Hiking Volcano Acatenango in Guatemala

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Guatemala is home to 37 volcanoes and one of the biggest attractions to this Central American country. The tourist hot spots of Antigua and Lake Atitlan offer a plethora of volcanoes to explore nearby and most travellers will visit at least one.

From the colonial city of Antigua, the two most common ones to visit are Acatenango and Pacaya, although you can see Volcanoes Agua and Fuego from the city as well.

Since we wanted to experience volcanoes in Guatemala and we love hiking, we opted to do the 1.5 day trip to Acatenango. For those that choose this trip, it is often one of their favourite things to do in Guatemala. I had done enough reading about this trip to understand how difficult it is, but it is important that people consider their experience, comfort and physical fitness, before attempting this trip.

Acatenango is the third highest volcano in Central America at 3,976 m (13,000 feet) which means there is 40% less oxygen and temperatures below freezing. It hasn’t erupted since 1925, but Volcano Fuego, directly beside it, is constantly erupting. And really that is the reason you do this trip – to see Fuego erupting, especially at night. It isn’t a trip you can do yourself; you will need do go as part of an organized tour with experienced guides. It is recommended that you have spent at least 48 hours prior to your trip in Antigua or at 1,500 m elevation to help acclimatize.

How Hard is Acatenango?

We finished this trip yesterday and I can definitely say it was one of the most taxing things I have done in a very long time. Our family is fairly experienced hikers, in good physical condition, with experience hiking at altitude and we still found it very difficult. Yet on our trip, we saw many inexperienced hikers that were completely unprepared and we think travellers should do a serious self assessment before they undertake this trip; first for their own enjoyment and safety and second for that of the entire group. Our trip was slowed down many times while we waited for people that were really struggling and it also taxed the guides and supporters to keep them safe.

Acatenango is not the only volcano you can experience in Guatemala, or from Antigua (remember there are 36 others!). Volcano Pacaya offers a great adventure trip as well and can be done as a daytrip or overnight. It is a more accessible trip and you still experience an active volcano.

A Detailed Guide to Hiking Acatenango

Our tour started with a tour briefing the night before our trip at Ox Expeditions’ headquarters in central Antigua. This is a really important briefing to attend as it gave us a chance to meet our lead guide, fellow travellers and prepare for the trip. The briefing was very thorough and the guide went over what to expect, the route, what to bring, altitude and safety information.

Many travellers in Central America will not have the warm weather gear needed and Ox provides good quality gear on loan for those that need it. If you are coming to Guatemala for a short period of time, I would try to bring as much of the needed gear from home as possible, as it is always nicer to have your own gear. However, if you are long term travelling or don’t have the gear, rest assured that Ox will help you out. You can find more information about what to bring later in this article.

The tour then starts by meeting at Ox headquarters at 6:45 am where gear will be lent out and packing done. In order to borrow gear, you leave your ID as a deposit. They have a whole room of gear in good condition, in various sizes available including backpacks, warm layers, hats and mitts and headlamps. We weren’t borrowing any gear, but you still need to add food that Ox provides to your pack. Each person brings a Tupperware of cooked pasta for dinner, a hardy sandwich for lunch and a couple of communal food items, like cheese, marshmallows, Nutella, banana bread, etc. Additionally, you can decide to use a porter for 200 GTQ to carry your bag up to camp.

At 7:30 we loaded in the vans and headed to a restaurant in Antigua for breakfast. We ate in long communal tables and this was a nice way to meet or fellow hikers. We had a large group of 37, which is fairly typical for the winter months. We were served a typical Guatemalan breakfast of scrambled eggs, tortillas, beans and plantains with coffee and tea. There was a wide variety of people on our trip from different nationalities and ages. We even met a Guatemalan woman who had summited all 37 volcanoes in Guatemala and loved hearing her stories. This was also the last opportunity to use a real toilet.

After breakfast, we started the one hour drive to the beginning of the hike. The roads were windy and since it was cloudy and foggy, we couldn’t see anything. We parked at a local family’s home and you could rent hiking sticks for 5 GTQ each. Acatenango tours have a very close relationship with the local community of this region and provide employment through guides, porters, camp support, and food and drink sales. The local people also act as stewards to the land and just a few days before our tour had acted quickly when a forest fire had ignited on the volcano, with no support from the local government.

The hike to base camp is 6.8 km (4.2 miles), but it involves an elevation gain of 1,100 m (3,700 feet), making it very slow going. You hike through three district zones: farmland, cloud forest and alpine. We started our hike at 10 am, had lunch at 1 pm and arrived at camp at 3:45 pm. So a total of 6 hours of hiking uphill – fun times!

