Hiking Santiaguito: Surviving An Exploding Volcano In Guatemala

Volcano Santiaguito in Guatemala
Climbing Volcano Santiaguito
Xela, Guatemala

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.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, authorities have tightened restrictions in the area around the volcano after a massive explosion in 2016.

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.

Santa Maria Volcano
Volcano Santa Maria
Santa Maria Mirador
The Mirador (Viewpoint) from Santa Maria Volcano

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!

Santiaguito Lava Dome
No Longer on Earth: Santiaguito Lava Dome
Volcanic Plants
Steam Vents & Exotic Plants

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.

The Volcano Lava Dome
Can You Spot Crazy Charlie?
Volcano Ash Heaps
What the Moon Must Feel Like

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 Eruption 2010
Volcano Santiaguito Erupting Next To Us!

Hell Yes!!!

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…

Our Campsite
Camping on the Volcano

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.

Santiaguito Crater
Hiking on the Active Crater
Santiaguito Crater Summit
View from the Summit

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.

Sunrise over Guatemala
Sunrise over the Volcano

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.

Massive 2016 Eruption
Massive 2016 Eruption

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. ★

Travel Planning Resources For Guatemala
Company: Altiplanos
Cost: $60 US per person (group of 7)

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Hiking Santiaguito: Surviving An Exploding Volcano In Guatemala! Definitely one of my craziest travel experiences! Find out more at ExpertVagabond.com #Hike #Trek #Backpack #adventure #Travel
Hiking Santiaguito: Surviving An Exploding Volcano In Guatemala! Definitely one of my craziest travel experiences! Find out more at ExpertVagabond.com #Hike #Trek #Backpack #adventure #Travel


I hope you enjoyed my Santiaguito volcano story from Guatemala! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:

What’s the coolest hike you’ve ever been on? Any questions about hiking Santiaguito volcano? Let me know in the comments below!


Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 10 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
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Comments (129)

  1. Wow, what a story. I never really considered doing this before but now it’s on my list. What a thrill-seeking experience.

  2. The pictures are stunning. I wish I had known about this hike when I was in Guatemala last year. I did go to Volcan Acatenango and it remains one of my favourite experiences from my travels.
    But, that is quite commercialised now.

  3. Hi Emily!
    Yes as an amateur hiker , you too can do it and its worth the experience but physical fitness does matter a lot.Take a lot of water with you as you will frequently feel thirsty.The only thing which is uncomfortable are the Sulfuric acid fumes.
    Do you have a blog?
    I can share the Congo Volcano Video’s with you,if you wish.
    Take care!

    • Hi Sameenasanjay,

      Appreciate your response! I could really use some tips. :) It’s been a while since I last hiked and I do miss the adrenaline.

      Yes, I do have a blog. Just click my name.

  4. Hi Matthew!

    This would have been my kind of adventure if only I had the guts to mess with an active volcano! :D I’m sure it was worth it! Do you think amateur hikers can join, too? After reading your post, part of me was convinced to do something out of the box.

  5. Hi Matt !
    I’m sameenasanjay !
    A few months ago, l happen to read your posts on how to start a travel blog.
    I read your posts on travel and liked your style of writing and started writing about my travel experiences and people started appreciating my posts.
    All thanks to you,since you were my guide/ teacher through your posts.

    I owe you a big ‘THANK YOU’.
    So thought of writing to you just to say thanks.

    Warm Regards!
    Sameena sanjay
    Indian Air Force

  6. Guatemala is one of my travel dreams! I don’t know if I am as badass as you are to do this hike, though. Looks like an awesome experience! I can’t wait until my trip there…2018!!

  7. Nice! We recently did a hike up Volcano Acatenango just outside of Antigua. The view of neighbouring Volcano Fuego going off through the night was insane. In Xela at the moment and might have to look into this hike! Do Altiplanos put the tour on regularly, or do you have to get a group together yourself?

  8. My wife and I are looking for other adventurous soles to climb Santiaguito volcano. Through the night and into the morning we will watch the volcano erupt. We plan on leaving with a guide from Altiplano’s tour

  9. Oh goodness, those views are beautiful. Guatemala was quite possibly my favourite place in Central America. We didn’t hike this volcano but we did do Acatenango volcano just outside Antigua. We hiked up to watch Volcan de Fuego erupt all night long. Top travel experience right there!

  10. If you like volcano hikes, then you shouldn’t miss Indonesia! There are 150 volcanoes to choose from :)
    Our personal favorite has been Merapi, but also Rinjani it’s amazing! We have hiked 5 different volcanoes, and while we didn’t get an eruption has close as you did, it was definitely a memorable experience!

  11. Travel is my passion and love traveling. I have taken trips with family, friends and solo. I like your blog and all your post. Waiting to see more from you.

  12. Holy crap, this sounds like an incredible adventure. You’re a really excellent writer, Matthew! I love the way you describe your experiences with such detail. You also provide excellent synonyms (like your moon crater comparison).

    You’re an inspiration, my friend! Perhaps we’ll meet one day. :)

  13. This is crazy in so many ways its not even funny. I wouldnt get any sleep up a volcano. It must make also make alot of noises and rumbling as it erupts. How does one sleep with all that going on.. Great pics.

