The Acatenango Volcano Hike: Camping Overnight
Overlooking the historic city of Antigua, with a summit of 3975 metres (13,041 ft), the Acatenango volcano is the second highest peak in Central America and the giant of all peaks in this region of the country. It sits alongside the famous Volcán de Fuego with both summits no more than 2 kilometres apart. This makes the Acatenango volcano hike so popular because anyone that’s read a bit about Guatemala will know that Fuego is among the most active volcanoes in the world.
The summit of Acatenango gives you front row seating to some really spectacular eruptions if you’re lucky enough to get clear weather and catch Fuego on one of its good days. We also shouldn’t ignore the spectacular views of Antigua, Guatemala City, and an eerie looking Agua volcano sitting almost directly opposite Acatenango.
The Acatenango volcano itself is dormant, with the only known historical activity occurring between 1924 and 1927. Prehistorically, the volcano was much more active with evidence of explosive eruptions and massive lava flows.
Don’t let the popularity and the high number of daily summits on this volcano daily fool you into thinking that it’ll be an easy climb. It’s not without its challenging sections and many climbers do have to turn around halfway up the mountain.
This hike is generally considered to be one of the toughest in Guatemala, even harder than the nation’s highest mountain: Tajamulco.
I will say, however, that if you approach it with a standard level of fitness and the right mindset then you should reach the top without too many problems. The only exception being if you have any major health issues then it might not be the best idea.
Acatenango CAN be climbed without a guide/tour but I wouldn’t recommend this, especially if you’re not a very experienced climber. Due to the very high altitude, the weather conditions can deteriorate quickly and unexpectedly.
There are also lots of forking paths as you progress up the mountain which take you onto different routes with varying degrees of difficulty.
If you don’t believe me then a group of locals actually died of hypothermia on the mountain in January 2017. I was pretty shocked when I first read this but, when we asked about it, our guide told us the story and it was simply because they tackled the volcano unprepared, and when they had been recommended not to.
If you go up with a guide you will stick to the standard route which presents fewer problems. Plus, these guys are experts who scale the mountain at least 3 times a week so you are in safe hands.
You’ll also have the option to pay a little extra for someone to carry your bags up for you. Believe me, these aren’t light: ours weighed in excess of 10kg (22lbs) each. Most of the weight taken up by 5 litres of water (trust me, you’ll need it).
This is entirely up to you, though. Personally, I love the challenging of carrying all my own stuff.
If you go with a guide (which you should) then you’ll get all the essentials supplied.
If you’re not going with a guide (at your own risk) then you will NEED:-
- Walking poles/sticks (for the descent)
- Plenty of food (energy dense) and water
- Basic first aid kit
- Tent and sleeping bag (unless you’re in good condition and doing a day-hike)
- Hat and gloves
If you’re going with a guide then you’ll have to take:-
- 4-5 litres of water
- Extra snacks
The rest they should have (although it does vary between companies).
As for footwear, I did it in running shoes but hiking boots would probably be more advised!
The Acatenango Volcano Hike
The first part of our tour was breakfast at a ‘comedor’ in Antigua. Everyone was slightly taken aback by this and wanted to just get going – making the most of our early start. Breakfast was nothing too special, just the standard ‘desayuno chapín’ (Guatemalan breakfast) of eggs, beans, plantain and tortillas. All this was washed down with some delicious coffee and a fresh fruit smoothie.
We realised later, however, that breakfast was definitely a good shout…
Next, we were all picked up by two minivans which took us up a long, winding road for about 45 minutes. We stopped pretty much in the middle of nowhere which was where the hike started. Like everywhere in Latin America, there were several locals there at the beginning looking to sell energy drinks, sweets, jackets etc. They also offered to carry up our bags for 200 quetzales per item (around $27) one way. Pretty steep in my opinion, even though I had every intention of carrying all of my own stuff.
There we started the arduous journey up to the summit. The temperature at the starting point was around 12C (54F) with decent visibility.
The first section of the hike was undoubtedly the most difficult. It felt like two steps forward and one step back due to the soily ground beneath our feet.
We continued up to our first resting point after approximately one hour of trekking. This was a small grassy opening with decent views of the surrounding countryside. Although I don’t think many of the group were too bothered by the view, with most of us focusing on getting a drink of water and catching our breath.
A Two Hour Slog
The next part of the hike was….yep you guessed it….a two-hour slog.
The only plus point was that the ground was slightly sturdier than the first part. The route was very steep and narrow, with lots of low-hanging branches and loose rocks which sometimes involved a bit of a scramble.
It was very repetitive and most of the section was done in a silent trudge with regular water breaks. Trust me, they are needed.
The highlight of this part of the hike was undoubtedly looking back every 15/20 minutes and admiring the view as we got higher and higher.
