Gazing at a peacefully puffing volcano, each wearing every single item of clothing we had carried up to the summit of our Acatenango hike – we were amazed & exhausted. The ambiguous feeling, however, of aching body parts mixed with the sunrise calling to the soul of the land simply melted into the magic of that moment, a moment of nature-filled awe.
Acatenango remains one of our most challenging yet rewarding hiking experiences to date. Being prepared is half the battle when taking on this epic hike – here you’ll learn everything you need to know when taking on Guatemala’s ultimate hiking adventure!
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Post updated by The Wilder Route on 28th March 2021
Acatenango Hike ∼ What To Expect
How tough is the Acatenango hike? Very tough!
Should you do it? If you’re in relatively good shape, absolutely!
Acatenango was our favourite experience in Guatemala, this overnight hike* is arduous but that’s exactly what makes it worthwhile. The terrain massively adds to the challenge – it’s not only steep but is also due to the soft, ashy earth, pretty slippy which at times might make you want to lie on the ground & give up entirely.
Ok, have we put you off yet?! If, not then good because we can assure you, as difficult as the Acatengo hike maybe, the feeling of getting yourself right in front of an active volcano will be nothing short of spectacular.
Acatenango is taken on by most as an *overnight hike & although it can be completed in a day, we’d recommend going for the overnight option if you can. Afterall you wouldn’t want to miss the magic of the sunrise paired with a puffing (or if you’re lucky, during the hours of darkness a lava strewn) volcano would you?
& what this means for altitude sickness
Standing at an impressive 3976m / 13,041 ft above sea level, Acatenango’s elevation makes it the third highest volcano in Central America. In terms of elevation gain, which is mostly done on the first day of hiking, you are looking at 1500m / 5150 ft total gain.
For altitude, it’s important to remember that people respond to altitude in different ways & whilst neither of us experienced it, that doesn’t mean that you won’t (or will). Acute altitude sickness can be felt from heights of 2,000m with more severe symptoms typically triggering at 2,500m.
Acclimatising in Antigua for at least a few days before hiking Acatenango is one way to help your body adjust to the altitude beforehand. Also, a little more in-depth research (via a quick Google search) to prepare yourself for altitude sickness can go a long way – personally, we’d recommend avoiding alcohol for a couple of days before hiking Acatenango as well as keeping yourself fully hydrated.
Get Acquainted With Volcan de Acatenango
Sitting in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range Volcan de Acatenango is a stratovolcano – a tall, conical volcano made up of layers of hardened lava, tephra & volcanic ash.
Acatenango itself has two peaks, Pico Mayor (highest peak) & Yepocapa (also known as Tres Hermanas or Three Sisters). Volcan Acatenango is joined with Volcan Fuego which is the active volcano, that everyone comes to see on the Acatenago hike.
Fuego (Fire) is famous for being almost constantly active at a low level. Small gas & ash eruptions occur every 15 to 20 minutes, with larger eruptions, being rare. The last occurred in June 2018 & before that in 1972.
Will You See Lava?
The burning question!!
Well, we didn’t, we got some puffs of ash & that was all.
Was it disappointing? Honestly, a little but that it didn’t ruin the experience or anything. Whilst witnessing lava pouring out of the top of Fuego would have indeed been incredible, the puffs of ash were pretty cool too.
As we experienced total cloud coverage when we reached our camp, staying up to witness the lava was not on the cards for us, however on a clear night paried with a lava strewn Fuego that’s exactly what you’ll do.
We hiked Acatenango at the beginning of April, which is close to the rainy season.
What’s the best time of year for lava?
The rainy season, May through October, can prevent you from seeing Fuego exploding. There’s a possibility that tours booked in the rainy season will be cancelled. If you want to (pretty much) guarantee yourself a view, January and February is the best time of the year to visit. However, a freezing volcano blast did kill six climbers at that time of year, in 2017.
If you do take some lava-filled pictures though we’d love to see so be sure to tag us on Instagram.
Choosing A Tour Company
There is a range of options available for Acatenango tours & at the time of updating this post these run at prices from as little as Q30O ($40 / £30) right up to Q1600 ($210 / £153).
Now, you may find a lot of discussion on tours that cost less & whether or not one should opt for a less expensive or more expensive tour.
We were on a serious budget when we were in Guatemala so went for a tour at the lowest end of the Acatenango tour price range. We booked through Matiox the hostel we stayed at in Antigua with our tour including transport, very basic equipment, guides & some food.
