Have you ever dreamt of waking up in the middle of the night, pulling aside the flap of your tent, and gazing out on an erupting volcano? If you haven’t, then start dreaming: the hike to the summit of the Acatenango volcano in Guatemala allows you to do just that.
Volcán Acatenango is a dormant volcano located just outside of Antigua, Guatemala. Clocking in at over 13,000 feet high, the summit of Acatenango stands above almost everything else in the country. This means that hiking to the top gives you an incredible view of nearby Volcán de Fuego.
Unlike Acatenango, Volcán de Fuego is highly active. It has multiple small eruptions every day. Granted, these aren’t the catastrophic, city-destroying eruptions you might be imagining. Rather, it spits lava into the air for a few minutes at a time and then quiets down for a few hours before doing the same thing again.
Still, it’s very exciting. Watching blazing hot molten earth shoot into the air from a mountaintop is definitely a bucketlist experience. And you can check that experience off your list in the best possible way by taking a two day hike up Acatenango.
Every day, tour groups and local guides lead dozens of tourists up the slopes of Acatenango. They pitch tents and stay overnight in the frigid cold near the summit of the volcano. Then, in the middle of the night, when red hot lava is erupting next door, the guides wake the tourists to observe the phenomenon with shouts of “Fuego! Fuego! Fuego!” Fire, fire, fire!
Needless to say, I had to experience this.
The Trouble with Hiking Acatenango
There is a catch, though. Hiking a 13,000 foot volcano isn’t exactly easy. The overnight tours involve:
- 6 hours of steep hiking while carrying tents, sleeping bags, food, and water. On top of that, you are often hiking on scree, or loose volcanic ash. This makes walking uphill WAY more difficult.
- An overnight stay at altitudes high enough to induce altitude sickness…and cold enough to require winter coats, hats, gloves, and thick sleeping bags.
- A very steep 4 AM hike to the summit in the dark for sunrise
- A 6 hour descent.
Needless to say, it’s no easy feat – and neither Michael nor I had ever hiked that long or high before in our lives.
Preparing and Choosing our Guide
We did a ton of research in order to prepare ourselves as much as possible. We chose to hike with Gilmer Soy, a well-known local guide who has been leading hikes up Acatenango for years. He was born and raised in La Soledad, the small Mayan community at the base of the volcano. His guides and employees are all locals (and mostly family) and much of his profits go towards development projects in La Soledad.
Responsible Travel Tip:
Choosing a Guide
As with any popular tourist attraction, there are significant problems with overcrowding, irresponsible tourism, and foreign exploitation on Acatenango. What once was a unique tour led entirely by locals who knew the volcano well is now a market crowded by foreign-hostel tour groups. These groups tend to underprepare their hikers and overcrowd the mountain, which has negative impacts on the environment and the local economy – let alone hiker safety. People die on Acatenango every year.
I cannot emphasize this enough – if you are going to hike Acatenango, go with Gilmer or another respected local guide. Your money will benefit the local economy, your tour will be responsible and respectful of local cultural and environmental needs, and you will be safe. It’s worth the extra ten or twenty dollars over the half-assed hostel tour groups and guides you will find all over the streets of Antigua.
At the time of writing, Gilmer didn’t have a website. You can easily reach him via email — sologui5630 (at) gmail.com.
The Morning of the Hike
Gilmer picked us up in a van at our hostel in Antigua excruciatingly early in the morning. He picked up a few other hikers from around town and then we set off for La Soledad, the base of Gilmer’s tour operations.
We arrived at the base and immediately began prepping. Gilmer gave us sleeping bags, hiking poles, 2 meals worth of food, winter coats, gloves, and hats. We crammed all of this and four liters of water in our backpacks to lug up the mountain with us. It was…a lot.
Our group was friendly but overwhelmingly athletic—there were a lot of people hiking with us who regularly hiked peaks like this. Upon realizing this, I began to feel very nervous. My bag was far heavier and bulkier than I had imagined. I was worried about slowing down the other members of the tour group or injuring myself. I looked at Acatenango looming over us with trepidation – was I ready for this?
That Damn First Hour
Before I had time to compose myself, Gilmer herded us back into the vans. There were ten other hikers and three guides making the trip with us that day. Gilmer dropped us at a trail at the base of Acatenango and we were hiking by 9 AM that morning.
The first hour was nothing short of brutal. Within twenty minutes I was thinking, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” The ground was loose scree (or volcanic ash), so with every three steps I took I slid backwards two. It was exhausting and frustrating and awkward and dusty. When we took our first break I was gasping and panicky.
It got easier, though. We soon passed the scree and began walking on packed dirt trails through the woods. Though it was still steep and the pace was fast, I was able to look around and enjoy the scenery rather than watch every step I took.
Our three guides were friendly, professional, and acutely aware of the group’s needs. We stopped often and took time to eat, drink, and stretch along the way. My worry quickly dissipated and I began to enjoy myself, joking around with the other hikers and talking to the guides about their lives spent hiking volcanoes. After that first lurch, the six hours passed surprisingly fast.
