Guatemala

Conquer the Acatenango volcano (+ practical tips)

A spectacular sunrise from a volcano with a view of even more volcanoes. Waking up at night from eruptions. A hike through several ecosystems upwards. It doesn’t get more impressive than conquering the volcano Acatenango. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about this unique volcano tour in this blog!

Why is Acatenango a must?

It’s for a reason that the volcano hike is called a must-do in Guatemala. It is not only the impressive view from the top or the special sleeping location on a volcano, but also the amazing hike. In about five hours you will climb from the foot through four ecosystems to the base camp. So every hour you’ll walk through a completely different environment with different views. It is all equally beautiful.

The hike to the top

The journey to the top of the volcano takes you through four different ecosystems in about five hours. We started our hike around 9 o’clock in the morning at the foot of the Acatenango. A number of porters were there ready to lift the camp gear up. We had also hired a porter for 25 dollars to lift our luggage and the heavy water. Highly recommended, because the trip is already heavy enough without packing. In total you climb 2,094 meters, from the foot at 2,400 meters to the summit at 3,979 meters.

The first hour and a half is often described as the toughest. This is the first ecosystem: farm land. There are no trees and you walk in full sun. The track is sometimes so steep that steps have been made. The loose sand makes it difficult to come up.

Then you arrive in the cloud forest. You can find some shelter of the trees. It is quite dense and all kinds of animals live here. But our guide says that these are mostly on the other side of the volcano, where it is quieter.

At the border of the cloud forest with the next ecosystem we have lunch. The journey after that is a lot less difficult and leads us through the pine forest. We are still going up, but much less steep. If this part is heavy, it is mainly because of the height at which we are now sitting. The views from this part of the Acatenango are spectacular. We are so high that we can look far across the country. The Agua volcano peaks large and massive in front of us.

Camping on the volcano

The base camp on the Acatenango is located on the border of the pine forest and the last volcanic rock ecosystem. The spacious double tents were already set up upon arrival, behind the camp there was a small cubicle like a toilet. The camp is situated on a ledge with great views of the other two volcanoes around Antigua, the Agua and the Fuego. Almost all camps are on that side of the volcano and about at that height. We could also see two camps above us from our ledge. Yet we never had the feeling of being on a massive campsite.

Maybe because the beautiful view is already drawing our attention. But for that view you have to be lucky with the weather. When we arrive at the top of the Acatenango, there is a thick fog and there is nothing to see. But within half an hour everything clears up and we have the best view imaginable.

The Feugo is one of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala and it is quite obvious that it is active. The volcano erupts every 15 minutes. These are large, gray clouds in daylight, but as soon as it starts to get dark we see bursts of red glowing lava particles. So impressive!

It is also possible to continue hiking to the Fuego after arrival or in the morning. Not to the crater of course, but as far as is safe. Ask your organization in advance about that possibility and the prices, if you wish.

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A campfire is lit between the tents. It is quite cold on the volcano, but it is pleasantly warm and we eat our dinner there. A tasty curry is prepared for us in a cooking tent. With a view of the red glowing eruptions of the Fuego, we eat our curry and then drink a cup of coffee or tea.

The Fuego continues undisturbed at night. One time we wake up from the huge sound of an eruption, another time from a small earthquake. Yet we both sleep well in our tents. With all our clothes on, including a warm hat, and in the warm sleeping bag we stay perfectly warm.

The sunrise from the top

The next morning the alarm goes early to climb to the top before sunrise. I stay in the camp to not strain my altitude sickness any further. The summit of the Acatenango is at a height of 3973 meters! Sebastiaan climbs up with the group around 4 o’clock at night. It depends on the group how long the climb lasts, but that is usually between 1 and 2 hours. The largest part of the climb is super heavy, because it is so steep and you sink into the volcanic sand. That makes the descent back to camp very easy again. You slide down in the sand.

But the sunrise from the top is all worth it. The 360 degree view is phenomenal. The sun rises behind the Agua volcano and that is a magical sight. I also have a great morning in the camp. I also get up early to see the slow light and see some eruption of the Fuego with glowing lava. One of the guides lights a campfire for some warmth and we put tea on the fire. Slowly I also see the sky turning yellow, orange, pink and red behind the Agua. Magnificent!

