Camping On Erupting Volcano Santiaguito In Guatemala

Volcano Santa Maria Guatemala

Volcano Santa Maria

Xela, Guatemala

Guatemala’s active volcano Santiaguito erupts with an explosion of hot ash & rocks every few hours. We decided to go camping on it.

First, let me tell you a little bit about the volcano. Santiaguito Crater is a lava dome that is part of the much larger Santa Maria Volcano.

The 12,375 ft. Santa Maria violently exploded in 1902, blowing off the whole Southern side, resulting in one of the biggest eruptions of the 20th century.

Ash from the eruption was detected 2500 miles away in San Francisco, CA.

In my photo of Santa Maria above, you can see the results from the 1902 explosion. Half the mountain is gone.

The Santiaguito lava dome was created in the aftermath. Since then it’s been erupting every few hours for the past 80 years.

Santiaguito Lava Dome Guatemala

No Longer on Earth: Santiaguito Lava Dome

Crazy People Wanted

We were about to climb a grueling 8 hours with 40 lb packs and set up camp on an inactive volcanic vent, right next to the active one. This was not a normal activity.

Most visitors to the area just hike up neighboring Santa Maria and gaze down from a safe distance at Santiaguito exploding from over a mile away. Only CRAZY people would attempt to camp on the erupting volcano itself..

But with a little Couchsurfing magic, I managed to round up 6 more crazy people to join me. There was one trekking company that was willing to bring people along on this adventure.

Still it took them a few hours to track down one of the only people who knew the route, as it was an especially tough hike.

His name: Crazy Charlie. Perfect!

Volcanic Steam Vents Guatemala

Steam Vents & Exotic Plants

Not A Walk In The Park

To achieve our mission, we’d have to hike, scramble, and outright scale (sometimes vertical!) sections for the majority of the trip.

All this with full packs loaded with 6 liters of water each, and everything else we’d need for 2 days on a barren volcano.

After prepping for the journey, the team set out and up Volcano Santa Maria for the first 2 hours of the trek. About halfway up Santa Maria, we stopped for a break at the Santiaguito Mirador, overlooking the erupting lava dome below.

Now it was time to cut through thick jungle overgrowth and slide down a steep, ash-covered lava chute to “The Beach” — a giant landslide-boulder field at the base of Santa Maria and Santiaguito.

About 5 hours into the trip, we were all tired as hell. Stashing some extra water to lighten our loads, along with the machete we no longer needed, we began climbing up the lava dome itself.

Santiaguito Lava Dome Guatemala

Can You Spot Crazy Charlie?

Welcome To The Moon!

It feels as though we’ve left planet Earth, and are now hiking on the lunar surface. Everything is covered in a thick layer of ash, making the whole landscape colorless. Steam is rising up through vents in the ground. Clouds and fog are moving in all around us, sometimes making it impossible to see more than 10 feet ahead.

But the dome is not completely lifeless, there are strange plants with giant leaves and green-yellow moss mysteriously growing out of the ash.

Finally we hit our last obstacle before reaching the top: Only a 30 foot vertical rock climb.

With our heavy packs, and no ropes.

Oh, and that rock you think you’re grabbing for? It’s really just a mound of solid ash that falls apart when you put any weight on it. Fun!

But with laser-guided focus, careful testing of hand-holds, and strong communication, all of us safely make it to the summit. Over the past 8 hours our group of total strangers has turned into a remarkable team — everyone watching each other’s back.

Was It Worth The Trip?

Well, after the mentally & physically exhausting day of difficult & technical climbing, we were treated to one hell of an incredible view:

Volcano Santiaguito Eruption Guatemala

Volcano Santiaguito Erupting Next To Us!

Hell Yes It Was Worth It!!!

Volcano Santiaguito starts screaming like a jet engine as it unleashes it’s power. Ash gets thrown 200 meters into the air, and avalanches of rocks go tumbling over one side into the abyss below.

It was insane! The whole process lasts maybe 5-10 minutes.

After processing Mother Nature’s show of power, we built a fire on our lunar landscape with bits and pieces of wood that were carried up strapped to our backpacks. It was starting to get dark, and there was a long, cold night ahead.

When the sunlight disappeared we could hear bats squeaking around in the air above us.

As the group sat around the fire drinking whisky to soothe our aching muscles, the Earth erupted again. It was too dark to see this time — but now there was a new surprise…

Camping on Volcano Santiaguito Guatemala

Camping on the Volcano

More Volcano Action

About 15 minutes after the eruption, volcanic ash began snowing down all around us. It was an ash blizzard! The wind had changed directions and we were covered in a fine layer of gray ash. It came down like snowflakes, reflecting off our flashlight beams.

Our exhaustion and the whisky soon started to kick in though, and all 7 of us crammed into a 5 person tent. We had been dreading it, and for good reason. There was no sleep to be had all night.

