We all certainly experience breathtaking moments in our life, which are so powerful that words cannot describe them. For me, reaching the barren crater of Acatenango Volcano after 2000 m/ 6562 ft of climbing up the scree slopes over seven hours was one of them.
The third highest volcano in Guatemala, Volcán de Acatenango (3976 m/13,044 ft) is said to be the most awe-inspiring, diverse and toughest hike in all of Guatemala, and I can attest this till the last bit.
It is a steep hike with 2 kilometers vertical gain over 6 kilometers/+4 miles.
It is diverse passing through four microclimates: farmland (it is not flat!), lush cloud forest (gorgeous!), high alpine forest. and volcanic desert.
It is mesmerizing with spectacular views across the valley and the gentle Volcán de Agua.
It is a truly matchless experience. Camping in the shadows of an active volcano and listening to the roaring earth all night is something that should not be missed!
It is mind-blowing getting up close and personal with an active volcano itself. The peak of Volcán de Fuego is almost close enough to touch.
It is ineffable watching the Fuego - the ever angry one, spurt out huge plumes of smoke and ash, right there in front of you.
It is the most utterly beautiful sunset I have ever seen high above the clouds. The colors were vibrant and strikingly contrasted against the dark earth.
In short, it is the toughest and the most rewarding hike I've ever done up to date. Hiking on a sandy terrain means you walk two steps up, and sink one (or more) step(s) down, onward and upward, left, right, left, left, right...an eternity of walking. My heart was pumping like a hummingbird trying hard to satisfy my lungs' increasing oxygen demand on top of the world. Every single step was a real pain and a mental challenge. Given that the sky was covered by a thick layer of clouds, in my mind I had given up on seeing anything worthwhile the torture. For the last 100 meters, I was crawling on all fours...exhausted...about to die. My heart had almost jumped out of my mouth when I finally made it to the summit and caught the first glimpse of the lunar-like volcanic crater. All the pain subsided instantly and I felt alive again...alive and kicking. Luckily, the clouds parted allowing us clear views, and we were gifted with frequent explosive eruptions of Fuego - Mother Earth's very own fireworks show.
Hell YES the hike took literally my breath away, and the views left me speechless!
** Photo credit: Jan Klikar (edited by me) - I was already freezing at this moment that I could no longer move my fingers to grab the camera.
When in Guatemala, hiking the Acatenango Volcano is - no doubt - a magical unforgettable experience, an absolute must do. Lunar landscapes, stunning sunsets and front row seats in a magnificent theater with nature playing the main role. What more could you expect from a hike?
How to do
We booked the overnight hiking tour with O.X. Outdoor Excursions in Antigua, but sadly I cannot recommend them. The guide galloped ahead for the most part, and the ratio 1 guide & 4 tents for a group of 19 was more than inappropriate (update Apr/2015: my review on Tripadvisor had been removed!). Before booking a tour with any company, make sure to find out:
- How many people will be in the group?
- How many guides will be in charge of the group?
- How many tents will be available for the group?
- What are the duties of the guide? Can you expect to get some information about the surroundings or will he be just running a marathon?
- What is the quality of the gear? Is it suitable for high altitude?
The overnight trip to Acatenango is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a high level of fitness (no technical climbing though) and some acclimatization to altitude. You can hire a porter if you don't want to carry extra weight of packs, and I would recommend doing so to be able to enjoy the beauty surrounding you. The hike downhill takes around 3 hours, mainly skiing down the scree slopes with a cheeky grin at the guys struggling their way up :-)
Gear, Food and Drinks
There is no accommodation or shops along the trail or at the summit. You will need to bring everything with you - the best is to stock up in Antigua. All organized tours will provide tents, sleeping bags and pads. Remember to bring along your personal items, including but not limited to:
- good, broken in hiking shoes - preferably with ankle support.
- warm clothes in layers, gloves, beanie
- travel sheet as a hygienic layer in between your (rental) sleeping bag.
- 55 liters backpack (can be rented)
- 4 liters of water per person, snacks
- toilet paper, wet wipes, and perhaps a sarong to serve as a curtain (no facilities around, and not many trees either)
- plastic bag for trash
- a small bottle of vodka to keep warm :-)
- Make sure that your toenails are cut short enough, the shoes you hike in are long enough for your feet, and that they are laced tightly enough to keep your foot from slipping forward in the shoe. During the downhill hike, your toes will most likely get jammed against the inside of your shoe, causing a bruise under the nail. And it takes ages for the bruises to disappear, I tell you.
- Don't try to keep up with the fittest hikers of the group, walk at your own tempo and maintain a steady speed.
- Please, leave nothing but footprints. It is so sad to see so many plastic bottles and other trash all around this amazing place. In my humble opinion, the tour companies could support the environment and locals by simply offering the porters a little extra work on the way down. But it seems neither the government, nor the tour companies take any action to save the nature.