Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Guatemala is one of the world’s most volcanic countries with 37 sitting within its borders. Much like drinking a ridiculous amount of coffee, climbing one of these beastly volcanos was a must do on our itinerary! Not only do we love to incorporate a bit of hiking into our travels (how else will we burn off all the beer??!), we also love to experience some of the quintessential things each country is known for. Is there anything more Guatemalan than watching a volcano erupt from the top of another volcano?! I don’t think so! After doing our research on the volcanoes in the country, we decided that Acatenango was going to be our monster of choice.
At 13,044 foot, Acatenango is not an easy volcano to conquer. Not only did this hike mark the highest spot I’ve ever been to on this wee planet, it was by far the most difficult hike I’ve ever done, too. I’m not complaining though because we had plenty of rewards for the amount of physical pain we put our bodies through. My favourite? Front row seats at our campsite to watch Fuego erupting all night long!
None of this would have been half of amazing if it weren’t for our guides from Old Town Outfitters. Not only did they make sure that Fuego erupted on demand (I jest…), they prepared delicious food for us, gave us the best kit and clued us up on everything we needed to know before starting the hike. Here’s an overview of our time hiking Volcan Acatenango!
The beginning of our Acatenango Hike
If you’re coming to Acatenango hoping for a nice little windy path to meander along and warm yourself up, you’ve come to the wrong place. This hike was absolutely full throttle from the very beginning- both physically and mentally.
Maybe it was my imagination but I found the beginning to be the steepest part of the trail. When you know that you’ve got hours of hiking ahead of you and the beginning is so steep, it takes a pretty strong mind to push through.
Nevertheless, this part of the trail is beautiful. One nice thing about Acatenango is that the landscape changes a lot as you ascend the mountain so it’s difficult to get bored. This part features rich vegetation and a variety of crops such as maize and black bean that you’ll see farmers out tending to.
By the time we reached the cloud forest, we had gained a lot of height really quickly. I’ve never been high enough above sea level to feel the effects of altitude so I wasn’t sure how I’d react. There were times when I felt a little bit dizzy or my head started getting sore. At first, I put it down to being tired but after feeling remarkably better at the bottom of the mountain, I know it was definitely the altitude.
Being a cloud forest, you’ll find a completely different landscape on this part of the hike- a perpetually rainy one! It was here that my perception of volcanoes completely changed. I had always assumed that they would be black and grey but Acatenango was covered in trees and shrubbery.
By this part of the hike, we were all on the market for a treat and luckily, we would get just that at lunch. Old Town Outfitters deliver a much higher level of service than most of the other tour operators offering the hike. Rather than being given soggy sandwiches, our lunch entailed fresh ciabatta bread and a buffet of fillings that included avocado, corn and bean salad, ham, cheese and fresh veggies. It was exactly what we needed to keep us going and lift our spirits (although, I could have used a nap afterwards, too!)
The Push to the Campsite
After clearing the cloud forest, the landscape started to get more barren as we began to make our way to the top. Throughout the hike, we had heard the rumbles of Fuego plenty of times but had never actually seen any of its smoke. As soon as we turned the corner to our campsite, Volcan Fuego greeted us with the most insane roar and a compact cloud of grey ash filled the sky above it.
We spent the night camping with a front row view of Fuego erupting in front of us. Luckily for us, the clouds completely cleared during the golden hour meaning we could see the bubbling beast in all its glory!
Continuing on with the theme of the day, there were no boring hot dogs on the camping stove that night. (Actually, most of the other travellers I spoke to didn’t even have such a luxury with another meal of soggy, sweaty, squished sandwiches for dinner. Just what everyone’s wishing for after a good five hours of hiking!)
Instead, we had a delicious pasta meal which our guide, Joshua, made us to perfection. I think I’m the only person who goes on an adventure hike up a volcano and won’t stop talking about the food. But, seriously, it was good!
Through the night, Fuego didn’t stop erupting and everyone had their tripods out, trying to predict the next eruption in time for their long-shot exposure. I don’t have such luxuries as my own tripod, but I still managed to get some pretty decent pics on my Sony A6000.
The stars were out in full force, too making me a very happy camper. Since living in Korea I get impressed if I can see a handful of stars in the sky but even people who’re less easily pleased than me would be in awe of the amount of stars we camped under.
It was early nights all round for us and we all retreated into the cosy down sleeping bags in our tent to try and catch a few winks of sleep amidst the absolute racket that is Fuego!
The final ascent
The next day, we woke up well before the crack of dawn for our final ascent to the top.
If you guys don’t know me IRL, you might not realise that I’m actually a really clumsy person. I’ve never succeeded at skiing because, well, I keep falling. And, for me, Acatenango was a bit like skiing. But skiing up a hill with the fear of falling back and hitting my head off the side of the cliff. We had opted to take some poles up the mountain with us but I just couldn’t get the hang of using them. On the way up, every time I put my stick in a bit of ground behind me and moved my feet, I had the absolute fear of God in me! My feet were slipping all over the place in the sandy volcanic ash and it was taking me far too long to master the basic act of actually walking up the mountain.