It was cold, wet, cramped, and our next-door neighbor loudly erupted 2 or 3 more times over the course of the evening.

It’s hard to sleep next to a jet engine.

Climbing Santiaguito Crater Guatemala

Hiking on the Active Crater

Should We Really Be Doing This?

But the adventure wasn’t over! The next morning at 5am we went over the edge of our campsite and down to meet our neighbor in person.

Scrambling downward over steep rocks, calling out to each other when loose boulders went rolling by, we made it to a little valley beside the active vent.

From there it was UP the active Santiaguito crater itself! It could erupt at anytime, with us on it. Although we weren’t actually on the side that often got hit with rockslides, our nerves were still on edge. Volcanoes are a bit unpredictable, after all.

On the top, at the very lip of the active crater, massive sulfur fumes enveloped us. We wrapped bandanas or t-shirts around our faces to help with the overpowering smell.

Sunrise on Santiaguito Guatemala

Sunrise on Santiaguito

Prepare For The Worst

Unfortunately early morning fog and clouds surrounded us, so we only got fleeting glimpses into the crater itself.

Crazy Charlie told us that if the volcano erupted while we were on it, we should lay flat on the far side of the crater’s edge, to avoid any projectile rocks from the interior (they would just fly over us). Luckily we didn’t have to experience this emergency first hand…

Eventually it was time to pack everything up and start the grueling 8 hour journey back to civilization. And get all the volcanic ash out of our clothes. ★

Watch Video: Volcano Santiaguito Trek in Guatemala

(Click to watch Expedition to the Moon on Vimeo)

More Information

Location: Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala [Map]
Company: Altiplanos
Cost: $60 US per person (group of 7)
Useful Notes: Pack plenty of snacks, and a good first aid kit should you need it (I did). This trip will be twice as hard as you think it’s going to be. Basic equipment is provided, but bring your own if you have it.

Have you ever found yourself in over your head on a hike? Share with us in the comments below!

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Comments & Questions

64 Comments

  1. Jazza Lesh Nomadasaurus
    July 20, 2014

    Wow, what an unreal experience. Great photos too Matthew. We will have to put this on our list when we go back one day. Also seeing lava is on our list too.

    Reply
  2. Fabio Nodari
    July 11, 2014

    It must be an incredible place!!!

    Reply
  3. Shane Hayes - Physio
    June 30, 2014

    I’ve traveled the world for 5 years as my job, and managed to see amazing places, and a few adventures such as himilayas and Mt Kili, but this looks amazing in comparisons. Great photo too. Jealous.

    Reply
  4. Matthew Karsten
    June 24, 2014

    It was a very special place. Some of the coolest landscape I’ve ever seen.

    Reply
  5. Michael
    May 27, 2014

    Congrats. That looks awesome. I have so wanted to climb an active volcano and had been looking at Ecuador, but this looks even better than what’s down there.

    Reply
  6. Ross
    May 26, 2014

    That sounds unbelievable. Great adventure and sounds incredibly dangerous. I went to Irte Ale in Ethiopia and although not erupting like yours we were 1mtr from a 60mtr diameter crater of boiling lava.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      May 26, 2014

      This volcano was very active, but no lava to see (at least when I went). I’ve still never seen lava in real life. So that’s next on the list!

      Reply
  7. Jennifer Cena
    April 17, 2014

    You got together 6 of the lazy people to camp on an erupting volcano..you refused to take just a safe hike along one of the most treacherous terrains of the world!!!! speaks volumes of your spirit of adventure. :)

    Reply
  8. Troy Whitmarsh
    April 15, 2014

    Wow that really sounds incredible. I climbed a volcano in Guatemala last year and was lucky enough the next volcano erupt miles away, I can only imagine how much more exciting it would be to be on the actual volcano! Awesome :)

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      April 16, 2014

      It was pretty intense to have it erupt right in front of you like that.

      Reply
  9. Rashad Pharaon
    April 1, 2014

    So f-ing exciting, I love following your adventures! Thanks for risking your life for my entertainment. (:

    Reply
  10. Stephen Schreck
    March 27, 2014

    I agree! Hell yes that was worth it! Awesome adventure Matt!

    Reply
  11. Morad Echarkaoui
    February 6, 2014

    It’s a great adventure ! I’ve climbed several volcanoes, including Mt Semeru in Indonesia. They are very special places where one witnesses the power of Nature. I’m going to Guatemala in two weeks, I’m definitely putting Santiaguito on my list of places to go.

    If you ever go to Indonesia, climb Mt Semeru, it erupts several times per of hour !

