At 3975 metres (13,000 ft.) Acatenango is a monster of a hike. The volcano itself is located around an hours drive from Antigua in Guatemala and it’s a challenging and rewarding hike. This post is about my experiences hiking Acatenango and the challenges we faced along the way.
The morning of our hike
The alarm we had set was not quite the alarm we woke to. Instead we were woken by a huge and apparently drunk snoring beast that occasionally stumbled around the room. As it dawned on me today was the day of our ridiculous hike I was jolted awake with butterflies and anxiousness and no chance of getting back to sleep.
As I stepped out of our dorm room I was greeted with a clear morning and no sign of the rain that hammered down the whole of the previous day. It also presented me with my first glimpse of Acatenango and the sheer size of the volcano. As another bout of anxiousness passed over me so did several questions. What the hell am I getting myself into, am I fit enough to do this and is it to late to pull out?
With a last-minute check of our gear and a bit of breakfast in us there was no pulling out as our guides turned up.
The drive to the starting point
Our drive was full of introductions and getting to know our fellow hiking buddies with a small group of five it was reassuring to know most of us were just as nervous as one another. Several of us claimed to be quite unfit and one or two were definitely not prepared for the weather conditions.
Luckily our next stop was our guide’s house in order to hire warm gear, get our tent and sleeping equipment, food and repack our gear. It was here Michelle (my traveling buddy) and I meet our guardian angels these two extremely short men were our porters that we hired to carry our bags to the top of the mountain. A decision we got a bit of flack for and one we felt extremely guilty about, only as we felt sorry for the men carrying our bags, that aside it was definitely the best decision we made in terms of the hiking Acatenango (aside from the company we chose to use).
I guess I could explain why we decided to get porters and I could use the excuses that Michelle had a slip disc in her back and I had surgery on my shoulder only four months previous. The reality of the matter was we probably could have managed carrying our bags to base camp but we didn’t think we would enjoy the hike as much.
Having our gear, guardian angels and guide we hit the road and this ride was a quiet one. This usually isn’t an easy feat for me, as the expression goes I’m usually talking 100 miles an hour. I’m sure Michelle was shocked by my unusual silence and it was all down to nerves and the articles repeating in my head. Oh why did I want to remember the marathon runner who struggled and said it was the hardest thing she had ever done, or the 10 million other articles that echoed this sentiment. Damn reading why did I even learn to read?
The hike to base camp
Time to get hiking and this track was not the type of gentle incline I like. It was steep and relentless the whole entire way. Able (our guide) set an excellent pace and we rested often every 20 minutes or so. I was so glad that I was managing to keep up with the group in fact the three girls lead the pack majority of the way but I also didn’t have the additional 15kgs on my back as we hiked.
I was so thankful every step of the way for our amazing porters, every time I looked at them I felt so guilty that I tried to butter them up by feeding them jelly crocodiles, I’m sure they would have just preferred for me to carry my own bag.
It was steep and the views weren’t that special, as we trekked hour after hour on a dirt track that didn’t allow us to see much apart from the path ahead I’m sure a few of us were thinking what’s the point?
Luckily we had such a supportive small group, a group that had no qualms in sharing their thoughts, snacks and support with one another. We were all in it together and it was nice to have such easy acquaintances to share the journey with.
After our lunch stop we were surprised to learn that it was only steep for twenty minutes more and then it was a lovely gentle walk for a while. This walk gave us a much needed respite and also our first look at the amazing views. As we rounded a corner we were shocked and blown away by the sudden and stunning view of Agua and Pacaya two impressive volcanos looming over Antigua and the villages below. However the real magic was when we rounded the next corner and we got our first look at Fuego and he started showing off straight away. With a loud boom and a puff of smoke floating into the air we knew the trek was worth it!
With our final steep incline of the day we reached our base camp and what a relief it was. We all collapsed in an exhausted pile while our guide set up our tents we all sat in comfortable silence taking in the stunning views and reflecting on our 4-5hour hike we had just endured.
