Volcan Acatenango, at 3,976m is a formidable peak.
At least for anyone who is crazy enough to want to hike it.
Right next to it is Volcan Fuego which is a similar height (3,763m) and together they’re known as La Horqueta, which means ‘the fork’.
Acatenango is dormant, but Fuego is an active volcano that erupts almost daily, spitting impressive flames and puffs of ash up into the sky. This spectacle is the main reason that people climb Volcan Acatenango – to see Fuego’s show.
In this post, we’ll recap on our experience and give you all the information you need before you take on Volcan Acatenango.
Didn’t that volcano erupt recently? Are you mad?
Volcan Fuego is very active and erupted badly in June 2018, right before we left for our trip.
Lava and ash clouds submerged the nearby villages and almost two hundred people died. The lava flowed down the opposite direction to the side facing Volcan Acatenango, so despite the fact that there were tourists hiking on this volcano, none were hurt.
Why Hike Volcan Acatenango?
Some readers most likely think we have several screws loose, but we’re not the only ones. This activity is the top-rated Antigua attraction on Tripadvisor, and for good reason.
There are plenty of decent (and sane) reasons to hike Volcan Acatenango.
- For an amazing bucket list experience. It’s the most exciting thing in the world! Before Guatemala, we’d never seen a volcano before, never mind hiking one or seeing it erupt.
- Proximity to Antigua. Almost everyone visiting Guatemala includes a stop in quaint colonial Antigua. Acatenango is only an hours’ drive away, with lots of tour companies in Antigua providing transport. So it’s not exactly off the beaten track.
- Price point. Where else will you get an overnight hike, camping equipment and a knowledgeable guide for less than €50? This hike is great value.
- Challenge yourself. We’ll be honest. It’s not easy. Later in the post, we’ll talk about the difficult parts but the fact that it’s hard is certainly a good reason to take on the challenge.
- Support the local community. Despite the fact that they’re a little crazy to live so close to such an active volcano, the locals in the area really depend on the volcano’s tourism for their income. All guides are local and this is their livelihood.
Why Choose ASOAVA?
ASOAVA is a very small, family run company which isn’t affiliated with tour agencies in Antigua. Most of their business comes from word of mouth.
Here are some great reasons to go with ASOAVA tours:
- It’s the cheapest option. We’re bargain-chasers and this tour came in far cheaper than any competitor at 300Q/€35 per person.
- They offer a homestay. Staying with Catalino’s family who live at the foot of the volcano was a highlight for us, and this only cost an additional 25Q/ €3 per person including dinner and breakfast.
- Have fun with the kids and animals. Guatemalan culture is family-orientated and Catalino’s five kids, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and nephews live in his house, along with a myriad of chickens, dogs and cats. Cue some competitive card games in Spanish with the five-year-olds.
- Avoid an early-morning start from Antigua. We travelled from Antigua to San Jose de Calderas the day before our hike which meant we only had a ten minute commute to the base of the volcano. An added bonus since I’m not renowned for being a morning person.
- Practice your Spanish. Some of the guides speak English, but it’s really just the basics. We found that this was a great opportunity to practice our Spanish.
- Support a family-run business (rather than a corporation). While all of the guides are local, lots of the Antigua-based companies are run by corporations. ASOAVA is locally owned, with all of the proceeds staying in San Jose de Calderas.
- Safety & Flexibility. Expensive companies warn that their cheaper rivals are unsafe, but we thought ASOAVA had high safety standards. They also have more flexibility than big, standard tour groups.
Team Volcan Acatenango
We met Fab in Antigua on a coffee tour with Matiox hostel and made friends with both him and Pauline, the half-French, half-Aussie when we hiked Volcan Pacaya together. Fab was game for hiking Acatenango with us too. We started recruiting more people to get the price down; Fab got his friend Ash on board and we met Alan and Tash in Matiox and convinced them to join too.
It turns out that hiking an unforgiving volcano together is an unrivaled group bonding experience. After the hike, we stuck together for a few weeks and we now consider these guys our very firm friends.
ASOAVA Homestay – Overnight Stay at Catalino’s House
Transport from Antigua to San Jose de Calderas
Our driver picked us up in the afternoon at our hostel in Antigua and we drove for about an hour and a half to San Jose de Calderas, with a very important stop for some boxed red wine and hibiscus quetzalteca, Guatemala’s local spirit. Essential pre-hike beverages.
Having a larger group helps keep the cost of private transport down, but if you have a small group you can take the chicken bus (someone will come meet you, you don’t need to navigate the stops yourself).
Our homestay experience before hiking Acatenango
Staying at Catalino’s house was the only time in Guatemala that we felt we got a true insight into the local culture and customs. The house was split over two different properties on opposite sides of a little lane. There was no running water and the toilet was in an shed, with a bucket in a barrel of water to flush it.
