Welcome to Antigua, one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala, in my opinion at least. Antigua is also the starting point of the famous Acatenango volcano hike, a two day hike up to the summit of this volcano, peaking at 3,976 metres above sea level. Here in this blog I want to tell you about my experience of hiking Acatenango so you know exactly what to expect if you do decide to take on this amazing hike.
Hiking time is between 4/6 hours depending on various things…
We were collected at 8:30am, ‘más or menos’, although in this case they were very much on time. A WhatsApp group had already been made with all participants in it. They (our fantastic tour company CA Travellers) politely yelled at us through WhatsApp’s telling us to get our arses outside of our hostels and not to be late! Very unusual for Central America.
Truth No 1:
The Acatenango hike couldn’t be easier, equipment wise…anyways. Almost all equipment can be provided by CA Travellers which is great because let’s be honest when you’re travelling through Central America you aren’t going to have packed cold weather clothes. Unless of course the main reason for your trip is to hike up every volcano – good luck to you if this is the case. We got given the following items: a backpack (request this when you book at the office in Antigua though), gloves, hat, camel back with 3L of water, water proof poncho, ski jacket, sleeping bag liner, head torch, lunch and food!
After collecting our equipment from their halfway house, we continued en route to pick up our guides and eventually arrived at the start of this ominous trail. We all rushed off the bus, I was definitely feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement. After a few minutes of messing around I finally managed to comfortably get my camel back on my front (luckily my chest is on the smaller side and it laid quite comfortable on my front) and my backpack on my back. We were then given a wooden stick each, for walking, not to swat off the snakes this time.
Our guides were Leo and Fidel – the latter a grandfather who guided this trip with CA Travellers about twice a week, that’s 4 days out of 7 days Fidel does the Acatenango hike.
Truth No 2:
The first two hours are hell! From your first step, the trail is uphill, steep and the ground is an earthy mix with sand. Primarily not the easiest to walk up. I think we had to stop after just 15 minutes and I for one was out of breath to say the least.
During the first hour of our Acatenango hike, we walked up past fields, along narrow tracks and past farmers fields filled with Canna lilies. The sun was shining which was an unusual curse, especially for me to say. I was so hot from hiking uphill, that the sun was a killer. However every time I glanced upwards, the peak of the volcano was always hidden under a thick cloud that circled it. It was going to get colder…at that moment I just didn’t expect to what extent.
What really makes you feel shit though is that you don’t even arrive at the official park entrance for about an hour and a half. What a kick in the head that is, you’re knackered before you’ve even made it through the official entrance. Here you need to fill in a form and get it stamped. In case you get lost or something similar…
The official entrance point is also where you will start to notice a change in temperature. Here is where the terrain begins to change, you enter into the cloud forest of Acatenango! A lot more trees, meaning a lot more shade, less warmth and consequently involves clothes being pulled out of your backpack to put on.
Truth No 3:
The food was good! Lunch was delicious. The lunch stop was about 2 hours into the hike. We threw our stuff onto the forest floor and looked for a sunny spot to perch. Other people started to emerge through the trees who are hiking with other companies. Watch out for the territorial pups on the trails, they will follow the smell of food for miles. They are friendly things, they just want the scraps of your chicken legs.
After a quick pee in a bush, we were off again. More endless steep hills were in front of us, this time though the cloud-forest slowly transforms into an alpine forest, with the remains of dead fir trees everywhere. We had finally reached that cloud that was consuming the volcano because we could no longer see anything down below us.
Truth No 4:
The trail does eventually flatten out – to some extent. Finally, we had reached the turning point on the Acatenango hike, where the trail stopped increasing in steepness. Well that’s that Leo said anyway, I would like to argue this point, it was nowhere near flat like he had promised us. The trail was now covered in fir tree needles, it felt like you were walking on a freshly laid carpet, that soft bouncing feeling beneath your feet was a welcome change to the grit and dirt earlier on on the trail.
After another hour or so, who knows now, as our thighs were about to give up and collapse, we had made it! We had reached base camp and it was a beautiful sight. The sun had come out, the clouds had cleared and there was the spectacular Fuego (aptly named, see photos below) volcano right in front of our eyes. I wouldn’t say it was heaven because I then saw the tents and cried a little inside.
