The Acatenango Volcano hike is a popular activity you’ll hear people talking about all over Guatemala. But it’s not Acatenango you want to see, Volcan de Fuego (referred to as Fuego) is the real attraction.
Fuego is an active volcano with low level eruptions occurring hourly. These low level eruptions are what people want to see, and they’re the highlight of many travelling Central America.
Why? Because you can see lava like you can see from Mount Etna.
And the best viewing point for these eruptions is Volcan Acatenango which is connected to Fuego Volcano (but doesn’t erupt every hour).
So when people talk about climbing Acatenango, they are talking about hiking Acatenango to see the eruptions on Fuego less than 2km away.
The history of Acatenango Volcano
Fuego and Acatenango form the volcanic complex La Horqueta with their peaks at 3,763m and 3,976m respectively.
Acatenango, which is visible from Pacaya Volcano, last erupted in 1972, with eruptions before that occurring between 1924 and 1927.
Despite a height of nearly 4,000 metres, Acatenango is not the highest volcano in Guatemala. That prize goes to Tajumulco Volcano (4,220 metres), which is also the highest peak in the country.
As you now know, Fuego is famous for it’s smaller, regular explosions that delight tourists. But since the turn of the century, there have been occasions where the volcano has erupted on a larger scale.
Getting to Acatenango Volcano
The majority of Acatenango Volcano tours depart from Antigua. Depending on who you book your tour through, they may pick you up from your accommodation, or you need to make your way to the tourist office in the morning.
The drive from Antigua to the Acatenango trailhead takes around an hour.
Hiking up Acatenango
Hiking Acatenango isn’t easy. The trailhead is at around 2,450m (8038 feet) above sea level, and the summit of Acatenango is at 3,976m (13,044 feet), with a total hiking distance between six and seven kilometres, some say this is the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
There are numerous trails going up the mountain, all of which lead to the summit, but have differing degrees of difficulty and length. The campsites are usually at around 3,600m (11,800 feet) above sea level.
Most groups aim to start hiking from the trailhead at about 10am after meeting your guides. You can expect the total time to reach the summit to be about 4-5 hours, depending on how many people there are and the pace of the group.
The maximum amount of people in our tour with Wicho and Charlie’s tour was 42 people. That is a lot of people, and with that a lot of different hiking speeds. If you’re a fast hiker, be prepared to take frequent breaks.
At the trailhead, you’ve got a final chance to pick up last minute snacks, drinks (maybe a beer to enjoy at the summit), and a walking stick. Your guide will explain what to expect on the hike, which is essentially three different sections.
First section of the Acatenango trail
The first section is the most difficult. It’s steep, and the faster hikers will gravitate to the front of the group. But it’s not a race, for our group of 22 hikers we had three guides. One at the front, one at the back, and one floating about making sure all was okay (they regularly communicated via radio). No one left behind!
If you’re at the front of the group, be prepared to take a break every 20-30 minutes or so to let the rest of the group to catch up.
The loose terrain on the first section adds to the difficulty, meaning you need to be sure of your footing with each step. The path is well defined, so no issues there and don’t forget to look behind you for some motivating views.
You’ll come across the official entrance to the national park after an hour or so where you’ll need to pay you 50Q (US$7) entry fee (in cash) which is not included in your 450Q (US$60) guided hike. Take a drink as you’ll spend a few minutes here having completed the first section.
Second section of the Acatenango trail
The second section begins with a trail through a beautiful forest. You’ll still notice the incline, but it’s not as brutal as the first section. Once you exit the forest, you’ll stop for lunch in an open area before finishing the second section of the hike.
The end of the second section is brutal as the path is long straights with a continuous ascent trying to demoralize you into submission. When you reach the large barrel drum (you’ll know when you reach it), you’ve completed the second section. It’s a beautiful view point too.
Third section of the Acatenango trail
The last section was described by our guides as “Guatemalan flat” but that wasn’t entirely true.
It’s essentially flat (compared to what you’ve been dealing with), until you reach the last 200 metres or so when you’ve got a steep climb to base camp.
Once you’re at the base camp, throw off your backpack and pat yourself on the back. In a perfect world you’ll be able to see Fuego erupting right away.
What to do at Acatenango Volcano base camp
After a few minutes, the guides will let you know the basic rules of the camp, where the toilets are (hello nature), and let you know what the sleeping arrangements are. I’ll talk about them shortly.
