While based in Antigua Guatemala for a few days, we decided to climb a volcano. In the past few weeks of traveling around we’ve met quite a few people that recommended the very climb we did saying it was one of the best things they’ve ever done. What some of them left out, however, was that it was also one of the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
Well, a few days after the climb we can say: it was both the best thing we’ve done here. And the hardest.
Volcán de Acatenango: 3976m. 5 minutes into the start of our hike and I was already having second thoughts, it was hot, really hot, much steeper than I thought, and my pack was way too heavy. Another 10mins after that and we took a quick break, one of our fellow hikers had just been sick “What the hell are we doing here?” I was wondering.
Flash-forward about 8 hours and I was sitting in our camp for the night, with the suns rays lighting up Volcán de Fuego (a very active volcano right next to Acatenango) and it all seemed worthwhile.
I’m not gonna lie, this was a tough hike, I (Dave) have done a fair bit of hiking before, including Mount Kilimanjaro, back in 2010 (Stay tuned for a blog or two about that one!), so I wasn’t really worried about this one; only 2 days, just below 4000m. It can’t be that hard, I was thinking.
The big difference here was our pack size, you need at least a 55L backpack for the hike, ours were even larger, and completely full. You have to take all of the required gear with you; warm clothes (it gets really cold at the top!), food, sleeping bag & matt, tent and worst of all at least 4,5 ltrs of water! It all adds up, you will probably end up with a pack of at least 15kg, depending on the amount of water and snacks you decide to take with you.
The first hours were really tough; starting around 8am, when the sun is already burning down, you fight your way up a steep slope of loose dusty soil, every step you take, you slide back down slightly. The group started to split up, so every time we got to a rest stop, the others had already been there for a while, so we only ever got a few minutes break before starting again.
After lunch the trails changed up a little bit, winding through the cloud forest we started heading around the mountain with a combination of uphill and downhill. Still seriously hard going, but slightly better grip under our feet, and with some food in our bellies meant we were in better spirits.
Several hours later when we started nearing the campsite we were exhausted, the altitude had started to kick in, with headaches and nausea and the weight of the bags had really beaten us down. Basecamp was a pretty impressive site, around 3750m, with an amazing view of several volcanos and the city beneath us, we quickly dumped our packs, put on some warmer clothes and settled in to watch for signs of life from Volcán de Fuego.
Volcán de Fuego is very active, one of the highlights of the hike is watching the mini eruptions of smoke, rocks and lava from the safety of Acatenango, we were not disappointed! Fuego kept up a steady display for most of the evening and had some spectacular lava flows after dark.
Unfortunately a combination of lack of food and altitude sickness (trust us, it’s really not fun!) meant that Ebba was really struggling. The only thing that could help (except for heading back down) was trying to sleep, and taking aspirin/ibuprofen, and then crossing our fingers for the morning.
As a group we had decided to each chip in a few Quetzals and hire a porter to bring us up some firewood, which turned out to be a brilliant decision, sitting around the fire, drinking red wine and chatting with our fellow hikers was a perfect way to relax before the summit push.
We had been warned by our guide it would be an early start, he said he would be making us hate him, by waking us all up at 4am. Luckily I am an early-riser and decided to get the jump on everyone and check out the mornings view at 3.30am. Safe to say, I was not disappointed.
4am we started our summit push, it was pitch-black up there, the stars were out in force, so headlamps were needed to find the route. The track was a lot like I remember of Kilimanjaro, a steep slope of loose, soft, volcanic ash and rock. It was pretty hard going in the altitude, and I was soon removing the jacket and hat I had brought along. On the plus side there was no need for my big pack, so with only my camera and a bit of water it felt like walk in the park compared to the day before.
We finally reached the summit just before sunrise and settled down to watch, and take an 100 pictures of the same sunrise. The summit was a really cool place, bare volcanic ash and an amazing view of the surrounding area, it was an incredible experience to watch the sunrising from behind the neighbouring volcanoes.
The route back down to the camp was a lot quicker than on the way up, we were able to pretty much run down by leaning back and digging our shoes in to the soft sandy ash. Breakfast and a well-earned coffee awaited us at camp, before packing up and starting the long route back to the bottom.
This ended up being much much harder than we were expecting! With the weight from our bag, plus our poor choice of footwear (It’s possible in sneakers, but take something with grip if you can!) we ended up falling over many times on the route down.
The final stretch to our bus was along the same path we started on, but even dustier this time, there were clouds of dust being kicked up by the people in front of us we could taste it on every breath. Of all the kit we took with us a buff to cover your mouth and nose on the way down would be right at the top of the list!
28 hours after we started we were on our bus back to Antigua, hungry, aching, exhausted and in desperate need of a shower but glad we had made the effort.
The Acatenango hike is definitely not for everyone; you need a good level of fitness and be prepared to feel the altitude, but if you have the time, money and energy then it’s an experience not to be missed!
p.s If you’re wondering which company to go with, just check out trip advisor and read the reviews, we used: OX Expeditions.