Hiking and camping overnight on Acatenango Volcano (next to Volcano Fuego) is one of the hardest yet most rewarding activities you can undertake from Antigua, Guatemala. The excursion itself deserves its own post, so that you can gain an understanding of just how to do this yourself, and to ensure that you do it safely with reputable guides and proper gear.
Just one week before I went on this climb, there was word that 6 people had died on the mountain. There are many stories as to what might have happened (none of which will be described here), but it set the tone for wanting to be as well prepared as possible and not just try to do the tour as cheaply as possible. With all of that being said, here is a guide on how to book, be prepared for, and undertake a hike and overnight camp to the peak of Acatenango Volcano, allowing you to watch Volcano Fuego erupting whilst watching the beautiful sunrise.
Where to Book?
Pretty much everyone in town has some sort of offer on Acatenango, as it is one of the main activities that people do when they come to Antigua. With that being said, the price varies wildly and if you are a backpacker like me it means some serious walking on the streets to see who is offering what.
Of course, one of the easiest options is just to book with your hostel, which isn’t the worst thing that you can do. For example, The Three Monkeys (where we stayed) offered the hike for 175GTQ, and Bigfoot Hostel Antigua offered it at 200GTQ, which is another very popular place to stay in town. Both also offered the rental of other items such as jackets, a bag, and gloves at nominal prices (more on this later). Overall, the agency that I booked with put me in with all of the people who had booked at The Three Monkeys Hostel anyway, so I saved 25GTQ and got the exact same experience.
In the end, I walked around to about 20 tour agencies (so you don’t have to!) where the price ranged from 135GTQ up to over 500GTQ for exactly the same experience. In the end I decided to book with an agency called Mayan Traditions Day Tours, owned and operated by locals. Claudia was very helpful with getting me onto the tour and answered every single question I had as we attempted to converse in broken English and my limited Spanish. She was more than helpful and we settled on a price of 150GTQ which was a great middle ground. They are located on 6a. Ave. Norte #11, and I cannot recommend them enough. Here is a look at some review on their services. We were so impressed that we ended up booking a shuttle service with them to Nicaragua at the same time, which went off without a hitch.
What is Included?
The general spiel you will get from the travel agency is that you will be provided with food, a tent, and sleeping bag. This is the staple of what is included, but isn’t really enough for what you actually require. More specifically, this is what you usually get:
- Food – This included the following items:
- 2 boiled eggs
- 2 sandwiches (ham and salad)
- 2 bananas
- 1 pot noodle (that you need to supply the water for)
- Drink – technically no drink is included, however they will provide you with hot chocolate when you are sitting at the fire, and coffee for breakfast. You will have to provide the water for this)
- Sleeping bag (old and heavy – if you have a warm and good one bring it with you)
- Tent (you will be splitting the weight of this with your fellow tour members, so make sure you have space in your bag)
This is all that is included, which leads us to the next point…
What Do You Need?
Of course the big question is what do you need for the hike and overnight camp? The tour agencies will tell you that food is included, as well as necessary items such as your tent, and sleeping bag. Aside from this, the rest is up to you! Here is a definitive list of what you need:
- Extra food – sure they provide food, but it isn’t enough to really satiate your hunger especially on a hike that is taking away a lot of your energy. I recommend taking snacks with you (muesli bars, nuts, perhaps even another more substantial savory item or two).
- Water – as stated above, you will be supplying water for certain campfire treats including hot chocolate and coffee as well as needing water to drink whilst hiking. I recommend taking 4 litres of water. At the end of the hike I had around 500-750ml left which was perfect for the drive back. Others tried taking 5L of water and were almost pouring it out because of the weight.
- Warm clothes – this is the single most important aspect of your hike. I prepared my clothes meticulously for this hike and still felt the cold in my hands on top of Acatenango (where wind chill takes temperatures easily below zero). Here is what I took with me:
- 2 pairs of thermal socks – I changed into the new pair for the hike down which was lovely)
- 1 pair of ankle socks – for the hike up in the sun
- Hiking shoes
- Gloves – our guide made sure everyone knew this was COMPULSORY to go to the top of Acatenango, and some in our group were not allowed to go up for sunrise because they did not have them.
- 1 t-shirt – for hiking up and down in the sun
- 1 pair hiking pants / shorts – mine were convertible between the two which helped
- 1 thermal long-sleeved shirt – for the night
- 2 thermal underwear / pants – my legs get cold and my hiking pants were thin
- 2 jumpers – hoodies which I used during the camp and ascending to the summit
- Beanie – keep those ears warm
- Ski jacket – I rented this and was very glad I did, kept me warm and also kept me dry as the wind whipped up some ice on top of Acatenango
- Accessories – of course there will be some odds and ends that you want to take. I took with me:
- Headlamp – essential for the morning hike up to the summit of Acatenango as you cannot see a thing at 4am in the morning!