In a perfect world, you’ll have a clear day and you’ll be given the option to hike over to Fuego for sunset. The guides make sure you know it’s not easy and does cost an extra (200Q or US$26 with my tour). Unfortunately due to the weather, we weren’t able to take this option.
If it’s a clear night, your guides will give you the option to hike to the Acatenango summit for sunset. Unfortunately, this too wasn’t an option either with heavy clouds giving us no chance of seeing Fuego.
The day before and the day after the weather was supposedly perfect. If you don’t want to go up to the summit, you can watch the sunset from base camp.
Most trekking companies have their own base camps with permanent structures in place and some tents. The permanent structures is the place where the sleeping arrangements are and they can be quite cozy, with the sleeping spots all but touching one another. Each person gets a sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and two blankets.
The condition of the gear varies from tour company to tour company but we are recommending two at the end of the article who we know have quality equipment.
If you’re uncomfortable sleeping next to others, you’ll be better off going in a tent. But, address this with the team when you make your booking to make sure something that suits you is arranged.
At some point before nightfall, depending on what the group is/isn’t doing, the guides will set up a campfire for you to stay warm. Ideally you’ll be able to spend time around the fire, roast some marshmallows and watch Fuego do it’s thing. You may even be lucky enough to shoot the lava explosions with the Milky Way.
At about 7,30pm the guides will serve dinner which is served inside the dining tent. You’ll get an amazing hot chocolate too.
It’s up to you when you decide to go to sleep. Just remember you’ll be waking up at about 3,30am to get ready for your sunrise hike. Given the bad weather, most of us were in bed by 9pm.
Now, there’s no pressure to make the extra walk to the summit in the morning. It’s a little over one kilometre but is a steep ascent. You can watch the sunrise from base camp and you’ll get extra sleep that way. It’s up to you.
But, as you’ve probably guessed, the weather didn’t play it’s part for us. Our guides mentioned we wouldn’t see the sunrise from the summit (or at base camp), but nevertheless seven of us were stubborn enough to go up with a guide… just in case.
It was windy (incredibly strong winds), cold, and we couldn’t see anything through the clouds. If you enjoy being uncomfortable, you would’ve loved this, for the rest, it was just torture.
By the time we got back to base camp it was 6am, time flew by. We ate our breakfast, had a coffee then leisurely packed up in time for a 7,30am departure back down the volcano.
Once again, people will go at different paces but those up ahead will take breaks to allow everyone to catch up. Make sure to take some photos as you’ll be able to see more of the views as you walk down.
The shuttles will be at the trailhead to meet you, and you can expect to be back in Antigua between 11am and midday.
Safety along the hike on Acatenango Volcano
At the time of writing (July 2019) there are no recent reports of robberies from bandits hiding on Acatenango (there are on San Pedro Volcano).
That said, the situation in Guatemala can be volatile so you should check with your tour company before the hike and read online or ask the hotel.
You can hike and camp Acatenango on your own without a guide, but this isn’t a place you can take light-hearted. The temperatures get very cold, and the altitude can affect people who aren’t fully acclimatized. We would highly discourage this option.
What to bring on your hike up Acatenango Volcano
Most tour companies include the following equipment in the price of your ticket, and unless you have brought this with you, you should ensure this is provided.
- Headlamp and batteries
You may also be able to rent thermals, backpacks, poles, pants, socks and boots. Not all operators offer gear in good condition or clean so it pays to see the reviews and understand the quality of the equipment beforehand. The two options we highlight at the end do provide good gear.
If you have other bags and travel gear you don’t want to take with you and can’t leave at your accommodation in Antigua, you can ask the tour company if they can store it for you, the two options we highlight do so.
In addition to this, you may want to bring:
- Extra snacks like energy bars, nuts, chocolate bars, etc.
- Lots of water – the majority of the companies will ask you to bring at least 4 liters with you
- A spare t-shirt, underwear and shorts/pants. This is especially true if you aren’t bringing any thermals as the clothes you sweat in on the hike will make you cold in the evening.
- If you can, bring thermals (for men and for women)
- Sunscreen (we like Biore because it’s non-sticky)
- Toilet paper or tissues for easy access
- Hiking boots, which are not provided by any of the trekking companies, Trainers are okay too but many wish they had hiking boots with them. Timberland are the best, we have been using them (exact ones for men and for women) for trekking for over a decade, from Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador to gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda.
