UNMISSABLE GUATEMALA: HIKING VOLCANO ACATENANGO
Everything you need to know before hiking Volcan Acatenango
Volcano facts, where to start, how to book, the itinerary, safety and everything else you need to know
**At the time of writing this, just two days after safely descending Acatenango, reports have come through that over 4,000 people have been evacuated from the surrounding area. The eruptions from Volcán de Fuego, Acatenango’s tempestuous neighbour, have increased in intensity**
Volcan Acatenango is Guatemala’s 3rd highest volcano, standing at 3,976m above sea level. It is located just an hours drive outside of Antigua - the beautiful former Guatemalan Capital - and hiking to the summit is one of the more adventurous activities in the area, especially given the opportunity for an overnight stay at one of the campsites on its flank. The motivation to hike Acatenango came less from a “because it’s there” attitude and more from the fact that, from a certain vantage, we would have the opportunity to see the active volcano next door (Volcán de Fuego) erupt in the darkness. Sold.
Broadly speaking, it was created when the Cocos Plate (Oceanic) collided with the Caribbean Plate (Continental), being forced beneath it. Insane levels of heat, pressure & friction melted the rock forcing lava to the surface to form the Central American Volcanic Arc.
Acatenango has two peaks Pico Mayor (highest) and Yepocapa, giving it a very distinctive silhouette. From the summit you are awarded spectacular views of it’s sister volcano, Volcán de Fuego, firing lava & smoke skywards. I say sister, as they are often referred to as twins or pairs where (superficially) they appear to be joined together . The deeper geological relationship between the two remains unknown. A crucial difference is this Acatenango is considered dormant (at least enough to camp on) - it’s last eruption recorded as 1972, whilst Fuego is most definitely alive & well.
As you ascend Acatenango’s slopes you pass through three different ecosystems: Oak Forest or Tropical Montane Moist Forest (1,500 - 2700m), Cloud Forest or Tropical Montane Wet Forest (2,500 - 3,400m), and finally Pine & Sub-Alpine Forest or Tropical Montane Rain Forest (3,000 - 3,976m). Basically a gradient of how soaked you’ll get if the weather doesn’t play ball…
Starting in Antigua
We arrived in Antigua after a 10 hour overnight bus trip from Flores.
Although we both slept, I can’t say we woke up feeling particularly refreshed. Let’s just say, I didn’t realise you could loose sensation in a limb so thoroughly whilst it still being attached to your body…
After a morning of coffee, huevos & sulking, we arranged our hike up Acatenango for the next day. Keeping fingers crossed for a quiet night and many hours of sleep beforehand.
We were staying at the Three Monkeys hostel who were able to book us onto an overnight trip. There are multiple different tours & guides, ranging from the suspiciously cheap (beware a lack of food and equipment) to unjustifiably expensive. The tour Three Monkeys work with is called Tropicana, somewhere in the middle of the scale and run & organised by the Tropicana Hostel close-by.
We were staying in a dorm that night and were incredibly fortunate with our room-mates; a Welsh couple traveling for 9 months and in Antigua for a week of Spanish lessons. We shopped, cooked & ate together, swapping notes on Mexico, mini-bus rides & dodgy road-side restaurants.
Hiking with Tropicana
In a word: incredible.
We cannot believe how lucky we were to book onto this particular trip given how little research we did. A quick retrospective Google and we realised we’d been with the most highly recommended guides in Antigua.
The deal was breakfast delivered at 8, pick-up at 9, hike from 11, overnight at camp with dinner, summit for sunrise the following day, breakfast pre-decent & then once down a transfer back to town. Quite the package for Q450 (£45). The added bonus, and much to my delight, was that the tents & sleeping bags were already in situ, meaning all we had to carry was our clothes, hiking equipment & share of the food and water.
At 8am Breakfast arrived at our hostel. Keen for us to eat well before starting, we were given boiled eggs & salsa, then a stack of pancakes with syrup & apple compote. A quick trip to the Crisp & Cola shop (there’s one on every corner) and we were all set with 8 litres of water, trail mix & chocolate packed as the mini-van arrived.
After we picked up 9 other travellers from Hostel Tropicana, we had an hour long drive to the start of the hike. Once there we could rent larger bags (if required), warm clothing (gloves, hats, jackets), plastic rain covers & walking sticks.
We also had chance to meet the rest of the group properly - and what a lovely bunch they were.
A mix of Australians, Americans, a Swiss & a Canadian. Trips like this are always made by the people you’re with and we were so lucky to have a group of energetic, kind & funny people to walk up a Volcano with. It also turned out that Erin, an American living and working in Mexico City, spoke perfect Spanish - She kindly acted as translator, meaning our guides could communicate with us easily & allowed us the next level of insight they were keen to share.
We were briefed before setting off:
Take it slow
Don’t touch the plants
4 stops planned but will take more if we need them
If you start getting a headache - tell them straight away
Why get a guide
Always being a little wary of a tour group, Nick and I will try and ‘DIY’ wherever possible, though in some cases this is either impossible, or seriously ill-advised. Climbing Acatenago fell into the latter category.