Reluctantly we said goodbye to our guardian angels (we would be carrying our own packs down in the morning) and changed into clothes that weren’t drenched in sweat in preparation for the cold chill that we knew would be coming.
We managed to gain enough energy for a few photos and to take in the amazing views that stretched as far as the eye could see.
As the sun started to disappear behind one of the many volcano peaks a chill descended on camp.
We had an early dinner and roasted some marshmallows to kill some time but what we really wanted to do was sleep. As the sun disappeared the cold settled in and Michelle and I were thankful for the thousands of layers our porters had lugged up for us. After a while even our layers couldn’t protect us from the ruthless wind that was pounding our exposed spot.
It was then we had to resort to sitting in our make shift shelter that was full of smoke. It was catch 22 in there, the fire was warm and a relief from the bitter cold but we were scared we would die from the smoke inhalation or from our eyes falling out due to the burning sensation caused by the smoke. We battled it out taking breaks from the fire outside and waited for night to fall.
As night fell and the darkness settled over the sky we knew our private show was about to start at any moment. Fuego (our private show) didn’t disappoint it erupted all through the night, spewing red flames, rocks, ash and lava into the night air and down the sides of the volcano.
Every so often we were granted with a staggering large eruption that boomed into the silent, dark night. These eruptions shooting the lava further and further in to the atmosphere with the glowing lava lighting up the sky made every bit of the walk worth it!
Hike to the summit
As Murphy ’s law would have it I had finally fallen into a warm comfortable sleep when it was time to rise at the ungodly hour at 3.30am. The only reason I would ever see this hour in normal day-to-day life is on my way home after a night of drinking.
Emerging from our tents we were surrounded by fog, mist, zero visibility and generally poor conditions. Secretly I was relieved hoping the hike to the summit would be called off and that I could get back into my warm sleeping bag and attempt to sleep for a few more hours.
That wasn’t to be my luck, so we set off to the summit minus one who was suffering with symptoms of altitude sickness. With only our headlamps to guide the way we surged forward into the dark and unknown.
The unknown was horrendous I felt like I had no energy and trying to take a step was like moving a dead weight. The track was basically just ash, pumice, stones and black soot and it was like trying to walk up an enormous never-ending sand dune. A sand dune that didn’t want you to succeed for every step we took forward we would slide two backwards, making it a painful and long process.
The further we climbed the colder it became and the less we could see. The whole way to the top I was secretly hoping that we would have to turn back. All of the resolve and positive thinking from the previous day had disappeared and I struggled the whole way. With the final ten minutes in sight I had to pep talk myself to make every goddamn awful step. It didn’t help that we were being hammered by the wind and rain. We were freezing despite the 5 layers I had on, but the end was near.
At the summit we were greeted with a wall of fog, haze, wind, rain and not the slightest view. I’m so glad the battle of the past hour and half was worth it!
Thankfully the way down was almost fun running and jumping through the ash on the way down had us thinking we were men walking on the moon. It was a fast descend back to camp and we were eating breakfast in no time at all.
The hike down
The hike down was great for about the first hour and half, we were flying down the mountain running in many places due to how steep it was. We were amazed at how steep the track was and had completely wiped parts of the track from our memories.
The last hour of the trek was absolutely torturous all due to some blisters on my toes. Every step would send a ridiculous amount of pain surging through my body. How is it even possible for such a tiny little thing to produce so much pain?
I was embarrassed as I felt as I was holding the group up. I really didn’t want to be the person who couldn’t keep up so I soldiered on, with every step I wanted to cry, throw a tantrum and give up all at the same time. The only option was to battle through the pain, frustration and to try not to cry.
Eventually I made it to the bottom without riding my backpack to the bottom like a sleigh as I had envisioned on the way down.
At the bottom a sense of relief and accomplishment passed over me as well as comfort in the fact I could finally take my shoes off.
With bloody socks, shoes in hand, pack in the other hand we climbed aboard our ride back to Antigua trying to put a price on how much someone would have to pay you to go straight back up the volcano.
Would I recommend this hike? Yes!! It’s an amazing once in a lifetime experience and the views are worth every step!