What is like to hike an active volcano in Guatemala? The Acatenango experience
The Acatenango volcano hike in Guatemala is among the most breath-taking activities to do in Central America, and here is my experience hiking one of the world's most dangerous ones.
After arriving to Guatemala City and realising that this wasn't a capital that we wanted to stay in, we quickly made our way to Antigua ("we", referring to my ex and I).
Why didn't we want to stay in Guatemala City? First of all, it's just another big city, but this one had a particular unease in the air. There was a "dangerous" vibe, and it was one of the few cities where I actually didn't feel safe (more on this in Is it safe to travel to Guatemala?).
We did stay one or two nights on our way back from Antigua as well, and discovered the more hipster- young areas, which was nice, but it still remains a big city with all the big city vibes you can do (restaurants, bars, clubs, movies...). So Antigua it was.
That being said, i'm sure we could have had a different experience if we volunteered with Worldpackers and met some other travellers.
Volcano hike in Guatemala: preparations
We found a hostel in Antigua that was relatively cheap (Hostel Gran Central), and booked it for a few days.
Antigua is a cute cheap little town, very colourful, friendly, and surrounded by mountains and volcanos.
There are more volunteering opportunities in Antigua than in Guatemala City, and I would definitely do one of them if I were to go back.
After a few days of exploring, we kept on hearing about this famous volcano hike that everyone does... it was "the thing" to do in the area.
So we Googled a few tour agencies (highly recommend to NOT go alone, don't think you can anyways) and we agreed on going with Wicho & Charlie's.
Itinerary of the volcano hike
Before I get into the details, let me precise that this was a 2-day (28h) hike:
Day 1: mini bus from Antigua to the national park.
Hike up to base camp on Acatenango (an active volcano).
Option to hike Fuego (the active volcano that erupts).
Sleep at base camp.
Day 2: wake up at 4 AM to hike to the summit of Acantenango.
Hike down all the way back to civilisation.
Day 3,4,5: die
What made us chose Wicho & Charlie's over the others? It was slightly more expensive, but they had fantastic reviews and provided all included packages.
We got the all inclusive private cabin for 2 which included literally everything:
- 1 Private cabin with 2 foam mattress, 2 sleeping bag, 2 blanket and 2 pillow
- 4 meals & Snacks (per person)
- Water bottles and/or filtered water
- Gear: Hat, scarf, buff, gloves, jackets
The only thing it doesn't include is the 50Q entrance fee to the park, so make sure you have some cash on you.
I won't add the price in this article because at the time we did it it was considerably less, and according to their July 2022 prices, it's about 200 USD for 2 (which all in all, is actually quite affordable but the experience of a lifetime).
Things to consider before attempting the hike
Now this was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life and I would not necessarily recommend it to someone who isn't physically fit (we definitely were not at the time). Why?
- It's steep and you hike on all different terrains (soil, sand, hard ground, there's a bit of "climbing" at times..) so quite physically challenging.
- You have to carry your own backpack which contains 4L of water, amongst all the other equipment and food (you do have the option of paying a "carrier" but you probably don't want to be that person).
- The summit is 3976m - need I say more?
The agency prepared us well though, took the time to brief us properly, and gave us a complete check list of things we needed (there is an additional fee to rent their gear, unless you get all-inclusive package) which included:
- Layers of clothing
- Hiking sticks
- Water & bottles
- Food & snacks
- Toilet paper
It is very cold at the summit, so all those extra layers do come in handy. Plus remember, it's nice to have a change of clothes after a full day of hiking because you will be all sweaty and don't want to sleep in the same clothes.
Always have more toilet paper, water, and snacks, than less. And I would recommend having some Paracetamol on you. I did not expect to get altitude sickness - at all, but me, with a few other people from the group, did not feel good at all once we got to base camp and couldn't do the Fuego Hike. My ex at the time did it and they got really close to the crater.
The view from base camp was insane enough, and the rumblings were so loud it was actually so hard to sleep.
So let's get into it in more detail.
The Acatenango volcano hike in Guatemala
Day 1: The hike to Base Camp
We woke up early as the tour started at 7 AM from the agency, but we hadn't slept that well as you know how it is the night before a "big thing"? Mix of nerves and excitement.
So we were tired, but motivated, and walked over to the agency to get prepped. We had breakfast there that included bread, fruit, tea/coffee. After a full briefing, we headed into the minivans and off we went!
It was about an hour drive to the national park and it was already freezing once we go there (according to my standards, but remember that I am originally from Singapore).
- The hike starts
Once at the start, we were briefed again and started hiking! I/we thought the beginning would be easy, but it started off with a bang. 15 minutes within the hike, I was already out of breath and sweating like mad. 5 more hours to go...