  14. I’m surprised people are allowed to climb an active volcano! Isn’t it dangerous?! I’m in awe that you’re willing to risk your life for this adventure! Cool photos too!

    • You are surprised people are allowed to climb an active volcano? All things are allowed in this life, until someone disallows it. Should the government disallow it? I sure hope they won’t. As for your question as to whether or not it’s dangerous…… Everything worth having and doing in this life has a certain element of risk. However, the guide told them what to do if the volcano erupted. And really, we must always put things in perspective. I’m sure it’s much more dangerous to drive a car than to hike to this volcano. Just because something looks dangerous doesn’t mean it is; and just because something doesn’t look dangerous, doesn’t mean it isn’t. Either way, I say “live a little.” If we are always afraid of what may or may not be dangerous, we will truly lead a boring and uninspiring life.

  15. Hey Matt, great story! I had the privilege of climbing Santa María, Pacaya and Acatenango last year and they’re all amazing! I personally would never try climbing Santiaguito. My guide with Monte Verde tours in Xela to climb Santa María told me that the only climb that scares him almost to death is Santiaguito. It probably wasn’t crazy Charlie. I would encourage you to check out OX Expeditions in Antigua Guatemala if you want to do something similar there. They will take you to climb Acatenango to the peak and Fuego to not too far from the peak. We had a few in our group that did the double whammy when Fuego let out a HUGE belch, with some major bombs flying out of her, a bone jarring earthquake and an ash plume of at least two miles high. There was a new guide with the company that climbed Acatenango over 100 times, but never did Fuego before. He told me he was so scared, he didn’t know if he should run, hide(there is a outcropping to hide behind when bombs are flying) or stay with the group. I wouldn’t attempt either active volcano climbs, but the guide Ian told me they only climb where the bombs are gray, which means they’re old bombs, and not new, black bombs.

  16. This is absolutely amazing! Not only was this a great story, but you’re an amazing storyteller as well! Kudos for being a bad ass and taking us along for the ride.

  17. As awesome as this sounds, I think I would have to be prepared to be awake for the entire night. Not sure I’d be able to sleep on an active volcano ;).

  18. Wow, what an amazing adventure! I’ve always been afraid of volcanos, even had nightmares which involved a lot of “lava” when I was a kid. I think you are very brave! :)

  19. Your trek was way cooler than ours! We know we will be returning to Guatemala, feel in love with it. Will have to check out this hike.

    We did the 4-day trek from Xela to San Pedro…we slept with rats on the floor of a community center!

  20. Your first sentence…”Guatemala’s active volcano Santiaguito erupts with an explosion of hot ash & rocks every few hours. We decided to go camping on it.” literally made me laugh out loud lol.
    It basically says ‘this is probably dumb and dangerous – so lets go and do it immediately’. Awesome. Totally sounds like something I would do.
    What a neat experience!

  21. Hi Matthew,

    very nice post and great pictures! I enjoyed a lot reading about your trek. We had a bit similar experience just recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when we were hiking to the volcano Nyiragongo. The view with its boiling lava lake at the top (especially at night) was totally worth the 4,5-hour hike!
    Would also love to visit Guatemala, too.

  22. The first time I hiked a volcano (incidentally, it also was in Guatemala, but it was Pacaya) I was so excited. We also got to see some explosions, but yes – nothing remotely close to what you experienced!

  23. Wow, what an adventure and scary experience at the same time. They would never let us do anything remotely like this where I live on the Big Island – legally that is :)

  24. Never had something like this happen while hiking- some steamers while hiking the Tongariro Crossing New Zealand- but we did end up sleeping on the deck of a massive pirate type ship in Eastern Indonesia while the Bima volcano was erupting! We woke up covered in volcanic ash and then the following night watched to sunset while the lava spit from the top. Every island we stopped off on after that was covered in ash. It made for some pretty dirty trekking, I think my socks are still stained from that!

  25. This is amazing for two reasons: First, it is because you are traveling to this amazing place and second is because you are brave enough to go to an active volcano. You are right when you said that this is for crazy people. I love to travel myself but I always set some limits.

  26. What an incredible story! You’ll have to be in love with nature to get t=so close to one of its dreadful events. What a party of volunteers. It’s an eruption of the web by itself. Your storytelling skill is amazingly moving while seemingly simple. I like the way you narrated the experience step-by-step.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.

  27. An erupting volcano.

    Boom! This is THE thing you can ever wish for, to see live, in front of you. I know that a lot of devastation follows but in terms of sheer shock value, nothing would rank higher than this.

  28. Some adventure. Very picturesque.

    May I suggest you also visit the spectacular Victoria Falls in southern Africa – one of the Seven Natural Wonders.

    Lots to do – bungee jumping, helicopter rides, elephant riding (I kid you not) and more.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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. :)

  34. 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 :)

  35. 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 !

    • 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 :)

      • 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 !)

  36. 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.


    • 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

  37. 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!

  38. 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

      • 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

  39. 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

  40. AMAZING Pictures! AMAZING journey.

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

  41. 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.

  42. 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!

  43. 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:))

    • 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! :)

  44. 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!!!!!

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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! :)

  49. 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.