It was another early morning start for us. While at La Ticla, we had done some research on a spot to break up the drive to Guadalajara. It seemed that en-route there were two volcanos. Volcano de Fuego, one of the most active volcanoes in North America, and the now extinct one next to it. Needless to say, you can’t hike the active one, but you certainly can hike the other. It was a little unclear how long it would take us to get there. Both our mapping apps agreed it was around 2 hours to the petrol station where we would turn off the main road and take a dirt road for the remaining 20km to the top. We already knew that the campsite was at an altitude of 12,000ft so we expected a slow journey on the last stretch. Google reckoned around an hour and a half, while maps.me confidently stated that it would take us 13hours. Hopefully not. After leaving the city of Colima behind, we headed out on the toll road north. It wasn’t long before the volcano came into view.
By the time we had reached Pemex, we had already climbed nearly 5,000ft. The altitude was noticeable to us, the air temperature much cooler and I felt a little light headed. We had spent months living at this altitude in the States, but recently we have been at sea level for nearly a year so it was a bit of a shock. We were prepared for the sub-zero temperatures at the top though, warm clothes are something we are well equipped with. Having spent months living in temperatures that rarely went below 30 degrees though, and the last week solely in a bikini, it was odd to get trousers and slippers out of the back.
After a pit stop at the Pemex, we continued on. We turned off the main road on back roads and then off these onto the dirt track. 17km to the entrance it proclaimed. We had the OBD connected to monitor the engine temperature just in case, this was going to be tough on the engine. We didn’t make it too far before we had to pull over and let it cool down, the engine hit 113C and we stopped. Maybe the radiator still needed a clean, we hadn’t got far. Still, we would take our time. In fact this turned out to be no problem due to the condition of the road.
We had only made it a few kilometres, before we reached a very lumpy and hilly section of road. It was also covered in thick volcanic ash, as fine as talcum powder. I got out and scouted the path ahead. We needed to have sufficient speed to get up the hill, if went to slowly we would simply stop. Ruby does not have the best torque for these situations. However, if we went too fast the lumpy road and our bouncy suspension would probably mean that the engine would hit the floor.
After having a good look, I picked out the most likely route and filled Lee in. I then stood at the top of the hill to direct him as he approached at a fair speed. As I jumped out the way at the last moment, Ruby roared past barely visible in a dust cloud, the rear end sliding up the last section. We had made it, but this was only the beginning. We rejoined Hanno and Kikki a little further up, they had pulled over to wait for us. Bruno was not having the same problems. They said there was another ashy section a little further up. In the meantime several other cars passed us without issue. We approached this spot in the same way and made it. Then the road seemed to get a little better.
We pulled over again to let it cool down after a little while. The road was not in good condition, but we were still going. In fact, we didn’t do too badly for some time. It was very slow going, we had to let Bruno get far ahead so that we could see the road as it was so dusty. In this stop start fashion we made it just over half way.
Then we powered around a corner and hit a very big lump. This meant we lost our speed and got halfway up the next hill before we ran out of power and stopped. We rolled back down to the bend that we had just gone around. I got out again to have a look. The hill was achievable, but we needed a run up. As I told Lee to roll the van back, I spotted the oil on the floor. Checking at the back, here we were again with a cracked sump. Still, it was a slow drip. We could keep going, but we would need a welder once we got back down again. Fortunately, we had spare oil on board and could keep it topped up. We wondered whether we should keep going, was it really worth it?
It was like this most of the time, occasionally we had to stop check out the road. The air temperature was noticeably cooler. Then, the engine cut out. No real hill, no apparent reason. She died and wouldn’t start again. We happened to be nearby a lay-by, so we rolled back into it. Having a look at the back, we could hear the noise of fuel draining somewhere in the system. It doesn’t normally do that. I cut up a plastic bottle to catch our oil in the meantime. Turning on the ignition we could hear a loud noise from the fuel pump. We tried it again, the engine sputtered, started for a second and then died. Odd. It seemed to be some kind of fuelling issue. Maybe the fuel pump was had failing again. We turned it off and left it for a bit, trying to message the others to tell them we had a problem with our patchy phone signal. Then we tried to start it again. It started. We turned it around, it seemed ok. We decided though, enough was enough. We would be stupid to continue, who knows the condition of the road. We already bashed the sump in and with this new issue we would camp here overnight and go down in the morning. As we couldn’t get through to the others on the phones or the walkie talkies, Lee walked up the road to find them.