Despite the primitive set-up, Catalino’s wife cooked us a fantastic traditional dinner over an open fire in the outhouse kitchen and we feasted on tortillas, chicken curry and Incaparina, a Guatemalan oat drink a bit like Ovaltine.
After we’d finished eating, we noticed a bit of panic and confusion around the house. Jimmy, Catalino’s son and one of our guides the next day went out for a while and had got into an accident.
It turned out it was a pretty malicious hate crime. Catalino was previously a partner in the volcano tour business before an outsider took over. Now that Catalino had set up his own company and was doing well, the naysayers were jealous and attacked Catalino’s son when he was out alone.
All of the family were upset and trying to get Jimmy to hospital and we all felt as useless as chocolate teapots so we scattered off to bed. Thankfully, Jimmy was fine and was on the mend before we started our hike, but it showed us how serious things could get when people’s livelihoods were at stake.
How difficult is the hike? Ascending Volcan Acatenango
We rose early to leave for our hike (there was no chance of a lie-in when the local rooster contingent started crowing at 4am).
Catalino’s house is prime real estate, with the best view of the volcano. Luckily, it was a perfectly clear morning and we could see the peak. Gulp.
After a quick breakfast and some Incaparina at Catalino’s house, we drove ten minutes to the foot of the volcano.
The camping gear stays stored at base camp, so we didn’t have to lug that up. We had three guides that carried about twice as much as us; pots, pans, breakfast and dinner ingredients and loads more. Aside from what we’d packed, we only had to add a lunchbox each with our packed lunch.
Sun, rain, wind, cold, ash… and altitude!
It didn’t take long for the hike to get difficult. Hiking at altitude is killer and despite the fact that we started hiking at a measly 1,500m altitude, we were all wheezing after an hour. It didn’t help that the sun was beating down at the beginning of the hike, causing us to overheat.
This quickly changed to a biting cold wind and ominous cloud cover. We all layered up and hiked through a (thankfully) quick rain shower.
Hiking poles were essential to navigate the mounds of ash on the path and my hiking boots helped a lot with grip, too.
During our lunch break, we were so cold that we whipped out the quetzalteca for a little tummy-warming boost to get us to base camp.
After a final hour of never-ending trudging that numbed our fingers, toes and minds, we reached base camp.
At last! The hike generally takes about five to six hours, we arrived at our camp at about 2pm.
It. Was. Freezing.
Base Camp: Campfires, a basic dinner and no chance of sleep
What ensued for the rest of the afternoon and evening was the hardest part of the whole trek.
The hiking? Manageable. Yes, it was tough, but at least we were always moving forward and making progress.
Sitting at almost 4,000m above sea level, clung to the side of a mountain, feeling like you’re going to turn to ice? Tough.
While us useless hikers huddled and felt sorry for ourselves, the guides gathered wood, built a fire, re-pitched the tents, laid out our sleeping bags and prepared dinner.
How do you pass an afternoon on the side of a huge volcano?
For lucky hikers, the best form of entertainment for the afternoon is a bit of Fuego action. The fierier of the two volcanoes can be seen from Acatenango basecamp and, if the weather is clear, should excite everyone with frequent smoke or lava.
We were a little unluckier and Fuego spent most of the afternoon hiding behind the clouds. Anytime they passed, we all got extremely excited and rushed over to see the smoke, but unfortunately for us, no lava.
Aside from that, we whiled away our time by playing any games we could remember. We polished off our snacks and quetzalteca, made shady mountainside toilet trips and increased our likelihood for contracting lung cancer by huddling by the chimney-less, closed in campfire.
Tip: Keep your culinary expectations low. Dinner prepared in a campsite at altitude will never be fantastic.
Dinner was a sorry affair, consisting of some pre-boiled spaghetti mixed with a jar of tomato sauce with Guatemala’s top ingredient, ‘frijoles‘ on the side. Frijoles translates to refried beans, but really it’s the consistency of bean smoothie or even bean juice if you’re in Guatemala.
Afterwards, we had some absolutely delicious and unbelievably welcome hot chocolate; a delicacy that Guatemala actually does very well. Piping hot chocolate warming our hands and bellies at the top of a volcano tasted how a final meal must to a prisoner on death row (Dramatic? Us? Never).
Once we’d finished eating, we didn’t see much point in sitting around the choking smoke of the fire, and decided to call it an early night at around 8pm.
Summitting Acatenango at Sunrise
Sunrise Summit Hike (Fail)
A relentless overnight thunderstorm thwarted our plan to rise in the middle of the night and hike in darkness watch the sunrise at the summit. Rain hailed down on our tent for hours, but thankfully it held up and we stayed dry.
