The atmosphere in the shuttle van was one of nervous excitement. Each of us was mentally assessing our accomplices on this hike. Who looked the fittest? Who would be the weakest link?
There was fatalistic banter, jokes about who would come to whose funerals and whether we’d prefer to be buried on the summit or carried down in a body bag. There was an edge to the repartees. We all wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into. I felt a little ill at the thought of it.
The Acatenango volcano hike
We were driving 1.5 hours to the starting point of the hike up Acatenango Volcano near Antigua. It was the #1 activity for more adventurous visitors to this region of Guatemala.
And everyone I’d talked to who’d already done the hike said one thing: it was the hardest thing they’d ever done and a highlight of their trip so far.
Acatenango is a dormant volcano connected to a second, much more active volcano, Volcan de Fuego (just how active it could be, we were about to find out).
The most popular hike – the one we were about to embark on – involved climbing some 1,400m to a base camp at 3,600m above sea level, camping overnight, and then ascending the summit at 3,980m the following morning.
For nearly 5 hours of hiking, the trail would rarely flatten out and would frequently involve scrambling through gravel, sliding back for every step forward. Many of us would likely battle altitude sickness as well.
The Acatenango hike is not for everyone. It’s a 5 hour hike that is very demanding and with a terrain that demands some expertise in hiking or trekking. When you book the hike, we assume that you are in shape and fit enough to keep up with the group.
Day 1: The hike up
The shuttle van took us through verdant landscapes so beautiful I didn’t want the drive to end. Fine … I just didn’t want the hike to begin.
But it had to. We stopped outside a cluster of ramshackle buildings, where we formed a fearful little herd, testing our walking sticks and weighing our backpacks.
I was fully ready to sacrifice my pride and pass on my burden to one of the porters I’d read were available. Alas, I saw no mules … and that was a worry.
My borrowed 45L backpack held a thick snow jacket, a heavy-duty rain poncho, a fleece jumper and other thick layers of clothes, 4 litres of water, crockery, cutlery, and food for the journey, camera equipment, and other sundry knick-knacks (for the full list, scroll to the end of this post).
I felt off kilter just putting it on. Carrying it for 5 hours on steep slopes at high altitude … I wondered again whether I’d even make it.
The first hour or so was meant to be the hardest part of the hike. I figured if I met that challenge just fine, I’d be a freaking Zena the Warrior Princess the rest of the journey (oh man, that takes me back…).
And so I put my head down and charged. The path was gravel and sand, slippery and uncooperative on my feet. And it was all directly up, through maize fields and then jungle.
When we stopped for our first rest break about a half hour in, I was the first girl to make it. I was killing it! Weakest link, my arse.
We waited for the group to catch up and once the slowest came into view, the guide cried “Vamos!”(“Let’s go”). I realised that it was best to stay ahead if you wanted any kind of break.
The gravel soon disappeared, replaced with something far worse – stairs. And at this point, the altitude started to get to me. I began to feel dizzy and nauseated.
Several times, I had to stop, lean over my stick or cling to tree trunks, and hope to God I wasn’t going to pass out. That just wouldn’t be cool.
But I wasn’t the only one who struggled. We’d already lost two girls who dropped so far behind that they never caught up to us along the hike. They reached base camp almost two hours after us (props to them; the achievement is all the greater for those who struggle and persevere).
One girl became our drug dealer, distributing altitude sickness pills and Ibuprofen. That was a godsend. It never fully banished the dizziness, but I was able to pick up my pace a teensy bit and hover around the middle of the pack to ensure I still got some rest in and keep my ego satisfied.
All this time, I could only focus on placing one foot in front of the other and regulating my breathing to ensure the oxygen didn’t stick in my throat, as it felt apt to do at high altitudes.
I could only vaguely describe the surrounding landscape – dense forest and cloudy skies. But the ground was firm and compact, contained by roots, littered with leaves, and often broken up with seemingly insurmountable steps.
Our lunch break – a merciful 30-40 minutes – was in a nondescript stretch of woods with a couple of logs for seats. Here, we managed a few jokes and words of encouragement and downed sandwiches and chips. The girls disappeared to find appropriate pee patches.
We still had several hours to go but it was a comfort to know that the hardest part was over and that we had just one hour of intense uphill left before a final hour of undulating trails.
Ironically, once the land – and my breathing – evened out somewhat, I became fully aware of just how much my shoulders were aching. I became fixated on arriving at the base camp and dumping my bag.
On the final stretch, we could hear loud crackles and booms and see the occasional burst of ash shoot into the sky… we were almost there.
We made it – Base camp at Acatenango
When we finally crawled into base camp, our guides lined up to high five us. We bypassed the tents and the campfire, slung our bags on the ground and collapsed into deck chairs arranged in a neat line facing the piece-de-resistance of the hiking tour, the reason we were all here: Volcan de Fuego.
Alas, the clouds had rolled in. We waited, anticipated, watched the swirling mists and perked up when they thinned out. This is what we hiked here for … to see an active volcano blast its plumes of smoke and ash from close proximity.
Bit by bit, the clouds cleared. And then, with a rumble and a belch, Volcan de Fuego delivered. It was mesmerising but the clouds drifted across the landscape again.
Soon, bullets of rain pelted us and we huddled around the sheltered campfire. The volcano now had thunder and lightning to contend with. But instead of competing, nature harmonised, delivering us an almighty crash and rumble of thunder and eruption in one.
Several of us screamed. I may have been one of them. But honestly, it felt as though we’d hiked to the end of the world.
But no. Instead, the storm moved on and the skies cleared. Completely. We supped on dinner, roasted marshmallows, sipped hot chocolate, and marvelled at our surroundings.