We took frequent breaks and the guides were really nice. I actually was the last of the group and to be very honest, I didn't care.Our tour guide walked with me and we exchanged life stories - that helped a lot.
At some point we had a lunch break, and the food they provided was actually quite nice and nutritious. A few hours later, hiking in all types of vegetation and on all types of earth, we finally made it... to the actual entrance of the national park. I'm not even kidding.
We signed some other documents (basically a waiver form, acknowledging that you take responsibility for your own life etc..) and got briefed yet again. Then we continued the climb, this time through what was more like a forest, and amongst the clouds.
The views were stunning, and it was nice to run into other groups. We also saw some locals with their horses (that you can actually rent, to help get up) and by this time, got acquainted to everyone in our own group.
- At the Base Camp
Getting to the base camp was such a relief and accomplishment - it felt good. But the weather wasn't so good and we couldn't see Fuego (it was very cloudy).
So we rested for a while and the group split in 2: those who were doing the Fuego hike, and the rest (which included myself and the people who didn't feel very good).
The clouds eventually parted and we saw Fuego. It was stunning, however lava can only be seen at night so we had to wait till it got a bit dark to actually see the orange lava spewing out.
Why? Because the sun’s rays wash out the incandescence of the lava. You could however see the black/grey smoke coming out of it's crater, and definitely hear the eruptions.
So off they went for another 3-4h hike up to Fuego - as close as they could get, and the rest of us made a camp fire, roasted marshmallows, and drank hot chocolate. These are definitely memories I will cherish forever. We also had dinner which was well deserved after that long day!
The other group finally arrived around 9 PM+ and told us how magical that experience was, but difficult.
Day 2: The hike to Acatenango summit
We might have already been awake before 4 AM, since we barely slept, but the view was stunning. The moon was out, there were thousands of stars, and Fuego was still erupting.
We geared up, had a bite to eat and some tea, brushed our teeth to the best of our ability with some water behind the cabin (reminder: nature is your toilet) and then began the hike.
Now this hike was one of the toughest parts, for me. We each had a lamp strapped to our foreheads and the use of hiking poles were definitely much needed.
It was tough because we were hiking on ash, so every step we took, we'd go back a few! My heart was pounding, I was tired, I couldn't breathe... I loved it.
And eventually, hours later (I completely missed the sunrise since I was the last again), we made it to the summit!
That was another breathtaking view, seeing all the volcanos around, the lakes down below, Antigua... Photos won't do justice- you have to live it for yourself.
- The way down
We stayed up there a while then it was time to go down, and that was the fun part: we literally slid/tumbled down. I probably spent most of that time on my bum, but we were just so happy to have made it!
We chilled a bit at base camp before getting ready to hike down... and don't think that was easy either - the knees! Oh the knees... you really had to be careful how you walked down but the pain was almost unbearable towards the end.
Yet we made it, and waited for our bus to bring us back to the agency, to unload everything, then recover properly.
And that was it... hiked one of the most dangerous volcanos, definitely one of the best things to do in Guatemala.
I swore to myself that I would never do anything like that ever again.. but after a few days, and when the body was able to walk again, I thought to myself hell yeah I'd do that again. It was such an experience, and one of the best parts was realising how much of it was mind over matter.
Tips for your volcano hike in Guatemala
If you're up for the same adventure, here are some tips that I wish I was told before:
- Avoid partying the weeks/months before, and perhaps do some cardio prep.
- Prepare yourself mentally - it will be tough, but you're not the first or last person to do this. You will hear horror stories of people having to be evacuated down but know that you can do anything you set your mind to.
- Acatenango is an active volcano. The last eruption was in 1986.
- Fuego is a neighbouring volcano, each summit just 1.2 kilometres apart and is also active with Strombolian eruptions about every 30 to 45 minutes.
- Acatenango summit is very cold between sunset and sunrise with 0 degrees with wind shield -10 degrees Celsius. Fuego volcano presents the same temperatures.
- Guatemala has about 37 volcanoes, three/four of them active: Volcán Fuego, Volcán Acatenango, Volcán Pacaya, Volcán San Pedro.
San Pedro is located in Lake Atitlan (a couple of hours from Antigua) and is a little over 3000m. It is said to be hike-able without a guide but I would highly recommend reading up and asking the locals first.
These are a few of the most renowned volcano hikes in Guatemala but the country definitely has many more to offer.
Thanks to Worldpackers bringing travellers the opportunities to visit these wonderful countries basically acommodation-free, these types of activities are available to all of us!
If you haven't checked out their social media pages yet, I highly recommend you get inspired for your next travels on Tiktok, Instagram, and Youtube.
It's time to get out of your comfort zone and start exploring this magical world that's out there, and that's easily accessible to anyone. See you on the road!
Sep 05, 2022