The first many hours of the hike are uphill and unrelenting. There isn’t much of a warm up, it is steep right of the roadway! On our trip the wind was howling, it was wet from the rain and very cold. Since we were starting on a Saturday, it was also very crowded with many large tour groups going up and down. The guides do a great job though of keeping track of everyone and we would stop every 20-30 min for a break and to regroup. At each of these stops, there are little huts selling hot and cold drinks, snacks and even crepes at the first stop. There are also outhouse toilet facilities. Our stops were fairly long as we had a few people struggling with the climb; the porters and guides did a great job of carrying their bags and trying to help them make the next stop.   

We stopped for lunch at the beginning of the alpine zone and the guides miraculously lit a fire in the wet conditions, which was a godsend. The provided sandwich/pastry was delicious and they accommodate many dietary restrictions. Our veggie stuffed sandwich was delicious and filling.

There are two payments required to do the hike, 50 GTQ x 2. We were charged for our 13 year old, but not our 11 year old.

The last couple of hours of the hike were slightly easier, although by this time you were starting to feel the effects of the altitude and I found that I got winded very quickly. Our entire ascent was in clouds and fog, which made the trail wet and slick, but just as we were getting near the cabins, the clouds cleared and we could see the distant valley below and Volcano Fuego came into sight. The best part is that Fuego greeted us with a massive eruption. This buoyed all of our spirits and the sight of the cabins was a welcome sight.

While some of the tour companies still use tents, it seems that most have switched to cabins and there are numerous cabins along the hillside of Acatenango. Ox’s cabins accommodate 6 people with sleeping mats and sleeping bags. They are strategically placed with incredible views of Fuego where you can even enjoy the eruptions from inside your cabin with windows looking out. I can’t emphasize enough how windy it can be at the campsite and so the cabins were such a nice relief from the wind, while still being able to sit back and watch the explosions.

Camp also includes an outdoor kitchen and eating area, a deck to watch the eruptions from, a very primitive outhouse and the guides keep a fire going at all times.

For most, you have the afternoon to relax on the deck and by the fire (and try to warm up!) and watch the eruptions. The other option is to do the Double Whammy add on, which involves hiking to Fuego for the sunset. Half of our family did this and you can read about our experience doing that below.

The guides recollect all of the pasta and prepare a hearty and delicious pasta with tomato sauce and cheese. Most people then headed into their cabins for warmth and to prepare for the 3:45 am wakeup the next day. This is when I started to notice a dull headache and tummy issues, due to the altitude.

That 3:45 am wakeup is a shock to the system and takes some motivation to climb out of your cozy sleeping bag. The reason for the early wake up is to climb to the summit of Acatenango for sunrise. You need to dress very warmly for the hike in the dark as you are exposed to the wind the whole time and of course a head lamp is required. Walking is difficult in the soft volcanic dirt where one step up, means half a step down as your feet fall through the loose dirt. The hike is only 1 km, but it takes 1.75 hours to cover the 400 m (1,300 ft) elevation gain. Unfortunately, our group hiked in the rain, crazy winds and cold. A few members turned back early and the guides walked them back to camp. Just before the top, the guides had to decide it was no longer safe to continue.  We all turned back 100m from the summit, but no one complained, the dense clouds wouldn’t have allowed a view anyway.

After returning to camp, we enjoyed a breakfast of hot drinks, homemade banana bread, English muffins and even Western toppings like Nutella and peanut butter. We packed up our cabins, took some last minute selfies and headed down to the base at 8 am. We really enjoyed our time at the camp, but were eager to escape the cold and return to more oxygen. We made good time on the way down, which was either loose dirt or wet mud while trying not to feel bad for the hikers heading up.

On the last food/drink spot on the way down, we treated the kids to the most-delicious authentic French crepes. We definitely recommend these as a way to celebrate the end of the trek.

The trek ended with the one hour van ride back to Ox’s office, unpacking our bags and soaking in the warmth of Antigua. 

The Double Whammy – the Fuego Add-On

You can sign up for the Double Whammy in advance or you can opt to add it on once you reach camp.  I would definitely recommend waiting since you want to see how you feel at camp. Just getting to camp was absolutely exhausting and while two of us did add on Fuego, I am not entirely sure I would recommend it.

Fuego is the neighboring volcano that is currently active and the one you will watch from camp. If you opt for staying at camp, you have time to relax and recover and sit around watching the eruptions.

The Fuego Add-On is an extra $40 (which can be paid once you return to the Ox office) and you will only have about an hour at camp before you head off again. The hike to Fuego first involves going down for quite a long time, before then hiking up a ridge on Fuego. It is just over 1 km but is tough going in the thin air and loose soil. You get to the Fuego ridge right at sunset and the views of both volcanoes and the perspective of how high you are, are magical. But, the winds were even stronger up there and as darkness set it, temperatures dropped below freezing. Being there does allow you to see the eruptions up close, which are even better against the night sky. We stayed on the ridge for about 20-30 minutes before descending back down and then up again to camp. We returned after 8pm and were happily greeted by a hot pasta dinner.