- Phone / camera – perfect for capturing Fuego erupting and the sunrise
- Rum – just a little to keep you warm and socialise by the fire
- Extra money – there are opportunities to buy extra food (at a premium) along the way, and it doesn’t hurt to tip your guide at the end!
- First aid kit – I took a miniature version of my kit which proved helpful when I cut my hand open on the way down
Only bring enough for what you actually think you’ll need (plan this out), as every single bit of weight in your bag will count when you’re climbing uphill!
Once you arrive after a nice hour long drive out of Antigua, you will be confronted with having to attempt to fit all of your belongings, the food the company provides, and the additional camping gear into your tent. Generally you will split this gear up between your tent mates, but sometimes the person with the most room will end up carrying the majority of it.
Just before the hike begins is also the last chance to purchase any kind of useful items for hiking – this includes anything you have forgotten in town such as gloves and beanies. In addition, they will let you hire a walking stick for around 10GTQ which you will eventually give back to them at the end of your hike. We highly recommend getting the walking stick, it saved me on a number of occasions from slipping and anyone without one was quite envious!
And that leads us to…
The Hike up to Base Camp
This was a grueling task, and not one to be taken lightly, however once you reach base camp you feel a great sense of accomplishment for yourself and your group for having made it.
The most important thing to know is that the first 45 minutes of the hike are both the most boring, and the hardest out of the entire hike. You read that correctly. The first 45 minutes are an absolute bitch working your way through farmland on unstable rocky ground carrying a heavy backpack that your body just is not used to.
Once you pass this stage, you actually start heading up into the forest which whilst still being difficult doesn’t feel as bad as you have longer switch-backs and it is slightly less steep. You will continue working your way through these switch-backs until you reach certain resting points which include mini-shops that you can purchase food and drink at (including beer). Make sure you bring some extra money if you would like to buy something!
Eventually you will reach the last point where you will be able to buy anything, which also corresponds with your lunch spot. The forest seems to thin out a bit here and gives you an amazing view over the valley. Rest up here and eat some food (but not too much!). From this point, things begin to actually get a little bit easier and level out, and you will find yourself working your way around the volcano to help get yourself to base camp. This means that there isn’t much of an elevation change and also that you will sight Volcano Fuego for the first time of the day (hopefully it is erupting for you).
As always, there is a final climb to get you up to your campsite after having made your way around the volcano, which provides around 20 minutes of pain before being able to finally rest! The whole hike itself should take around 5 to 6 hours depending on your group. We made it up in 5 hours and 15 minutes which is okay considering at times we were all separated by up to 15 minutes from the first person to last in the group.
We set up camp at this point, gathered firewood, and settled in to watch the eruptions throughout the night. For the most part, not many people lasted beyond 8:30-9:00pm before heading off to bed, with the promise of a 4am wake-up call from our guide!
The Hike to the Peak for Sunrise
The hike for the peak began just after 4am, with everyone in the group making an attempt to reach the top. The headlamp at this point came in very handy as we made our way up slippery volcanic rock on a very steep slope. This was probably the hardest point of the hike (after the first 45 minutes the day before) as my legs were screaming at me for putting them through more, but I knew the top was only an hour and a half away and refused to give up.
Over the course of the steep hike (the angle never really changed so it was around a 400-500 metre altitude gain over the hour and a half) we lost around half of our group either due to not thinking they would be able to do it, to those who simply gave up.
Once reaching the top, I realised what all of the warm clothing was for! The wind that was previously being blocked by the volcano itself hit us hard and was whipping up ice onto our faces and clothes. Having reached the peak around 20 minutes before sunrise, there was nothing left to do but wait and explore the crater of Acatenango a bit, whilst also watching and waiting for Fuego to erupt once more.
We were lucky enough that during our sunrise Fuego did erupt, giving us smoky and beautiful photos of the sun rising near an active volcano!
After watching the sun finally peak its head above the horizon, our guide made us begin the trek back (if you stay too long you could die from the constant cold and wind) to camp in order to have a short breakfast before hiking down. What was a 1.5 hour hike up turned into a 20 minute descent, as we half walked half ran down the volcanic rock which made for an interesting sliding or skiing competition.
The Hike Back Down
Oddly enough, what was a 5 hour hike up was a 2 and a bit hour hike down where many of us simply began running down the hiking path (probably dangerously). We were joined by our guide who clearly had experience in doing the same, and it almost felt like a race to get to the bottom and also to get the hell off the volcano!
2 hours a bit later (and a few falls included), we made it and headed back to Antigua to wash everything we had taken with us and to have a well deserved beer and rest.
Hopefully this story and post has made you interested in hiking and in hiking Acatenango. Whilst I have put in many warnings and been open about the difficulty of it I don’t want that to take away from how amazing it was as well. If I had not done it I would have regretted it and whilst I was adequately prepared I also had a great time and feel that many people also have the same experience every day!
I hope this guide can help you also in being able to do the same, so good luck!