I climbed a volcano the other day. Let me tell you, it was magical (and also one of the most physically strenuous things I've ever done)! As I write this, a week later, I'm still amazed at how beautiful the vistas were from basecamp (and parts of my body are still in pain). But here goes a little breakdown of the actual trip:
1. Book it: I went with a locally-owned company that was highly recommended. They hire local guides and all proceeds go to help the community (where the current project is being installed - a playground for the village children). They also carry your sleeping bag, mat, and tent, and some food for you. Any agency in town can get you on a trip, and typical cost is $50 USD for the entire two day excursion, plus $7 for the park entrance fee.
2. Prepare: Considering you're hiking through cloud forests and ending up at approximately 13,000 feet of elevation, you will likely be getting wet and very cold weather at some point during the two day excursion. Pack accordingly. I had just come from 90+ degree weather for two months. Knowing that once the thermometer goes below 65 degrees Fahrenheit I become a miserable ice pop, I went to the local market and purchased some used, but clean and warm, wool socks and a winter hat($0.50USD each), and a fleece jacket ($1.50). I rented a pair of gloves labeled Under Armor and Abercrombie (apparently the guy branding the gloves was a wee bit confused), and a warm jacket which had seen its stylish heyday circa 1979, but it worked. Most tour agencies will offer rental items like jackets and hats, and even backpacks. I bought a plastic poncho with a hood for $3, and a pair of used Keen hiking boots for $25 (they go for a LOT more than that when purchased new at home - definitely worth the $25 to guarantee warm and dry feet).
3. Packing: Everything you pack, you will carry uphill for six hours. This being said, you will definitely need one change of dry clothes. Aside from all your warm gear, a few liters of water (they suggest four, I brought six and drank almost all of it), some snacks and a headlamp, the only other things I'd mandate includes a camera, and some toilet paper!
4. The Climb: The volcanic soil is sandy and black, and makes up the majority of your uphill footing. Not the easiest substrate to hike, but parts of the hike have steps to assist with the steep angle. You'll pass corn fields, then go through a beautiful, lush, green temperate rain forest, which then leads to a high-altitude pine forest, until lastly, you hit the top of the tree line and you're left with long grasses, shrubbery and dead tree trunks from the acid rain. Hopefully your group agrees on a steady and comfortable pace. The five of us took a break every 15 minutes or so to catch our breath and drop our packs, or to complain that every single person we passed on their descent wished us "luck".
5. Base Camp: Once you arrive at base camp, you'll likely feel like you just climbed Everest. It started pouring down rain about thirty minutes after our group conquered the 5.5 hour hike, so I climbed into my dry tent, my dry clothes, and my dry sleeping bag, and took a nap. However, there was a warm fire roaring when I awoke, and although the clouds obscured the view of Fuego, it was still a great spot to enjoy the accomplishment. There was a small outhouse, but don't expect anything other than that. Enjoy being disconnected and hopefully the agency you travel with will provide a wonderful hot dinner like mine did. Oh, and roasted marshmallows and fresh hot chocolate!
6. The Volcanoes: I pluralized "volcanoes" because there are technically three volcanoes that you'll experience on this trip. You will be climbing Acatenango, and viewing Fuego (which is currently erupting), and you will be able to see Agua in the distance. Agua is the one that looms over Antigua from the south. Acatenango has two peaks, and lays slightly north of Fuego. Current as of this writing, Fuego has been continuously erupting for approximately three months. You'll start to hear the thunderous eruptions about halfway up the climb of Acatenango, and then Fuego will gloriously keep you awake all night. We had a very cloudy ascent, but the mist cleared for a bit around 8pm and we watched the lava bursts for about 30 minutes until we all hit the hay.
7. Altitude Sickness: You can read about this until you're blue in the face, but, you can't predict whether it will affect you or not unless you've previously been at a similar altitude. I had a horrible experience with the altitude when I traveled to Cusco, Peru, which is at about the same elevation, so I was nervous. Hydrating helps, sometimes low doses of aspirin or caffeine help as well. I felt great going up and it wasn't until I became restless in the middle of the night that I realized it had caught up to me. Rolling over in bed caused shortness of breath, and eventually the headache and nausea set in. I opted to stay behind for the two hour sunrise hike because I didn't want to have the whole group turn back if I got worse. I'm glad I did. I watched the volcano erupt from in front of the fire at 4am while all alone, and when the wind started to get to me, I climbed back into my sleeping bag!
8. The Descent: Let's be honest. You're probably thinking this doesn't need to be commented on because after all the exhaustion and the brilliant views, who cares? Well, let me just tell you that the 5-6 hour uphill hike is only about 2 hours downhill, and because you've consumed all your water, your pack may be lighter (unless you have to now carry your own sleeping bag and floor mat down). Seems okay, except a downhill descent can do a lot of damage to knees that usually feel great. And toes. I still have two purple toenails from my toes hitting the top of the boots for two hours. Truly painful. But coming down to the bottom really calls for some high-fives, and a hot shower. You feel great. You feel accomplished, like you've done something wonderful that no one else has done before. In reality, you'll also be excited for running water, warm clothes, a real toilet, and perhaps a massage?
The takeaway from all this is that I would highly recommend this climb, but you must plan for the two day trip carefully. Be logical when packing and choosing to participate. It may be physically too much for people who aren't in the best shape. One of our group members turned around about five minutes into the climb because he just knew it wasn't for him and he wasn't ready. It's better to be aware of your body and its limitations than to make a regrettable or catastrophic decision. Plus, I consider myself to be in decent shape, but the amount of times I thought about hiring someone to carry my pack for me was almost comical (if you decide this after departure, a local guide will basically run up the mountain to catch up with you and carry it the rest of the way for the equivalent of $28). That being said, had I done that I would've regretted spending the money and likely would have belittled myself the whole time! All in all, if you decide to go, I promise the physical exertion is worth the marvelous feeling you get from conquering the mountain and being rewarded with splendid, once-in-a-lifetime views!