While I waited, I located my slippers. It was definitely not flip flop weather anymore. Despite the fact that we were only halfway up, the view was still incredible. After a while, Lee returned with Hanno. They said that from this point the road seemed a lot better. I wasn’t convinced, we had swapped places. Later at the bottom, Lee said we should go back. I wanted to keep going. Now. I wasn’t sure we should go. It was annoying to have come so far and as we sat there with the van running perfectly again we said we’d give it one more go.
In actual fact, from then on, the remaining 8km went smoothly. The engine didn’t get too hot, and the road didn’t get impassable. We reached the entrance. It had still been a difficult drive and by the time we reached the entrance we were both incredibly stressed, but we were happy that we had made it. The guy on the gate showed us a map and where we could park. We then drove off, only a short distance to our camp spot.
It is possible to park at La Joya, a designated campground, but this means a longer walk the next morning. The hike is already around 10km ascending 700m, we didn’t want it to be any longer. We were definitely feeling the affects of the altitude, the tiniest physical effort left us gasping for breath. It was due to this, therefore, that we continued on past La Joya to another spot we could camp at. This pretty close to the beginning of the trail. Well, Bruno continued. Our engine cut out again. After fifteen minutes or so, we were able to start it and continue driving. The road in the park was worse, the light would going soon too. Despite our unhappy camper, we pressed on.
Let’s just get there.
Eventually, we made it to a large flat parking space. Perfect. Only a large ditch stood in the way. We tried to cross it but were a little too optimistic about the clearance of the van and got stuck. Bruno dragged us out and we stopped. This was it. I put the bottle under the sump again. We put the roof up and the heating on straight away. Hopefully the Wallas would handle this altitude, it’s only rated for up to 10,000ft and here we were at 12,000.
Once we had arrived, we met some guys from the campsite across the road from us and decided we would all hike together in the morning at about 8am. We then attempted to calm down after the most ridiculously stressful afternoon, while Kikki made everyone hot chocolate. I hoped the hike was going to be worth it. Especially as at that moment the Wallas overheated and shut down as it is prone to do in high altitude sometimes. We got a fire going in the already established fire pit and sat there speculating the odd engine issue. That night we went to bed with all the blankets, after the warmth of the beach it was pretty cold.
We were awoken at around 5am by Hanno. He said they weren’t feeling well, and that they were going to drive lower. They might be back in the morning. That was a shame, to come all this way and then get altitude sickness. We had probably done the ascent a bit too quickly for our own good.
I can’t say I felt 100% either. A bit of a headache and a bit nauseous. Lee hadn’t had much sleep and I hadn’t had any. Still, I’ll be damned if I’m not going up that volcano. Not at 8am however. It was at this point that I realised the hike was shorter than I had previously thought, I thought it was 9km each way, but this is actually the total. We were happier to start a bit later. We had some food, some painkillers and packed up a bag. Around 10am, we set off, still no sign of the others.
It’s a steadily climbing dirt road for the first section of the walk. Wild lupins line the sides of the track and looking back the peak we are headed to is covered in a small cloud, which quickly passes.
While it’s not a steep incline or anything, I was struggling a bit with the altitude. Feeling a bit dizzy and sick, I took advantage of the numerous benches up the hill.
The view gets better and better as we climb. We are truly above the clouds which can be seen below, covering the vast fields of greenhouses in the valley.
After an hour or so, we reached the base of the radio antennas, there is also a lot of equipment here for monitoring the seismic activity of Volcano de Fuego. With a lot of inhabitants within its radius, an evacuation could be necessary.
From just below the radio masts, you turn off the main track and head downwards through a young pine forest.
