Acatenango Volcano Hike – My Story
October 3, 2017
The Acatenango Volcano hike is one of Guatemala’s most famous attractions. It gives people brave enough to tackle the freezing temperatures and difficult terrain the chance to gaze in wonder at the Fuego Volcano as it spews molten lava and ash from its crater. The Acatenango Volcano sits a mere 2.5km from Fuego and offers the best seat in the house for this once in a lifetime opportunity. And despite what you may have heard, the Acatenango Volcano hike is more achievable than others have previously stated. In this post I want to help you understand why you shouldn’t miss this opportunity with my own detailed experience.
My Experience on the Acatenango Volcano Hike
Our journey to the base of Acatenango started at 9am from The Terrace Hostel. We had only booked the tour the night before and despite the weather seeming ominous we decided to roll the dice. The Acatenango Volcano hike journey began with meeting our group during the 1 hour bus ride. We made up 13 people including our guides. The group was young, excited, and a touch crazy!
We arrived at the start of the Acatenango Volcano hike and as soon as the shuttle doors opened we were bombarded with locals renting hiking sticks, beanies, gloves and selling everything from booze to marshmallows. The families that occupied the surrounding area made their living through these small sales and rentals. Our group rented a total of 8 sticks, 2 pairs of gloves and a beanie. These sales totaled a mere $10 USD, however, to the families this was huge. The children smiled from ear to ear and some practiced the small English they knew. Shouting common phrases while jumping with laughter, this short moment took away any nerves people had and set the tone for an awesome day.
The air was damp but fresh and low altitude clouds moved their way around the base of Acatenango. The clouds looked dark and the forecast was rain, though I remained optimistic. I had waited so long for this, the images of Fuego Volcano erupting sat in the back of my mind for weeks. The thoughts of disappointing weather also lingered and made me more nervous than the difficult hike ahead. The weather was in fates hands, I took a large deep breath of hope before I made my first few steps towards the summit.
The start of the hike was steep. We passed through local corn farms taking small steps in the slippery black volcanic sand left behind from previous eruptions. Fuego was the active volcano we had come to see but Acatenango was also active, however it now lay dormant.
The farmers lived in an area that could be taken away from them at any moment. Their lives were built around a beautiful but also deadly landscape that could swallow everything in its path with black ash and raging fire. The last time Acatenango erupted was in the 70’s, it gave its inhabitants a month’s notice in the form of large vibrations that shook the surrounding towns before it covered the surrounding area in a thick black blanket that turned day into night.
To get to the first resting spot it took a little over 30 minutes and although it was difficult, the entire group managed without too much trouble. The hardest thing about the first part was keeping my footing as I fought with the slippery sand and steep incline. This is where the hiking sticks provided to us by the local vendors came in handy. They gave that small bit of traction required to force the weight of my large pack forward and prevent a heavy fall. The pole wasn’t required the whole hike, though when it was it saved a lot of energy. That energy was needed and losing it as I slipped and slided up the path was something I wanted to avoid.
The landscape around me began to change and the local corn farms disappeared and were replaced with a beautiful cloud forest. The forest was filled with large trees covered in moss and the clouds that provided us with the cool damp air reduced my vision to about 10m. The landscape change had shocked me, I was under the impression our hike would involve a dead surface, destroyed by the volcanic ash. Instead, we were welcomed with lush, green forest which thrived because of the minerals left behind from the previous eruptions. A simple way the world around us turns death into new life. With every new devastation follows a resilient battle that fights its way back to the beauty it once was.
We rested regularly and the “hardest hike in the world” seemed to be more of a scary story you tell your kids so they behave rather than reality.
By lunch time the damp cloud forest had slowly come to an end and a new surrounding embraced us. Tall pine trees filled the mountain’s side, the ground became dry and the humidity disappeared. The weather had held up, although dark clouds still lingered above. We had been hiking for 3 hours now and our camp was now only 1 hour away. We cut our breaks short in hopes of beating the rain.
Arriving at camp, our view of Fuego was completely blocked by the thick clouds. I could hear the rumbles and explosions and on occasion, the dark ash filled smoked pierced its way through the white mist-like cloud. Even though our view was blocked it was still early, the hike was over and our bags now occupied our tents and not our backs. I shook of a few aches and pains and began taking in my surroundings.
