Much Better Adventurer Simon Jones recently headed out to Guatemala to tackle the Five Volcano Challenge. Here, he chats flying lava, volcanic booms, rocky ascents, and celebrating accomplishments with friends. This is his story...

The three pinnacles atop the still active Pacaya volcano (2552m). Photo: Simon Jones

After arriving in Antigua, our group set out the next morning to achieve our first objective: summiting Pacaya. The approach brought us to the cusp of a huge lava field, the biggest I've ever seen. I remember how surprised we all were at the feel and composition of the volcanic rock, and it's similarity to the sharp and hard features of glacial ice. Carefully weaving our way through the route, we arrived at three pinnacles of hardened lava overlooking a grand valley below, with volcanoes all around us. Standing amidst a few hotspots (where it was possible to even roast a marshmallow) we celebrated bagging our first summit of the trip.

On day two we loaded up our bus and set off for the Acatenango volcano. We knew our destination was to camp beside Fuego, which is active, but the experience was still beyond our expectations. It's a diverse approach through villages, farmland and ultimately a dense forest. The route is steep and varies between narrow and wide pathways. When we first arrived at our campsite, I think we all realised our hard work was really going to pay off. The entire group was mesmerised by the loud 'pop' and trailing smoke of an eruption from Fuego. When dusk rolled in, the real show got underway. Darkness allows you to see an eruption in the truest form; the lava flying high in the air, the corresponding 'boom' when the sound finally hits your senses. It's marvellous and awesome. It's unique. An experience I don't think any of us will ever forget.

Sunrise on Acatenango (3976m). Photo: Michael Pollett

A hardy meal around a campfire with Fuego periodically erupting in the distance was enough to send most of us off to a good night's sleep in our tents. A word of caution here, I've been at altitude several times, and I'm aware that my stomach isn't the happiest customer when I eat above 10,000 feet. On this night, I cast that aside and readily devoured as much food as I could. Big mistake. By the time alarms started sounding for the 03:45 wake-up, I had been up all night with an unsettled stomach. Didn't sleep a wink. The good news was, this allowed me to continue to watch the Fuego fireworks show all night, I saw dozens of eruptions. The bad news: I was completely drained and unable to join the group on the sunrise hike to Acatenango’s summit. This definitely stung, especially when the group returned from the summit sharing stories and pictures of their experience. It looked and sounded great. For me, it was important to recover my energy for the rest of the trip; lots of hiking left to do, lots of summits left to bag. One day I’ll go back to gain Acatenango’s summit, it’s a place worth going to more than once.

Fuelling up with friends. Photo: Viola Schlossberger

Descending Acatenango was bittersweet, we were heading on to other adventures, but leaving this incredible natural firework display behind. We hopped on our trusty bus and made the long drive to Quetzaltenango. It’s worth noting here the soft spot we all seemed to have for the bus. We spent a lot of time on it. Here you could chat with other folks in the group, pop in your headphones and listen to music, read a book or get lost in your thoughts as the many features of Guatemala passed by. A rolling-refuge if you will.

Guatemala 5 Volcano Challenge
Hike and summit five of Guatemala’s volcanoes - dubbed ‘The Ring of Fire’ - ending up at spectacular Lake Atitlan

We shared many dinners in various restaurants. The next best thing to gaining a summit is replenishing all the calories you’ve burned, and celebrating the accomplishments of the day with your friends. Our dinners out and the food we enjoyed were always a great time, and some of my best memories of the trip.

The still active Santa Maria was partly destroyed in a monumental eruption in 1902. Photo: Simon Jones

Next up was the ascent of Santa Maria. It’s a volcano about one hour from Quetzaltenango, and has 1200 metres of elevation to the summit. After years of honing my scrambling skills on the loose rock of the Canadian Rockies, I was thrilled to learn there were bits of scrambling midway up the ascent. Solid rock, lots of straightforward holds, and it felt great to get my hands working again with my feet. Not technical by any means but great to get your brain working a bit differently. Soon enough the group burst through the canopy of tropical forest onto the wide and airy summit. We enjoyed a long lunch, soaking in the sun and the views. Three volcanoes down.

Not there yet! The false summit of Tajumulco. Photo: Aleks Khapun

The next day we hopped back on the bus to Tuichan, close to the Mexican border. Here we would embark on our climb up Tajumulco (4203m), evidently the highest point in Central America. The ascent was long and steep, but I enjoyed it. I knew we were earning our way to something special. We arrived at our campsite at about 4pm. Following a short break and orientation with our tents, we set off to gain the false-summit for sunset. What an experience this was. The views from the Tajumulco false-summit were terrific, and the dwindling sunset light was perfect. I remember saying, “this is what hiking is all about.” I’ve said it several times in the Rockies and here I was near the top of Central America saying it again. I made sure to acknowledge the altitude while eating my dinner by the campfire, and savoured the day’s accomplishment. The very top, though, would come the next morning.

And the real one. Photo: Simon Jones

At this point the central theme of the evening took over: the cold. Because Guatemala has a tropical climate, it’s easy to overlook how chilly things get when the sun goes down. When you’re camping at over 13,000 feet, it’s even colder. Every layer I had I was wearing, which at one point was three on my lower body and five up top. That’s a lot. I honestly think the cold just made everyone more determined; come 4am we flipped on our head lamps and set off towards the true summit. Through the cold, the dark, the altitude, and even a short period of scrambling, the group pushed on. By sunrise, we were there: Tajumulco’s true summit, the highest point in Central America. The volcanos painting the distance, the views, the accomplishment. It felt great.

The group and guides, with Lake Atitlán below. Photo: Aleks Khapun

Our descent from Tajumulco’s summit had the group back into the warm rays of the sun and looking forward to our journey to Lake Atitlán. A few hours later we were swapping the bus for a boat and headed for San Pedro on the west side of the vast lake. Paradise. The town, the shops, the restaurants, the white and blue waves of the lake; life was very colourful here. By this point, I think our group had proven there wasn’t much that was going to stop us, and we trudged our way up the steep paths of San Pedro volcano. After a short but amusing discovery of a tyre swing, the last thing you’d expect to find halfway up a volcano, we summited our fifth and final volcano. The reward: majestic views of Lake Atitlán, five summits that brought a group of strangers together as friends, and terrific memories of a trip to Guatemala.

Fancy following in Simon's footsteps? Tackle Guatemala's five volcano challenge yourself, and other trekking adventures.