The sun set, casting the most vibrant hues into the sky. It was hard to know which way to look – towards Fuego for an imminent eruption, or towards Agua Volcano in the other direction, its peak and a golden full moon framed perfectly by the trees.
When the sky darkened enough, I set up my camera and turned it permanently on, ready to pounce upon the first eruption.
And then it happened.
Vivid red plumes burst from the rim, breaking up mid-air and scattering lava in tiny fiery drops down the mountainsides.
I forgot about the camera in my hands, instead unleashing several expletives that brought the rest of my fellow hikers running. It was far too hypnotic a sight to view through an LCD screen.
By about 8.30pm, we began drifting off to bed one by one, anticipating an early wake-up call for the final summit the next day.
An impossible night’s sleep
Even tucked up in bed with my long johns, a long-sleeved top, a fleece jumper, 3 pairs of socks, and a beanie, I was frozen.
I tossed and turned, but between the frostbite and the regular belches from Volcan de Fuego, I barely slept at all.
There’s one easy solution to this: find yourself an obliging fellow hiker willing to share their sleeping bag with you. Once I slid into my neighbour’s bag and we shared body warmth, I felt so snug that I never wanted to get up … which was a shame, because just an hour later, our alarms began to chatter. It was 3.30am.
Day 2: The final sunrise summit
Everybody talks about the first hour of the hike on the first day. Nobody seems to mention the seemingly impossible task of summiting Acatenango in the pitch black on rough sand that has you constantly sliding back three paces.
Not five minutes into this walk did I doubt myself. I thought of the cosy little situation I had going for myself in a sleeping bag back in my tent and wondered whether it was too late to turn back.
But FOMO pushed me on. We were already at 3,600m, climbing up another 400m on scree. And this time, there was a time limit to reach the top before sunrise.
We got there in 1.5 hours, just in time to watch the universe awaken.
Here, the peaks of the other volcanoes poked through the clouds. The summit was entirely black, totally barren save for a few crosses dedicated to the 6 hikers who died on the volcano in 2017.
It was a magnificent landscape and I would have loved to have stayed there for hours … except for the small matter of being unable to feel my toes or fingertips.
Thankfully, they were hardly necessary for the descent. The rubble was so loose and so deep that you merely had to embed your feet ankle deep in it and ski down.
And that’s just what we did.
It’s all downhill from here
Are you an ascent or a descent person? Many times, I’ve had this debate with fellow travellers, but the fact remains that on the descent, I don’t feel like my lungs have forgotten how to work.
Going down, we were chatterboxes. The guide up front played uplifting tunes from a loudspeaker strapped to his chest and those of us who trailed him busted moves and sang out of tune for the length of the descent.
Sure, my bag now put considerable strain on my shoulders. And sure, I may have slipped and twisted my knee not half an hour from the end of the hike. I managed to walk it off at the time but I still can’t seem to be able to walk without a hobble (boy you should have seen me attempt those Mayan temple steps!).
But, as a thousand people have said before me, it was worth every damn minute of it.
The Acatenango Volcano Hike Tour: Everything You Need to Know
OK well, this pertains to the tour I did with Wicho and Charlie’s. Though they’re a bit more expensive, I highly recommend going with them. It’s not an easy hike, nor a comfortable night. So do yourself a favour and invest in one of the best tour companies.
Acatenango Hike Difficulty
Don’t get cocky. This is a tough hike. BUT, it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be (perhaps because I truly expected the worst).
In fact, I’m tempted to say that the San Pedro hike I did in Lake Atitlan a fortnight earlier was worse (perhaps because it was the primer for this hike – along with the Pacaya hike – and I’d done few tough hikes in a while). And I still think it’s easier than the Colca Canyon hike in Peru.
The guides always broke up the hikes breaks RIGHT when I felt like I couldn’t handle another step.
Costs & Inclusions
Wicho and Charlie’s hike cost 450 Queztales (50 Quetzales of which was paid at the entry office on the volcano itself).
Their camp had three big tents for 6 people in each 4-season tent. We had raised camper beds, which by the sounds of things was a luxury compared to the other campsites. We also had decent sleeping bags and foam pillows – these were already set up so we didn’t have to carry any of it up.
You also got meals and snacks provided: oatmeal breakfasts, pasta dinners, sandwich lunches, a muesli bar, a brownie, a banana and some lollies (candies, whatever). Most people brought extra food.
Oh, plus there was wine to go with dinner and hot chocolate and marshmallows afterwards!
You had to carry your own cutlery, crockery, and most of the food up with you.
The company also provides a range of additional clothes for rental, included in the price. These include:
- Fleece jumpers
- Snow jackets
- Rain ponchos
For an extra cost, you could also hire:
- Hiking shoes
- Hiking poles
What to bring
Well that all depends on what you have and what you’ll need to rent. But in total – including rented and my own gear, I carried:
- Long sleeve hiking top
- Shorts (for day 1)
- Leggings (for day 2)
- 1 thin jumper and replacement t-shirt (didn’t use either)
- Fleece jumper
- Snow jacket
- Beanie, gloves, and scarf
- Long johns
- 3 pairs of thin socks (make sure you wear at least two pairs to the summit!)
- Merrell barefoot trail runners
- Rain poncho
- Small camera tripod
- Mirrorless camera
- Portable battery recharger
- 2 extra bars and trail mix
- 4L water
- Toilet paper
- Spare cash
Check your insurance!
As always with adventures like this, it’s a fab idea to make sure you have travel insurance should anything happen.
Beware that some travel insurance doesn’t cover volcano hiking, while others exclude incidents that occur above a certain altitude (often 2,000m).
As you might be able to tell, I love outdoor adventures. Be sure to check out some of my other crazy outdoor escapades on the blog today!