Hiking In the Fiery Clouds: Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Location: Chimaltenango Department, Guatemala
Elevation: 3,976m (13,045ft)
Difficulty level: Advanced - Not for the faint of heart
Trail length: 18km (11mi)
Elevation gain: 1500m (5,050ft)
My friend Tom and I finished stuffing a ridiculous amount of food, water, and alcohol into our bulging backpacks and threw down the rest of a third cup of coffee. We were ready to tackle Acatenango.
We had been staying at Hostal Imperial, in the heart of beautiful Antigua's old city center. The hostel wasn't the fanciest of accommodations, but the warm hospitality of owner Juan Carlos, and the rooftop terrace full of sunshine and a 360 view of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua made the stay worth it. We ran down the cobble-stoned streets to catch our 9am shuttle, laughing and carefree as only someone who has JUST strapped on their heavy backpack can be (lol). About an hour later, our shuttle bus had climbed its way up the winding road through the mountains to tiny pueblo Aldea del Soleadad (elevation: 2,400m / 7,850ft) - which is really just a bus stop shelter and a small shop selling snacks on the roadside. As we hopped off the bus we were swarmed by a million local kids trying to sell walking sticks or rent us gloves and hats.
After wisely accepting the walking sticks, we set off with gusto, up, up the steep gravel trail winding through farmland... and immediately I knew I was in for a corker of a day and began regretting my lax attitude towards smoking and drinking, not exercising before a big hike, etc, etc. Even though I'm naturally strong, and in reasonably good shape from surfing often, the first segment of the hike was rough - my heavy bag suddenly felt like it weighed twice as much, and my heart was pounding so hard I could barely breathe. I literally had to rest every 10 steps, and while this rankled at first (I found myself caught between tears of frustration and full-on anger), I soon realized there was only one way to the top, and that was if my legs took me there, no matter how slow the going.
So it was humbling, but once I got into my little ten-steps-then-rest routine, I calmed down and focused on my breathing. Taking ten deep breaths on every single rest helped me greatly. My friend Tom had an even heavier bag with our tent and 14L of water - 8L of that in a huge bottle resting on his neck the whole way up!! But Tom is a human machine in peak physical condition, and he never complained once or lost his cheery smile.
The trail itself was steep with loose gravel, winding first through farmlands, then later it thankfully changed to a packed dirt trail through a tropical cloud forest, then into an open alpine forest in the clouds, which led to a old, steep dirt road for awhile. Finally the trail came out above the clouds and circled the top third of Acatenango, towards the side closest to the active Vulcan Fuego.... our first view of that sight was one for the memory books. I'm pretty sure everyone who first sees it gasps and (maybe) has tiny tears of joy in their eyes... I know I did. It is gorgeous, it is ultra rewarding after the brutal ascent, and it is not the only volcano you will be seeing from up high. Not long after our glorious sighting of Vulcan Fuego, we finally arrived at our campsite (3,200m / 10,498ft).
The base camp was a glorified terrace precariously etched out on the side of Acatenango, consisting of three very small terraces, one with a sun shelter over a firepit, and a 'toilet' hidden up behind the top terrace (warning, the 'toilet' is a toilet lid over a hole in the ground, surrounded by flapping tarps for privacy... so don't get all excited. Having said that, you will be pretty happy about the 'toilet' when you need to get your post-coffee business done - it's all open ground up there!). I was dead set last to arrive, the very last person of a fifteen person group, and I didn't care a bit. We'd made it! And it was more stunning than I'd ever imagined. We quickly set up our tent (stubborn, independent cheapskates that we are, we had elected to pay less and bring all of our own gear, hence the heavy packs) and made a camp supper around the shared fire, sitting on logs and watching one of the greatest shows on earth - the world's most consistently erupting volcano, Vulcan Fuego.
Let me try to describe the views from our campsite a little bit, though nothing can do it justice. To the left and in front of us, Vulcan Agua (3,760m / 12,340ft) towers over the Pacific coastal plain, along with several other small volcanoes. Far in the distance and a bit to the right, the horizon is actually the Pacific ocean. Turning more to the right, the very active and aptly named Vulcan Fuego (fuego means "fire" in Spanish) is up close and personal, I mean it is right next door. Close enough to almost feel the eruptions, which are happening multiple times every hour! Some of them were small, cute looking little plumes of smoke, some were massive nuclear mushroom clouds of black smoke, some were small eruptions of smoke, rocks, and lava, and some.... some were giant, booming explosions of rock and lava.
