Standing at 3,976m (13,045ft), the Volcan Acatenango is the third-highest volcano in Guatemala and a rite of passage for adventure travelers in Central America. The two-day hike is the most challenging volcano climb in Guatemala and a genuine test for your fitness and endurance. Here is my story of reaching the summit of Volcan Acatenango.
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Welcome to Volcan Acatenango: Guatemala’s Most Challenging Volcano Hike
If you’re visiting Guatemala, you’ll see volcanoes everywhere, and you’ll wonder whether climbing one of them is a worthwhile idea.
Located around an hour from the city of Antigua, the Volcan Acatenango is the daddy. Standing at nearly 4,000m (13,120ft), it’s not the highest but undoubtedly the one with the best views.
From the top, you can see the nearby Volcan de Fuego. Both are collectively known as “La Horqueta,” and the Volcan de Fuego is active. Every 10-15 minutes, it spits out ashes, gas, and lava – creating a mind-blowing nature spectacle.
It is also possible to hike both volcanoes together, but that’s for highly advanced hikers. In this story, we’ll focus on the Volcan Acatenango.
Should you attempt the Acatenango Volcano hike? Here are four things to consider when making your decision:
- the views from Acatenango are breathtaking and arguably the best in all of Guatemala;
- it’s a real challenge, but also an excellent way to get out of your comfort zone and push yourself;
- it’s easily accessible from Antigua, so you don’t need to embark on a long journey to get there; and
- it’s affordable, and you don’t need to bring any gear as the companies rent everything out.
How to Climb Acatenango
Here are the primary things to know when planning your Acatenango Volcano hike.
How to Get to Volcan Acatenango
The most popular way to climb Acatanengo is to base yourself in Antigua. Here, you’ll find dozens of companies both online and on the spot who organize the hike.
Antigua is a charming colonial city with lots of cultural attractions, so be sure to stay more than two days as you’ll invest these into hiking Acatenango. Aside from that, be aware that your legs will need some time to recover after the climb, so don’t plan on climbing another volcano the day after ascending Acatenango.
Is it Possible to Climb Acatenango by Yourself?
It’s theoretically possible to hike up to the summit without a guide if you’re not staying overnight. It’s, however, not recommendable for various reasons.
First, the trails are unmarked, so it’s easy to get lost. Secondly, you’ll miss the night eruptions and sunrise at the top, which are probably the best parts of the experience.
Is it Safe to Hike Volcan Acatenango?
Safe is always a relative term.
Climbing a nearly 4,000m high volcano always has dangers, but the guides keep the hike as safe as possible. Be sure to tell them when you are tired or need a break, and they’ll be considerate. There is, nonetheless, a schedule to follow, so you won’t be able to take twice as long as the rest of the group.
Unlike nearby Volcan Agua, where travelers need an armed escort because of local bandits, there are no gangs robbing people on Acatenango.
Which Company to Choose When Hiking Acatenango
Many companies offer the trip starting from Antigua. Prices can vary between 50 and 100 USD, depending on the size of the group and the time of the year.
I can recommend this company who offers the trek for around 100 USD. That includes food and shelter (be aware that everything is basic here, you’re on top of a volcano, after all), as well as warm clothes and a transfer from Antigua. You’ll have to pay the 50Q (6.5 USD) entrance fee, but the rest is provided.
No matter which company you take, be sure to ask about their English levels if you’re not fluent in Spanish. Most of the guides have limited to non-existent English skills – as many of them come from these rural regions.
When to Climb Acatanengo Volcano
If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, be aware that the dry season runs from November to April.
Climbing Acatenango is possible during the rainy season (May to October), but consistently changing weather patterns might make the hike more difficult and spoil the views.
How Difficult is the Acatenango Volcano Hike?
Climbing Acatenango is supposedly the most challenging volcano hike in Guatemala, and there are reasons for that.
You don’t need any climbing experience or gear, but the difficulty resides in the endurance factor.
In this context, the entire hike is uphill, and the trails are windy and muddy. As such, you climb a total of 7 km (4.35 miles) with little to no flat parts.
I consider myself a reasonably fit person, having run half-marathons before, but climbing Acatenango was one of the most strenuous physical activities I ever undertook.
All in all, if you’ve defeated taller, more challenging mountains before, you won’t have too much trouble with climbing Volcan Acatenango. If you are reasonably fit and have endurance, you’ll make it to the top, but it will be a struggle. And if you’re unfit or not a sporty person, you might not make it.
Throughout my hike, I saw several people turning around, and none of those looked extremely out-of-shape. Many climbers stay at the camp at ~3,700m (~12,140ft) because the last part, which starts at 4 am, fazes them too much (more on that later).
What to Bring When Climbing Volcan Acatenango
Bring comfortable shoes and a few layers of clothing. The guides provide extra jackets, gloves, hats, and sleeping bags. Nevertheless, the more clothes you bring, the better. At night, the temperatures inside the tents and on the summit drop down to -5°C (23°F), so dress well.
