Ascending Volcán Acatenango is not a task suitable for everyone. We are talking about the third highest peak in Guatemala. However, it is one of the most accessible volcanoes in Central America as it is close to two major population centers: Guatemala City and Antigua. That's why if you have a few days to visit the country and climb one of its volcanoes, this is probably the most comfortable choice.
The ascent to Acatenango involves considerable effort, so it's important to take certain considerations into account: you will be climbing a volcano of almost 4,000 meters with a positive elevation gain of over 1,500 meters; temperatures drop drastically at the summit, and the weather is unpredictable, so you must be prepared for any inclement weather; although the path is well marked, proper footwear is essential—we saw people attempting the climb in sports shoes, which got wet and slippery constantly; in this region of Guatemala, depending on the season, it can rain, so you need to be well-prepared to avoid catching a severe cold on your way back.
The experience becomes unforgettable due to the magnificent views of Volcán de Fuego. If you are fortunate, you may witness it in its full expression, spewing lava and emitting impressive roars.
Below, I'll share our experience during the ascent, all the information you need to safely climb the volcano, and some tips to ensure everything goes smoothly.
We find ourselves in the magnificent colonial city of Antigua, a must-visit for any traveler to Guatemala. The day starts early, and we have arranged to meet at Hostal Tropicana for breakfast. We have booked the Acatenango trek with them. It's recommended to book with one of the agencies, hotels, or companies that offer this activity as they make your life much easier. We chose Tropicana because it gave us the most confidence after talking to various agencies and consulting some people we knew in Antigua. The tour included the following:
- 3 local guides
- Transportation from Antigua to the base of the Volcano and back
- Entrance to the Park, which was 110 quetzales (about 14.5 euros) when we did the ascent (September 2022)
- 4 meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner with wine, and breakfast for the second day)
- Camping at the base camp
The price of the tour was 475 quetzales (about 62.5 euros). Honestly, we couldn't find anything cheaper, as there were tours offered for slightly less, but they didn't include the Park entrance, which had to be purchased at the beginning of the hike, making it more cumbersome with queuing and payments. In our case, that was already taken care of.
After a hearty breakfast at Tropicana, we set off around 9 AM. We are a group of about 20 mountaineers eager to experience an unforgettable adventure. It seems we are the only ones speaking Spanish (we will later meet a Guatemalan on the tour). The bus takes us through winding roads, passing through small villages, always uphill.
As we ascend, we enter the clouds more and more. It's the low season, and the weather is usually unfavorable. From now until January, temperatures will progressively drop. Today, at the summit, the maximum is expected to be 6° and the minimum -1°. It's worth noting that Volcán Acatenango reaches an altitude of almost 4,000 meters.
The bus drops us off about an hour away from the volcano's base. There, our guides—Santiago, Nelson, and Denis, along with the help of Laura as a translator—brief us on what the next two days will be like. We start from an altitude of 2,450 meters, so the elevation gain will be over 1,500 meters. They explain everything we need to carry and inform us that anything we don't have, we can rent or buy from the locals who are waiting there.
From the start, we keep climbing without stopping. The incline is not too steep but constant. Santiago, who is leading the group, maintains a steady and relaxed pace, stopping every now and then to gather the group. We chat with him from the beginning and learn about the Volcano, the Park, and the weather conditions. Despite carrying over 25 kilograms on his back, he remains pleasant and humorous. This is his daily routine, and he clearly loves it.
By lunchtime, about 2 hours have passed. When we stop to eat, we can already see the first signs of fatigue. The weather is cool and humid, and it's raining, but not too heavily. Nevertheless, the climb is already taking its toll on our legs, and we still have a long way to go.
The ascent itself is marvelous. It takes about 6 hours to reach the base camp, during which we can observe the changing vegetation. There are also informative signs along the way, indicating the altitude and providing information about the path. Unfortunately, due to the clouds, we couldn't see the landscape until the next day. Nevertheless, the ascent takes on a mysterious and intriguing character.
Encounter with Volcán de Fuego
Just before catching sight of it, we hear an explosion that would foreshadow what we were about to witness. It's the first one we hear, and we don't know if it's a bomb or what, as the sound echoes all around. Santiago, however, knows that we are just a few meters away from seeing Volcán de Fuego, and he starts running to try to witness the eruption.
We follow him in a rush, and after climbing over 1,000 meters of elevation gain and hiking for more than 5 hours, there it is before our eyes. The famous Volcán de Fuego in full eruptive phase. It's still daylight, so we can't see the lava, but we can see the immense plume of smoke rising to the sky. We stay there for a while, resting and contemplating the majesty before us.
We can't linger for too long, so we continue our path with one eye always on the Volcano. As we continue our ascent towards the base camp, we are startled by the roars and explosions of the Volcano. There's one more challenging section left, with steeper inclines, which delights the most experienced mountaineers.
