I planned almost nothing before the journey to be honest and when someone asked me what exactly I was going to do in Guatemala (usually after “hmm Guatemala…and where is that?”) I couldn’t answer as I had no idea but I was sure there will be plenty of beautiful places as anywhere else in the world. I bought the guide book one day before leaving and reading it in the aeroplane I was sure I will have lots of fun! But the best providers of travel information are always the locals and other travellers you meet on the way. Planning too much and booking ahead ties you down and gives no space for improvisation. When my Couchsurfing host David told me about the amazing and difficult two days hike to the top of the volcano Acatenango I changed my plans straight away and decided I want to do it as well.
From the Lake Atitlán I got on a bus to Antigua, place where you can find many agencies organising among other things also Acatenango hikes. Antigua is a wonderful town where the time seems to stop. Full of little multicoloured houses and beautiful churches so I gave myself a day just to venture around. My Couchsurfing host José took me to the best spots and was my personal guide for the whole day. For cheap and great local food have a lunch in El Faro or check out the organic farm/restaurant Caova Farm and for sure climb the hill up to the Cerro de la Cruz to get a great view of the whole town.
Antigua is all around surrounded by volcanos. Acatenango is the highest of them rising up to 3976 metres above the sea level. Just next to it lies the still active and constantly erupting Fuego (fire) which is what makes the Acatenango hike so special as from the top you can observe this volcano ash and lava fireworks from a unbelievably close distance.
The trek starts at 8 am. The bus driver firstly picks up all members of the group and drives them all the way to the bottom of the volcano. From there on the group hikes for about seven hours to the destination where they spend the night sleeping in tents. The following day you wake up at 3:30 a.m. and hike up a very steep terrain through pitch black night for another two hours to catch the sunrise from the top. This trek is up there with one of the difficult ones and you should only consider if in a good shape!
It’s highly recommended to hike Acatenango only with a guide as it could be dangerous to your life to do it without. The cheapest place to book your tour is the Yellow House hostel. They will change you about 150Q which equals about 17€.
The price includes:
- Transportation there and back
- Lending of the tent, sleeping bag and the sleeping mat
- Lunch, dinner and breakfast – but the portions are quite small and your consumption of energy really huge so make sure you bring enough of additional snacks like nuts, dried fruits, bananas or whatever else containing lots of sugar.
What else to bring with you:
- Five litres of water
- Flash light (Head Torch recommended)
- One complete set of a change of clothes
- Comfortable! shoes
- Rain coat
- Hat and gloves
- Warm jumpers etc. – It’s freezing up there and the wind is strong and cold so don’t underestimate this one.
- I had also another additional sleeping bag and the hot water bottle already filled with water ready to get warmed up as the night in the tent is really cold too.
- A comfortable big backpack with a rain cover. I also recommend wrapping all the clothes and sleeping bags in plastic bags before putting them in the backpack just to make sure they don’t get wet.
You have to carry all of this including the tent and fucking five litres of water on your back during the whole time which makes the track even more difficult. You can also pay a porter to carry it all the way up.
In case you’ve forgotten to bring gloves and a hat you can still buy them in the little stall by the bus stop at the bottom of the volcano. They also have walking sticks to hire and I definitely recommend to do so! You really don’t want to be climbing this volcano without it. I had just one but the more intelligent ones in our group hired two making me really jealous later on when I was tripping over rocks walking up the slippery terrain wishing I was holding something to lean on in both of my hands.
The first part of the trek is definitely the more difficult part. Sandy and very steep terrain with my feet sinking deep into the ground with every step and and the weight of my backpack pulling me down while I was desperately trying to climb in the other direction. But the first part of the trek is also accompanied by breathtaking views of corn and banana fields deep below you and the rustle of the big old trees through the beautiful green jungle that goes with you along the way kinda takes all the pain away. 🙂
The terrain gets flatter later on and is a bit easier to climb. But now with the rising height the air is getting thiner which makes the breathing more and more difficult. Everyone reacts to high altitude differently. It’s always the same with me. Every inhale hurts like someone just pierced a needle through my lungs, it feels like I was carrying stones on my chest and I have to stop very often to catch the breath. Got used to it already.
After two hours off trekking finally came what had been worrying all of us. Rain… but if I say rain I mean it was pissing it down like I had never seen! And even though I was assuring myself and everyone around me “that is definitely only a little shower that will stop in few minutes” it didn’t stop and we were hiking all the rest of the trek in this heavy rain.
It was very foggy and overcast, we couldn’t see anything and were just slowly step by step moving towards the top. My legs and feet were completely wet (thank god I have a good rain jacket at least) and the only thing I was wishing for was this day to be finally over.
We finally got to the camping place. We had to build our tents on top of paddles as there was nowhere else which meant that the floor was completely wet just when we got in. The overall mood was very miserable. Everyone was cold and winging about how horrible this is, that we won’t see anything anyway and that they just want to be in the bed drinking hot chocolate. I was trying to keep positive convincing others that we will wake up into a beautiful sunny morning and all this will be worth it but after me being so sure “that this is just a little shower” no one was actually paying attention to what I was saying and I think everyone just wanted me to shut up.
I was fortunately prepared for the cold night and I was actually really warm wrapped in the double layer of sleeping bags with my hot water bottle inside. Being so exhausted I fell asleep within few minutes. Around midnight I got woken up by drops of cold water dropping on my face. The tent couldn’t bare the heavy rain anymore and started leaking through on various places. I just pulled the sleeping bag over my had and continued sleeping.
At 3:30 we all got woken up by the guide shouting “It’s not raining anymore! Who wants to go all the way to the top, we are leaving in five minutes! Who doesn’t feel like that, can wait over here and continue sleeping!” Through this sentence he put me in an unbelievably difficult decision as to stay in my warm sleeping bag and just sleep for another four hours made a lot more sense in that moment than putting on my soggy wet shoes and hike up some mountain when it’s like minus five outside. This moment of weakness fortunately didn’t last for long. I put plastic bags into my shoes, wrapped my sleeping bag around me and determined got in front of the tent where I stayed absolutely astonished by the view. A clear sky full of stars and little rivers of bright orange lava spouting from the top of the volcano Fuego. We could hear the eruptions through the whole night but now could finally see how unbelievably close the volcano actually was.
There was more than 40 people in our group, however only 15 of us decided to head up and we were slowly moving towards the top with our flash lights flickering through the darkness. I won’t waste your time talking about how fucking cold I was through the following two hours… It was an unbelievably beautiful moment watching the sun rising behind the horizon when we finally got to the peak.
To hike a mountain like this is a very special feeling. Every time while climbing up my whole body hurts and my lungs feel like they’re going to explode any minute and I am always asking myself why the fuck am I doing this to myself and why can’t I just chill on the beach like all the other normal people when they are on holiday. But when I finally get to the top I suddenly feel so happy, content and proud of myself that straight away I want to climb another one and even bigger and more difficult. It’s like something I hate and love at the same time.
The way back from the top is probably the most entertaining part of the whole trek as you can kidna slide the volcano ash all the way to the camp site. There we ate some marshmallows made on fire, packed our tents and got on the way down. It was a beautiful sunny morning and trekking was so much easier then the day before. Then we reached the steep and sandy part again, but this time there was a little river created by all the water streaming down after the day before’s storm instead of road and the sand turned into slippery clay. I fell several times each time rolling down under the weight of my backpack for few metres before I was able to stop and sometimes taking other people with me. This could hardly bother me after all I had been through so I just somehow rolled myself along laughing all the way to the bottom and was happy It was finally over.