Climbing Volcano Acatenango is the quintessential Central American adventure.
It’s a must-do.
In seven months of travel, the decision to climb Volcano Acatenango was the best one we made. This adventure was the backdrop to some of our most treasured travel photos, and far more importantly, the memories are irreversibly ingrained in our minds – good, bad and ugly.
But conquering Volcano Acatenango was also really, really hard for us. Like, really hard.
If you’re thinking about climbing Acatenango, it’s possible you’re already aware of this.
We do implore you to do it, particularly if you’re in Antigua, because it was the highlight of our trip. BUT we also implore you to read this blog post so you know exactly what you’re in for.
We’re here to fully disclose our Acatenango extravaganza – potentially to help you prepare for your hike, or even to persuade you to take the plunge and prevail over Guatemala’s hardest volcano climb.
Before we proceed, two quick things: firstly, you will notice in our post there are zero photos of the trail. This is because we were quite simply far far too exhausted to pull out a camera at any point to take pictures. Secondly, there are a number of unflattering pictures in this post. This is to demonstrate this is not the type of adventure you do just for Instagram. It’s tough, tiring and testing.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: The Day Before
It was the day before we were to set off to climb Volcano Acatenango, and Nat had been reading blogs all morning about our impending overnight hike the next day. After realising the words ‘death march’ had been used numerous times to describe the experience, her anxiety levels were maxing out.
“Should we hire hiking boots?” she asked me.
“Nah, we’ll be right,” I said. We were on a budget after all. Plus, it’s not like we were total newbies to the whole backpacking/hiking scene.
Nat looked at me with murder in her eyes. The words death march were clearly ominously running through her head like Despacito on repeat.
“Alright, alright,” I conceded, starting to pack my bag.
If everyone else could do it, so could we, right?! It appeared half the backpackers that blew through Antigua climbed Acatenango. These people smoked every day, drank as if their lives depended on it and did zero formal exercise. If it was seriously that hard, we wouldn’t be allowed to climb it… right?
In other words, I was sure it would be fine.
Narrator: It would not be fine.
My assumptions about Volcano Acatenango turned out to be so wrong. Tragically, six people, including two Guatemalan athletes died at the basecamp, the very same one we overnighted at, quite literally two days after we climbed it.
Put it this way, thank Jesus for Nat and her tireless researching, organisational skills and foresight. Without it we – or at least, I – would have been screwed.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: D-Day
Our pick-up for the tour from our hostel “El Hostal” was at 9.00 am. Our nerves had settled in nicely at this point and after an hour bouncing about the van with our tour group made up of the usual suspects of Aussies, Germans, Brits and Americans, with a rogue Indian thrown in as wildcards we arrived at the trailhead.
As our bus pulled up, we noticed a few groups of hikers who had spent the previous night up the mountain now lounging roadside in various states of exhaustion covered in dirt and ash. None of them looked particularly happy or friendly – if we were hoping for words of encouragement or nuggets of wisdom regarding what was ahead of us from this motley crew, we were fresh out of luck.
Next we met our guides, two small but ridiculously strong Guatemalan men with grills in their teeth and very little English. Thankfully there were Germans in the group, who all speak 15 languages fluently, so translators were on hand when/if necessary. After attaching sleeping mats and bags to our backpacks and distributing tents and poles amongst the group, we were good to go.
This was happening.
Yep… whether we liked it or not, this was happening.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: Part One
The very first portion of the track was technically the hardest. We trudged up a ridiculously steep, narrow path, the ground underfoot a combination of sand and volcanic ash. We reckoned with food, water, additional clothing and camping gear, we were carrying approximately 15 kilograms each. It was the middle of the day and the sun was strong.
Looking back, the only good part about this part of the hike was our legs are fresh and the volcano hadn’t yet crushed our souls and broken our spirits.
Finally, our guides stopped for a quick break on a grassy hill overlooking cornfields. We sucked down water and ripped into the our pre-prepared snacks.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: Part Two
The next part of the walk was not as consistently steep and the track was better maintained and firmer to walk on. This was a blessing for us because as per usual, we were in runners rather than hiking boots.
What came next was a never-ending set of stairs. At this stage the pack’s weight was starting to feel like we were dragging dead bodies up the mountain rather than some measly supplies. The only way we could manage to keep going was to lean so far forward our torsos were parallel to the ground.
At last, we reached the designated spot for lunch, set under an incredible tree that looked like it was straight out of The Jungle Book set.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: Part 3
Full disclosure: For me, this was the hardest, mentally and physically. About ten minutes after getting on the road after our lunch break I was in a world of hurt. Our guides obviously enjoyed cruel and unusual punishment because this part of the trek without pausing was incredibly long.