Would we recommend booking one of the less expensive tours? In a nutshell, no. If you have the funds available to go for a tour somewhere in the mid to high-end range of the Acatenango tour price range you are going to receive more guides per person (meaning you’ll receive more support throughout the hike), you’ll get better food (we had a pot of noodles for our evening meal which needless to say was not enough), the equipment will be better (our tents & sleeping bags were in pretty dire condition). That being said though if you do need to do this on a budget as we did, the tour we took was sufficient enough, given it was only for one night.
CHECK OUT ACATENANGO TOUR DEALS
Choose from a higher-end group tour, private tour or you can even opt, if you have little time, to do the tour in one day (although as mentioned above we would recommend doing this hike overnight).
It’s worth noting that Acatenango tours do not include…
• The Acatenango park entrance fee of Q50 ($6 / £4.50) – check this with your tour company though as some tours do include the fee.
• Walking stick hire Q5 ($0.65 / £0.45)
Do you need the walking sticks? YES! Please just trust on this one & hire those sticks.
• A tip for your guide
• Additional snacks & drinks (most of which we’d recommend purchasing in Antigua, although you can grab any last-minute bits at the same place the transport drops you off, where you’ll also pay your entrance fee & hire your sticks).
Although not something we’d try, it is possible to hike Acatenango without a guide (something that should only be attempted by experienced hikers) if you’d like to learn more about that, check out this post from Bike Hike Safari.
What To Pack For Your Volcan Acatenango Hike
A lot more than you think whilst still finding that sweet balance, after all, everything you pack for your Volcan Acatenango hike will need to be carried up there – by you.
Ok, so what do you need?
• Your big backpack – if your tour company is providing you with sleeping bags (they should do, as even ours, a low-end tour did) you’ll need to fit that in your bag along with what you have brought with you. You’ll also need to have room to carry part of the tent that you’ll be sleeping in & your sleeping mat, so yeah, your big bag is required.
• Warm layers & enough of them. We cannot stress this enough, you may not be able to imagine after walking around Antigua in the sunshine just how cold it can get at the summit of Acatenango, just trust us, it gets bloody cold! Layers are key as you can remove them when warm & pile them on when cold.
If you are in Antigua & don’t have any warm layers with you, we’d recommend checking out the flea market, where you’ll be able to pick up plenty without breaking the bank.
• Something clean & warm to sleep in as sleeping in the clothing that you have been sweating in all day, is counterproductive to keeping warm.
• A beanie takes up hardly any room in a backpack so no matter where we are going, warm or cold, we always carry one & for Acatenango, we are so glad we did. Check out our organic cotton beanies from our clothing company Nature Threads, they are super thick & warm.
• Hiking boots – if you have them great, if not, try to hire some as the experience will be so much better with decent boots. We both hiked in running shoes & our feet took ages to recover afterward.
• Hiking socks – we may not have had hiking boots but we did have hiking socks which, when hiking, make a huge difference – especially when it comes to blisters.
• Snacks – as our tour company provided minimal food, we took lots of energising snacks with us (including nuts, dried fruit & dark chocolate) – there’s the food market in Antigua as well as a choice of supermarkets for stocking up beforehand.
• Water – 4 litres should be plenty, we took that each & came back with some, although water is heavy to carry, it is a necessity.
• High SPF suncream for your body & face – we always use at least factor 50.
• Sunglasses for the obvious purpose of shielding your eyes from the sun but also from the dust. You may also consider something to cover your mouth if you don’t want to breathe the dust in.
• Aspirin or Ibuprofen – in case of altitude sickness.
• Headtorch – on day two you’ll be leaving camp really early so a torch is essential, we’d always recommend a head torch to save having to carry it.
• Portable phone battery charger because you’ll want to keep that charge juice high for all those pics you’ll be taking.
• Toilet paper – if you don’t remember to buy this in Antigua you can get it at the place that hires walking sticks.
• Walking sticks – yes, we’re mentioning them again because you will need them, trust us, your knees will thank you. As mentioned above you can hire these for Q5 ($0.65 / £0.45) at the place your transport will drop you off.
• Knee supports – if you are prone to swelling knees (like Kelly) be sure to carry these just in case you need them for the downhill part of the hike.
So what about camera gear?
Now, we didn’t take our SLRs with us, because we didn’t want to carry them up there – instead, we opted to take our phones & GoPro. It’s up to you really but for awesome lava nighttime shots an SLR & tripod are essential.