I was exhilarated when we finally reached the campsite. The clouds had almost entirely descended on Acatenango, but we still able to gaze out over the hulking form of Fuego beside us. This was it — we were here. I suddenly had a whole new burst of energy as we helped pitch tents. It had gotten quite cold as we climbed upwards, so we pulled on coats and gloves as we worked.
The guides built a fire and cooked a dinner of fresh pasta, beans, and hot cocoa. We all sat in a large circle around the fire, toasting marshmallows and sharing stories. It was fun to spend the evening chatting with the guides and other hikers from all over the world. It’s a funny thing to be thrown into such an intense situation with people you’ve never met before – even if you have nothing else in common, this experience will forever connect you.
Tired, I called it a night fairly early. I was cold and very worried about missing Fuego erupting, so I slept poorly. At 2 AM, I was jolted out of my restlessness by yells of “Fuego! Fuego!” from the guides. I scrambled over Michael’s body and ripped the tent door open. There it was — from the door of my tent, I saw red smoke and tongues of flame rising from the summit of Fuego in front of me. Michael joined me and we watched as the spectacle ended just as suddenly as it had began — no longer than 20 seconds in total.
Unfortunately, there was not a large enough eruption during the night for the lava to show up in a photo. You’ll just have to take my word for how beautiful and overwhelming and strange it was — the earth was SPITTING FIRE in front of me!
Hiking to the Summit
I never respond well to being woken up, and when the guides woke us at 4 AM the next morning I was extremely grumpy with them. “This hike to the summit better be worth it,” I thought. We scrambled around in the dark, shivering as we pulled on layer after layer. Then we grabbed our poles and stumbled blearily to the group forming by the fire.
Hours before I was ready to even sip coffee, we starting hiking again. The ground had once again turned to loose scree and the slope was steeper than it had ever been.
Oh, and it was pitch black.
For once Michael and I weren’t behind – everybody was struggling. In the freezing darkness we hiked in a single file line, feet skidding down the loose gravel as we inched upwards. We couldn’t see anything but what our headlamps illuminated of the ground in front of us.
It was painful and seemingly endless. Minutes ticked by that felt like hours. My body begged for a break but there was no time–we were in a rush. We needed to reach the top before that crucial moment when the sun broke over the horizon. In the last few hundred feet a burst of energy pulsed through us all. We pushed at full effort, moving as quickly as our bodies and the ground would allow.
And then, finally, we summited. Freezing cold, our breath rising into the air around us, the world still and silent in the moments before the sun rose, we waited.
And then…it rose. The earth was suddenly illuminated and we could see for miles. The clouds hung beneath us, surreal puffy shapes painted shades of gold, pink, and orange. In every direction we could see the distant peaks of Central American volcanoes, stretching from Western Guatemala in the north to El Salvador and Nicaragua in the south.
Words can’t describe that moment. So peaceful, so quieting, so proud of this crazy physical achievement. I had already forgotten my disappointment at the lack of a full nighttime eruption from Fuego– this alone was worth the hike.
After half an hour or so of wandering around the summit (and central crater, because, yes, Acatenango is also a volcano), we were all freezing. The adrenaline of the sunrise was wearing off and our fatigue and pain was setting in. The guides led us back to the slope that we had climbed that morning.
I was not prepared for what came next. We stood as a group staring down the steep slope of ash in front of us. The guides told us we had the option to descend by scree-running – AKA sprinting full speed down the side of the volcano, allowing your feet to slip forward in the ash. We watched as a guide demonstrated. He descended the slope that took us an hour and a half to climb in less than a minute.
I waited for the people in front of me to gain a safe distance and then I took off down the side of Acatenango. YES!
And then, as I was halfway through my scree run — sliding and lurching and screaming, blood and adrenaline and joy pumping through my body– it happened. Fuego erupted in full in front of us, a massive plume of smoke rising out of what had been an unassuming mountain moments before.
We stopped in our tracks and watched it rise into the sky. Though the lava was difficult to make out in the morning sun, the billowing smoke alone was an incredible sight. It was the most breathtaking, unreal view to see while also sprinting down the side of a volcano.
When we reached the campsite, Michael and I quickly snapped this photo of us beside our tent with Fuego erupting behind us. It may be my favorite picture of us ever taken.
We ate breakfast and drank coffee around the fire, everybody chattering about the events of the morning. Even the seasoned hikers were amazed by the beauty of this particular experience.
Eventually it was time to pack up, and we loaded up all our stuff onto our backs again and started down.
The hike down was both easier and more difficult (something I always personally find to be true). Though there wasn’t the cardio aspect of hiking uphill, the pain in your joints and legs from consistently stepping downhill the day after an eight hour uphill hike is tough. Thankfully it went much faster than the ascent and soon enough we were at the bottom, sipping beers and reveling in our achievements.
Life After Acatenango
That night, we met up with some of the other people from our group in Antigua and went out for drinks. The connection of having done such an incredible thing together was enough to make us all friends. In fact, we ended up traveling onwards with a few of them through Guatemala, and we’re in touch with several to this day.
The whole experience was surreal. When I awoke the next morning, stiff and tired and exhausted, I almost couldn’t believe it had happened at all. Was it really only 24 hours since I watched the sun burst over the world and a volcano erupting beside me? That couldn’t possibly be my life.
But it was, and that is f%*$ing amazing.