Guys, this was the hardest volcano hike I’ve ever done. I know what you are thinking…”it’s probably the only volcano you’ve ever hiked.” Au contraire! How many times do you have to do something for it to be considered a hobby? Anyway, three. I have climbed three volcanoes and Acatenango was the second one…and the hardest, like I said.
Why Hike Acatenango Volcano?
Aside from causing yourself physical anguish, the real benefit of completing this overnight hike is the impeccable view of the Fuego Volcano. Fuego means fire (in the event Pitbull did not make that clear enough for ya.) Fuego is an active volcano situated right next to Acatenango, well 4km according to the Interwebs. The night we spent on Acatenango volcano, there was great visibility and Fuego was erupting and spewing lava all night long. The amazing photos exist only in my memory as the iPhone cannot handle night photography. So that was a spoiler alert if I’ve ever written one. The hike is worth it!
Do You Need a Guide?
Is it required? No. But I highly recommend it for so many reasons.
- You are helping the local economy
- The hike is hard. Though the trail is pretty evident most of the time, there are times that it is unclear. It also gets freezing cold and nobody wants to be lost in that.
- They carry your dinner for you (and cook it)
- They motivate you and make you take breaks when you’re trying to be a hero
- They set up your tents and build a fire
- They can teach you things about Guatemala, volcanos, flora, and fauna. You learn way more with a guide.
And on that note…
Who Should I Book a Trip With?
Gilmer. Book a trip with Gilmer. Who is that? A local guy who began a business with his family, hired licensed guides (who also run rescue missions for the Red Cross), and donates the proceeds from the trip back to the community. They maintain a ratio of 1 guide per 5 hikers and do an excellent job of motivating the group. You can hike at your own pace, but they use the much-needed breaks as an opportunity to ensure the entire group is together. The guides are willing to do anything to make sure you successfully complete the hike, including helping with bags. Gilmer doesn’t hike with you, but is the master organizer. His trips leave daily and they don’t run out of space, they simply add more guides. You can find his number on TripAdvisor and contact him via Whatsapp. At the price of 300Q (roughly $40), it is significantly cheaper than the major tour operators in Antigua. I can’t comment on quality of the other providers, but go with Gilmer, you won’t regret it!
With that said, the information below is specifically for Gilmer’s tour, though may be a rough guide for other providers.
What is Provided?
- Tents: they have varying sized tents based on group size (2-4 person tents). If you are hiking alone, you will probably get grouped with some other solo hikers.
- Sleeping Bags
- Foam Roll Mat
- Lunch, Dinner, Breakfast
- Hostel pickup and drop-off and transportation
What Do I Need to Bring?
- A backpack (a big one!) Why? Because you will be carrying all of the equipment they supply you with and life is easier if you are not strapping everything to the outside leaving the potential for it to get wet.
- A rain cover (though plastic bags will be provided)
- Water (I think I drank over 3L)
- A raincoat
- Warm Clothes including hat and gloves
- Change of clothes
- Hiking boots (though many people wore sneakers and seemed to fare just fine)
- Flash light
- A walking stick (available for rent at the base of the hike 5Q)
- Local cash (to pay for the tour, tips, and any additional items you may need to rent)
What if I Don’t Have Everything I Need?
You are able to rent a variety of necessities from Gilmer prior to the hike. Maybe you are backpacking through Central America and maybe didn’t anticipate the need for a winter coat…they’ve got you! These are the items available for rent:
- Winter hat
- Winter gloves
- Large backpack (let him know in advance)
- Winter coat
- Porters: Don’t think you’ll be able to carry your bag up the volcano? You can pay a local porter to do so for you.
How Far from Antigua is the Volcano?
The drive is about an hour or so plus all of the time to collect the other hikers.
How Long Does it Take?
It takes about 5 1/2 hours for a normal person to reach the base camp. It takes about an additional 1 1/2 hours to reach the summit which will be accomplished early the following morning. To compare to an abnormal person (read: the trained guides), they can reach the summit in 1 hour and 50 minutes. I kept reminding myself of that when I thought my lungs were going to fall out (not pictured).
You Said It’s Hard, How Hard is Hard? Tell Me Everything!
Well it all started when we woke up at 6:30am to prepare for our 7:30am pick up… Just moments later the entire Airbnb was shaking while I eloquently stammered, “this is an earthquake. This is an earthquake,” for the entire 30 seconds until the shaking subsided. This was shockingly not the first trek I embarked on that started with an earthquake. (You can read about that other time in Uganda here.)
