The sight of a 3,800m Volcano projecting 200m jets of red hot lava high into the sky creates quite a humbling perspective. You are reminded of what, for the most part, ‘Earth’ actually is – a mass of rock, upon which has formed a relatively thin layer of mildew, within which thrive trillions of tiny, insignificant organisms, who are all at the mercy of Mother Nature.
I’m not sure what is going through the heads of my fellow volcaneers but I don’t doubt it’s something similarly profound. Even the guides seem especially impressed, and they make this hike, a 3,976m monster to the summit of Guatemala’s Volcán Acatenango, two or three times a week (although the starting point, I should point out, is at 2,400m). According to them, we couldn’t possibly have been luckier with timing and weather; not only is Volcán Fuego – the adjacent volcano to Acatenango – in its most active state for 3 months, but there are no clouds and there is no wind.
During the arduous, sweaty 6-hour ascent, I’d cursed the heat of the day and the unforgiving sun under my breath more times than I can remember. In some parts the path had been so steep that my knees were almost touching my chin when I stepped up to the next rock, and in others the thick sand had forced us to slide back a step for every two we took forwards. It was draining, made more intolerable by the intense heat.
The pain was not eased by the fact I had, until very recently, been terribly terribly ill (thanks to a thick rib I ate in Semuc Champey). My stomach had just about recovered but I wasn’t in the clear yet.
Thankfully, there hadn’t been any upsets on the way up. I mean how could there have been? I had enough imodium in my system to block the river Ganges.
I can observe Volcano Fuego in full-on eruption, make out the fine details of Antigua below and see as far out as Volcán Atitlan soaring above the lower-lying clouds in the distance. For this reason alone it is worth visiting Guatemala, I think to myself.
After half an hour of staring in silence we are summoned by our guide, Lucas, to help him assemble our tent for the night. It will be snug, I think, with three of us – total strangers at the beginning of the day – expected to squeeze our bodies and backpacks in there. But snug is good. As the sun sets, the temperature drops rapidly and the teeth-chattering has already begun.
Soon, we are huddled around the campfire and toasting our pot noodles to the day’s achievement and one of the most epic sights we have ever seen. Spirits are high and we are enthusiastically getting to know one another. Most of us are traveling alone, but we are all backpackers; some novices, others veterans, one or two who can’t remember the last time they weren’t traveling. The guides are keen to practice their English, and when I let slip that I’m an English teacher questions are suddenly fired at me from all angles, even from the fluent Germans who speak better English than many native speakers I know. Sooner or later though, interest is lost in brushing up on English grammar and restored once again in the spectacular scenes taking place over our shoulders.
One of the other guides has brought along a fresh batch of pastries, prepared by his mother that morning, which of course calls for another toast, two actually – one to the guide’s mother, Beatriz, and another to Volcano Fuego bellowing in the distance. Then the hot cocoa is prepared, for which we must all contribute our own water. It tastes delicious, but would be even better were a drop of rum added. Luckily, I had the foresight to bring half a bottle with me (decanted into my thermos flask), which I hurriedly retrieve and share with my group. Another toast.
Not long afterwards people begin to disappear into their tents, until only 5 of us remain. It’s 20.30, and we will be here until 05.00 in the morning. There is much time to kill, and conversation is running dry. We attempt a couple of time-killing games since there is no surface on which to play cards, but they soon become tiresome and – inevitably – thwarted by language and culture barriers. It seems there is nothing else to do other than go to bed, so at about 21.00 that is what we do.
I am still awake at midnight. The roar of Fuego is deafening. You don’t notice it as much during the day, probably since you aren’t trying to get to sleep or are too focused on actually watching the volcano, but when behind zipped tent doors it’s almost impossible to filter out the noise. Every now and again a loud bang can be heard above the rumbling, just as I am drifting off. It’s not like a soothing vacuum cleaner noise.
At 4.45 sharp there is a shout from outside our tent. Lucas is ready and waiting to lead us the rest of the way to Acatenango’s 3,976m summit. It takes just over an hour, meaning we would arrive about 20 minutes before sunrise. We emerge from our sleeping bags and tents in the same, sweat-dried clothes worn the day before and barely have time to tie our boots before we are on the move again. Please don’t be sick. Please don’t shit your pants. It’s all I can think about for the first 10 minutes. That and the freezing bloody cold.
At least I am finally making the most out of my heavyweight hiking boots, I think, which until now I have had to drag around flat, tropical islands and boiling hot beach towns. Winning. How anyone could hike Volcano Acatenango in flip-flops is beyond me – according to one traveler I’d met in Semuc Champey, that is exactly what one guy in her group had done. Then she’d told me he was Australian, and I wasn’t as surprised.
This last leg of the ascent is a gruelling endeavour. Besides the cold and the stomach cramps, it is dark, even steeper than yesterday and the gravelly terrain is strewn with large boulders which we must clamber around. “15 minutos chicos! Venga!” Lucas proclaims at least 3 times along the way. His Mr. Motivator attitude had been appreciated yesterday but at this stage I have begun to resent it, no matter how well-intended it might be. My body cries stop you fool or I will punish you while my head bellows get a hold of yourself man!
I ignore my body’s warnings. At least I am finally making the most out of my heavyweight hiking boots, I think, which until now I have had to drag around flat, tropical islands and boiling hot beach towns. Winning. How anyone could hike Volcano Acatenango in flip-flops is beyond me – according to one traveler I’d met in Semuc Champey, that is exactly what one guy in her group had done. Then she’d told me he was Australian, and I wasn’t as surprised.
