We awoke at 4am the next morning, sleep deprived and cold. We began our ascent up the steep cliffs and were greeted with Volcán de Fuego’s largest eruption yet. A fiery red shower spewed from the top and cascaded down its sides. The increased intensity of the eruption matched the increased difficulty of the hike. We were nearing the top and I was gasping TO CATCH MY breath. It was then that I got a much needed boost from man’s best friend…
*This hike was alongside Volcán de Fuego just months before its most catastrophic eruption. Click here for more details.
We’d like to start off by saying this hike was one of the most amazing experiences we had on our seventh-month trip around the world. Volcán Acatenango was one of the main reasons why we came to Antigua and this overnight volcano hike was one to remember. If you have the endurance and desire to hike this volcano you will not regret it. Do not miss this.
You might be asking, what is this hike and what makes it so amazing?
The hike to the summit of Volcán Acatenango is about 10 kilometers (a little more than six miles) long with an elevation increase of about 1,525 meters (approximately one mile). When hiking Volcán Acatnenango, you will go through four distinct micro climates; farm fields, a tropical cloud forest, a tropical dry forest, and barren rock cold. Each zone takes a little over an hour to traverse.
When we reached our campsite we had a birds eye view of the daunting Volcán Agua ~15 kilometers (a little more than nine miles) away, Antigua, and its neighboring cities (pictured above). Then even further to right, you have the real star of the show, Volcán de Fuego (pictured below). At four kilometers away, this is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and it isn’t afraid to show it….
It wasn’t long before we heard and saw our first eruption. A low gurgling noise came from the base of the volcano followed by a slow steady eruption and a small plume of smoke. It wasn’t a large explosion but having never seen an eruption before we were amazed. Throughout the rest of the day, we saw eruptions, roughly every 30 minutes or so, of varying degrees. Some eruptions launched large rocks that went tumbling down the volcano, while others you could see the red lava spewing from it’s mouth.
We can’t urge enough that you should opt for the overnight trip rather than just the day hike. It amplifies the experience a hundred times over. Some of the most serene views we had the entire hike, were the bright stars in the sky at night and the moon illuminating the volcanoes and city underneath. Big scattered puffy clouds rolled in over the flickering lights of the city. It felt like we were flying over a fairy tale village. Incredible!
At night, we clearly saw the red lava spewing into the air against the night sky, spilling over the top of the volcano with almost every eruption. “It’s too bad the heat from the volcanic lava doesn’t reach us over here”, Marlena said, bundled up in triple layers, still undeniably cold. The volcano continued to erupt all night and into the morning putting on a great show.
Needless to say, it was very hard to pry away from viewing the eruption to try and get some sleep for the early morning summit. But we needed some for the 4 a.m. wake up call.
The next morning, rise and shine at 4 a.m. This was the most difficult part of the entire hike.
It only takes 45 minutes to summit, but it is steep, the footing is loose (gravel where you slide down with every step up), the air is thin, and it will most likely be cold.
I (Kurt) consider myself a person of above-average physical condition, but during the last 20 minutes of the journey, I was routinely dropping to a knee to catch my breath. Luckily one of the stray “Sherpa” dogs, as we like to call them (who followed us through much of our adventure) saw my struggle. The dog was 100 to 200 feet ahead (above) of me, but when he saw my struggle, he bounded down the side of the cliff and walked up to me as I sat huddled on my knee. The dog looked me in my eye and said, “Kurt, you got this”. I kid you not… Ok, fine he didn’t say anything but he did look me square in the eyes and picked his paw up and put it on my arm (without me asking for it) as if to say “Rise, my son”. It was just the boost I needed to get to the top.
After expanding the last of our energies, we reached the top to face a new challenge – the cold. The summit is rocky and barren. There is no avoiding the gusty and cold winds. We had arrived 10-20 minutes before the sunrise and the wait couldn’t go quick enough.