In January 2017 6 hikers across 3 different groups died on Acatenango’s slopes. A cold front swept across the whole of the Central American Region and whilst two of the groups tried to descend they became lost as it got dark where they didn’t know the route. One of their number fell and the others contracted hypothermia. A second group camped at the summit, where the wind-chill is more severe than other camps given a total lack of cover, sadly they also developed hypothermia. When our guides told us they were almost distraught - knowing that if they’d been with them they could have saved their lives.
We were grateful for their knowledge & insight and we genuinely can’t recommend them more.
In total the ascent took us 4 hours and 30 minutes including four 5-10 minute breaks plus lunch. The first half felt significantly harder due to the terrain - basically black mud at an impossible gradient. For those with tight achilles (myself and at least one other) this meant climbing on our toes for 25 minutes at a time - the calf cramp was at a whole new level.
Psychologically though, this climb actually felt easier than San Pedro (video here). Whilst the path itself was more challenging & precarious, the 25-30 minute blocks of walking between breaks felt manageable & temporary. The final 20 minutes was on a narrow but mercifully flat path, skirting around the edge of the volcano about 500m from the summit. We tasted relief before arriving at camp which meant our spirits peaked as we reached the tents… as opposed to collapsing with fatigue.
Our elation was not just down to arrival; for the entire hike we had been surrounded by a thick blanket of cloud. A sense of anxiousness that our efforts wouldn’t be rewarded with any kind of view had been bubbling through the group; masked with jokes & cheers whenever the sun momentarily broke through. But as we turned the final corner & approached the little row of tents, the cloud rolled off Acatenago & the burning Volcan de Fuego loomed from the swirl. It’s raging summit just 3km from our camp-fire.
Tropicana’s camp-site has a number of benefits that made it one of the best on the Acatenango:
It’s relatively small. There are 6 pre-pitched tents accommodating a maximum of 3 people each. Whilst other tents can be pitched our group was quite small so had plenty of space
Pasta, red wine, marshmallows. Enough said
Camping equipment on site - no need to pack & carry your own sleeping bags, tents or cooking equipment
But perhaps most critically… the camp faces Volcan de Fuego (some of the other camps don’t so make sure to check). As the sun dropped, the grey clouds of smoke we’d seen billowing on arrival into camp becomes streaked with orange & red and we watched lava pour from the top. It was hypnotic. At every eruption, all conversation was lost whilst we were held in total rapture.
Our guides’ dog - Jugaton (meaning the Player) who accompanied us on the entire hike. He was so bouncy & beautiful that giving him a little scratch behind the ears dissipated any exhaustion & self-doubt
After arriving at camp, we had a couple of hours before the sunset which we spent huddled around the camp-fire chatting, taking photos & snacking. The guides were also keen for us to eat at least the first course of dinner (pot-noodle) before the light got too low & the temperature dropped too far - having hot soup in our stomachs helped to fend off the cold enormously whilst the guys made up huge plates of spaghetti.
Pasta was followed by red-wine (a rather nice Californian red from a carton!), hot chocolate & then marshmallows, speared and toasted over the flames.
When we finally, sadly, defeatedly conceded that we couldn’t get any closer to the heat from the fire without setting ourselves alight (I have a melted glove to prove it), we headed to our tents. Climbing into sleeping bags fully dressed & with extra socks.
Summiting at Sunrise
Another slightly restless night, in no small part down to howling wind whipping at the canvas, icy temperatures & the unpredictable earth-ripping roars of Fuego erupting.
It wasn’t so much of a problem as the night was somewhat short-lived; the guys coralled us at 3.50am… “Amigos, amigos! Vamos”.
The creeping dread started immediately… Not about the final hour of the climb… but about the prospect of extracting myself from my sleeping bag. The air was biting.
Once everyone was ready, head torches on, we started the climb - a more fitting word than ‘hike’ in this case.
This was probably the most challenging part of the hike, though interestingly the part I remember the least. It was the same sightly loose headspace I remember being in when we submitted Mount Toubkal in Morocco; a strange auto-pilot fuelled by a heavy mix adrenaline, disbelief & fear. Picking our way up loose volcanic rocks, clambering over boulders, and hauling ourselves away from the precipices on our hands & knees.
As dawn started to creep into an inky sky, we reached the crest of the caldera. Scrambling the last 150m to the eastern edge was akin to running up a sand-dune, but once arrived we sat on the debris, huddled against the wind, watching as the night shifted. Cheers erupted as Fuego did, a fanfare for the sun as it spilled over the horizon.
I’ll leave the poetics there - pictures speak a thousand words.
In summary - we ran.
Aside from the precarious trail from the summit back to camp, the majority of our descent can be described as semi-controlled rushing.
Where the terrain was relatively free of uneven surfaces (just steep & slippery), jogging diagonally to & fro down the paths was far easier & more effective than taking cautious step by cautious step in an effort not to slip. It was also a lot faster and as a result we got of the Volcano in just 2 hours.
We were served lemon juice & chia back the the start (all kinds of good for hydration) before piling back onto the mini-van to Antigua. The group in a happy silence; a result of warmth, triumph & the type of exhaustion that promised dreamless sleep.
For more information obout Tropicana tours have a look here.
Feel inspired to watch an erupting volcano? Have a look at the recommended TripAdvisor tours and click to find out more
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