The base camp is a mini village with fixed cabins and tents, each belonging to a different agency, with space for cooking and making a bonfire. All of this under the imposing presence of Volcán de Fuego. When we arrived at the base camp, we had the option to rest for an hour and take an additional tour to Volcán de Fuego. This costs an additional 200 quetzales (about 26 euros) and allows you to get as close as 150 meters to the lava. A minimum of 10 people is required for the tour to take place. In our case, we didn't reach that number, mainly because the weather was very changeable, and we had already experienced enough rain, so we decided to do it next time.
So, we had time to rest, chat with other mountaineers, and enjoy the marvelous views. Volcán de Fuego had not yet revealed all it had to offer, as the views that followed were unforgettable.
It's a magical moment, and you feel fortunate and happy to witness something unique. At the same time, you feel vulnerable in the face of the Earth's forces. It's a spectacle in itself, but it demonstrates how insignificant we are compared to nature.
Having the clouds below, seeing the stars in their full splendor, and suddenly witnessing the sky light up with a stream of lava expelled hundreds of meters is indescribable. All of this is followed by a tremendous roar just a few seconds later, a sound that resonates deep within you.
Dinner is ready, and while keeping an eye on the Volcano, we eagerly eat the fantastic dish prepared by the guides. Accompanied by a glass of wine, it tastes wonderful. Now, all that's left is to contemplate the spectacle before us until one by one, all mountaineers go to sleep. We have a few hours of rest before attacking the summit of Acatenango.
The night between roars and the search for sunrise at 3,976 meters
The night is anything but peaceful. Every now and then, those of us sharing a room are startled by an explosion from Volcán de Fuego. We feel the urge to go out and look, but fatigue and the cold outside the sleeping bag prevail, so it's better to wait until morning.
It's 4 in the morning, and Santiago is in our room acting as an alarm clock. We all get up as there are more experiences waiting for us.
With sleepy eyes and numb legs, we set off. We have 1 hour and a half of a rather tough ascent ahead of us. Here, the guides warn us about the possibility of altitude sickness. If we feel unwell at the slightest sign, we are to notify one of the guides and return to the base camp. A guy and a girl will turn back at the beginning of the ascent. It's clear that every step requires more effort. Silence reigns in the group. The only lights we have are our headlamps, the moon, and, every now and then, a new eruption.
As the sky starts to brighten, announcing the sunrise, we catch sight of the summit. We have just a few meters left, and excitement overwhelms us all. It injects us with additional strength, and we cover the last few meters almost running. This final step is easy, as the summit is vast, allowing us to behold the magnificent scenery before us: volcanoes, lakes, clouds, and the emerging sunrise.
We take advantage of almost an hour to take photos, videos, and celebrate with each other what we are experiencing. In these moments, mixed feelings arise: exhaustion, joy, emotion, tranquility, satisfaction... Every mountaineer who has reached a summit has likely had similar feelings, although each person will have their own unique emotions. That's part of the beauty of climbing mountains.
We can't stay there forever, so Santiago urges us to start the descent. There are still a few hours left until we reach the foot of the volcano and complete our task.
The path feels a bit long for our weary legs, but the excitement from the moment we lived allows us to forget about them and savor the present. It's as if we are floating over the dust and stones along the way.
Nelson, the guide who took the lead this time, moves like an experienced mountaineer, and we follow him. He has to make occasional stops to regroup, as the rest of the group is engaged in lively conversation. It's not surprising. Happiness fills the group, and there's no sign that it can be easily taken away.
After about 4 hours of descent, we reach the starting point, not without encountering mountaineers who are beginning their arduous journey with enthusiasm, especially when we tell them what awaits them up there.
There, we return the rented equipment and head back to Tropicana by bus, successfully concluding the ascent.
If you have a minimum of adventurous spirit and a reasonable level of physical fitness, don't hesitate. The ascent is tough for someone not accustomed to mountains, but the reward is well worth it.
As we mentioned at the beginning, it's not an activity suitable for everyone. However, you can hire horseback transportation or porters to carry your backpack. You can also do it on your own, although we recommend hiring local guides because even though the path is well marked, there are always sections where you can get lost, and especially because you can spend the night at the base camp without carrying any equipment.
Likewise, it's possible to ascend and descend in a day, but for that, it's advisable to be in good physical shape and well-prepared for possible inclement weather.
In summary, it's a very beautiful, impressive, and demanding experience due to the steep ascent, changes in vegetation and climate, and the breathtaking views it offers. Despite the rain, the cold, and the difficulty of the ascent, reaching the summit of a 4,000-meter volcano and having the colossal Volcán de Fuego in front of your eyes is something we will never forget.