    Reply
    • Sharif Johnson
      February 19, 2014

      Hey can I ask, how were you able you able to climb the volcano? Did you go as part of a tour or just a small group on your own? I’m travelling to Indonesia and the smaller islands next year alone, and as a geology student, I’m very eager to trek and explore volcanoes etc! Thanks :)

      Reply
      • Morad Echarkaoui
        February 20, 2014

        I went on my own. I met some Indonesian hikers on the way and we climbed together.
        To go on your own, you need be an experienced hiker or hire a guide.

        From the village of Ceremo Lawang (great view on the Tengger Crater and the volcanoes), you have to cross the tengger crater to get to the village of Ranu Pani (4/5 hours). You sleep there (pay the park fees too) and the following morning you walk to the base of Semeru (kalimati base camp). There is another camp on the slopes but ask the park guard before leaving Ranu Pani about it. It’s very cold at night in the camps. (0 celsius or worse)
        You wait until 01:00 or 02:00 AM to start climbing. It’s a tough and steep climb in the ash.

        The view from up there is splendid but the real gem is the Monster that will be ahead of you : Gunung Semeru. It erupts several times per hour (when I was there – it still does it seems ).
        Be careful because several people have lost their lives on the volcano. Don’t get too close. I was crazy enough to get to the rim through the ridge. Scary ! It erupted right next to me and I was forced to run my ass off to a safer distance.
        It was one of the most beautiful days of my life.

        I am leaving today for Guatemala. I intend to climb Santiaguito, Fuego and Pacaya !!

        Go to Semeru, you won’t regret it (but be CAREFUL !)

        Reply
  12. Jessie Festa
    January 26, 2014

    Leaving for Guatemala in less than a week and hadn’t heard of this. We’re using Altiplanos for a shuttle to the lake. Might have to revamp our plans after seeing this! :)

    Reply
  13. Escape Hunter
    January 5, 2014

    That must have been one heck of a thrill being up there… it looks like some other planet. Not the colorful Guatemala that comes to my mind.

    Reply
  14. Anja
    December 22, 2013

    Photos are amazing. We have lucky those plant didn’t eat you.

    Reply
  15. Josh Hayward
    September 10, 2013

    Matt! Awesome!

    I just arrived in Xela after climbing everything at Lago Atitlan and want to climb Santiaguito next week.

    What would you suggest for rounding up some other brave soles and a guide?

    Let me know.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 10, 2013

      My most memorable hike ever Josh. I recommend doing the same thing I did, round up some people nearby from Couchsurfing.org and use the same company. Or ask around at local hostels.

      Just know that this hike is nothing like the stuff at Lake Atitlan… it’s very difficult and somewhat dangerous. Make sure everyone in your group is aware of that. Our guide told us about a group of Israeli soldiers who quit halfway through. Obviously this made us feel pretty special that we completed it. :D

      Reply
  16. Jorge soch
    August 9, 2013

    4 hours of walking, the view is from the south flank of the volcano Santa Maria you cant see the Santiaguito Mirador is very impressive too.

    Reply
  17. Sam D
    May 6, 2013

    Yet again matt you’re a brave man! This is something I have dreamt of doing- Have always had a fascination with Volcanoes! Fave movie is Dante’s Peak!! Good on you and thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  18. frank
    March 10, 2013

    Your trip sounds amazing! We hiked quite some volcanoes in Asia already and are in Guatemala now. We’d love to do a tour like yours the coming days. Could you help us with any contacts to potential guides, e.g. the one you took? We found that quetzaltrekkers offer tours. They, however, do not offer overnight stay on top, at least we haven’t found this information on their homepage. Would be awesome you could help us with any contact. Thank you so much. Cheers, frank

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 11, 2013

      Hi Frank, only 1 or 2 companies offer a trip on the active crater, we went with Altiplanos. This is something you need to book at least a few days/week in advance too, it’s not a typical hike. Good luck & stay safe!

      Reply
      • Frank
        April 10, 2013

        sorry, I totally forgot (back home already)…Thank you for responding so quickly! Unfortunately, we couldn’t get in touch with them somehow. We found, however, another company called monte-verdetours, so all went well! And it was just amazing!! thanks a lot for inspiration!! All the best, Frank

        Reply
        • Matthew Karsten
          April 10, 2013

          No worries Frank, glad you had a great time. :)

  19. Ashray
    April 5, 2012

    Wow those pictures look stunning! We’ve been traveling around volcanoes in the Andes for a while now but never seen something quite so spectacular! Here’s to hoping that we get to see some rumbling action soon :D

    Reply
  20. Steph / TravelShark
    March 27, 2012

    AMAZING Pictures! AMAZING journey.

    Can we just say that we’re unbelievably inspired??? How many people would travel to a freaking volcano?

    Reply
  21. edgy_mph
    September 14, 2011

    Awesome! But scary :)

    Reply
  22. Sebastian
    June 2, 2011

    Great pictures Matt.

