There are 3 volcanoes that dominate the landscape around Antigua, Guatemala: Volcan de Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. Volcan Pacaya, is also very accessible from Antigua – we did this the previous weekend with my uncle and aunt – it’s an easier hike, possible to do in an afternoon. Read about it here.
Acatenango, however if known as the toughest. Guatemala’s third highest volcano, with an elevation of 3,976 m (13,045 ft) and involving some steep ascents across volcanic scree, it’s known as a ‘challenging hike’ but also a must-do trek in Guatemala. General response from tourists and locals alike when we said we were trekking Acatenango (without porters) was….
Through recommendation, we chose Old Town Outfitters. They make no apologies about being one of the more expensive companies to use – you get what you pay for.
The trek starts with a drive to La Soledad (about an hour and a half from Antigua), where you meet up with your porters and sort out any last minute snack purchases.
The guides do a great job of breaking the hike up into sections – making the challenge a lot more manageable – always giving us a heads up on the next section and what lay ahead, and the rest we’d get afterwards.
They also enforced regular breaks – especially with the majority of the group (in our case, everyone else) hiring porters and therefore hiking with small day packs, rather than the full load that we had (5 litres of water, sleeping bag, tent, camp mat, snacks and the many many layers you need for the cold night ahead!). There’s also the matter of altitude and thinner air; altitude sickness can quickly catch up with you if your heart rate gets too high and/or you’re dehydrated.
One of the great things about the trek is that it feels like about 5 treks in one, due to the change in terrain and microclimates. Starting in farmland and walking through corn fields, up through the cloud/rainforest, above the clouds across the trails, and then the summit ascent up barren walls of scree.
As ever though, the harder the climb, the greater the view. You spend the night about 300 vertical metres (and about a 1 mile hike) from the summit. OTO have picked the best spot (because they chiselled it out of the earth themselves) for camp with spectacular views stretching as far as the Pacific sea.
The campsite is the perfect setting for the real highlight of the trip – watching Volcano Fuego erupt in front of your eyes. In our case, repeatedly.
A cheese and wine starter was provided by OTO, and then a main course of pasta, broccoli soup and a cucumber salad. Top notch. We chatted around the fire, watching as Fuego became more dramatic, throwing out red flames against the night sky.
OTO Alex woke us up with a cheery smile at 4am to make the ascent to the summit. The porters had been up for a little while already and had already make a fire, which was very welcome in the close to 0 temperatures.
The ascent to the summit was in pitch black, except for our headtorches. The climb up the scree was certainly a workout, sometimes 2 steps up and 1 sliding back down. It was about a mile and almost 400 metres of elevation gain. But finally, the shapes of figures stood still came into view, and you knew you were almost at the summit.
We looped around the summit before heading back down for breakfast. Alex dug into the ground and brought out the warm, volcanic soil from underneath. A cool novelty, but mainly a very welcome feeling for our fingers – which were pretty bloody cold, even with gloves.
Descending was fun – we ran down a few of the scree slopes – only falling over when trying to stop – we quickly learnt that the best technique was to keep running!
Breakfast was simply awesome. The coffee warmed us as the sun began to pitch in too. Banana bread, granola, fruit and yoghurt.
The sun shone down on us as we descended – it was perfect, but I was glad we had the fog the day before, I would have struggled with the heat going up. We took a different route back down – sometimes running down the trails when there weren’t many tree roots. Our group’s gleeful attitude was certainly a contrast to some of the other faces making their way up, and even quite a lot making their way down. It was fun to head through all the different microclimates again.
And before we knew it, we were done, back at La Soledad, thanking and bidding farewell to the porters.
For anyone reading who’s about to embark on Antigua’s most epic hike. I’ve written a few points that might be helpful…
1 – Stay warm up there
It may seem obvious but pack layers that are light to carry – merino wool and downs coats, for example. It gets very cold up there but you don’t want to be carrying unnecessary kit (I wore a long sleeved base layer, hoody, downs jacket and waterproof (as well as gloves, hat, buff) for the summit – but not all for the summit ascent, because it’s a workout and a half. Take a smaller pack to use for the summit ascent. And don’t forget your headtorch!
2 – Use a pole(s)
Poles are awesome. Especially when you’re carrying all your stuff. This was the first time I’ve used any, but we followed OTO Mara’s advice and used them and they certainly made the scree climbs and steep ascents a lot easier.
3 – Porters
Hire a porter if you’re worried about carrying the weight – it might make your trip a lot more enjoyable, and you’re also helping the local economy. However, don’t be put off if you think you’re up for it. For me, part of the fun was carrying our gear, and being (kind of) self sufficient (the porters and guides still carried our meals).
4 – Take rests
It’s meant to be fun, right? Don’t wipe yourself out.
5 – Interact with the porters
I shared a large packet of crisps with everyone at camp and the looks on the faces of the porters as they scoffed their handfuls was priceless. They really do add to the trip and it’s so impressive to watch them skillfully navigate the terrain, carrying as much as double as what we had on our backs.
Acatenango and Old Town Outfitters… we’ll be back!