Located on the east coast of Sicily, Mount Etna is one of THE MOST ACTIVE VOLCANOS IN THE WORLD (!), and is two times the size of the infamous Mount Vesuvius (the volcano near Pompeii).
Deciding to risk it for the sake of adventure, my friends and I left the safety of our hotel room in Catania early one morning and, after a sleepy bus ride, found ourselves at the base of this iconic force-of-nature.
The barren landscape was broken only by a few small cabins selling snacks and kitschy souvenirs. I picked up a book about Etna to flip through and learned that the city we were sleeping in was once covered in lava during an eruption that lasted for 122 days — great.
There were sturdy looking 4WD vehicles lined up, ready to take brave tourists the 2,900m to the top. Even the cable car, usually only running in winter for skiers, was working.
With both of these options before us, we logically chose the most difficult — the three hour trek through the eerie lava-scape littered with fissures and old craters.
The slopes of the steep mountain were covered in thick layers of porous rock and ash that made for unsteady ground. Stumbling at one point, I reached for the rock beneath me and was surprised to feel how hot the rocks were. Heat from the lava below was literally emanating from beneath my feet.
The closer we got to the top, the colder the air got (there was even piles of snow up there!), but the heat coming from the ground made it bearable. Smoke, pouring from the one of four live craters that we were hiking towards was obscuring the blue sky, making the landscape even stranger, more alien.
There is no way to describe the feeling of walking along the lip of an active volcano and staring down into a lava flow — the power of nature is magnificent.
After breathing in the noxious smoke for about half an hour, we opted out of the hike down and nabbed a free ride from a very kind man operating one of the tourist vehicles. (Ok, we lied and told him that we lost our tickets and he believed us — I know, we were horrible.)
Back at the semi-safety of the bottom of the hill, we were accosted by a frantic looking American who claimed that he was a writer for Lonely Planet Italy and didn’t want to go up to the top himself but needed information about the hike. I gave him all the information that I could, excited to be a part of the travel guide that — at the time — I considered to be the ultimate expert. (My tune changed after reading the book Do Travel Writer’s Go To Hell?)
After chatting with him for a bit, we climbed back on the bus and headed home — sore and with a newfound respect for Mother Nature.
For more information on hiking, tours, skiing, and the state of the volcano, visit the Etna Administrative website here.