So, in conclusion, the Fuego Add On was really cool, however, I think I might have preferred relaxing and watching the eruptions around the fire at camp.  You should also consider that it should only be attempted by hikers who managed the hike to camp well and are experienced and with good fitness.

Acatenango Cost

There are numerous tour operators offering Acatenango trips in Guatemala, and Antigua specifically. Trips range from $60-125 USD/person. We used Ox Expeditions for our trip (full review of their company below) and paid $89 USD/person. We booked our trip ahead of time through their website and paid a deposit of $29 USD/person, however, it is possible to book once you arrive in country as well. We had read good reviews of Ox and found their website to be very useful and informative.

Additionally you will have to pay 100 GTQ/person for the park entrance.

Hiking Acatenango with Kids

If you google, “can you do Acatenango with kids”, you will find posts of families hauling babies up. But does that mean you should?

Yes, families and kids can definitely do Acatenango, but I would recommend it for kids 10+ and kids that have experience hiking. For younger children or families without hiking experience, I would recommend Volcano Pacaya. You can still have an overnight experience and it will likely be more enjoyable for the kids.

When to Climb Acatenango

Many of the companies that offer Acatenango trips, offer them all year long. However, it is recommended to hike it in the dry season (November to April) with clearest views (but coldest) being December-February. You can do the hike in the Guatemala wet season (May to October) but may have more clouds in the afternoon and increased chance of rain.

Ox Expeditions Review

Deciding what Acatenango tour to do can be a difficult task because there are a number of great options. Ox Expeditions is a mid-range priced tour and we had heard good reviews and found their website very informative.  Overall, we were very impressed with Ox Expeditions. Their pre-trip briefing was very helpful, the staff at their office are very informative and the trip was really well organized. They have a slick system that works well. The guides are highly-trained, English-speaking and friendly.  We felt like they work hard to provide a sustainable experience and invest in the local community.

While some companies use tents for the overnight, we were really thankful to have the excellent base camp with cabins that Ox offered. They were clean and new and offered much more protection from the elements than a tent.  We were also really impressed with the food provided by Ox (2 breakfasts, 1 lunch and 1 dinner).  The food was hearty, filling and they catered to many dietary needs. The guides worked really hard at all times to ensure the comfort of the group. They prepared food, built fires, cleaned and of course guided us safely up and down the volcano.

The only criticism we had was that it was a large group (37 people) and there was a lot of time spent waiting for the slower hikers to catch up. There were people on our trip that had never hiked before and after the first 20 minutes struggled. This is where we thought they could have done a better job of ensuring all hikers understood the physical requirements of this trip. We also would have preferred if they allowed the group to split into smaller groups based on pace. It is physically exerting walking up and then when you have to wait around for 20+ minutes in the cold, you get cold. There were five guides on our trip (+ porters) and we would have preferred being able to travel in smaller groups. However, most of the groups we saw were quite large, so this could be something that occurs with all companies.

The same could be said for the Fuego Add-On. We had people choose to do this that had really struggled on the way up and taken a very long time. While they state that the add-on should be for fit and experienced hikers, we had people on the Fuego hike that ended up having to be left behind with their own guide.

Despite this, we can definitely recommend Ox Expeditions and would definitely travel with them again. We also did a mountain biking tour with them, which was excellent as well. Oh, and they have the best and most informative infographics!

Acatenango Volcano – What to Bring

Ox Expeditions gives you a good packing list to help prepare for your trip. As we mentioned earlier, if you don’t have any of the gear or clothes, they will loan them to you for free.

  1. 40-50 L Backpack – we are big Osprey fans
  2. Headlamp – Petzl make the best ones
  3. Clothes Layers – no cotton, pick quick-drying fabrics
  4. Sturdy hiking shoes/boots. You can do it in runners, but people in hiking shoes faired much better.
  5. Gloves and mitts – we didn’t have them and wish we had. We also recommend hand warmers if you are coming from your home country. Also bring a sun hat.
  6. Hiking Poles – if are coming from your home country, bring them. If not, you can rent a hiking stick for 5Q.
  7. Sleeping bag liner (not needed, but if you have one, we recommend bringing it). Ox provides warm sleeping bags at camp and while they seemed clean, we like using liners.
  8. 4 L water/person. If you have a bladder that you can use in your backpack, you hydrate more. If not, you can bring Nalgenes or plastic waterbottles. Ox has filtered water at their office.
  9. 5 Snacks/person – we brought granola bars, nuts, candy and chocolate. If you are coming from your home country, bring your snacks.
  10. Camera (phone) – don’t want to forget that! We also like to always have a Battery Bank with us to charge on the go.
  11. Sunscreen and sunglasses (no need for mosquito spray at these altitudes)
  12. Money for snacks
  13. Toilet paper
  14. 100 GTQ for entrance fees plus some extra for crepes and hot chocolate!

We can’t say enough good things about this overnight hike on Acatenango and recommend it for travellers looking for a challenge and way to get up close to one of Guatemala’s most well-known volcanoes.

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