Guatemala’s active volcano Santiaguito erupts with an explosion of hot ash & rocks every few hours. So of course we decided to hike up the crater and go camping nearby.
First, let me tell you a little bit about the volcano. The Santiaguito Crater is a very active lava dome that is part of the much larger Santa Maria Volcano system.
At 12,375 feet tall, Santa Maria Volcano violently exploded in 1902, blowing off the whole Southern side of the mountain, resulting in one of the biggest eruptions of the 20th century and killing over 10,000 people.
Ash from this massive eruption was detected 2500 miles away in San Francisco.
In my photo of Santa Maria below, you can see the results from that huge 1902 explosion. Half the mountain is gone.
The Santiaguito lava dome was created in the aftermath of this blast. Since then, it’s been erupting every few hours on a regular basis for the past 80 years.
Climbing Volcano Santiaguito
I really wanted to hike up this volcano and get as close to the action as I could. But it wouldn’t be easy, and probably very dangerous too.
A grueling 8 hours climb with 40lb travel backpacks and camping on an older inactive volcanic vent, right next to the ACTIVE crater itself.
This was not a normal tourist activity.
Most visitors to the area just hike up neighboring Santa Maria Volcano and gaze down from a safe distance at Santiaguito — exploding over a mile away.
Only CRAZY people would attempt to hike up and camp on the actual erupting volcano itself..
But with a little couch surfing magic, I managed to round up 6 crazy people to join me. There was one trekking company that was willing to bring people up onto the active part of the volcano itself.
Still it took them a few hours to track down one of the only experienced guides who knew the route, as it was an especially tough and dangerous hike.
Our guide’s name: Crazy Charlie. Perfect!
Not A Walk In The Park
To achieve our mission of reaching the summit of Volcano Santiaguito, we’d have to hike, scramble, bushwhack, and outright scale (sometimes vertical!) sections of “trail” for the majority of the trip.
All this with full trekking backpacks 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 tourist filled Santiaguito Mirador, overlooking the erupting lava dome far 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 between Santa Maria and Santiaguito.
About 5 hours into the trip, we were all tired as hell. Stashing 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 Climbing The Volcano Worth It?
Well, after the mentally & physically exhausting day of difficult & technical climbing, we were treated to one hell of an incredible view:
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 eruption process lasted maybe 5-10 minutes.
After processing Mother Nature’s incredibly raw display of power, we built a fire on our lunar landscape with bits and pieces of wood that we carried up strapped to our backpacks.
It was starting to get dark, and there was a long, cold, and interesting 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…
The Volcanic Explosions Continue
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 difficult to sleep next to a roaring 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 and ONTO the very active Santiaguito crater itself!
It could erupt at anytime, with us standing on it.
Although we weren’t actually on the side that often got hit with rock slides, our nerves were still on edge.
Volcanoes are known to be 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.
Preparing 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.
Volcano Santiaguito Update
Hey there! It’s now been 9 years since I first hiked up and camped out next to Volcano Santiaguito Crater in Guatemala back in 2010. A lot has changed since I first embarked on that crazy adventure.
The volcano experienced a MASSIVE eruption on June 17, 2016 that easily would have killed us had we been up there when it happened.
Since the activity on the volcano has increased so much, local authorities no longer allow people to hike so close to the volcano.
Your best option now is to hike up to the Santiaguito Mirador on Santa Maria Volcano, and view the action from a safe distance. ★
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What’s the coolest hike you’ve ever been on? Any questions about hiking Santiaguito volcano? Let me know in the comments below!