Truth No 5:
Base camp is as good as it’s going to get on the side of a volcano. CA base camp is set up away from other companies. At least I didn’t hear any other human voices whilst we were there. It’s also got everything already up there, such as the tents, camping mattresses (very thick), sleeping bags, food and drink and of course the bathroom, I’ll explain about that later.
I think we must of chucked our backpacks inside our designated tent (2 per tent) and rushed to the living room. An open area, decorated with wooden benches, logs on the floor around a fire and a kitchen larder at the back filled with the essentials – peanut butter, maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
The whole group just sat and gazed out, watching the clouds clear and Fuego making it’s debut to us. What amazed me was how quickly the clouds move around the volcano. It was like watching a time lapse in real life. Then suddenly she started exploding, first came the roar and then the smoke. Little did we know this was just the beginning, tonight’s show would be unreal.
Truth No 6:
Sunset is included in the price of your Acatenango hike. After all of us had stared in awe for a while we were told to get up and walk again, are you actually having a laugh. This is it isn’t it – for today at least. Nope, sunset was imminent and we needed to walk to a viewpoint. Who was I say to no to a sunset up on a volcano. We sat literally on the side of Acatenango, my feet slipping on the volcanic rocks and watched the most stunning sunset I’ve ever seen. Fuego tried to distract us by erupting every now and again but she just added to the atmosphere. Although we were interrupted by some poor women who was throwing up, altitude sickness had started to infect some of us.
It was beginning to get cold, like really cold. We practically ran back to camp with enough light in the sky to just about see the trail. Fidel had got the fire going, thank god and we all huddled around – the hot chocolate was brewing.
Dinner was good and very welcomed by all of us. Accompanied with dinner was of course the show. Fuego was about to go off! She was incredible, in the darkness you heard her roar then you saw varying sizes of vibrant red rocks flying out and tumbling down the side of the volcano. I can still picture it now.
I had to run (because it was cold) to the bathroom after dinner. Well a hole in the ground covered with a plastic seat and half a curtain. This wasn’t pretty, I held my breath and peed as quick as I could!
Truth No 7:
Darkness brings out the best and worst on this Acatenango hike. Mother earth’s elements are shown to us at their fullest – we see fire alongside bitter coldness.
After dinner we all sat and watched Fuego for a little and tried to get some decent photos. After half an hour though the cold was too much and most of us retreated to our tents in the hope for some warmth – oh how wrong were we. I think I ended up putting more clothes on inside the tent, like ALL the clothes I took with me.
Truth No 8:
It is f***ing freezing on the side of a volcano, funny that. We had heard stories, which were true, about people hiking this trail and not being properly equipped at all, not having enough clothes and there have been some fatalities on this volcano. The Acatenango hike is not a hike to be taken as a joke.
Cat and I scoffed some biscuits we had brought with us and decided to do a little vlog of our first experience of hiking a volcano. The vlog wasn’t our best but it did produce one of Cat’s most hilarious lines, ever. ‘…and this hike has a difficulty rating of…difficult…’ Oh yeh, never a truer word been spoken in that tent.
Truth No 9:
Bring extra food! Very important, you will want it.
I wish I could have sat at the end of our tent and just gazed admiringly at Fuego but it was too damn cold. I settled for just listening to her erupting, all night long.
Truth No 10:
Dogs are everywhere – like in the rest of Central America. I had a friend come and snuggle down at the back of our tent, to take shelter out of the wind I assume. He (or she, yes) decided to curl up right next to my head on the other side of the tent. So I had a volcano erupting in one ear and a dog rustling in the other.
Day two of the Acatenango hike is the worst out of the two. I think anyway. It delivers the ‘worst’ hike and the second ‘worst’ hike…
Needless to say I barely slept. I got too hot (surprisingly) and had to strip off some layers and my friend outside kept kicking me in the head. We were up at 4am to begin our hike to the summit of Acatenango for sunrise. I’ll be honest, this was the bit I was dreading.
We started by putting back on all our clothes that we had striped off last night. Grabbed our torches and unzipped our tent. It was a very cold and dark start. I wouldn’t go as far as miserable that would just be pessimistic, right?