It was freezing up there. I was wet from all the sweat and Marlena’s fingernails were turning purple despite the cheap knockoff gloves we had rented (the gloves actually had Hugo Boss, & Fitch stitched onto them). “We need to get you down”, I said worryingly. But we waited and were rewarded with another unforgettable moment. If you are lucky, you’ll have uninhibited 360 views of the Guatemalan highlands and supposedly the Border of Mexico amidst the sun rising over Fuego. We were unable to see all of this grandeur due to a heavily clouded morning, but it was still breathtaking metaphorically and realistically (did we mention the thin air and sub-zero temperatures?) We were standing on Central America’s third highest volcano, amidst the clouds, with the sun on our shoulders. What an adventure!
Facts and tips
Do you want to hike Acatenango but still aren’t sure what you are getting into? Here are some facts and tips to help you decide:
- The hike to the summit of Volcán Acatenango was about 10 kilometers (approximately six miles) with an elevation increase of about 1,525 meters (approximately one mile). This is a substantial increase in elevation at one time. Frequent hydration and rest are your friends.
- The hike takes about six hours to get to the camp site. This includes a long lunch break and several intermittent breaks for everyone to rest and catch their breath. Some terrains are easier to hike than others but expect the majority of the hike to be at a solid incline. Be prepared to sweat and exert energy.
- You gain a lot of elevation in a short period of time. I don’t believe I drank enough water throughout the day, as I experienced nausea and other elevation sickness symptoms late at night when I tried to get some sleep. I had to crawl out of my sleeping bag and sit outside the tent slowly sipping water and eating some dark chocolate for about an hour before I began to feel a little better. Make sure to drink a lot of water, it will help reduce any cramping of muscles while hiking and help you acclimatize.
- Summit is another 45 minutes from the campsite and is the most difficult part of the hike. The air is thinner, the incline is steeper, and the ground turns to scree (think running in thick sand on the beach but you are going uphill).
- The descent takes about three hours and is a cakewalk compared to the other direction. You’ll even get to enjoy sliding down the scree in safer spots (FYI – this didn’t seem dangerous, it was just fun).
- We know, it sounds like a lot but there were several breaks. Including breaks to play with the local sweet puppies that follow you (if you’re lucky-all the way to the summit!!)
- We booked our tour through the hostel we stayed at. Food, tents, and sleeping bags were provided. We were required to bring and carry our water, hiking sticks, gloves, hats, and clothing layers. For us, this equated to about 15-20 pounds each on our back. Make sure to consider that into your physical conditioning requirements. If you aren’t comfortable carrying this weight, either hire a Sherpa, or see if a tour agency has a horse for hire than can carry you and/or your pack. Make sure to bring a lot of water. Three liters of water minimum/per person.
- Our tour Company provided tents and sleeping bags at the campsite. The tents kept the elements out but don’t expect too much comfort. Our sleeping bags were laid on top of uneven rugged terrain adding to the discomfort. Marlena slept for a couple hours intermittently and I was lucky if I got an hour all night. I gave up trying most of the night and hung out by the fire. *Note – there are more expensive/more comfortable tours available.
- If you join a tour group like ours, you will likely have 20-30 people from all around the world in your group. You’ll become close friends quickly, there is something about undertaking a big adventure and seeing something few see in their life that brings people together intimately.
- Our group was primarily people in their 20’s and 30’s. Nobody was “out-of-shape” but we weren’t all iron men either. It’s going to be tough, you need to have above average physical conditioning and/or a lot of will power.
- We never felt any imminent danger that we could fall off the side of the cliff. There were a couple spots that if you weren’t a little careful you could have been put in bad spot, but not anything that was too risky to do.
- If you aren’t prepared, hypothermia could be a real threat. Make sure you have the proper layers.
- You can rent extra gear at the small village before you start your hike if needed. As Marlena and I did not have a lot of extra warm gear packed, we picked up a few things. We rented two walking sticks, down jackets, gloves, and hats for about $15/each.
- Consider bringing a headlamp. You will have low visibility late at night at camp and during the summit. It’ll be very handy during the hike and not to mention during those glamorous nightly bathroom breaks at the campsite. All around the campsite we were cautious not to step in “bombs”, as we referred to them.
We hope you enjoyed this tour with us and it spurs you onto your own adventure!