What do you eat on the tour?
On most tours, you’re provided with four meals, all included in the cost. These are not the usual Guatemalan foods you will find elsewhere, but are more barebones due to weight restrictions. I’m sure the meals will vary from day to day, but I’ve noted what we were provided on our tour, which is standard for most “value tours”.
If you have any dietary restrictions, let them know when you make your booking so they can cater to you.
Breakfast: On the first morning (at the office) we were served pancakes with jam, bread, avocado, and various other fruits.
Lunch: You’ll stop for a lunch break at around two-thirds of the way up to base camp on day one. We were provided with a large roll full of vegetables.
Snacks: We were provided a banana, an apple, peanuts, muesli bar and a brownie (vegans got another muesli bar instead).
Dinner: In my tour we didn’t carry the food for dinner, but the guides took one of our four litres of water to use for cooking. We were given a delicious hot chocolate before we went to sit for dinner where we were served noodles with salsa (surprisingly good) and a glass of wine. This is standard in the “value tours”.
Breakfast (day two): You will carry a small tupperware container with oats and raisins with you. This is your breakfast for the following morning which you’ll eat after summiting (if the conditions allow). There’s also tea and/or coffee.
Most trekking companies will ask you to bring 4L of water with you on the hike, this is because there are no porters so it is not possible for the guides to bring water for all.
When you arrive at the top, you’ll give 1L to the guides to assist with cooking and cleaning. At Wicho and Charlie’s they have reusable bottles you can use (no charge) and filtered water.
Tips for your overnight Acatenango Volcano Hike
Bring a bag to collect rubbish on the way down. Overall the trash situation on Acatenango isn’t horrible, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any wrappers and the occasional bottles to be found. The guides collect rubbish on the way down. After learning about the Adventure Bag Crew, follow their lead.
With the hike starting at over 2,000 metres of elevation, you might struggle with the altitude. In a perfect world, you’ll spend at least 24 hours in Antigua at 1,500 metres to ease into the altitude.
As you’ll know, the rainy season can prevent you from seeing Fuego exploding. If you’re booking your tour during the rainy season, there’s a possibility the hike will be cancelled. If you want to (all but) guarantee yourself a view, January and February is the best time of the year to visit.
However, bear in mind that the weather can be cold this time of the year and in 2017 six people froze to death.
If you’re short on time but really want to hike Acatenango, you can also book a one day tour. And, if your legs just won’t help you to the top, there are horses for rent, like at Pacaya Volcano, which will take you all the way to the top for Q500 or US$65 (that is almost the price of the tour mind you).
How to book a hike to Acatenango Volcano
Even though we didn’t get to see Fuego in all its glory, I had a great time. There’s something satisfying about reaching a summit and pushing yourself on an individual level is never a bad thing.
There are lots of companies offering Acatenango Volcano hiking tours but we wanted to highlight two options for different budgets.
Good value for money option to Acatenango Volcano
At 450Q (US$60), Wicho and Charlie’s is one of the most affordable options and provides great value.
For many wanting to climb Acatenango, this will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done so knowing that all the gear and sleeping conditions are of high quality will help with your piece of mind.
You can book with them on TripAdvisor so you are all set in advance. You can cancel 24h ahead if you change your mind.
Comfortable option to Acatenango Volcano
For those wanting more comfortable options, Balam Tours offers “proper” foldable camp beds, a more comfortable camp experience with hot BBQ food instead of pasta/instant noodles and pick up. The group is also much smaller.
The tour includes all the gear so you don’t have to bring your own (recommended, because you won’t need all the bulky heavy stuff anywhere else in Guatemala) as well as a backpack that can fit it all, and a place to store your stuff. The price is also inclusive of the park entry fees (Q50 or US$7) which is not included in most other tours.
You can book the trek with Balam tours on tripAdvisor here.
Book for a good cause
If you want your money to go to a good cause, Aprode trains Guatemalan US deportees to be guides to Acatenango and organises overnight treks. They are some of the most basic and most affordable and the guide receives most of the money each trekker pays.
You can see the reviews of Aprode here.
BIO: Growing up in New Zealand, Jub (Founder of Chur New Zealand) didn’t understand the buzz with travel. Why would you go overseas when you have all your friends at home? He eventually figured out why it’s so great in 2013. In saying that he can’t pin down one thing he ‘figured out’, he just knows it’s amazing.
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