Poking our head outside the tent at 4am, we decided to postpone the summit hike. The rain had stopped, but there was a wall of thick cloud two feet in front of our tent. We wouldn’t have seen the person in front of us on the hike, not to mind Fuego or a decent sunrise.
Reaching the Summit – 3,976m
We regrouped later and changed our plan.
Weather permitting, you’re supposed to hike for sunrise with nothing but a torch and water. Then you return to base camp for breakfast, pack up your things and descend.
Instead, we had breakfast first (and more hot chocolate – yum), packed everything up before leaving and took it all to the summit with us. Just before we left, the clouds completely passed and we got spectacular views of Volcan Fuego.
Smoke spitting out the top and red and brown lava patterns etched and carved into the side made for a striking view.
As we hiked to the summit, I began to question whether I had any semblance of fitness whatsoever, but everyone else was struggling too. The altitude was intense and we needed to take breaks every few minutes.
Reaching the summit was exhilarating, though. After all the tough hiking, the sleepless night, the storm, the rain and the cold it was so gratifying to actually make it. We were above the clouds on top of a volcano, with nobody else on the summit. We felt on top of the world.
Of course, we took a ton of photos. Here are just a few…
A Speedy Descent
Once we’d had our fill of admiring the views at the summit and the chills began to override the adrenaline rush, we began our descent.
Because of our later start, the guides told us we needed to hurry on the way down. We basically ran down the mountain, half-sliding, half-skiing through mounds of ash as our socks filled up with little lava rocks. Ascending had taken us over five hours (four to base camp and another hour to the summit) but the descent took us just over an hour.
Speedy, efficient, frightening. All of those things.
We were thankful to make it down safely and even happier that we actually made it to the summit despite the bad weather conditions.
We weren’t prepared for how tough it is, but also didn’t realise that it’s a fantastic and rewarding experience.
Here’s what we wish we’d known before embarking on the hike…
Everything You Need To Know Before Hiking Volcan Acatenango
300Q / €35 / $39US
This included transport to and from Antigua, three guides (for our group of eleven), meals during the hike and camping equipment.
25Q / €3 / $3.50
For an extra 25 quetzales, we got to stay at Catalino’s home in San Jose de Calderas the night before the hike, enjoy a traditional dinner cooked by his wife and a hearty breakfast the next morning. This was unbelievable value, and one of the nicest and most unique parts of the tour.
What to pack
Clothing and Equipment
- Small backpack. Take as little as you can, you’ll be grateful.
- Warm clothes. Bring all of them, it’s shockingly cold at Acatenango base camp.
- Extra socks
- Warm jumper
- Hiking clothes. Whatever you usually wear. Bring layers.
- Hiking boots (some people in our group just had runners which will do if you don’t have boots).
- Walking stick. Usually these aren’t included, but can be rented from your tour provider.
Food and Drink
- Plenty of snacks. Tours include meals but not too many snacks; bring lots, you’ll need the energy.
- Cereal bars
- Quetzalteca. Obviously.
- Water. 3L is more than enough.
Toiletries and Electronics
- Toilet paper
- Medication. Paracetamol for altitude sickness.
- Your usual toiletries. Toothpaste, toothbrush, probably not much else.
- Camera, phone, power bank and cables.
- Cash. Tips are welcome at the end of the tour if the guides did a good job.
Tip: If you’re worried about not having enough warm clothes (be worried, it’s freezing), there’s a second-hand market in Antigua on Thursdays. You can pick up gloves, hats or thermal layers for next to nothing.
- The campfire smoke is intense. But you’ll want to huddle around it. Bring something to cover your eyes, ears and nose if you can. I looked a bit comical with a buff over my whole face and sunglasses on over that.
- Expect stiff muscles. Don’t plan too much for the days after the hike; your legs will be sore. We found that the pain didn’t kick in until the second day after descending.
- Take plenty of breaks. Don’t overestimate your fitness or underestimate the difficulty of the hike.
- Consider the altitude. This is in line with the previous point. While you might scale a hill like a mountain goat when you’re at sea level, it’s a different ballgame at altitude. Take your time.
Hiking Acatenango was one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve ever undertaken. It’s not for the fainthearted, or anyone with weak willpower.
That being said, the challenges make it ten times more rewarding. Reaching the summit, being above the clouds and seeing Fuego smoking in the distance was surreal. While not every moment was easy or fun, I would definitely do it again and recommend anyone who’s in Guatemala to take on the challenge.
If, after reading this post, you decide to hike Acatenango with ASOAVA, send us a message on our contact page and we’ll send you Catalino’s number. They have a website but it’s easier to contact Catalino directly via Whatsapp.