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  • Writer's pictureDeborah

Hiking the Acatenango volcano in Guatemala

Updated: Mar 11

Erupting right before our eyes!

Home to 21 volcanoes, including 3 active ones, Guatemala offers exciting opportunities to get up close and experience one of the most impressive natural phenomenons on our planet. For adventurers like us, this was irresistible. The highlight of our time in colourful Guatemala, the Acatenango hike delivered its magic. Though rewarding, these epic views come at a price...the hike is strenuous but oh so worth it! If you are tempted to book this in for your next holiday, read on to find out what to expect.

Booking the hike

Just shy of 4,000 metres in altitude, Acatenango is Guatemala's third highest volcano. A mighty hike will take you to the top, where you can admire incredible 360 degrees views over the countryside, and, its famous neighbour, Fuego (pictured above), one of Guatemala's active volcanoes. One of the top attractions in Guatemala, Acatenango is situated near the popular city of Antigua.

The colonial city of Antigua

Antigua is a beautiful city to visit in its own right, and plays host to most tourists visiting the country. As such, it is peppered with tour operators offering activities and excursions to nearby areas. There are many different operators offering the Acatenango hike, with different price points and inclusions. For us, safety and comfort were of the utmost importance, so after much research, we opted to book our hike with Ox expeditions. They offer two options: a day trip or an overnight hike. While the day hike is good exercise, I would highly recommend the overnight trip as it gives you more chances to see Fuego erupt!

The tours operate year-round, however, I would urge any hiker to avoid booking this during Guatemala's rainy season, which runs between May and October. The hike is a straight uphill and very strenuous, conditions which would only be exacerbated with torrential rains. Additionally, you may have fewer chances of enjoying the views in adverse weather conditions.

Pre-trip meeting

With 20 years of experience, Ox is a professional and highly organised company. We were impressed with the thorough pre-trip meeting, addressing safety concerns and the necessary packing preparation ahead of the hike. At Ox, the guides offer no-nonsense advice. We were provided with a list of snacks and drinks to purchase, as well as clothing essentials to pack. Gear is also available for rent: this includes basic clothing items like hiking shoes all the way to proper gear such as head torches or sturdy backpacks. From the very start, we felt we were in good hands.

The briefing also goes over what to expect during the hike. It isn't easy, and this is emphasized during the meeting. Not to say you must be a professional to complete it, but being in good physical condition is a pre-requisite.

Be prepared to hike uphill for hours

The volcano comprises four zones with different climate conditions as you ascend; These are a farmland area, a cloud forest area, an alpine area and the volcanic area at the very top. Wearing multiple layers is thus a good idea, especially as sub-zero temperatures are not uncommon.

Lastly, there is 40% less oxygen at the summit. This means some hikers may experience altitude sickness. Once again, the guides are used to this and offer recommendations on how to best prepare ahead of the hike. The best advice we were given was to spend a day or two in Antigua before the hike to acclimatise, hydrate and pack some paracetamol.

The hike

View of Fuego - the reward at the end of the hike!

After a very early packing session at the Ox office and a delicious Guatemalan breakfast feed, we departed for the hike. We were at the foot of the volcano by 9 am, and were offered the services of local porters. For a small fee, porters hike alongside you wearing your backpack. This is a great way to meet and help the local community. While there is no obligation to hire a porter, most of our group did so.

We were warned that the start of the hike was the hardest part. This was definitely true, as I later discovered, huffing and puffing as we ascended the soft, earthy slope...the ordeal went on for at least an hour before we were rewarded with a break.

The hike got a little easier as we continued the climb, but we were always on an incline, even when we reached the 'Guatemalan flat' takes about 5 hours to reach camp, depending on the pace of your group. Typically, the slowest group member sets the pace to ensure everyone can follow so this estimate can vary.

I really enjoyed the changing environment, which seemed to act as a marker of our progress. The stark contrast of the individual ecosystems made me feel like I was travelling through completely different areas of the world all at once. Walking through the cloud forest was particularly striking. As we emerged from the clear farmland, we were greeted by a humid haze and tall trees overgrown with moss. It was actually hard not to trip as we all had our noses up, admiring the nature surrounding us. Not at all what I expect from a volcano hike!

Rest area in the cloud forest

As we ascended, friendships formed. We had an amazing group of like-minded world travellers and connected on our love of adventure and multi-cultural backgrounds. Interestingly, a few people we met were also travelling full-time or on a career break. Swapping travel stories and memories from home made the hike a lot more fun and enjoyable.

By the time we reached the Alpine area, we were able to peek at the views of our surroundings. By this point, we were walking on the infamous 'Guatemalan flat', which was still an incline by the way. But it was easily overlooked for the views were impressive. The excitement built as everyone tried to glimpse Fuego and a potential eruption.

The Acatenango base camp sits at 3,500 metres above sea level. From here, we got our first glimpse at Fuego, and even could hear its explosions! Needless to say, the hardships of the hike were all but forgotten by this stage. The excitement at seeing an active volcano erupt this close overrode any feelings of tiredness.

The view over 'Agua' volcano from camp

Ox has installed some cute wooden cabins looking out onto Fuego, which we slept in with three other hikers. The space was snug, but comfortable enough. To be fair, we did not sleep very much as from about 2 am onwards, we woke up about every 20 minutes to catch a glimpse of the erupting volcano. The sound would wake us up and all 5 of us would sit up in our sleeping bags and watch the spectacle unfold. It was like nothing else I have experienced before. At this moment, I felt both vulnerable and in awe at the beauty of the flowing lava.

The next day, we got up at 5 am and started the tough ascent to the summit. Equipped with our head torches, we hiked up volcanic ash in the dark for about 3 hours, in freezing conditions. I honestly have rarely been this cold. The wind was cutting through our clothes and our fingers went numb...but watching the sunrise from the summit of Acatenango was incredible. We watched as the light intensified and as the dark skies turned into shades of pink, orange and yellow. It was mesmerising, and one of the most beautiful moments we witnessed on our year away.

The descent was considerably easier, taking us only about 3 hours. We were back in Antigua a little after midday, ready to celebrate our feat in one of the local restaurants, with new friends and a view of Acatenango.

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