It was so exciting, and it's so difficult to explain all of the emotions you feel when you see something like this - it's humbling thinking how insignificant humans are to the earth, it's exhilarating to be so close to the source of earth's power, and... something else. Like, you know when you close your eyes against the sun and you can see shapes you don't understand? It's like that, but with your eyes open, and with a warm pit of something in your stomach, and a little chill in your bones. You can laugh if you want at my attempt to describe it, but maybe it's something primal that can't be described with civilized things like words (so there). And it's fucking awesome!!! It's one of my favourite things that I've done in my life, and as immodest as it may be to say this, I feel like I've done some pretty cool stuff.
Dec 31, 6:02am. We woke up to the sound of a massive eruption, zipped open the tent door, and were rewarded with the view of Vulcan Fuego spewing rocks and lava to our right, and the looming Vulcan Agua over the valley floor to our left... with the orange sorbet rainbow of colors leftover from sunrise straight ahead. It was easily the best morning ever. Laughing like kids, we lit a spliff and sat on a log to watch the show. Our neighbor offered us a shot of Zacapa, Guatemala's finest rum (it's smooth as hell, with a cool story, highly recommend), which we happily accepted on this last day of 2017. As we were making breakfast, the guided group we had ascended with was preparing to leave - they had paid for a two day guided tour, while we had chosen to pay less, bring more, and stay for three days without a guide. Not gonna lie those bags were heavy on the way up with three days' worth of stuff, but it was so worth it to have the freedom to do what we wanted... once the group took off down the mountain, we had the world's best living room to ourselves!
We had planned to climb the last 800m / 2,624ft to the summit for sunset, but as the morning wore on into afternoon, the weather changed abruptly with clouds moving swiftly up from the valley floor to change our entire view outside camp to white. It would take about an hour and a half to ascend the last 800m so we'd have to leave by 4:30pm to make it in time for sunset, and by 4pm it wasn't looking promising. But at the very last moment, the clouds parted - and we decided to risk it and got our asses on the trail! It was loose gravel again, times a million, but after two days our hearts had acclimatized, and it was a much easier trek, plus the only thing in our bags this time was warm clothes and a blanket (and it is farking cold up there, don't be a hero, bring your gloves/hat/warm jacket), water, and a bottle of rum.
We were so excited that once we got up to the lip of the crater we started running around the rim of the crater to the rocky ledge closest to Vulcan Fuego erupting and the sunset also erupting over a sea of clouds! Tens of thousands of feet high, freezing cold, after two days of epic hiking... it was glorious as all get out. We put on all of our warm clothing and watched the spectacular show, passing around the bottle of rum and a joint with new friends. Hands down the best NYE I've ever had!
Jan 1. After the summit ascent and descent, amidst the glory, the excitement, the high altitude action and the many swigs from the bottle of rum... my eyes had refused to stay open back at camp and I passed out probably around 9:30pm on NYE. Sigh, just too much fun for this body, I didn't even have the sense to set an alarm to watch the incredible show of fireworks all along the valley floor at midnight... oh well. Next time! After what felt like no sleep at all, we crustily emerged from our tent the next morning to watch more incredible volcanic eruptions (it doesn't get old, trust me). But we weren't as carefree as yesterday morning - we were now really bone tired, a little hungover, and very dehydrated.
We shared the last sip of water upon waking, knowing it was the last we'd have till we made it halfway down the mountain to the descanso. We didn't have any more edible food after an old piece of gross chocolate and some dry coconut. Using the last bit of my eye contact solution, I naturally managed to put my contacts in the wrong eyes and couldn't correct it without more contact solution, so my vision was also distorted. And we'd woken up late and would have to run at least partway down the mountain to catch up with another group to get our transport back to Antigua... so, we figured we might as well smoke a fatty on top of all that! This meant we ran balls out most of the way down the mountain, getting incredulous stares - dehydrated, hungry, high as a kite, and me with warped vision.
Quite the way to start 2018, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. We made the transport in plenty of time (turns out it's much easier to run down that steep gravel slope than just walk it, and it's better for your knees), returning to Antigua as sloth-like zombies. Back in town, we managed to drink water, eat food, and in a fog, made it to the "fancy" $30 hotel I'd booked for the post hike sleep. After about 12hrs of straight sleep, we were back to normal in no time and telling anyone who'd listen about the magical wonders of Vulcan Acatenango.