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.
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!
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.
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:
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…
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.
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.
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)
Location: Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala [Map]
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.
What was the coolest hike you’ve ever been on?