After 5 months in Guatemala — after salsa classes and Day of the Dead festivals and kayaking Lake Atitlan — my hands-down best experience has been hiking the Acatenango volcano overnight. Spending an afternoon scaling an inactive volcano to watch an active one spew lava in the night sky is an unforgettable experience. But, it’s one that requires a little planning. Read on for tips on the famed two-day Acatenango hike just outside of Antigua.
For the fullest and safest Acatenango trip, use a tour company. Not only will their guides keep you on the right trail, more importantly, they’ll have tents and a fire for you when you stagger into base camp. I booked my trip through Matiox hostel in Antigua for Q350 and had no regrets. After seeing self-guided hikers struggle to find a camping space among all the private areas, and after hearing about hikers that had died earlier in the year because they were alone and unprepared for the overnight temperatures, I was especially happy with my decision.
My package included: transportation to and from the volcano, meals (basic sustenance like instant ramen and sandwiches), sleeping bags, shared tent, guides
It did not include: park entry (Q50), tip for guides, water, snacks, warm clothing, headlamp, hiking poles, bathroom entry fees, an optional porter to carry your goods
You’ll want to stay in Antigua the night before your departure. I reserved a shuttle leaving Pana at noon and arrived in Antigua in time for dinner, a stop at a supermarket for supplies and an early bedtime.
The adventure begins with a 9 a.m. pickup (theoretically, though things are often behind schedule in Guatemala). Less than an hour driving along scenic roads brings you and your fellow hikers to the tiny village of La Soledad. There, we put our provided meals in our backpacks (they are provided for you, not carried for you), and many of us bought gloves or rented hiking poles from the local women, who insisted we would need both items. They were right.
After final bathroom breaks, we were off. The start of the hike is a steep ravine through a corn field. It’s true what they say: the beginning is the hardest (and hottest) part of Day 1. And the guides, who do the trek twice a week, don’t like to slow down. We eventually reached a clearing with refreshments and a bathroom, where we took a five minute break and kept climbing. It continued like that for the next five hours: hike for close to an hour, rest at a designated area with other groups, hike for close to an hour, rest at a designated lunch spot, and so on and so forth, with more frequent stops toward the end of the day as energy started to fade. We trekked through stunning scenery that morphed from farmland to rainforest to barren volcano peak, until we got our first glimpse of the reason we were really there: El Volcán Fuego.
We heard the volcano before we saw it — a loud booming sound reminiscent of fireworks. No sooner were we able to see smoke rising from a mound in the distance, than our guide announced we had reached our stopping place for the night. It came up faster than I expected — a doable and worthwhile hike for anyone active and in good health.
Drinking hot chocolate around a campfire with views of a volcano erupting every few minutes is not a bad way to spend an evening. Everyone in the camp was mesmerized by Fuego, which shot out glowing orange lava and tumbling rocks repeatedly, seemingly in slow motion. Big eruptions would elicit cheers from everyone; it’s an innate reaction to being only kilometers from a natural phenomenon so few get to see in person.
But, with a 3:30 a.m. wake up call to summit Acatenango in time for sunrise, no one stays up very late to watch the lava show. My group all climbed into our warm sleeping bags by 9 p.m.
In the morning, you have the option of ascending the last section of the volcano by headlamp or sleeping in and watching the sunrise from basecamp. It’s a hard call when the alarms go off in the frosty blackness, but if you can make yourself, getting to the summit is really the only option. We hiked for 90 minutes in a steep line, silent except for the sound of our huffing in the thin air and the crunching of lava rocks under our boots. This was easily the most dangerous part of the two-day hike; you can barely see a thing and the volcano is extremely steep. But we had no problems beyond being tired and cold. Once I accepted I had gone too far to turn back, I appreciated the quiet beauty of the surreal moment.
We made it to the top of Acatenango just before sunrise. It felt like the surface of the moon, but windier. I was lucky to have made some friends in my group, and we sat train style — practically in each others’ laps — for warmth. From our perch, we could see Fuego erupting, the sun rising over a chain of volcanoes, plus Antigua and surrounding cities coming to life. With truly breathtaking views, it was a moment that felt charged with energy. Despite the crowd of over 100 people atop the volcano, hardly anyone spoke a word.
After about 20 minutes taking it all in, so much of our limbs had gone numb that we convinced our guide to take us back to camp a few minutes early. We soon learned that the way down the summit is not the way up. While going up is a slow and cautious zigzag, going down is a straight slide through lava rocks. Imagine downhill skiing, but instead of snow there are tiny black pebbles, and instead of skis you have hiking boots. You just sink one foot down into the rocks, slide a bit, sink the next foot in and continue sliding, step after step, until you eventually reach a more normal path. Quite the experience.
We reached our tents quickly and recapped the morning for our group members who had taken in sunset from basecamp. We had just enough time to get our bags packed and take one last look at Volcán Fuego before we started the hike down to where we had begun the day before. Day 2 went much faster, taking us only a few hours in total. We reached the home of our guide’s mother-in-law by 10 a.m., where a traditional Guatemalan breakfast was waiting for us.
In the days following the hike, I swam with one of my group members at Lake Atitlan and had another sleep in my guest bed. You bond quickly with people when you experience nature’s wonders together, not to mention pour out sweat together for two days. Between the people I met and the sights I saw, hiking the Acatenango volcano will go down as one of the most memorable things I’ve done in my life. I highly recommend it; just remember not to underestimate the conditions and to go in fully prepared. Happy trails!