When we reached the halfway point I was amazed to see a small barbecue set up by some locals. Every single mini-business opportunity in this country is covered. These guys trek 1500 metres up the mountain every single day to cook and sell the most basic goods, all just to make a living. I take my hat off to them.
The Second Half
The second half of the hike was nothing too different. It was more of a windy walk than the previous sections, and definitely not as steep.
It definitely felt as hard as the first section, though, taking into account the heavy pack and thinning oxygen levels.
About three-quarters of the way up, we came out of the overgrown rainforest out into the open.
There’s also yet another spectacular view which was well-earned after hours of repetitive rainforest and windy trails.
From here on the track straightens out and is more of a steady climb, with lots of sections a general mishmash of short, sharp ascents and descents.
After about another 1-2 hours of similar terrain, we made it to the campsite!
Camping On The Summit
Well, actually not quite the summit.
The campsites are 200-300 metres below the actual summit, just because the terrain is much better and you are sheltered from some potentially brutal weather conditions.
Weather permitting, you should get the option to trek up to the summit first thing the next morning in order to catch the sunrise. We were unlucky in that during the night everything fogged over and there was no view whatsoever in the morning.
That was made up for by the spectacular views on arrival. Plus, the clouds had completely cleared giving us a perfect view of Fuego, which 2km away but felt like it was within touching distance. Fuego had also recently found its voice due to some recent tremors in the area which apparently led to heightened activity.
Within about half an hour of reaching the summit, we were met by a deafening BOOOOOOOM.
That was our welcoming explosion. Fuego released a mushroom of smoke and ash which must have reached 500+ feet into the air.
After the explosion, there is a momentary silence which is then broken by the crashes of the boulders and rocks being thrown down the side of the volcano. When I say boulders, I literally mean the size of cars.
This initial big eruption was accompanied by much smaller splutters as the sun slowly went down. It really did make for an unbeatable setting.
We were spoiled by an even bigger eruption later on that night where we witnessed lava spewing down the side of the mountain and being sprayed directly out of the crater.
Camping made for an unmatchable experience with the constant rumble of Fuego in our ears finished off by the occasional explosion.
I think it’s safe to say that nobody got much sleep. But who cares? After witnessing mother nature in action my adrenaline got me through the night and to the bottom of the mountain.
It’s hard to describe the feeling when something as powerful and merciless as a volcano is erupting right before your eyes. After some thought, the best word I could come up with was ‘humbling’. You realise that there’s really nothing you can do other than respect the mountain and, even though we were a ‘safe’ distance away, we would have been toast had it decided to properly blow up.
This one was exactly how I described it: tricky.
It was nothing more than what we expected if I’m honest, with the steep slopes proving to be tough resistance for the knees and ankles.
I think everyone was too buzzing after the night before to really care though.
For many of us, it was the first and last time we were ever going to experience a volcanic eruption, especially in such close proximity.
Although, I certainly don’t intend on it being MY last experience.
We chose OX Expeditions as our guides to take us up the mountain. When we did it (June 2017) they charged $89, or approximately 1700 quetzales, for the overnight Acatenango hike. I recommend paying in dollars if you can because it will work out cheaper.
At first glance, this may seem on the pricey side but in the end it was 100% worth the money. Our main guide was fantastic and made the experience a memorable one. There were around 15 in our entire group.
If this is too much money for you then I’m sure that you can find a good company charging less – just be sure to do your research and make sure that they’re a reputable company. My advice would be to ask around Antigua.
I have heard of people paying as little as 100 quetzales (around $14) but these guides couldn’t care less about quality, focusing on getting as many people as possible up and down the volcano. They also give measly portions of food and have been known to blame tourists for equipment ‘breaking’ such as tents etc.
I recommend splashing the cash a little for a much more worthwhile experience.
I would more than recommend the Acatenango volcano hike to absolutely anybody.
If you are visiting Antigua, or even Guatemala for that matter, and you’re keen on the outdoors and hiking, then this should be made a priority.
It’s worth whatever money you pay and can be completed by anyone who has at least a basic level of fitness. If you’re a complete beginner and would like something a little easier first then check out the Pacaya volcano.
Due to Guatemala being in the tropics it can also be hiked at any time of the year, with the temperature fluctuations being nothing drastic. The only difference will be precipitation depending on it being the rainy or dry season.
Please bear in mind that we got lucky with the weather! I can imagine the experience not being quite as emphatic with zero visibility and torrential rain for the entire trip (this does happen).
The dry season is your best bet if you want to be almost guaranteed no rain.
If you happen to be visiting during rainy season then hey, the risk is all part of the fun! I did it slap-bang in the middle of the rainy season and look at how it turned out. 😀
Thanks for reading and, as always, please leave your comments below! 🙂