The time that I… hiked alongside an exploding volcano

Chelsea Chirico in front of Volcan de Fuego. (Submitted)

One year ago, Chelsea Chirico, a fourth-year Natural Resource Science student, escaped Canada’s frigid winters and headed to Belize for a semester abroad. She spent her days on a private research island used by the University of Belize, learning about the coral reef and snorkelling with sharks, rays, manatees and eels.

Every day was a new experience for Chirico but her most unforgettable memory was on a trip to Antigua, a little town southwest of Guatemala city.

Antigua is an older town deeply connected to the Catholic church’s beliefs and practices. Every year the town hosts an elaborate two-week celebration for Easter holidays, which first enticed Chirico and her friends.

On top of being renowned for its stunning Spanish architecture and elaborate celebrations, Antigua is also surrounded by three volcanos. Although two of the three are now dormant, the third, Volcan de Fuego is still active.

When Chirico arrived in Antigua, she was given the opportunity to hike up to the top of one of the dormant volcanos, Volcan de Acatenango, for an incredibly reduced price, as the excursion is normally quite expensive. Knowing it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Chirico and her friends rented some backpacks, jackets, tents and set out to the volcano.

“Everyone was telling us it’s not too bad of a hike,” Chirico said. “It was probably one of the hardest hikes I’ve done in my entire life.”

Just two days prior, Chirico was at sea level, and the top of the volcano sits at 3,976 meters.

“We were higher than Machu Picchu. I was really surprised we didn’t get altitude sickness. The first day we hiked for seven hours, and the second we hiked two hours. It was a total of 2,443 elevation gain,” Chirico said.

As Chirico reached halfway up the mountain, she described hearing a sudden rumbling explosion, “it sounded like a deep muffled thunder.”

At this point, the hiking group were now in view of the neighbouring volcano, Volcan de Fuego.

“I just see this huge plume of smoke coming out the top of the volcano. It was incredible,” Chirico said.

As the group kept hiking, the volcano continued oozing smoke. Once they reached base camp the group set up their tents for the night. Suddenly, another huge explosion ruptured.

“I look up and see red lava spewing out of the top. Huge fireballs are going up and then travelling down the mountain,” Chirico said.

The rumbling continued through the night, until around four in the morning when the hiking group set out to hike to the peak of the mountain in order to watch the sunrise.

“It was so surreal just being able to sit on top of one of the highest volcanoes in Guatemala and watch the sunrise by an exploding volcano,” Chirico said.

She later found out that the eruptions they witnessed were the biggest the town of Antigua had experienced in over a year. The town was even close to an evacuation warning. Thankfully, the volcano eventually calmed down but left Chirico with one of the most memorable experiences in her life.

“It was something that wasn’t on my bucket list until after I experienced it, but I’m so glad I did,” Chirico said.