More On The Challenge
From farmland to cloud forest to high alpine forest to volcanic scree, the Acatenango hike certainly delivers in terms of variety of landscape.
An 11 mile / 18 km round-trip is made tough, as mentioned above, by the elevation gain & high altitude.
If you choose to do this hike overnight (which, as mentioned multiple times, we’d highly recommend) you’ll cover most of the upward climb on day one, leaving a short climb in the early hours of day two to get to the summit for sunrise.
How long will it take?
The total climb to the summit takes between 4 – 7 hours. We’d say that in a group 7 hours is more realistic (that’s exactly what our group managed it in).
The descent can be just as challenging
It’s common to think that going uphill is always harder than coming back down but we beg to differ. A steep downhill can impact your knees (something which Kelly knows all too well) for which we’d recommend, as mentioned above, bringing knee supports, using walking sticks & taking it steady.
The (Very Basic) Camping
In no way was this our most glamorous camping experience, in fact, it was probably our least.
Sat around the campfire that our guides built, barely being able to see just in front of us due to the fog (hence no lava) we quickly ate our pot of noodles, drank some hot chocolate & gathered back in our beaten-up tent to shelter from the cold. Sharing a tent with two other people (so four of us in total) made us grateful for the body warmth.
The price we paid showed in the equipment we received, some (more expensive) tour companies have permanent structures set up, making for a much more comfortable nights sleep, we’re sure.
A Spectacular Sunrise
We were woken by our guides whilst it was still dark & somewhat reluctantly made the steep & slippy climb up to the summit of Acatenango. The views are incredible in the dark you can see the whole city of Antigua lit up & miles further too.
As the sun started to rise we reached the top. This remains one of the most epic sunrises we have witnessed to date – a cloud inversion paired with a sun ready to light up the whole world showed Mother Nature at her most magical.
Time Atop Acatenango
The feeling of being encompassed in our surroundings that morning, the mighty Fuego dominating the landscape as we stood at the summit of Volcan de Acatenango was what made this hike our favourite experience in Guatemala.
In total, we spent about an hour at the top, although our guides were keen, once they had served up our breakfast to get us back to camp & packed up ready for the descent.
Hesitating a little, we headed back down but made sure we got every second we could up there – hey, those moments when you are totally in the here & now, that you will never, ever be able to re-create are the ones we hold in our hearts forever, so we ensured we got the absolute most out of it.
Other Useful Acatenango Hiking Tips
If you’ve visited our blog before, you’ll know that we’re always down for a hike making us pretty experienced in summitting peaks. For the Acatenango hike in particular we’d also recommend…
• Cutting your toenails – trust us, you’ll want to do this.
• Adjusting your backpack is something we’d highly recommend when hiking but especially for this hike, as you’ll be carrying a lot of gear. You’ll likely have lots of straps & clips on your backpack which if you don’t already know are there to make things more comfortable for you. A little research beforehand or asking your guide can help in getting things fitted properly.
• Not wearing your sweaty clothing at night, which we’ve mentioned above but we’ll go into why… basically, the clothes you wear up to camp, you’ll sweat in & if you keep those clothes on your body will struggle to keep you warm when that sweaty layer gets cold. Adam has experienced this first hand on another adventure when he woke up a 3 am shivering & had to strip down to his boxers to dry off before putting on clean, dry layers & getting warm – so, there you have it, make sure that layer next to your skin is clean & dry.
• Going it at your own pace – tours should always have at least one guide upfront & one guide at the back (our low-end tour didn’t) to make sure that the slowest person can keep up. There is nothing wrong with being the slowest or the fastest, we sometimes find that group hikes can get a bit competitive so it’s important to remember that it’s not a race & that you are there to enjoy the experience just as much as anyone else.
• Taking a treat for the summit is something we always do when hiking, in this case, we took some dark chocolate.
• Plenty of photos – the likelihood is, you’re only going to do this once so get those photos to look back on & remember this unique experience.
Antigua As a Base For The Acatenango Hike
Antigua is a must on anyone’s Guatemala itinerary & is the perfect place base for the Acatenango hike. Check out our recommendations for Antigua here.
As mentioned we booked our Acatengano tour & stayed at Matiox hostel which we would highly recommend. Great vibe, nice staff & a really clean & friendly hostel.
& of course, if you are in Antigua, Acatenango should not be missed.
Thanks for reading & happy adventuring,
Kelly & Adam x
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