For as long as I can remember I’ve been a sea person, but for some reason the allure of mountain trekking has hit me vigorously for the past few years. My first real test came last year when I attempted to climb Mt Iztazihuatl, a 5175 m peak in Mexico. I failed, but almost made it to the top, reaching the 5000 m mark not without effort. I was also able to identify the reason why I didn’t make it: lack of acclimatization to the high altitude, and it’s because of this that in preparation for my 2015 attempt to climb Mt Orizaba I decided to trek Acatenango Volcano, the fourth highest volcano in Guatemala which also happens to be right in front of Volcan de Fuego, one of the most active in the world. This would also be a great opportunity to take good pictures of an active volcano, something I’ve had in the back of my head ever since I took some shots of Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador.
Acatenango Volcano rises 3975 m above sea level, a beautiful mountain that offers an exciting challenge to those who are willing to make the physical effort that is need to reach its summit. There are several tour operators in Antigua that offer guides for this trek, but I chose Old Town Outfitters. They have very good reviews online and unlike a couple of competitors which I contacted as well they were fast and enthusiastic in their response. They offer two options, one day and two day tours, but I went for the two day option as I wanted to make sure I reached the summit and, most important, take pictures of the volcano.
Day 1: Trekking to Advanced Base Camp of Acatenango Volcano (3750m)
All participants in the hike are required to show up at the office on Calle 5 at around 830 in the morning. Final preparations are made and from there we were taken by bus to the base of the mountain, about 30 minutes away along a mostly well paved road. The starting point of the trek is a small village aptly called La Soledad ( The Lonely). It’s basically a pack of houses, but is crucial for the trek: Old Town Outfitters hires porters from this village to bring the tents and food to the overnight camp. This provides money to the rather poor local community, and makes them feel important, appreciated, and part of this adventure. It also allows people who are not in very good shape to attempt reaching the summit of the mountain by having someone else carry their gear.
There are four very well defined stages to the trek. Perhaps surprisingly the most difficult and challenging is the first one, a 30 degree slope of loose soil and sun. Temperatures are still somewhat warm here, the sun is strong, and walking up a trail that makes you slide on every step is not everyone’s idea of fun. It takes about one hour to reach the entrance to the park, where the first trees begin to grow. Along the way I was astonished to see a couple in their 80’s who walked 30 minutes up that slope every day to work their field!
The second stage of the trek took us through a forest of beautiful pine trees and bushes. As time went by fatigue was getting more and more noticeable, but about 3 hours after the start we stopped for a magnificent lunch which included salad, humus, potatoes, ham, tomatoes with a homemade dressing and lots more- it felt as if we were having a picnic at a local park!
The third stage of the trek starts after you reach a certain altitude at which trees stop growing. I could see the tree density begin to dwindle as we kept walking, and at a certain point we reached an area where there were mostly bushes instead of trees. I have to admit that I was pretty tired by then, glad that we were reaching the camp for the night. There was still plenty of light when we got there, but as soon as the sun began to drop so did the temperatures, down to around 0 C . I didn’t have much in terms of winter gear, so I was cold, very cold. I decided to mimic what others were doing and got into the tent I would be sharing with two other trekkers from Spain, and so did they. With time the sleeping bag did its job and I was able to warm up, though when dinner was called I wasn’t too excited about stepping into the cold again. However the guides outdid any expectations I could’ve had: how about Couscous at 3750 m? And wine for everybody to toast?
As we were taking dinner I also attempted to take some pictures of the active volcano that was right in front of us, but the result was not what I had been expecting. On one side I was cold and not in the best of moods for it, mostly shivering and tired, and the remote control for the camera was failing. On the other hand the volcano was indeed active, but the explosions were not as spectacular as they had been on previous days. Nonetheless I was able to take the picture you see below.
Day 2: Reaching the Summit of Acatenango and Back Down
As you may know already summits of high altitude mountains have to be reached in the early morning, ideally shortly after sunrise; after then temperatures increase and with them so do the winds and unfavorable weather conditions. So it came to no surprise when we were told that those who wanted to reach the summit would have to be ready by 430 am. And I was.
In fact I was ready way before then, as I had not slept more than 1 or two hours despite having hit the sack at 830 pm, but I have two very powerful reasons. The altitude had given me a headache, and that alone would probably have been enough to not let me sleep, but I had an extra factor I had not contemplated: one of my tent mates was a heavy snorer, and there was no way I could sleep with that noise.
I was excited, and felt strong enough to attempt the summit which was only about an hour or so away. Only seven of the 12 trekkers were going to attempt to summit, and we started climbing in the dark- I had no flashlight and was using the light provided by one of the other climbers, but it was enough. Soon after the first light of the morning made its appearance and I was able to enjoy the views. The wind started to pick up, and by the time we were around 300 meters away it was howling. I was now the second person in the group, following the guide who was around 50 m ahead of me. I kept walking, staring at the ground as I slowly placed one foot ahead of the other, trying to not lose my balance because of the wind gusts, and shortly after, I was at the top. As the rest of the group reached the summit we all shook hands and hugged, happy to reach the summit of this mountain that had been demanding, tough, yet exciting.
After spending about 20 minutes at the summit we headed back down, had a second breakfast where the rest of the group was and continued the much quicker downhill walk. By the end of the 4 hour descent the less fit hikers had sore knees and quads from overload, but we were all satisfied with the adventure we had shared. The bus took us back to Old Town Outfitters’ in Antigua and we each went our way. I took a brief nap and then together again for dinner with the two travelers from Spain I had befriended during the hike, a good way of wrapping up the day.
A Few Recommendations
- It can be cold at the top. Bring good thermal clothes, gloves, a waterproof raincoat and an extra pair of socks. Once the sun sets it does get cold up there, even in summer. I did the hike mid August and was unprepared- don’t make the same mistake.
- Make sure you bring a tripod if you are serious about taking night pictures of Volcan de Fuego. Check that your camera’s battery is full as cold weather wears batteries quicker.
- Bring a flashlight.
- Old Town Outfitters recommends you bring 4-5 liters of water, but I only took three and had more than enough. That is less weight to carry.
- If you think that carrying your backpack on your own can be too big of an effort, consider hiring a porter. The price is 45 USD, and it will make your trip much easier and help the economy of the porter’s family.
The two day Acatenango hike is not for everybody; you have to be in at least decent physical condition and be ready to enjoy and endure what 6 hours of walking uphill requires. If you’re really interested in doing the trek but know lack the physical condition it is possible to reach the camp on a donkey – as funny as it may sound. One of the travelers from Spain was able to improvise this on the way up and had a fantastic experience.
I also want to point out the superb work done by our guides. They were super friendly, encouraging, knowledgeable and fun to hang out with. We were all amazed at the quality of the food that was cooked at almost 4000m, and wine to toast? While there are a few other companies in Antigua that provide Acatenango hiking options at cheaper rates, the service is not as good (based from my email experience and from comments from other travelers) and the overall experience is not as smooth. One thing that I would have to point out is that the zipper on our tent did not close completely, leaving a 15 cm gap at the bottom. Fortunately it did not rain, but it did allow the cold air to flow into the tent somewhat easily.
This is a video of my adventure. It’s in Spanish, but you can still get a very good feel of what the trek is like! By the way, if you’re getting this post via RSS or email you can watch the video in Youtube here.
Are you an outdoors enthusiast? Is this your kind of adventure? Have you done any volcano trekking? Where? Do you have any questions? Speak away in the comments section below and share this post if you think other may enjoy it!
My experience was comped by Old Town Outfitters, however all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own…as always!