Finally, the ground levels out and my legs breathe a sigh of relief. My stomach, however, decides it can take no more, and I suddenly have to run away to avoid shaming myself in public and ruining this glorious experience not just for me but for everyone else too. Now, there aren’t many places to hide on top of a volcano, so I have to keep running – or waddling, perhaps – until I can duck out of sight behind what I suppose one would call an ‘ash dune’. I won’t go into further detail here but let’s just say the river Ganges burst its banks.
After the ordeal, I rejoin the others. There is a knowing look from one or two and a dig from Lucas. I ignore him and head to the summit. The wind is howling and it is seriously cold now. I am just in time to witness the most amazing sunrise I’ve ever seen from start to finish. However, it is still so cold that I cannot even summon the strength to turn my head when one of my group kindly takes a photo of me. Or maybe it’s the shame. Either way, I don’t want to take my eyes off the view in front of me anyway.
It’s the best I’ve seen in Guatemala and probably all of Central America.
After an apple, 2 cereal bars and a large swig of rum which I desperately need, we turn back to begin the return journey. The thought that from herein it will only get warmer and easier fills me with joy. Back to camp we go, where we refuel on coffee and biscuits before swiftly taking down the tent. Then we take one last look at the roaring and lava- spluttering beast before turning on our heels to resume the descent. We are reinvigorated after the coffee and biscuits and our packs are much lighter. I’m in no rush; quite happy, in fact, to linger at the back and wander along at my own pace, lost in my own thoughts. There is even a spring in my step as we approach the end of the descent, knowing that soon, the most physically testing thing I’d ever done in my life would be over and I will be able to sleep.
We make it back to the drop-off/pick-up point at 11am – three hours since we left camp. The same rabble is there from the day before, ready to unleash their ruthless sales pitches on the next unsuspecting troupe of hikers to arrive in the minibus. Yesterday they wouldn’t leave us alone. Now we are dead to them. Worthless, unless we are willing to give back the sticks we bought, which we do of course, since they cost just 50 cense and – along with other hiking essentials such as gloves, hats and woolly jumpers – amount to their only source of income. Keeping them would not only be pointless but also decidedly wankerish.
The minibus arrives, and we watch as all the sticks are resold within 5 minutes. It’s an impressive business model it has to be said. Once the fresh-faced and completely oblivious group emerge from the rabble their attention turns to us. They eye us worryingly. We are slumped together in a heap, our faces black with dirt, our bodies broken, showing no real signs of life.
“How was it?” one guy I know from my hostel asks me. “The hardest but most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced” I reply. “But it’s probably better if I don’t go into too much detail”.
Hike Volcano Acatenango, Guatemala: Getting There
Although it’s possible to hike Volcano Acatenango by yourself (the route is clearly marked and you can either hitch-hike or take a public bus to the starting point of La Soledad), the easiest and safest way to get there is to sign up for a tour and go with a guide. It’s no walk in the park, and I’d strongly recommend this particular tour since the guides are so experienced and you can never guarantee your own safety (I met a woman a few days later who’d fallen and broken her wrist during the ascent – the guides were able to provide her with proper first aid and assist her for the rest of the hike).
Enough tour companies in Antigua offer packages at reasonable rates, but I found that the best available came directly through the hostel where I stayed, Three Monkeys. For transport to and from the Volcano, a guide, tent, sleeping bag, a packed lunch and other basic food supplies, they charged just 250 GTQ (about $32). After the experience I felt that I’d probably have paid double that, but then again I got very lucky, unlike Becky from Girl And Globe, whose determination to see Fuego in full eruption drove her up to the summit from camp not once but twice! (thegirlandglobe.com)
For more information on hiking Volcano Acatenango solo, head over to this post by the Adventure Junkies on how to hiking Volcano Acatenango on a budget (theadventurejunkies.com)
Hike Volcano Acatenango, Guatemala: What to Take
First and foremost, you’ll need to take a lot of will power with you to Volcán Acatenango – there are moments when you just want to collapse and go no further, especially during the last 200m in the morning. Other than that, you will need:
- Hiking boots or decent trainers
- A pair of lightweight trousers
- A pair of shorts
- A thick jumper or jacket (or both if you can fit them in)
- A woolly hat
- 2 t-shirts
- 2 pairs of socks
- A mini first aid kit (ibuprofen, band aid, antiseptic cream etc)
- LOTS of snacks (the supplies provided on the tour aren’t enough so stock up on fruit, biscuits, nuts etc)
- 4-5 litres of water (you will need to drink often and contribute to the evening meal and cocoa
- Rum (yes, optional but worth it)
- Walking stick
Hike Volcano Acatenango, Guatemala: Things you need to know!
- Don’t underestimate the climb – it’s a challenge even for the young, fit and healthy. Arrive as prepared as you can be (see checklist above) and go at your own pace.
- Definitely buy a stick at the bottom – you’ll learn just how useful they are during the first hour (probably the hardest section) and ration your water!
- You’ll need to use your big backpack to fit in everything you need, bearing in mind that you’ll also have to carry your sleeping bag and the tent when it’s your turn.
- Take enough money to buy items you don’t already have but will need, e.g. hat, gloves, stick (I got my stick for less than $1 and my hat for little more than $2), to tip your guide at the end of the tour (they receive a measly sum of the tour fee) and to pay the entrance fee of 100 GTQ. This entrance fee is a bit of a grey area, since some guides claim it is obligatory while others don’t. We didn’t end up paying since a much larger group in front just strolled past without being stopped, so when we were told to pay we protested and 5 minutes later allowed through.
- Check out this post on climbing routes and camping spots on Volcán Acatenango (summitpost.org).
- Cherish the experience. You may never see anything quite as spectacular again!
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