Hiking Volcano Acatenango was on the top of our bucket list for Guatemala. But as we got close to our stay in Antigua, the nerves kicked in. Were we fit enough to climb it? Was the top as freezing as everyone said? Would it erupt in our sleep? Ok, in hindsight some of these worries were dramatic, but I hope this post eases the mind of fellow worriers hoping to reach the top of Volcano Acatenango.
First things first. You must choose a tour group to hike up with. After much research, and hearing glowing reviews from other backpackers, we went with Wicho & Charlie. Tropicana and OXpeditions were both highly rated too. Who you choose will largely depend on your budget and the gear you already have. Given that it was my only ‘cold’ place during my 7 months of travelling, I came totally unprepared and needed everything Wicho & Charlie had to offer.
Related post: Antigua: 11 Best Things to do in Antigua, Guatemala
Volcano Acatenango Itinerary
|7:30am||Meet up at Wicho & Charlie to rent gear and eat breakfast.|
|9:00am||Depart from Wicho & Charlie.|
|10:15am||The hike starts.|
|15:00pm||Arrive at basecamp.|
|16:30pm||Summit for sunset.|
|4:30am||Summit for sunrise.|
|8:00am||Start the descent.|
|10:30am||Depart for Antigua.|
|11:30am||Arrive back in Antigua.|
We arrived at the W&C office promptly to pick our gear. Upon arrival, we were given beetroot shots and then sent up to the kit room in two groups. Hats, scarves, gloves, jackets, 2 reusable bottles and headlamps were included in the price. Walking poles weren’t included but I can’t stress enough how helpful these were. Pay the extra few dollars for them!! I also rented a thermal top and a backpack. You must leave ID as a deposit, so be sure to bring it on the day. They have a huge selection of other things available to hire, from hiking boots to thermal leggings.
Breakfast at Wicho & Charlie
Once our kit was hired and packed, breakfast was served. Fresh pancakes with syrup or jam/cream, fruit platters and baguettes with avocado were all included in the tour price. This was a really nice added touch as it meant we could get to know some of the people in our group ahead of the hike. There was a nice mix of couples, friends, small groups and solo backpackers. By the end of it, you’re all bonded over the experience!
Lunch and five snacks were also provided. This was to be carried by us, along with the 4 mandatory litres of water AND an extra litre for cooking with at basecamp.
After we’d eaten, collected our food packs and had a short briefing of the day ahead, it was time to go. With the van packed up, our group of 32 left Wicho & Charlie at 9:35am… there was no going back.
Arriving at Volcano Acatenango
After an hour drive along winding roads, we were at the hike starting point! All apprehensive, we collected our gear and used the one available toilet. Most people brought some form of loo roll or tissues as this isn’t provided. Stalls lined up the roadside – selling wooden walking sticks, fizzy drinks, snacks and rum. Our 5 guides proceeded to introduce themselves, followed by a briefing of the hike to basecamp. By 10:45, we were off.
My sister and I hoped our Pacaya Volcano hike, along with several days in Lake Atitlan and Antigua, was enough to reduce our chances of altitude sickness. Despite this, we still planned to take the hike slow and avoid altitude sickness as much as possible.
The hike up Volcano Acatenango is divided into three sections: a sandy bit, the rainforest and ‘the cloud forest’.
‘The Sandy Bit’
You’ll see this path as soon as you leave the bus, as it sits right off the main road. Climbing up was challenging from the get-go. It wasn’t made easier when a large group passed us on their hike down, giving warnings over what was to come. This continuous uphill hike lasted 45 minutes, with two water breaks.
I found the most challenging part of this section was being in direct sunlight and the heavy backpack. As the day went on, we were eating and drinking more of our supplies, which lessened the weight. But the start was hard. Two girls in our group had paid for a porter to carry their bags (Q150-200) – so this option exists! I’m glad I took my bag, as it added to the experience, but I definitely underestimated how much harder the hike was with all the extra weight. The first part of this hike does have make shift stairs, as you’ll see from the photo, the rest doesn’t.
The group instantly divided into three rough groups, dependant on pace/speed. I was at the back.
