Acatenango is a dormant volcano that rises nearly 4000m above the western highlands of Guatemala. The main reason to climb Acatenango is to get front row seats to the not so dormant and aptly named Fuego volcano which sits directly beside Acatenango. The climb also offers excellent views of the dormant Agua volcano and the countryside around Antigua.
We booked our tour with GT Adventure Tours and Travel in advance as they had a website and offered what we’re assuming are reasonable rates. It appeared as though the agency outsourced the shuttle and guides as other folks on the tour seemed ot have used other agencies with some paying less.
The morning of our hike, we were picked up at our hotel in Antigua, driven around to bunch of other hotels to pick up more hikers and then driven to the trail head beside the village of Le Soledad. We were immediately set upon by a group of children selling walking sticks which are highly recommended for anyone who hasn’t brought proper hiking poles. Ofcourse, they should have been in school instead of selling walking sticks but they were so darned cute!
The hike to the base camp would be 1100m straight up, so James insisted on purveying the services of a donkey to carry one of the packs up the gruelling climb. At $40 CDN, he decided to walk away from the deal, only to return moments later, reluctantly forking over the cash. We soon noticed that there actually was no donkey and that one of our guides (all of whom were from the local village) had opted to pocket the cash and take the pack up himself. James was comforted by the knowledge that at least he wasn’t the douche bag that hired the 10 year old kid to carry a large pack, wondering aloud who could have stooped so low. It turned out that the guide that was carrying our pack had, in turn, gotten his 14 year old son to carry his own pack and then hike back down again the same day – ouch! There are actually small horses available to be hired for people who can’t make the hike which I’d be very tempted to do if we ever returned. This was one of the most consistently steep hikes we’ve done with very few switchbacks.
kid stooping low while carrying up his dad’s pack
The initial trail was more like a trench, cut deeply into loose volcanic soil – showing the layers of previous eruptions. After passing through corn fields interspersed with Calla lilies, we reached the old growth cloud forest, thankful for it’s shade and cool air. Ascending out of the cloud forest we paused for lunch and got a chance to examine our meal kits which consisted of a not particularly appetizing bologna sandwich, a chicken sandwich on a ciabatta bun, some granola bars, a pastry and instant noodles (you might want to bring your own food).
After about 4 punishing hours, we cleared the tree line and the trail started to level off as we began moving around to the other side of the the volcano. The view opened up and we started hearing loud bangs that sounded like they were coming up from the valley below. Some parts of the trail on this section forked without markings to determine the correct route so even though we definitely recommended taking this hike at your own pace, if you do get away from the group, it’s also good to have a guide with you to lead the way.
Following another half-hour of hiking we finally made it to the camping area which consisted of a number of terraces cut out of the steep slope. The view of Acatenango was stunning with loud explosions followed by puffs of smoke. Our guides set out right away to chop down trees for firewood. Like British Columbia, climate change had allowed pine beetles to ravage the sub-alpine forest which made for lots of dead, dry wood for burning. Conspicuously absent were any outhouses which is a shame as they would have had great views. The thought of relieving oneself in an open outhouse while watching a volcano erupt would definitely have its charms!
View of Agua from campsite
We soon started setting up tents and changing into warmer clothes as the temperature began dropping quickly. Eventually, we gathered around the fire to chat about the hike up and trade stories while periodically turning to watch an epic eruption. We lay our tin foil wrapped sandwiches and pastries on the fire to heat them up and were mostly successful in not burning them. As it got darker, the giant fireworks of magma shooting high into the air became visible. The larger eruptions elicited whoops and hollers from nearby campers.
Ours was a quite international group including French, Swiss, Germans, a Brit and a Kiwi – good natured folks all around. The Kiwi, Aaron revealed that he had written an epic fantasy tale called Storm Wielder (with favourable reviews on Amazon.com) and was to complete the trilogy with two more. The guides cooked up some tasty hot chocolate and provided a bottle of whiskey for any takers. James spent most of the evening fiddling with the tripod, trying to get pictures of Fuego erupting as well as of the surrounding countryside.
We headed to bed early, wearing all of our clothes including toques (knit caps), neck warmers and down jackets to make up for the flimsy Coleman sleeping bags. The guides stayed up late, chatting loudly around the fire until the whiskey was gone. We awoke frequently to the sound of loud eruptions – each time wanting to go out and take a look or a picture but always remaining in our sleeping bags. The altitude sickness drugs seemed to work well as we didn’t feel too bad except for some numb fingers. Eventually the tent warmed up a bit and we were able to shed some layers but were soon awake, dragging ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags for the 4:00 am hike to the summit.
We slowly headed up the now sandy trail part of a long queue, passing at least one person vomiting from the what we assumed was altitude sickness. Stopping to watch several large explosions and pausing at bottlenecks we eventually made our way to the summit which was completely devoid of vegetation. The gale force winds were bitterly cold and James was afraid to put on his large down jacket in case his outer shell got blown off the mountain while changing.
We eventually sat down to watch the sun rise, huddled together with a large group on the side of the peak facing the volcano. Sadly, we didn’t see any more epic eruptions and, after snapping a few more photos and with the cold starting to getting to us, we decided to head back down before the sun actually made an appearance . This wasn’t a problem as the views on the way down were still wide open and faced the rising sun.
We were able to make good time on the way back to the camp by bounding down the sandy trail. Aaron decided to put his sprinting strategy to work, charging down different sections at a time. After quickly breaking camp, we started heading down the rest of the way, descending at a fairly aggressive pace with only the occasional slip on the soft trail.
Aaron charging downhill
Lower down, we passed a group of local farmers harvesting corn for tortillas with horses to carry their haul down to the village. It must have been back breaking labour!
Once at the bottom, the group brought beers for ourselves as well as the guides. There seemed to be some confusion as we didn’t leave for a while after the incoming group was dropped off – some of whom looked woefully unprepared judging by their attire. Eventually we were off, taking an entirely different route back along dirt roads so the driver could give a lift to his friend whom he had been continuously texting while driving .
We had trouble walking the next few days but were glad we had this amazing experience!