My Story of Climbing Volcan Acatenango: Struggle, Doubts, and the Ultimate Reward
The shuttle picked us up at 9 am in Antigua, and we drove to the entrance of the Acatenango National Park. We were only three people in the group, a mid-twenties English couple and myself.
The shuttle drivers gave us hats, gloves, and warm jackets. It was at this point that I realized that this might not be a walk in the park.
When I arrived in Guatemala, I didn’t know much about the country’s most fascinating sites. I had naturally seen pictures of volcanoes, but I hadn’t done much research.
After a short one-hour drive, we arrived at the base of the volcano. The guide, a short and skinny 17-year old local, only spoke Spanish. As such, I became a de facto translator for our group, as the other participants didn’t know the language.
At this moment, we got our first glimpse of the trails: steep uphill for five hours. What had I gotten myself into?
Starting the Volcan Acatenango Climb
The first part of the hike is hard, with steep inclines through muddy paths. The vegetation changes every 20 minutes, from cornfields to mystical forests and clear hills. There are no flat parts, and the hike becomes more difficult with every 100 meters due to the increasing altitude.
Struggle and Doubts
After around two hours, we reached our lunch stop, a small junction deep inside the forest.
At this point, the volcano isn’t visible, and the landscapes aren’t inspiring. As such, it’s here where doubts start to cloud your mind. I had seen a few people turning around a few minutes earlier, and that didn’t exactly motivate me. For the first time, I started to wonder whether I would make it.
We ate some cold chicken and rice that the guides had given us at the start, and it was tasty. Nevertheless, realizing that we weren’t even halfway up was straining my motivation.
There was, however, another realization that became even more crucial:
Your mind has to complete this trek. Your body won’t give in, but your mind might. You are, however, in control. If you don’t let your mind give up, you’ll get to the top of the mountain.
I hammered this thought into my head. As long as I remained focused and motivated, I wouldn’t give up. I would get to the top.
The next three hours were a physical and mental struggle, but I pushed through. The others in my group had similar problems, but the higher we got, the more it became clear that giving up was not an option.
And we didn’t.
Reaching the Camp at 3,736m (12,257ft)
After five hours of intense hiking, we reached camp at over 3,700m. It was an immense relief.
I climbed Volcan Acatenango during the rainy season, so we weren’t even sure what the view was going to be like. Luckily, the weather changes quite rapidly during these months. After a few minutes of cloudy skies, the stunning Volcan de Fuego came into view.
We spent the rest of the evening admiring the gorgeous views around a fire and jumping up every time the volcano erupted. It was marvelous.
The guides prepared spaghetti, and we got ready to spend a night in our accommodation, a barebone tent.
Night in a Freezing Tent
The tent was cold, and the mattresses were uncomfortable. Luckily, we each had three sleeping bags because the tent could fit ten people, but we were only three.
The guide had given us the choice to wake up at 4 am and climb all the way up to the summit for sunrise or simply have breakfast at 6 – and then go back down. We were exhausted, but nobody was in doubt. We were going all the way up.
None of us managed more than two hours of sleep. We were rolling in our sleeping bags, fully clothed for most of the night. It was a terrible few hours. So excruciating that I was happy when the alarm sounded at 4 am. Boy, was I in for a shock.
4 am Hike: the Worst Part
The guide had told us that it would take another 1.5-2 hours to get to the top, but he didn’t tell us that this part was the steepest. Worse still, we had to hike through unstable volcanic ash, the most unpleasant type of soil of the entire trek.
And if that wasn’t enough, we spent 1.5 hours climbing in total darkness, as only the guides had headlamps. Bring some if you want to get to the summit.
At 5.45 am, the ordeal ended, and we were in for a treat. All the struggles suddenly paid off. We were in for the most incredible sunrise I have ever seen.
The Reward: an Absolutely Epic Sunrise
We reached the top at 3,976m (13,045ft), and the views looked like the ones you get from a plane window. It was magical.
We spent around 30 minutes at the summit, celebrating our achievements and taking pictures. The sunrise was in the top 5 I’ve seen anywhere around the world.
It was the perfect illustration of some of my life mantras:
- no sacrifice, no reward;
- pain is temporary, pride is forever;
- personal growth happens outside of your comfort zone.
We then made our way back down to camp for breakfast. The descent was relatively easy, but my legs were starting to burn.
After a basic but tasty cereal meal, we went back down all the way (around 2.5 hours) and returned to Antigua for some well-deserved ice-cold beers.
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Conclusion on Climbing the Volcan Acatenango in Guatemala
Climbing Acatenango was one of the most challenging physical activities I’ve ever undertaken, but it was worth every inch of struggle.
I learned a lot about myself during the hike, and I would undoubtedly recommend it. For photographers, it’s one of the most picturesque spots in all of Guatemala, and you’ll get some of the best landscape shots in Central America.
In conclusion, whether you’re a photographer or not, the Acatenango Volcano hike is a formidable test for your endurance, fitness, and mental strength.
It’s more than a bucket list experience – it’s a continuous challenge that will help you build resilience and eliminate doubts. As such, it’s a metaphor for life and, therefore, a sensational way to foster your personal growth.