The rainforest part of Volcano Acatenango starts approximately 45 minutes into the hike. Thankfully, the trees in this section largely protect you from the direct sunlight. With the relief of having shade, came the next challenge – the terrain. Unlike the first part of the hike, which had relatively easy terrain, the paths inside the rainforest are extremely slippery. Hiking poles were a lifesaver here, as they helped reduce the weight off your legs AND stopped you sliding back down. I can’t recommend renting these enough! Most tours offer them as an add on for a few dollars and I think they really saved the experience.
Within 25 minutes, we arrived at the Acatenango National Park office entry point. Here we filled out detailed forms, paid the Q50 entrance fee and had a briefing of the remaining hike. It was a welcome break, before having to continue on through the rainforest to our lunch stop!
I mentally struggled a lot throughout the rainforest, given the relentless, slippery, bendy, steep (and sometimes narrow) paths. Feeding off positive energy within the group, listening to music for periods and chatting to my sister and new friends got me through.
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We reached our well deserved lunch stop at 1pm. I was elated to have some relief from the heavy backpack and to sit down. Wicho & Charlie had provided a baguette, banana, bag of nuts, granola snack bar and a large chocolate brownie. Lunch lasted an hour.
The Cloud Forest
With spirits lifted from the filling lunch, we set off on our way to basecamp. Knowing we were more than half way really gave the group a boost of positivity. 2.5 hours more to go!
This next section is appropriately named, as the path is above the clouds. You’ll be faced with a mix of long, steep inclines and easier undulating paths. The few downhill parts were an amazing relief for the calves and the views provided for a fantastic distraction.
As a warning, several basecamps (including Wicho & Charlie) are situated along a very narrow path, with a sheer drop on one side. I’m terrified of heights and found this extremely scary. The high altitude at this point made breathing more challenging, so this entire section had me in tears.
This was probably my favourite part of hiking Volcano Acatenango. Every single person cheered each other on and helped each other through what felt like a never-ending climb! We were all exhausted, hungry, in pain and mentally checked out, but supported one another continuously.
Volcano Acatenango Basecamp
Reaching Volcano Acatenango basecamp was an indescribable feeling. I have never felt such relief for a physical challenge to be over with in my life – and I had run 7 marathons by the time I climbed Acatenango!!
Wicho & Charlie’s basecamp is divided into three camps. Camp 1, where I stayed with my sister, is the largest. The other two camps have capacity for around 6-8 people. Our group was very large that particular day, hence why all three were used.
Camp 1 had two large 8-bed cabins, two 2-man tents and a large dining room tent. Chairs had been put out around a campfire, and for the next hour, everyone sat in awe of the views, whilst continuing to celebrate each new arrival to the camp.
The view of Fuego erupting every 15 minutes was incredible and worth the horrible climb.
Hiking Fuego Volcano & Acatenango’s Summit
The break between arriving at basecamp and the summit/Fuego hikes will depend on how long the hike to basecamp took. Our guides came and explained the three options available to us for the evening.
- Stay at basecamp for the entire evening
- Climb to Volcano Acatenango’s Summit
- Embark on the treacherous hike to Fuego
Note: This will entirely depend on the weather you have. We were extremely fortunate to have perfect weather so all options were available to us.
- Staying at basecamp: The sunsets on the other side of the volcano to the basecamp. However, you’ll be able to enjoy the colourful sky with Fuego Volcano erupting every 15 minutes.
- Volcano Acatenango’s Summit: This took 2.5 hours return. Other than a challenging 30 minutes, it’s similar to the rest of Acatenango. You’ll be reward with 360 degree – panoramic views and the sunset.
- Fuego Volcano: the hardest of all options. A four hour hike, harder than what we’d done, up to Fuego to see the lava up close. People who did it said it was extremely challenging, and not necessarily worth the views.
I stayed at basecamp for the evening, with 9 others from my camp. Although the sun set from the other side, we watched the skies change colour around us, with Fuego Volcano regularly erupting in the distance.
The campsite had cards, boardgames, hot chocolate and marshmallow roasting. The 10 of us sat round chatting and had a great night. We could see the headlamps of the Fuego climbers and couldn’t believe how close the lava got at points!! Their hike included a long walk along a narrow path with a sheer drop either side – we all agreed we made a great decision staying back.
Sleeping and Eating at Basecamp
Once the exhausted climbers were down from the summit, tomato pasta and red wine was served. I loved the atmosphere in the dining tent, with everyone in, albeit tired, but great spirits!
