Guatemala: hiking volcano Acatenango
Hiking Volcano Acatenango had never occurred to me until I found myself late one night in a humid Nicaraguan bar, where two women showed me videos of a volcano as it violently erupted in the middle of the night.
My jaw dropped in disbelief as I watched the lava explode into the dark sky and rush down the sides of the mountain. The women had recounted to me the story of their hike up Volcan Acatenango. Volcan Acatenango lies directly next to Volcan Fuego, which erupts every 15 minutes. From the base camp of Volcan Acatenango, they’d spent all night watching Volcan Fuego erupting, which is Guatemala’s most active stratovolcano. “It was the hardest hike of my life, but the most incredible thing I have ever seen,” one woman told me. I was sold. My partner (Lucas) and I booked flights to Guatemala City.
The Acatenango Hike is considered highly difficult, known for wreaking havok on experienced and inexperienced hikers alike. Acatenango is 3,976 meters tall, very steep, temperatures drop the higher you climb and altitude sickness is likely. Lucas and I like to hike, but never considered ourselves “hikers.” The weeks leading up to Acatenango, I did some jogging and climbing in a local rock climbing gym, ensuring I had basic fitness on my side. We flew into Guatemala City and went directly to Antigua. Knowing that the best rates to hike Acatenango are negotiated locally, we shopped around the hostels of Antigua, finally settling on a local guide that charged 40 USD per person. This included lunch, a tent and sleeping bags. One of the cheaper options, we assured ourselves by thinking “well no matter what, you’re climbing the same mountain!” And finally we were on our way to conquer Acatenango.
Why hike Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala?
Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala is a stratovolcano in Guatemala, close to the city of Antigua. It is considered a volcano complex, because over time it has been comprised of various eruptive centres. The volcano has been dormant since the early 20th century, making it safe to hike. Connected to Volcan Acatenango is the famous Volcan Fuego, which continually erupts. Volcan Fuego is aptly named: in English its name means volcano of fire. Hiking Volcan Acatenango is so popular because of its proximity to Volcan Fuego. From Acatenango, hikers can enjoy unprecedented views of the smoke, ash, and lava as it explodes from Volcan Fuego’s crater. Hiking Volcan Acatenango is no easy feat, but it is absolutely worth the effort, because barely anywhere else in the world can a human so closely admire mother nature at work.
Beginning the Acatenango hike
On climb day, we were picked up by a shuttle. Our Acatenango hiking group was approximately 9 people. We were driven to the base of Volcan Acatenango, where we bought walking sticks, extra snacks, ponchos (for the rain) and beer (to celebrate the summit)! Our guide explained that as we climbed Volcan Acatenango we would stop often to rest, and we should go slowly. A short walk up the road, and we began on the path. Some of our fellow climbers warned us that backpackers had told them the first leg of the climb was the hardest. They were absolutely right. The dirt path was steep and within minutes I felt myself going faint, eventually collapsing to the side of the path, certain that I was going to vomit. Our guide had told us that if we wanted to forfeit doing the Acatenango hike, we would have to decide within that first leg of the climb. I lay there seriously contemplating giving up, but remembered what one of the backpackers had mentioned - in the first leg of the Acatenango hike your body is acclimatizing to the altitude, and this makes it the hardest. Behind me I could see our guide half carrying one of our group’s climbers, urging him forwards. I peered ahead at my partner and pushed on, promising myself it would get easier as we climbed. When the first rest break came, Lucas and I lay exhausted on the ground, deliberating. This was our only opportunity to turn back, and so if we wanted to forfeit the Acatenango hike, we had to do so now. We had come so far, and dreamed of this experience for so long. So we pledged we would push on and finish the Acatenango hike.
Our bodies did acclimatize and the feeling of faintness and nausea subsided. We went slowly and often stopped. What we had heard was true: the first 10-20 minutes of the Acatenango are the hardest. Afterwards, things do get easier! As we climbed the landscape changed quickly, from lush farmland to humid jungle. This eventually evolved into a barren landscape scattered with few trees. Our group was silent while climbing. It felt meditative to stare at the boots in front of me. I fixed my eyes on them and focused on keeping pace. The steep terrain was never-ending and I constantly dreamed of when it would flatten. After five hours, our guide announced that we were almost there. The last few kilometers of hiking to Volcan Acatenango base camp Lucas and I listened to our favourite songs, singing as we walked. The terrain had flattened and we knew the incredible view was just around the corner.
Volcan Acatenango’s base camp
We reached Volcan Acatenango’s base camp in the early evening. At an elevation of 3,750 meters, this left the Acatenango summit (226 meters higher) to be hiked the following morning. Our base camp had several tents set up, and our guide distributed sleeping bags. We were overheated from hiking, but he assured us that the temperature would drop drastically overnight. As our fire got going, night fell, and the magic began. The clouds had parted and the earth rumbling. We had our first full view of Volcan Fuego. Suddenly, lava exploded into the sky like orange fireworks, followed by a huge “bang” as the lava flowed down the sides of the Fuego. All of us gasped, mesmerized: instantly, the Acatenango hike (and accompanying pain) was absolutely worth it. We stayed awake late into the night watching the volcano work its magic. I eventually tucked myself into my sleeping bag, but sleep was impossible with the ongoing interruptions of the mountain. Some of the most incredible Fuego eruptions happened in the middle of the night. I would sleep a few hours, and then wake up to unzip the tent to watch the magic.