Truth No 11:
I have never in my life felt so hot and cold at precisely the same moment in time. As we started our ascent to the summit, we were climbing on thin zigzagging trails of volcanic rocks. One step up, two steps back. I started to hike and felt myself sweating inside. I stripped off some bits and stuffed them in my jacket pocket. However whenever we would stop for a breather the cold would start to encase me again and I started to shiver again.
Truth No 12:
Altitude sickness can be an issue on the Acatenango hike. A couple of girls started to get really bad headaches and felt sick during our summit hike. The guides do bring medicine and salts with them though.
In total it was about a 1.45 hour hike to the summit and it was hard, seriously hard. It was dark, cold, windy, very windy and we were walking through a cloud meaning that it was getting damp.
We clambered higher and higher and I thought ‘…what are we doing?’. But it got worse, we had lost Leo and Fidel, our guides, I’m not sure how but we did. So here we were on the side of a volcano, on a very narrow path. The downward slope of the volcano on one side and large slippery wet rocks on the other. Plus it was so windy I could barely stand up without attempting to plant my feet into the ground to stop my body from swaying. I said to Cat at one point, ‘…I don’t think we should go any further’.
However with no guide in sight, we had no other choice but to keep going and hope to find them at the top. I really had to push myself to start walking again, I wasn’t in a positive state of mind up there. We caught sight of another couple from our group and stayed with them. We started to really climb to the summit now, heading up a much wider trail covered in black volcano little rocks which were tumbling down from the people above us.
Truth No 14:
The weather is everything on this summit hike. If you don’t have a clear morning then you will scarcely see anything. If you are lucky and have a crystal clear morning you are in for some stunning views.
After crawling up on my hands and knees we had made it to the summit 3,976 metres above sea. We had made it, but we were not to be welcomed with a beautiful sunrise, it was so cloudy we could barely see in front of us – fantastic! The wind was fierce and cut through every single layer of clothing. The view we had come for of volcano Fuego was not to be, which was extremely disappointing but I we did make it to the summit regardless.
Then in the distance we saw Leo, phew, we ran over to him. He wasn’t so glad to see us, clearly hadn’t even noticed we had separated from the rest of the group. After about 10 minutes at the summit we were ‘vamos’ed’…it was time to go down.
Truth No 15:
The way back down is a lot more fun than climbing up. We practically skied down the side of the volcano. Your weight on the fragile rocks just carried you down the trail. It was still getting damp being inside this cloud, so we all ran down the trails and 30 minutes later we were back at base camp.
I felt miserable! I had shoes filled with volcanic sand, wet legs, freezing cold hands as well as every other part of my body and now my stomach was very empty. We huddled around the fire for the last time and ate breakfast.
By now the clouds had began to suffocate Acatenango and it started to drizzle heavily. It was time to start our descent. The drizzle made everything so much harder but within 10 minutes we had all repacked our backpacks, grabbed our trusty wooden sticks and started our descent – to warmer climes I’d hoped.
Not so true:
The ascent of the hike is not the hardest bit. No really, going down is painful, more than I ever thought. Your knees ache from the constant pressure of your body walking down hill. Your feet hurt from being pushed to the front of your boots constantly. Enjoy day one – seriously.
It took us approx. 2.5 hours to get down despite it feeling a lot longer. We had made it! We had survived Acatenango and all it threw at us. The altitude, the harsh change of temperatures and weather and a night in a tent.
Not so true either:
You do not need to train for this hike. A lot of travellers had told us they had been training for it and whilst this isn’t strictly true you do need to be fit and healthy. Both Cat and I are healthy and like keeping fit in our own time but we are in no way expert hikers.
I feel amazing now being able to say I have hiked to the summit of Volcan Acatenanago 3976 mts. It was challenging, but for me I think the coldness was more an issue for me than the actual hike. Although the summit hike in the morning was horrendous, I would not opt for a re-run of that experience except if it was a totally clear morning, beautiful views are a weakness of mine…
Final note – go and see Acatenango for yourself if you want a true highlight to your time in Guatemala.
Company we used: CA Travellers – Office located in Antigua town.