The majority of the group went to bed early – either to prepare for the 4:30am summit start or from sheer exhaustion. The beds provided were thick, comfortable mattresses on the floor and -20 degree sleeping bags. Regardless of this, we all had a terrible night’s sleep. The altitude made breathing feel hard, combined with people leaving at 4:30am for the summit sunrise hike. We also had a situation with our cabin door and discovered during the night, when someone got up to pee, that it was jammed shut. Once we were able to pry ourselves out, we had to keep it open to prevent it from happening again. So the remainder of the night was quite chilly.
I woke up with a terrible headache. I had drunk 5 litres of water during the climb, and in the evening, so put it down to altitude sickness. But opening our cabin door, to this view of Fuego Volcano made it all so worth it! And although it wasn’t a great night sleep, I knew the whole experience was such a once in a lifetime moment that it didn’t matter. Breakfast was porridge and was served at 7:15am.
By 7:45am, the group was packed and had started the descent down.
Hiking Down Volcano Acatenango
Personally, I found the hike down harder than the hike up – sorry if this part is a bit negative!
The first 20 minutes, or so, were ok. We walked back across the undulating paths with significantly more energy than the previous afternoon. With less food/drink supplies, our bags were lighter and more manageable too. I focused on helping my sister down during this and she was struggling a lot with the altitude. In my mind, the faster we got down, the better we’d feel.
Once we got through the cloud forest, we were back in the rainforest. This part was unbearable!! My sister and I fell a combined 19 times, due to how slippery it was. I had to use all my concentration to watch where I put my feet and to deal with the tricky, sharp bends that were steep and slippery. I hated every second of this bit!
The sandy bit was equally as challenging. Many parts were slippery, whilst the majority of it was steep. Towards the end we were able to run down. We had three organised breaks throughout the entire descent.
I think what made the descent so mentally challenging was how relentless and never-ending it felt!
A few people out of the 32 of us that managed to get the whole way down without falling. However, 3 girls sustained significant grazes from falling and most people were covered in mud. Our guide told us running down would be easier but there were many areas where this wasn’t possible.
We finally arrived back down at 10:10am, elated we accomplished it and that it was finally over. Feeling on top of the world, the beers were flowing and constant cheers were given out to those coming down the trail. Despite how hard it was, it was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever done! I would highly recommend this to anyone going to Guatemala.
I vowed to never climb another volcano! Although… this lasted a week, as I climbed Volcano Telica in Nicaragua!
Tips for Hiking Volcano Acatenango
- Have the correct gear. The conditions along this hike, and at the top, are no joke. The track is steep and slippery at points. Temperatures reached -8 degrees at the top. If you don’t have proper hiking gear, rent it from the many shops in Antigua or from the organisation you’re hiking with. This will include headlamps, thermal clothes, hiking shoes and poles.
- Bring minimum 4 litres of water. If your organisation doesn’t enforce a rule for that, do it anyway. Most of the hike is done in peak heat of the day and dehydration was something many people in our group were struck with. Staying hydrated will help with the symptoms of altitude sickness too.
- Go at your own pace. It’s not a race to the top. Go at your own pace and take breaks whenever you need to. Organised breaks were every 20-25 minutes, but I still stopped in between to catch my breath and drink water. New guides were assigned to anyone going slower than the 3 paced groups. It just means you have a less time to chill in the basecamp than others.
- Make friends in your group. You’re all in this together and supporting each other to the top will make the experience just that bit more bearable.
- Rent hiking poles. Don’t choose the cheap wooden sticks on offer, rent two proper hiking poles. Not only will these help you with the steep ascent, but they help to stabilise you during the slippery descent.
- Take plenty of suncream. Half the climb is in direct sunlight. Although I avoided burning my skin, I did burn my lips!!!
Acatenango was one of the highlights of my trip to Guatemala and such a life achievement. Camping on an active volcano, watching Fuego Volcano erupt from around our campfire, the people we met and the environment we were in, was a once in a lifetime experience. I would recommend this to anyone! Just be sure to take it seriously, as its no walk in the park.
Have a great time and….don’t scare yourself with the Tripadvisor reviews beforehand. It’s bloody hard but the views of Fuego Volcano erupting and the surrounding areas are totally worth it. We had people of all ages, sizes and fitness levels in our group and EVERYONE made it to the top. It’s no race and you can go entirely at your own speed.
Let me know if you climb Volcano Acatenango!
Happy Travels x