    Reply
  23. Anthony
    March 31, 2011

    Hey mate
    Nice article. I did the same climb a few month before you. Yes it’s hard, yes it’s crazy but totally worth it in the end ! I LOVED Guatemala.

    Reply
  24. Luis Cifuentes
    February 5, 2011

    hey matt! i was the one who was waiting for my broter to come down from the volcano and we gave you a ride w/ my dad! hope u’re doing fine and your journey through guatemala was really good! take care man!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      February 5, 2011

      Hi Luis! Thanks again for giving me a lift. I had an excellent time in Guatemala, and can’t wait to come back. :)

      Reply
  25. Steffy
    January 5, 2011

    wow an exciting experience! I wish I was doing something like that now:)
    The pictures are stunning esp the one of the vulcano errupting!

    Do you really have to be an experienced climber to get there? Coz I absolutely loved the idea of it but I suck as a climber:))

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      January 5, 2011

      You don’t have to be pro, but I’d recommend that you’ve done some climbing before.

      It’s not a sheer wall, there are plenty of handholds. But you have a heavy pack on, and if you’ve never really climbed anything before, you might be overwhelmed. Falling is not an option! :)

      Reply
  26. Adam
    January 5, 2011

    WOW! That is awesome! What a crazy and awesome experience. We hiked to the top of an active volcano in Pucon, Chile, but it was nothing like this looks like. I have a weird fascination with volcanoes, and this looks incredible. I may have to learn to climb and get this on my bucket list. AMAZING!!!!!

    Reply
  27. Joel Chavez
    December 27, 2010

    Hi Matt!

    I met you briefly in Black Cat hostel in Xela, and afterwards went to dinner to the Hindu restaurant with you and pals.

    Great story man! Didn’t know all the details about it.

    Next year I’ll definitely hike that monster!

    Let me know if you ever come down to El Salvador. I can show you some pretty cool places over here.

    Saludos y suerte!

    Joel C.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      December 28, 2010

      Hi Joel, I’ll definitely give you a ring if I get over there. :)

      Reply
  28. Ayngelina
    December 19, 2010

    Wow it’s posts like this that make me wish I weren’t so lazy. You know Pacaya was really hard for me! I want to pretend it was the altitude but I think I’m just out of shape. The views in these photos would totally be worth the exhaustion.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      December 19, 2010

      I’ve been working my way up to a big one like this. My body was definitely not happy with me after…

      Reply
  29. Dave and Deb
    December 18, 2010

    Wow! Now that’s an adventure. What a spectacular photo you got of the volcano erupting. Glad you made it down safely to tell us all about it!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      December 18, 2010

      Thx guys! That is actually one frame from a time-lapse I set up, wait until you see them all together in the video…

      Reply
  30. Aunt Reen
    December 17, 2010

    What an experience Matt! We are studying volcanoes in my 2nd grade class now. I’m going to forward this to my school email so I can show my kids. They are going to think this is so cool! I’ll let you know their reactions.

    Reply
  31. Val
    December 16, 2010

    All I can think about when I read about your amazing adventures is “what is your mother thinking.” She must have your same nerves of steel. I imagine Bert would love to be there with you. Now that he’s retired … maybe he WILL join you! :)

    Reply
  32. LeslieTravel
    December 16, 2010

    What an amazing experience!!! Looks like the hike was worth it

    Reply
  33. Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World
    December 15, 2010

    Super awesome! What a great adventure.

    Reply
  34. The Curmudgeon
    December 15, 2010

    Now those were some photos! Was that a man eating plant? After all, you did have “laser-guided focus”. I think maybe you had 6 liters of beer, not water. Tell the truth. That terrain reminds me of your mothers’ garden. A dangerous place, not fit for man nor beast, nor me either.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      December 15, 2010

      Yes, I do believe that plant tried to eat me…

      Reply
    • Jaylin
      September 5, 2011

      A few years ago I’d have to pay someone for this information.

      Reply
  35. Ted Nelson
    December 15, 2010

    Awesome post. What an adventure. Hiking up and camping next to an active volcano and guided by Crazy Charlie.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      March 27, 2012

      The trip wouldn’t have been quite the same without Crazy Charlie. He was crazy, but he was also a pro. We were in good hands.

      Reply
  36. Philip
    December 15, 2010

    What an incredible experience! When you tell your grandkids, they will never believe you.

    Reply
  37. Grant
    December 15, 2010

    An incredible journey I got to share with you. Enough said. Cheers buddy!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      December 15, 2010

      Good luck on the rest of your travels Grant! Maybe we’ll run into each other again further south. :)

      Reply
  38. Andi
    December 15, 2010

    I would say it was totally worth it after looking at those pics! WOW, that’s one adventure.

    Reply

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