
I crossed the ridge slowly, almost mad with fear. The absence of trees meant the wind was free to whip at my face and catch in my jacket, so cold I felt my lips lose their function, so loud I could hear nothing else. I could do nothing but gasp: standing at the top of the world, staring out at Guatamala City a hundred miles away, at Antigua, at Acetenango and Agua, at the looming shadows of volcanoes beyond like city-stomping leviathans, at the massed black clouds, at the whole planet far below, safe, sleeping soundly. Nothing was flat, nothing was sturdy or warm or safe or gentle – I felt insane with envy and longing looking down at the warm soft lights of Antigua, thinking of my hostel, of pillows and restaurants and cosy pool tables in bars. What right had I to be here? Who the hell did I think I was?
The mountain answered with a belch of molten rock, its voice booming and thick:
“DID YOU NOT ASK FOR AN ADVENTURE?”
The vertigo shook me to my core. Nothing flat, nothing safe, every surface craggy and slanted, twisted, nothing but a yawning darkness below on all sides forever. I was above the trees, above the birds, above the atmosphere – above everyone I know and love. Too high. Too exposed. Too high. It was all I could do to not to scream and beg and drop to the floor, to hug the rock and crawl on my belly away back to trees and grass and beautiful safe civilisation. There are some things humans were never meant to see.
I caught myself moments before the euphoria of it all stole my wits away. With deep breaths, I reached the far side of the ridge and sat with my group. Juan was indifferent, standing just off the ridge, balanced on the endless slope itself, hands in his pockets. If Juan was fine, I could be fine. Sitting down felt safer; the howling winds faded. I told myself I was safe. And then, as I watched the silent summit of Fuego, it exploded.
It started as a smaller eruption, like the ones we’d been witnessing for hours: little meteors and spitting sparks. But it soon became clear it hadn’t even begun. The original belch of flame was engulfed, like a phoenix swallowed by a dragon, by a ferocious blast that swept a hundred feet into the sky in one great horrifying jet of lava – until this blast itself was devoured by a molten torrent of rock that punched into the sky with a chest-reverberating crunch, ripping open the world like a thunderclap. I was breathless with fear, laughing insanely, swearing – captivated and horrified. I felt the mountain knew we were there; that it was warning us our presence was tolerated, but might be revoked at a moment’s notice. Never in my life have I felt such an overwhelming desire to live, and never has the question felt so utterly, laughably out of my hands.
When the monstrous eruption had finished – lava cooling on the mountainside, sulfur drifting over us on the breeze – we sat for thirty minutes more, watching the regular, smaller jets of flame. When we turned to head back along the ridge and down the mountainside towards safety, in my delirium of relief and exhaustion I thought of a Bible verse I heard somewhere a long time ago. In it, the narrator describes gazing upon the destruction and devastation wrought by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
I heard the voice of the beast say, “Come and see!” And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
I’ve thought about that passage for years. I could almost hear it on those slopes, staring up at the fiery bowl at the summit of Fuego, picturing the inhospitable primal hell inside; a deep, gurgling challenge: “COME AND SEE.”
It’s from the Book of Revelation, that quote. The narrator’s true identity is debated, but in the text, he gives his name as John.
Or, if you’re Spanish, I suppose you’d call him Juan.