Volcano Fuego spits ash and red-hot lava into the sky.

“More than just a mountain that makes the earth tremble.”

“One of the main purposes of this trip was to shoot local traditions. In Guatemala, there’s an incredible mix of beliefs from Christian, pagan and Mayan traditions. For the people, volcanoes are very impressive not only because they live with them, but because their ancient beliefs are based in the sun and volcanoes. They are more than just a mountain that makes the earth tremble, they are entities. And when you are in a volcano, you understand why people worship them.

This particular volcano is called ‘Fuego’, which means ‘fire’ in Spanish. It’s been active for a long time and last June it had a really big eruption which caused several deaths. Ten days before our climb there were already reports that it was beginning to increase in activity, so I was hoping to be right there at the peak. We decided the climb the nearby volcano, Acatenango, because it has a really good vantage point over Fuego – it’s higher, very close by and they actually connect. You can walk from one to the other.

We drove to a nearby village and from that point trekked to the top. And you have to overnight, so you need to have your bag with all your gear. My lenses and cameras alone are at least 8kg, then there’s the tent, food and everything you need to camp. It’s a very steep and hard climb and has lots of falling stones and ash, plus you have all this weight on your back, so it took almost six hours to get to the top, taking very small steps. Once we were there, we were greeted by fog because we were in the middle of the clouds, and you just know that on the opposite side there is a volcano. You can’t actually see it, but you can feel it and hear the sound – ”brooooon!” – every few minutes.

It looked like a broken movie

As the evening came, the wind really built up and suddenly we could really see this huge triangle of mountain just in front of us – much closer than we thought it would be – and a huge burst of ash into the air. Then the sound. It looked like a broken movie because the wind was coming from our back, so it was pushing the sound to the opposite side. It’s so weird when you see something so powerful happening in front of you, but you get sound a few seconds later.

When it came to twilight we started to see orange rocks flying over. It looked unreal against the stars and the night sky. We were so lucky because a half moon rose and lit the landscape, but it was kind of an eerie feeling. We shouldn’t be able to see the mountain because it’s so dark, but we could because of the moon. Every once in a while, we saw a huge eruption with tonnes of ash flying into the air and it’s so close, not more than a kilometre and a half away, but you don’t even have time to be afraid of it. Sometimes I even forgot to press the shutter – and that’s rare – because it looked like a slow-motion movie. Very powerful.

It was very windy, so the temperature came down from around 15º Celsius to maybe 1º. At a certain point you can’t feel your fingers, so you just have to decide whether you want to endure it, stay all night like that or just go into the tent and protect yourself, but the clouds came in and then we could rest.

Sometimes I even forgot to press the shutter

Suddenly, we had the company of a dog. It was like a cartoon. He was freezing cold and shivering, pushing his nose into the tent door and finally he was in the tent. As soon as we lifted the sleeping bag he got in and we rolled him like a sausage, so he would be safe and warm, and he didn’t take more than thirty seconds to pass out. But we lost the sleeping bag – which is a problem when you’re freezing cold. We were completely frozen, but we love dogs and didn’t want to leave him outside.

Actually, he was like a guardian angel. I believe that animals really help you out in these kinds of situations. There could’ve been a major eruption and imagine being asleep inside the tent and being hit by lava. So, when an eruption came he looked at us and we looked at him then he started to sleep again. So we thought, ”well, we should be ok.”

A dog, asleep in a blue sleeping bag.
“I believe that animals really help you out in these kinds of situations.” (© Joel Santos)

When we came down from Acatenango, we went straight to the car and drove to the next volcano to climb. We almost couldn’t feel our legs, but we only had a few hours because we had to fly home the next morning. Who could know that a few days later we'd hear the breaking news of a major eruption? 4000 people were evacuated from their homes on the 19th November. We got lucky. The dog too.”

Joel Santos, in front of a volcano
“I’ve been crazy about volcanoes for a long time!” (© Magali Tarouca)
Magali Tarouca sat in front of a volcano
“My wife, the photographer Magali Tarouca” (© Joel Santos)

Written by Joel Santos

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