The summit of the Volcan Acatenango hike
Our guide had explained that at 3:45am we should get up for the final portion of the hike: the Acatenango summit. We would hike through volcanic sand in complete darkness to reach the highest point of Volcan Acatenango, and from there we would have a clear view of Volcan Fuego. The summit hike is somewhat dangerous, and so it is only done if the weather permits. Our guide explained that he would assess the weather in the morning. We awoke with good news - we could summit. I packed some water, grabbed my walking stick and put on my headlamp. The hike was straight upwards and excruciating. The volcanic sand and dirt made every step more challenging, and it was difficult to maintain balance. We stopped often to rest as people felt lightheaded from the altitude. The sky began to lighten as we climbed, and slowly the incredible view revealed itself. In the distance we could see Antigua, Guatemala City, and a string of other volcanoes. After 1.5 hours, we reached the top of Volcan Acatenango. A closed crater, the terrain was rocky, sandy and barren. As the sun rose, Fuego erupted. The magnificent view was like nothing I’ve ever seen before: an erupting volcano firmly reminds you how small you are in the scope of this earth.
Descending Volcan Acatenango
After thirty minutes of enjoying the Acatenango summit views, it was time to return to Acatenango base camp to prepare for the full descent. The volcanic sand that had burdened us on the hike up proved to be fun on the way back down. After slowly inching down the steep decline, I realized that my best option was to give into the force of gravity and run down. Our group began to bound down the sandy slope, laughing whenever one of us (inevitably) slipped and fell. Once back to base camp we watched a couple more Fuego eruptions before our guide informed us that it was time to start the longer descent to the base of Volcan Acatenango. The descent took three hours. Though it was hard on the knees, our group was in a great mood given the rewarding night we’d had. Once back at the base of Volcan Acatenango, our guide brought us to his family home where a delicious breakfast of eggs, beans and coffee awaited us. After breakfast, we were transported back to our hostel in Antigua where we spent the rest of the day enjoy some hard-earned rest.
If you hike Volcan Acatenango
Pack: a headlamp. This will be useful for the overnight camping, and is integral for the early morning hike to the Acatenango summit.
Pack: warm clothing, because the temperature on Volcan Acatenango drops drastically. If you are like me and feel cold easily, bring many extra layers. I wore a long sleeve shirt, light down jacket, and fleece sweater over the jacket. I slept in all these layers, and even put a second pair of leggings on over my hiking leggings.
Pack: medication. Some hikers took medication prior to the hike for altitude sickness. We did not, but we both took acetaminophen to ease the headaches. I also carried and used my inhaler, which helped immensely.
Pack: electrolyte tabs to add to your water. We proactively drank this to ensure we stayed well hydrated while we hiked up Volcan Acatenango.
Pack: hiking boots. Many on our trek wore running shoes rather than hiking boots. They did fine on the trek, but hiking boots will make for a far more comfortable experience. Make sure you have worn them in prior to the hike.
Pack: a dry bag. I bring a dry bag for any and all outdoor excursions. We carried our passports, wallets, and cameras on the hike, and having the dry bag gave piece of mind in the event that it rained, which is quite common on Volcan Acatenango.
I recommend doing the trek with a daypack (10-20 litre capacity). Your hostel will give you a locker to stow your things in while on the trek, so you will bring only your water, food, headlamp, extra clothing and camera.
At the start of the trek, buy a walking stick. You will absolutely need it. At the start of the trek you will see locals renting out wooden walking sticks for 1 USD or less. You will also see ponchos for sale. We did not need ours, but bought them anyways because weather on the mountain is unpredictable.
Bring lots of water. We brought 3 litres of water each, which we carefully rationed to ourselves. That said, if I had carried more water, I would have drunk it!
Water is for sale at the first two rest stops on Acatenango. If by the second stop you are concerned for your water supply, you will have the option to buy more.
Bring extra snacks. The guides provide “meals” but they are very small, and most people on our trek needed more food. I carried bananas and Clif bars to supplement my meals.
At the second stop some snacks are available to buy: bananas, chocolate bars, chips.
Be warned that summiting Volcan Acatenango is only done if the weather permits. Because of the treacherous nature of the summit trek, which is done in complete darkness, the guides only embark to summit if the weather is clear.
Be warned that you may not have views of the volcano. We encountered many backpackers in Guatemala who were not granted the incredible view of Fuego that we had - we lucked out. Your view will depend on the weather. Before embarking on the hike, ask locals, hostel staff and backpackers around Antigua about current Fuego visibility. And remember, regardless of the view, hiking Volcan Acatenango is a great accomplishment!