Travel

A Guide to Hiking Acatenango

Hiking Acatenango is at the top of the must-do activities in Guatemala. This hike can definitely be a challenge, especially if if you don’t have any training. However, the sight of the great natural fireworks of the erupting Fuego volcano and the breathtaking 360 degrees view of Guatemala from the summit are worth it!

If you want to climb the Acatenango volcano, you must be well prepared to enjoy the sublime summit. Once you arrive at its summit (3976 m above sea level), you will be able to enjoy a landscape, as well as a majestic fauna and flora, while having a view on its neighbor, the Fuego volcano. This makes it the preferred volcano for people who love hiking in Guatemala and one of the most famous in Central America.

Hiking Acatenango With a Guide

Acatenango cloud

Going with a guide is VERY important. People have died hiking Acatenango. In January 2017,  6 people died of hypothermia due to high winds, freezing temperatures, bad equipment and a low ratio of guides to hikers (just 2 to 64!). In addition, there are reports of robberies along the trail.

Take your safety seriously and go with a guide. I went with Gilmer Soy who is a top rated guide.  Not only is his outfit one of the most highly rated, but it’s also one of the most affordable (450Q total) AND your campsite equipment is already set up for you (no need to carry it up!). In addition, he does a lot of work for his community. Just recently he completed a school playground and his next project will be to bring running water to his village.

What to Pack

To be honest, I completely underestimated how cold it would be, especially at the summit. Bring lots of layers! With Gilmer Soy, you can rent hats and gloves for 10Q each. Jackets and backpacks are free. Before you set off on the hike, you’ll stop at his village where you can get all these things, as well as fill up your water bottle, use the restroom and buy snacks. However, the snacks he offers aren’t the greatest.

I chose to buy my own at the Bodegona, Antigua’s local grocery store. Also, while some people choose to hike Acatenango in tennis shoes, I highly suggest going in hiking boots. The terrain in parts of the hike is loose, volcanic ash, which is very slippery, especially when going downhill. I saw lots of people fall and one person seriously injured herself. At the base of the volcano, locals will offer to sell you a hiking stick. BUY ONE, even if you consider yourself a good hiker. As I mentioned before, the terrain is very slippery and a stick will really help you with the hike.

Here’s a list of what you need:

  • Hiking boots
  • Gloves
  • Hats
  • Sunscreen
  • Lots of layers of warm clothing
  • Snacks
  • Rain jacket or poncho
  • Backpack
  • Headlamp
  • Hiking stick
  • 3 Liters of water
  • Camera / phone

The Trek

Acatenango Trek

The volcano itself is 13,044ft / 3,976m high. I love to hike and personally did not find the beginning of the hike to be that hard. The trail is well maintained and with Gilmer Soy, we had regularly breaks every 20 minutes. Along the route, there are lots of beautiful viewpoints as well. It takes about 5 hours to hike up, depending on the fitness of your group.

About halfway there, we stopped for an hour long lunch. Our meal tasted delicious, but I might have just been really hungry! With Gilmer Soy, meat eaters got chicken, rice, and a cucumber and tomato salad. Vegetarians got rice with veggies and the same salad. There are toilets at the site, but no toilet paper. There are also people selling hot chocolate for 5Q. I highly recommend it! It was already cold!

Some, like myself, will suffer from altitude sickness. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, headaches and heavy breathing. Personally, it always makes me feel a bit high. If you know already that you suffer from altitude sickness, then I recommend buying medicine beforehand in Antigua. Just go to any pharmacy. You’ll also want to be in Antigua a few days ahead of time. Make sure to pack and drink more water than normal (I brought 3 liters and was fine) as well as both sugary and salty snacks. Staying hydrated is really important to combat altitude sickness.

The Campsite

Acatenango camp

We reached our campsite at around 5 pm, just in time for a gorgeous sunset.  Our campsite had the most stunning views of two volcanoes, Agua and Fuego. We were lucky because Fuego erupted like crazy the entire night for us. There is an option to hike Fuego that night for an extra fee. I didn’t choose to do it, but those who did do it told me the views were spectacular but hiking back in the dark was a little scary. Plus, they were very exhausted afterwards.

At our campsite, we had a toilet and a campfire. Dinner was very hearty and consisted of beans, pasta, and mashed potatoes. Dessert was hot chocolate and marshmallows. Everyone seemed to have brought a bottle of liquor with them so it was a lot of fun sitting around the campsite and laughing.

The Summit of Acatenango

Acatenango Summit

This is the part of the hike that is challenging. If you have a headlamp, I highly recommend using it. If you don’t have one, get one. The hike is several hours, starting at 3:30 in the morning when it is still dark so that you can arrive by sunrise. The beginning part of the hike is across very loose, volcanic ash and I felt a bit nervous hiking this in the dark, without a stick, and my cell phone in my hand (I was using it as a flashlight).

The very last part of the hike is even more difficult. It is very rocky and steep. Think about it especially because we do not see anything at this hour and the very narrow path along the slope can prove to be dangerous. It goes up hard and we slide on the ashes, difficult to find its supports in the darkness.I also felt really dizzy because of the altitude. I had to stop, take a break, and eat some chocolate. One of the guides noticed I was having some trouble and helped me up the rest of the way. Later on, I noticed that whenever anyone seemed to have trouble, he was already there by their side. Yet another reason to book with Gilmer Soy!

At the very top it is freezing and super windy! Make sure to wear all your layers of clothing!! Unfortunately the day I went, it was quite cloudy. Normally though, you have 360 degrees view of the volcanoes, Lago Atitlan and even the ocean. Occasionally, the clouds lifted for me, but I was never fast enough with my camera. I guess this is just a good excuse to go again!

The Descent

In my opinion, going down can be just as difficult as climbing up. You have to brake quite often, which can be hard on your knees. Since Acatenango has a lot of volcanic ash, it can be really easy to slip. From the summit, the terrain is so loose that we practically skied down. Once we got to base camp, we had about an hour to pack up and eat breakfast (cereal and coffee, not enough food in my opinion).

From there, you hike down a lot faster than going up. There’s even a shortcut, so it only takes two hours. By the end of your hike, you’ll be exhausted, so don’t plan on doing anything the day after. While this hike can be quite challenging, it’s also a lot of fun and was definitely a highlight for me while in Guatemala!

Read also: 10 Things You Can’t Miss in Munich

Climbing the Acatenango without a guide

Though the guide is preferred,  the Acatenango volcano is still doable without the help of a guide. The path is very well marked, and no one will stop you from going up on your own.

Here is the advice if you decide to do the Acatenango without a guide:

  • First of all, you should know that the hike is difficult, although doable. The 1700 meters of difference in altitude are very steep and require a good physical condition.
  • Go to the village of La Soledad to park your car (if you don’t have a car, shuttles are available from Antigua). We advise you to park at Hector’s. The price of parking for the day and night is 25 quetzales (about €2.50).
  • You will have to pay 50 quetzales per person (about 5 €) to enter the park after about 1 hour of walking, so don’t forget to bring enough money!
  • You can find the exact route of the hike on Maps Me.
  • There are several places to pitch your tent. We recommend the one near the Y (always take a right at every intersection). This spot is normally reserved for guides but if you parked at Hector’s, you can use one of his spots.
  • The nights are cold, especially when it is windy (which is frequent up there). So, bring enough equipment to enjoy the spectacle of the erupting Fuego volcano (an explosion every 5 minutes or so, depending on its activity).

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