Back at the camp we have breakfast with yogurt, fruit, cookies, coffee and tea. We break down the camp again, pack everything and start the descent at 8.10 am. In no time we reach the parking. We are already there at 10.40 a.m. Including breaks and waiting for the girls from our group who keep sliding on the steep paths because of their slippery sneakers. We notice that steady hiking shoes with grip are a real must. Sebastiaan in particular is happy that he brought along good shoes for the first time; just before departure he found a good looking pair from the brand Keen in his large size (being 47 EU size).

How heavy is the volcano hike?

How you will experience the Acatenango hike is very personal. We are perhaps the best example of this. Sebastiaan found the hike up do to be fine. It was warm and intensive, but not exhaustive. He only had a hard time during the last part of the morning going up. And the moment his body started to hurt? The way down. He quickly gets stress on his knees and could strongly feel this during the steep sections down.

That was a completely different story for me. I was already a little nauseous in Antigua and had some headaches because of the altitude. And no, Antigua is not that high. So every ecosystem up I got more problems with altitude sickness. In the village I quickly got some tablets and they apparently helped. The headache and nausea did not get worse; I did notice how there was less and less oxygen.

I am also less physically strong than Sebastiaan, so the journey was much harder for me. I was therefore very happy with the guides who let me walk at my own pace. One of the guides led the way; another on the back. I felt absolutely no pressure to hurry up and I was encouraged to walk at my own pace. I was therefore completely surprised that I did not fall far behind. The group waited for me every break and they had a break of no more than 5 or a maximum of 10 minutes longer than me. In total we did exactly 5 hours to the climb the Acatenango and that is exactly the designated time for the hike.

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In short: I found the hike to be good at my own pace. It was hard and I skipped the morning climb, but it was doable. I did not get exhausted and did not feel my energy draining completely.

Preparation and tips

We have done the Acatenango hike with Old Town Outfitters and can recommend this to anyone (costs $ 125 USD). We only walked with a small group of 8 people in total, but sometimes the groups are even smaller. The day before, even a group with only 2 people went up.

Old Town Outfitters works exclusively with local (English-speaking) guides with a lot of knowledge of their country and the volcano. Our guides were Mario and David and they were fantastic. So we had no less than 2 guides in a group of 8 people – in addition to porters for the camp equipment, food and wood for the campfire – and that was very nice. I was able to fall behind with one of the guides and climb the volcano at my own pace. As a result, I did not get exhausted and the hike was also a fantastic experience for me.

Tip: Mario also guides Old Town Outfitters travelers outside of work. He guides extreme climbing tours and can even arrange complete travel itineraries in Guatemala for you.

We received the tent, a mat and the sleeping bag from Old Town Outfitters. If you want, you can also borrow a backpack and possibly tracking poles from them. I found the hike a bit heavier than Sebastiaan and was happy with the help of a stick, certainly down. The food and the wood for the campfire is carried up by porters of the organization.

Do you also want to use a local porter yourself? That costs $25 (USD) per day, so $50 (USD) for an overnight tour. We have only taken a porter for the journey up. Going down Sebastiaan was carrying a backpack with our mats, sleeping items and water bottles; I have a smaller backpack with clothing and smaller items. We would definitely recommend a porter going up. They can also take over some of your heavy water. We had to indicate this the day before the trip.

Packing list

  • Backpack (borrow)
  • Warm clothing, including a hat and gloves. We recommend at least two, and no less than three, layers. It is really pretty cold on the volcano, especially at night.
  • Head light
  • A windproof raincoat, such as Maartjes jacket from Arc’teryx. It can be quite windy on top of the volcano and without such a jacket it is even colder than it already is.
  • Hiking shoes with a good profile, such as our Keen shoes. We saw others in our group with sneakers or sneakers constantly sliding away during the hike.
  • At least 4 liters of water per person. We took a total of 9 liters, but even after donating 2 liters for coffee and tea for the group.
  • Small snacks, such as granola or nut bars.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Clean socks (also useful as gloves in the cold night)
  • Inflatable pillow (a neck pillow may also suffice)
  • Stick (borrow)

Acatenango hike

by Old Town Outfitters