How to climb the Acatenango volcano in Guatemala?

Why to climb to the top of a vulcano?

As soon as you arrive in Antigua, you will see volcanoes in just about any direction. And if you’re lucky enough to walk the streets on a clear night you might be able to see a faint red glow on one of them – that would be the active volcano called Fuego (which means fire in Spanish). So you can’t help but wonder – how would it look from up close? Well, it turns out that the neighbouring Acatenango is just the perfect place to view the action.

Where to start?

The simplest way to get on top of Acatenango is to book a trip through one of the local guiding companies. The streets of Antigua, for example, are full of trip organizers’ offices. Alternatively you can contact a guiding company through TripAdvisor or pop into just about any hostel and ask for a tour providor they cooperate with. But be aware of the different options – not all tour providers have the best guides & equipment – in 2017 six tourists died of exposure.

What do you need for a hike up a volcano?

It’s a great idea to check the weather at higher altitudes prior to your trip start, but you should certainly be prepared for very cold temperatures up high and therefore take a lot of clothes with. It might feel a bit weird digging out your gloves and hats when it is 30 degrees Celsius in Antigua but it will be worth it. You must also understand that some of the tour providers do not have the best tents or sleeping bags so in a way it is really up to you to make sure you’re prepared.

Be smart and bring also a headlamp with full batteries, a very warm jacket, extra sweaters and two pairs of long pants. I know it sounds a bit crazy and a lot to carry but you will be grateful for it when you hear your tent-buddies freezing and coughing at night.

And I know that it weighs a lot but everyone has to carry up their own water! Make sure to bring a lot as the first part of the hike can be hot and it is for sure hard – so you need to keep hydrated. It will also later be used for making hot chocolate and cooking your noodles.

And do pack your own toilet paper and a ziploc bag – there are no actual toilet facilities at the camp, quite the contrary. Half if the mountain side is covered in pieces of toilet paper and feces. So if you do go, please use the Leave No Trace principles.

And if possible, do take hiking poles. You’ll be thanking yourself later.

What is it like to hike up the Acatenango?

So in the morning of February 12, 2018 we set off to hike up the Acatenango volcano (3976m) in Guatemala. We opted for a 2-day hike, meaning that we’d hike up to a camp just below the summit and then do the summit push & descent the next morning.

We were picked up in the morning and put into a big bus, where we all received packed meals. Together with a bunch of other gringos we were driven to the base of the volcano, where some locals tried to sell us gloves, hats and walking sticks.

The company had assigned three guides for us (about 30 people) and we set off after the usual 30 minutes of just standing around and not knowing what’s happening.

The hike gets vertical right away, starting with loose volcanic sand for the first 25 minutes. There’s a small hut with toilets and a cafe after the first bit – a good place to stretch your legs. Then the volcanic sand continues for another 10 minutes and thereafter turns into a nice muddy forest path for maybe an hour, zig-zagging all the way up to the National Park hut (at approx 2700m). This bit can get pretty slippery when it’s been raining and is especially treacherous when descending.

The initial shock from the heavy vertical gain will quickly diminish and be replaced by the typical effects of high altitude: fatigue, headache and a pumping heart.

After a lunchbreak at the hut you continue up, witnessing the change in the terrain and environment – the nature turnes more alpine, lush green trees being replaced by a more pine tree type of forest. After about 45 minutes the 45-degree climb finally stops and turns into a near-horizontal meandering traverse on the side of the volcano. Here we were right at the bottom edge of the clouds – this was to be the last time we saw further than about 20 meters – all the way down to the valley, in fact).

This long traverse ends right below the campsite (at 3600m). Usually everyone is very relieved to arrive at the camp but in our case the happiness was short-lived. The cold wind chilled us down to the bones and the small fire the guides lit was not enough to keep everyone warm. And if you’re unlucky with the weather, like us, the non-existing view also won’t warm your hearts.

You might get lucky and be able to enjoy a warm, windless evening with a view of the neighbouring Fuego volcano while drinking a cup of hot tea. Or you might end up like us: as soon as the tents were brought and put up, everyone climbed in and tried to warm up (and possibly cursed themselves for not realizing how cold it would actually be). Our small group of four ended up in the best tent of them all (North Face Summit Series) despite it being about 10 years old and having been repaired by a new zipper and patches of denim. It was at least the only tent that was actually built for these conditions. Once we received our (old, broken and definitely not meant for this cold) sleeping bags, we actually had a nap, trying to get warm again.

An hour later, the wind was still raging and the view was just as depressing. The guides started gathering water from everyone and boiled water for our small cups of noodles. I managed to exchange my ham sandwich and chicken wings for an extra cup of noodles (vegan joy!). Additionally the guides prepared us some hot chocolate – definitely a relief after this day. We were informed that if the weather wouldn’t improve we would not be getting up at 4am to do our summit push and would instead wake up at 6am and descend. So yes – during normal circumstances your second morning would start at 4am with a little breakfast and the summit push.

Our evening ended with a nice (but freezing cold & windy) chat around the fire with the people who had actually been smart enough to bring enough clothes to be able to be outside of their tents.

The wind kept rattling the tents for the whole night, being even worse by 4am. Visibility was the same, too. Thus the guides only woke us up at six, prepared us a cup of coffee while we were all trying to fit by the fire and desperately waited to get going.

This was another one of those “sitting around and not knowing what’s going on” moments which could’ve ended with hypothermia for some in the worst case scenario. Once we got going, however, everyone was relieved to be getting a bit warmer and looking forward to the breakfast that would be waiting for us somewhere down there.

We realized that nearly two thirds of the mountain was covered by clouds, making the descent very wet. This resulted in a girl spraining her ankle a bit before we reached the National Park hut. The guides carried her to the hut and then proceeded by building a makeshift stretcher out of some thin rope, two bamboo sticks and some A2 posters. We stood and watched as this was going on, wondering why they’d go for such an overkill and obviously non-functional solution but decided to simply observe. There was also a horse right there – beats me why they didn’t want to use that option.

They tied the poor girl onto the strecher by some more thin rope (no padding), not noticing that her feet had no support at all. The stretcher also only allowed for two people to carry it. These were pretty obvious setbacks considering the following 45min stretch of narrow, zig-zagging and steep 45-degree slope – and as expected, within three minutes of starting the (obviously excessive) stretcher carry the girl’s feet were dragging on the ground, causing her even more pain.

Having been trained for this, we did suggest on multiple occasions to try carrying her by a backpack (she was luckily also a very small girl) but nobody listened – so the guides decided to just carry her on their backs, switching once in a while and having multiple resting stops. By this point all three guides were taking care of the girl and nobody cared about the rest of the group. Luckily noone else slipped in the muddy and wet forest path and we eventually made it to the bottom – the guides being obviously knackered by this time.

After arrival back at the base of the mountain you are served a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of eggs, beans and tortillas with coffee. And after another 1h 30min of sitting around and not knowing what to do the bus finally arrives and takes you back to Antigua.

Conclusion

The lesson here: if you’re a complete newbie to hiking & outdoors, this hike would only be enjoyable for you in great weather. The guides, for most of these local outfitters, are not qualified by European/American standards nor have the best equipment.

All in all it was a great adventure – especially for those carrying enough clothes – even though we couldn’t see the neighbouring active volcano Fuego and the sunrise. But it was definitely Type 2 fun and not for everyone.

The tour organization and guides definitely leave a lot to wish for (wilderness first aid course?? Group management course??). Apparently this was the first time in three years the summit wasn’t attempted and it also seemed to be the first time the guides had to deal with a sprained ankle – I doubt both of these.