Our camp was situated on a large flat terrace that was man made. It relied on two large tree trunks half dug into the ground that sat vertically at each end. Two more were placed horizontally and both formed the large retaining wall that kept the volcanic sand from eroding away. Four small tents lay along its surface facing Fuego. They were old tents and sheets of plastic were placed over them (this was needed to stop the rain dripping through the small holes in the roof.)
At one end of the terrace was a small shelter, it was made of tree branches that formed an “A frame” at the top. Sheets of black plastic made the roof and the shelter was open on all sides. The plastic on the roof had small holes at random spots which we knew would later allow the night’s rain to enter through.
We had only been at camp for 10 minutes before the sky above finally let out and dropped its contents on us. We took refuge in the small shelter while trying to doge the leaking roof and the conversation changed to getting to know each other. It was under that small shelter that 11 strangers became friends, and despite the poor weather and completely blocked views, we all laughed the afternoon away.
Dusk was upon us and in a very dramatic change of weather the shape of Fuego became clearer. Within 5 minutes there she was. Its surface was dry and dead like a hot desert, it was the surface of another planet that pierced through the earth’s skin to show a different world. It lay quiet and all our attention turned to the volcano in front of us – and then it happened. Without warning, large plumes of smoke and rocks shot from the volcano’s crater high into the air. Then the sound, delayed by the distance between us and Fuego, ripped through our bodies. Fuego’s power shook the ground before again it became quiet. The smoke above cleared, the remaining rocks that rolled down its steep surface came to a stop and it was like nothing happened.
That was our first eruption, but over the next few hours the eruptions became more regular and when the sun finally went down the main event started. The loss of light allowed the glow of hot lava to shine through the night sky. Bright red bursts of light replaced the smoke plumes and Fuego was alive with fire. The eruptions only got bigger through the night as more lava spewed from the volcano. Hot, glowing rocks gave Fuego an outline in the sky and we all watched in awe. The power was mesmerizing and I was speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I sat with my camera, and even though temperatures neared freezing and light rain fell, I didn’t move for hours.
With a difficult 4am hike in the morning to watch the sunrise our guides suggested that we get some rest and we retired to our tents. Going to bed that night my mind was too busy thinking about tomorrow’s sunrise to sleep. I laid for hours in that tent listening to Fuego erupt, the rumble of rocks tumbling down the volcano filled the quiet night. The ground was hard and the night air was cold. The subtle sound of light rain hitting the plastic that covered the tent was relaxing and I closed my eyes. I was tired, but when I closed my eyes that night my mind wandered to the summit of Acatenango. I imagined the colors of the morning sky and the fresh air. A fresh morning is the symbol of a new beginning, a time to take a deep breath, relax and know that every day you can make a fresh start.
I rose from my tent that morning without sleep, however, I wasn’t tired. Excitement filled my mind and the cold air shocked my body awake. We set off into the darkness for the summit and with every step we drew closer. The walk was hard, the path was steep and the volcanic ash was like fresh snow. Every step was difficult and my lungs could now feel the high altitude. I hadn’t made it to the top yet when I saw the horizon begin to glow red. I sprang into action and made a mad dash for the summit.
I made it to the top of the Acatenango Volcano hike (though it took another 5 minutes before I could catch my breath to even enjoy the view). The sky that morning was clear and our views of the surrounding landscape was breathtaking. To the west the Pacific Ocean looked seemingly like the edge of the world. Five volcanos surrounded us and the soft cloud below reminded us how high we really were. Fuego was still erupting regularly and with the extra light the eruptions became large plumes of dark smoke. They formed a mushroom shape before they disappeared in the sky. This was the best seat in the house and for the next hour I talked with Bailey of how beautiful the world we lived was.
One of the greatest experiences of my life was drawing to a close but there was one thing left – the return to camp was steep and the best way to move through the thick ash was to take large leaps. The whole group took giant steps sliding into the ash before leaping with the other foot. A 1.5 hour journey up was completed in 10 minutes on the way down. With that, our time on Acatenango was over. We packed up our belongings and began the hike back down. I was tired, sore and dehydrated but I smiled the whole way down. The Acatenango volcano hike was over, but the memory would now live with me forever. A reminder that the power and beauty of our home is the most amazing thing we all share.