In the end, I said I didn’t think I could do it and our guide, Joshua, was honest with me and told me that it was only going to get steeper. I was glad to have actually been told the truth as I’ve done so many activities were I’ve been told things like “no, there are no points in this caving expedition where you’re going to have to jump into the water” only to be confronted with, surprise surprise, a huge platform to jump from. A lot of guides would have forced me to push on when I was not only clearly miserable but feeling guilty for holding everyone back and being frustrated with myself for not being able to do something everyone else could do so effortlessly. I was glad that Joshua actually paid attention to me and let me do what he knew was best.
And, so, I was tent bound again, leaving Veeran to fulfill his Instagram Husband duties and get me some photos from the summit. A lot of people have asked me if I regretted not going to the summit and I do and I don’t. I consider myself to be quite fit and when I hear stories of people who’ve never hiked before making it to the top, I wonder how I couldn’t do it. But then, I remember what an absolute pickle I was in and remember that I made the right decision. Another thing I’ll never forget was how nice it was to have a wee nap then wake up and watch the sunrise with the porters, chatting to them in broken Espanol about “la muy hermosa vista” over the volcanoes.
When the crowd came down, I was definitely jealous when they told me about the otherworldly landscapes at the top and the amazing view that they had during sunrise….. but I think they were secretly jealous of my amazing nap, too. We had another yummy breakfast- granola with MARSHMALLOWS in it (what is this wizardry!?) and hot chocolate made with 100% cacao. Who says hiking can’t be decadent?
The Dreaded Descent
Over the course of my humble hiking days, I’ve learned one valuable lesson: never to be excited for the hike back down. For me, this is the part of the hike that I feel the most the next day and I usually concern everyone in my group by falling a few times and going over my ankles in the process, too.
Acatenango was by no means different! Maybe it was the altitude but I was in a paranoid kind of mood, constantly wondering what the Daily Mail headlines would look like if I went tumbling head first off the end of the cliff. I pretty much sidestepped the whole thing at a ridiculously slow pace. Did I fall? Yes, a few times. Do the Daily Mail need to do any interviews with my heartbroken friends and family? Not on this trip, I’m glad to report.
By the time we hit the bottom, I was ready for a soft seat and very relieved to have an hour-long drive back to Antigua. Veeran and I decided to celebrate the end of our hike with a meal at a Korean restaurant- some traditions can never be broken… at least not when there are Korean restaurants around to take advantage of!
For the following few days, I’d sometimes welp out loud in public when I had to walk down a step! My body seriously ached but I didn’t regret the pain I’d put it through for a second. Erupting volcanoes are one of those things I thought I’d only ever see in movies or books and seeing one in real life was one of those moments that reminded me why I chose this weird travel life!
Tips for your Acatenango Hike
- If you have proper boots, bring them. Much like Hallasan, I did this hike in running shoes and felt it in my ankles.
- Bring sweets with you to help with altitude sickness
- Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, I’d invest in a porter. I underestimated how difficult it would be to carry my sleeping bag, water and things in my bag while going up such a steep incline. It doesn’t sound like much, but it ends up being about 50L worth of things to carry. Spend the money, give back to the local community and save your back!
- The weather gets cold up there so layer up! We had our Uniqlo down jackets and baselayers with us which were amazing. If you don’t have winter things with you, you’ll find lots of second-hand shops in Guatemala where you can find some essentials. We picked up hats and gloves at a cheap supermarket.
- Bring a headlamp- this is essential for reaching the summit in the morning (and getting to the toilet during the night!)
- Take your time, pace yourself and pay attention to your body and how it’s dealing with the altitude. Always listen to your guide and speak up if you’re not feeling right or are uncomfortable with anything.
Choosing a Tour Company for your Acatenango Hike
If you’ve read a lot of accounts on hiking Acatenango online, you’ve probably heard some pretty bad reviews of the hike. A lot of travellers decide to just book a tour through their hostel and hope for the best but, in a lot of cases like this one, the extra pennies saved aren’t worth the crappy disorganised experience.
We did our research and decided we were only going to go with the best guide. Old Town Outfitters have a stellar reputation and their service is worth every bit of hype they get. From the state of the art hiking equipment to the delicious, substantial dinners, we had absolutely nothing to complain about apart from our sore legs.
A tour with Old Town Outfitters is more expensive than other tour providers but, if you’re going to hike a 13,000 foot volcano, it’s better to pay a bit extra. We’ve heard stories of bad guides giving hikers summer sleeping bags with broken zips and promising 3 meals a day but delivering 3 snacks. Given the fact that 6 climbers died of hyperthermia on the mountain earlier this year, I just wouldn’t take any risks.
If you’re interested in hiking Acatenango, I’d definitely recommend using Old Town Outfitters for your hike. For 2 people, this hike costs $170 USD but the price is lower for those with more people in their group.
What’s more, Old Town Outfitters use local guides and porters and are committed to giving back to the community. If you do decide to use a porter, the company doesn’t take any profit from this service and the porters keep all money that you give them.
I had an amazing experience hiking with them- every once in a while, I do tours with companies that make me realise the importance of spending a bit extra on special travel experiences. If you’re going to do this hike in Guatemala and want to enjoy the best possible service, these are the guys for you!
I hope this post has helped you understand more about what a hike up Acatenango entails and how to make the experience more comfortable. As always, if you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to give me a wee comment and start a chat!
Pin it for Later!
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Old Town Outfitters but, as always, I only work with companies who I love. (I think it’s clear that I had a pretty amazing time with these guys!) All opinions expressed in this review are my own.