Views of the volcano are now spectacular, but the top is often covered in cloud.
Emerging from the pines, you start to climb across a field of volcanic rock and ash. As we rounded this small hill on the right we bumped into a guide who told us that the best way to go, following the way-marks on the rocks.
So far, the path is straight forward and not particularly steep. As you leave the ash field, and begin to follow the way-marks on the rock the ascent becomes much steeper. Here it is more of a scramble over loose rocks and boulders as you pick a route up the steep sides. Our route up is visible from the path across the ash field to the antennas.
We continued our climb for an hour. I had to stop and sit down a lot, at several moments I thought I was going to faint, not a good thing when scramble of a loose rocky mountainside. I was determined to make it though. After an age, the summit came into view with the flag that marked the top, not much longer and we would make it. The view back to the volcano was shrouded in cloud again, and we passed a few others hikers who had begun their descent.
The top was busy, a group of around twenty people crowded into a small spot, not a single other tourist was in sight. We spent a little while chatting to some friendly locals, who recommended some other good places for us to visit, and helped out a few people with their photos before taking our own. We spent a while sitting and enjoying the view with our lunch, we had earned it.
Having sufficiently recovered, we began our way down again. It says something that I was still out of breath while going downhill, although it was naturally much easier. We made the way back much faster, and soon we were walking though the small pine forest again. Climbing the last slightly uphill section out of the trees, I reached the road again and saw Hanno and Kikki. Determined to do some of the walk, they had made it to the 4,000m sign despite not feeling well. Now a group, we steadily retraced the route back down the hill together until we arrived back at the campers.
Now, it being a weekend the place was busy. Despite the hazardous road, a lot of people were here. Our flat parking space that we had had just to ourselves, was now full of several cars sporting tents and trestle tables. It looked like we had company tonight. After a long day, I wasn’t really in the mood to be sociable, but unless we decided to join the others as they headed for the lower slopes, we didn’t have much choice. The thought of tackling the road was even less appealing, we decided to stay in our spot.
Hanno and Kikki left. A little while later, some of the new campers came over. They asked us if we minded if we stayed. Yes!! I wanted to say, please go somewhere else. I just want to sleep tonight. But, it’s not like it’s our space to say that, so we smiled and said of course not, we don’t mind. Maybe it was clearly that our words didn’t match our expressions, as I heard them discussing in Spanish whether we wanted them to be there or not. Maybe it was very British of us to insist they stayed when we didn’t want them to, but in the end it turned out to be a good choice.
They began to set up their tents and get a barbecue going. We got some wood for the fire as with the light starting to fade it was getting pretty cold and we had no heating. They offered us some crisps and were generally pleasant but stayed over by their cars. Their barbecue wasn’t going so well, they kept pouring various flammable liquids on it without much luck. After watching them from the side of our roaring fire, I went over to offer some embers. They politely declined, maybe not wanting to admit defeat, but from that point on we got chatting.
It was at this point that another guy crossed over the car park to see me, it was the guide we had met on the walk. He wanted to know if I had emailed him, for a minute I was confused. Then it clicked. Earlier, I had sent an email to the only iOverlander spot in the nearby city, asking if we could stay a few days and repair our broken sump. It turns out that the person we had emailed, was already here working had already met Lee down the road. He said we were welcome to stay the following evening, and with that issue sorted, or so I thought, I turned my attention to enjoying our evening.
Soon, the beers and conversation were flowing. Mainly because they spoke good English, although we did insist that they taught us some Spanish too. We sat around our campfire and the offered us some barbecue. I ate a lot of burnt spring onions at that point. Lee had some of the meat, and then persuaded me to try bone marrow after a few beers too many, a decision I still regret to this day. It turns out that one of them guys owns their own tequila company and had brought his own brand tequila with him. We enjoyed tequila and conversation until around midnight, when everyone started heading to bed. Not such a mad party night after all, but definitely a good one. it felt like it had been a long time since we met a group of strangers and enjoyed an evening together, what used to be a regular occurrence now an unusual one.