You will be picked up and brought to Gilmer’s home at the base of the mountain where you can leave any additional items you do not plan on carrying. They will assign you equipment, pass out lunch and breakfast, and help you repack your bags. The sleeping bags are not small, you will need a big bag to fit everything. You will also pay for the trip at this point.
You will then be transported about 5 minutes to the base of the volcano where the saga begins. From the get-go, the hike is steep. There are cracks and crevices which make for uneven walking. The guides even pointed out small splits in the ground, results from the earthquake that morning. Throughout the morning the air was quite hot, it would rain on and off and the views were particularly cloudy.
It is really steep most of the way. At points the guides will describe the terrain as flat, but in reality it was just less steep. I read online that people said that the first two hours are the hardest. I am going to be real here. It was all the hardest. Totally doable, but not easy. You take breaks about every 30 minutes, but they are much appreciated and needed. If you have even the most basic level of fitness, I believe you will be successful on day 1 if you are determined.
We finally reached base camp around mid-afternoon. It was really cold and I was wet from a rain/sweat combo. It was actively raining so the process to set up the tents and change clothes was delayed. And the view…oh the view…there was no view! It was super cloudy and rainy. Someone who likes to whine and complain may call that present situation miserable. Not me! Just someone…Also, I will take this opportunity to drill the point home about bringing warm layers and quick drying clothing. It’s important!
Staying positive when you are wet and cold yields great reward:
The group’s excitement level went through the roof! We were hearing eruptions from Fuego Volcano but we couldn’t see a thing. And then suddenly, there it was! The giddiness carried through dinner and sunset when we could actually see lava erupting from the volcano. I do not have the written literacy to begin to express how incredible a sight this was. We then called it an early night because there was more hiking to do, bright and early…ok, not even bright, just early, 3:30am.
Day 2: The 1 1/2 hours to the summit is steep AF. And really, really hard. Personally, I moved extremely slowly. Two steps forward one step back. I mean you are hiking on like volcanic ash. You are continuously slipping backwards. It is dark. It is cold but you are sweating. So many sensations. But DO NOT GIVE UP. The guides are there to help and motivate you. You also leave your big backpack at camp which makes a difference. Use your walking stick. The views at sunrise are gorgeous. You will feel so accomplished.
Seriously the most fun part of the entire hike was the way down from the summit to camp. All of that loose volcanic ash makes it super easy to descend/slide most of the way down.
We reached camp and had a leisurely breakfast and packing session and began the final descent close to 9am. Going down takes about half the time as going up. While going down is much easier than the ascent, be sure you have good shoes! I had some toe rubbing issues with my hiking boots which slowed me down quite a bit. You will also cross paths with Gilmer’s group that is on the way up for that night. And you will be so glad you aren’t them!
Do I Need to Train?
About two weeks prior to leaving for Guatemala, I had an “oh shit” moment after realizing how volcano-ous Guatemala really is. And obviously I really wanted to climb them. So for about two weeks I went running (not far, running is hard) and did some Insanity workouts (like High Intensity Interval Training) and I was glad I did. It was my way of giving my heart, lungs, and muscles a slight wake up call/warning. Could I have completed the hike without those few days of exercising? Probably…but the little endurance I built up in those two weeks came in most handy, especially during the 1 1/2 vertical (it’s not vertical) ascent to the summit.
Will I Experience Altitude Sickness?
I don’t know…In my group, a few people did, most didn’t. The peak is 13,000 ft which is pretty high! I was actually fine from the nausea standpoint which surprised me because I felt pretty woozy in Cusco, Peru for example. So there is hope, just because you have felt sick from the altitude in the past, doesn’t mean it will happen every time! Shortness of breath while hiking is a more prevalent symptom.
What is the Food Like?
The food was good considering it needed to be carried up a volcano without access to refrigeration. Lunch was a “hot” meal, meaning it was hot at one point. Fried chicken with rice and salad. It was also packaged with breakfast for the following morning, so you can essentially choose which bits are lunch and what you’ll need for breakfast the next day (hint: the cornflakes are not lunch). There was also a bread roll and an apple. I definitely recommend supplementing these meals with snacks.
Dinner was a hot meal that the guides cooked over a fire. There were ramen noodles, beans, a meat-like fillet, and tortillas. The pasta, beans, and tortillas were essentially bottomless so you could really fill up if you felt so inclined.
Spoiler alert: they also make hot chocolate and provide marshmallows to roast over the fire. I definitely outdid myself with the marshmallows.
Also worth noting, there was hot coffee at breakfast!
Do I Have to Pee Outside?
Would You Do it Again?
Um, volcaNO! Jk…I totally would, but give me about a year to recuperate.
Have you hiked a volcano? Tell me about your experience in the comments!