My body seemed to finally be breaking. My quads were literally cramping up and I couldn’t bend my knees to take a step, something that has never actually happened to me before or since in my life.
I completely lost it. Imagine a stinking backpacker, exhausted, filthy, sweating like a bush screaming/half sobbing/unable to walk on the side of a volcano. Poor Nat calmed me down enough to stretch out my thigh and I was able to stagger to the next rest point in one piece.
It was here the guides informed us we only had an 45 minutes more to climb, and then an hour long walk on reasonably flat ground to get us to base camp. “Oh me dios’ (Oh my God in Espanol) I cried and sank to my knees, which everyone thought was hilarious. Yeah, fucking hilarious, hahaha.
And thus concluded the third (and for me, most difficult) portion of the trek, otherwise known as a Biggest Loser Week One episode with Nat featuring as Michelle and me as someone who has been eating like Michael Phelps but skipped the 50 hours of exercise a week throughout their entire adult life.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: Part Four & Five
The fourth section was nowhere near as steep as the previous three. Then at last, we hit the fifth and final section, the easiest of the lot. In an hour, we had hit base camp.
Here, it became blatantly obvious how tough and strong our guides were. While we all collapsed around the base camp area after approximately four hours of hard hiking, they whipped around setting up our tents and then zipped off with machetes to climb trees and cut firewood for the night.
Ladies, take a ticket and get in line. It doesn’t get much more macho than Guatemalan mountain men.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: Summit for Sunset
After the crew spent some time recovering, a couple of the other people in the group began chatting to the guides. It transpired we had two options for climbing the summit – go for sunset, or sunrise, but not both. Apparently, the view at sunset was spectacular, so after some discussion, we set out. It was freezing, we were now climbing at over 3,000 metres above sea level, and we had already hiked for hours. So, we mightn’t have been carrying packs on our backs, but we now had fatigue and the altitude to battle with.
To be honest, this part of Acatenango was too traumatic to remember in great detail. All you need to know is it was
- completely uphill
- half of it was through volcanic ash, which is a nightmare to walk uphill on
- and finally, that the moment you reach the summit and realise you’ve made it is pure euphoria.
What you need to know about the summit at sunset
- It’s freezing. You will need gloves, beanies, layers and jackets, etc
- Start taking pictures as soon as you get there, because the sun disappears VERY quickly. She had hardly got the camera out before we had to leave again!
Heading down the summit to basecamp was actually a total riot. Rather than take the established trail we started galloping down the side of the volcano through the rocks formed from ash. This was like a cross between running and snowboarding. After a day of battling gravity, the momentum and speed felt completely exhilarating. While it look us approximately 75 minutes to get from base camp to the summit, it probably only took 15 minutes to get back.
A bonus that the sun had gone down was that we could now get a different perspective of Volcano Fuego erupting. From our position at Acatenango’s base camp by a camp fire we could hear the deep rumbling of the eruptions, followed by explosions spewing glowing red ash and smoke from the volcano’s depths that then tumbled down to settle eventually on its sides. This cycle continued over and over throughout the night. It’s not really possible to explain the majesty or amazing-ness of seeing this phenomenon of nature doing it’s thing up close and personal, particularly in the dark.
Climbing Volcano Acatenango: Sleeping overnight
That night, as we predicted, was absolutely hellish. Our tents didn’t do up properly and nor did our sleeping bags and despite us both wearing down jackets, two pairs of pants, socks, gloves and layers upon layers, it was freezing. Our mats were barely a centimetre thick and we didn’t have pillows. There’s no nice way to put it – it was crap.
But maybe, just maybe, it was worth it for the sunrise.
As the sun climbed higher and the colours lighting up the sky began to fade, we started packing up our tents. Despite being exhausted, fatigued and grumpy, everyone was highly energised. There seemed to be an unspoken consensus the show was over and it was time – thank you God – to get the f*ck off the volcano.
The race to get home was on. Utterly inspired by the thought of a shower, a delicious meal and civilisation again we packed our gear, whipped our packs on and were off. Nat and I (OK, mostly I) might have been screaming for a break the day before, but on the way home, we were the Energiser Bunnies of the group, front and centre, leading the way. From memory, it took barely 90 minutes to get down back to the trailhead, where we could get rid of our packs and go to a toilet with a door. We have never been so happy to see a bus in our lives.
After an incredibly full-on and challenging 24 hours, we were proud, delighted and surprised to say:
Volcano Acatenango – we did it!
So… will you?