Are you a tourist visiting Antigua? If so, I bet you’ve hear of the Volcan Acatenango hike! Over the last couple of years the challenging endeavour of hiking the Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala has become the most popular activity among all the many popular activities in this tourist hotspot. For that, you can thank Acatenango’s nearby neighbour, Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire), one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Interested in getting within a really long stone’s throw of some flying lava? Don’t worry, you’ll get a plastic helmet.
What You See on the Volcan Acatenango Hike
The two volcanoes are actually connected, with the whole thing known as La Horqueta (The Fork), so the top of Acatenango offers mind-blowing close-up views of Fuego’s near-constant fiery eruptions, not to mention grand vistas of many other impressive Guatemalan volcanoes. Agua, Pacaya, San Pedro, Atitlán, Toliman, Santa Maria, Tajamulco. Etc. I’m pretty sure there are more but let’s face it, if that list isn’t enough to pique your interest then maybe you’re not all that into volcanoes after all. Just in case, though, you can also see majestic Lago de Atitlán, plus the scenic foothills trailing off toward the Pacific Ocean and probably even a horse or two.
The Volcan Acatenango Hike
The overnight tour is actually broken into 3 different sections. The main part takes you from the pueblo of La Soledad at 2,400m all… the… way… up… to Acatenango Base Camp at roughly 3,600m (different companies camp in slightly different places). From there you get tremendous views of Agua, Pacaya and Antigua. Oh, and Fuego, of course, which basically just keeps erupting every few minutes, making it a dream for amateur photographers and pyromaniacs, not to mention professional photographers and arsonists. There’s really a little something for everyone.
From there, you have 2 additional options. You can actually hike up to the ridge leading to the fiery cone of Fuego where you can enjoy frigid temperatures, gale-force winds and one of the closest looks you will probably ever get of an active volcano. Maybe even closer than you should, who can say for sure?
The other possibility, which can be done in addition to – or instead of – the Fuego ridge, is Acatenango hike to the summit. This basically just continues up above base camp – very steep, very slippery (deep sand/volcanic ash) – but the views from the top are stunning. A great angle of Fuego, obviously, but also a 360-degree panorama of all the nearby volcanoes and the more distant highlights of Lake Atitlán and Xela (Quetzaltenango), both of which have their own set of picturesque volcanoes. Acatenango volcano has a pretty cool crater at the top and is also very cold, and somehow was even windier than Fuego (my backpack was literally being pulled away from my back, making it simply “a pack”, I suppose). Dress warm.
Should You do the Acatenango Hike with a Tour or Independently?
With so many people willing to endure the struggle and filth of the overnight trip, Acatenango hike tours have become big business in Antigua. Basically any hotel in town can set you up with a company or independent guide or, if you’re really adventurous, you can tackle it on your own. To do it yourself you either need to settle for an up and down day trip or have all the gear and expertise needed to keep yourselves alive overnight in below freezing temperatures with no facilities or water sources. If that describes you then you are surely an experienced and confident backcountry camper. If you’re not 100% sure, then it definitely doesn’t, and you should hire a guide. All the companies listed below (and some independent guides) can provide all the gear you need (some of it free, some of it for a fee).
There are 4 main companies that run overnight Acatenango tours. We went with Wicho and Charlie’s and, other than a couple small suggestions for improvement, were very happy with them. Along with Tropicana Hostel, they are the two most popular and affordable operators, and both are generally well-reviewed. Then there are OX Tours, which run a bit more expensive and also have a great track record. Finally, you have Old Town Outfitters, the high-end option where you can pay a fair bit more money in exchange for a fair bit more comfort (and a real toilet). Our Travel Tip wrote an excellent article comparing the different options, and you should definitely check out all the latest reviews on Trip Advisor.
Acatenango Hike Difficulty
It would seem that the overwhelming popularity of this trek has really distracted people from the fact that it is, you know, really hard. So many people are doing it that everyone assumes it can’t be that bad. Well, that would be incorrect. It is a serious challenge that should not be taken lightly. Multiple people in our group described it after – mostly while slumped over in exhaustion while clumsily attempting to undo their laces and get those damn shoes off – as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. Personally, I wouldn’t go quite that far but, then again, we have also subjected ourselves to all sorts of irrationally difficult treks in various mountains around the world, so maybe our judgement may be somewhat debatable. Nonetheless, no matter what your hiking experience, fitness level or altitude tolerance, even the most basic part involves hiking 6 kilometres with 1,200 metres of elevation gain, half of which takes place with the lesser oxygen available above 3,000 metres, and at least half of which follows a soft, sandy trail that adds an extra layer of strenuousness to an already tough climb. Meaning, it’s hard work no matter who you are. And if you aren’t a fit, avid hiker accustomed to trekking with a heavy backpack, well, get ready for a serious test, my friend.
Anyway, the point is, I didn’t get a chance to weigh it exactly but I would guess that at the start my pack weighed 12-13 kilograms (26-30 pounds), which is a lot more than we’ve ever carried on any trek outside of some backcountry camping we did in Glacier and Waterton years back (which was a big factor in our move toward hut-to-hut hiking). If you aren’t used to hiking with a pack at all, let alone one that feels like a dead dog on your back, it’s going to be tough.
So, that’s just to base camp. Then, if you want to hike to Fuego ridge for sunset (which you absolutely should), you’re looking at an additional 5 km with 550m of elevation gain and 550m of elevation loss. The ridge is at essentially the same altitude as base camp but you have to hike all the way down to the saddle, then back up to the ridge, then retrace your steps. The good news: you only need to carry an extra jacket and a bit of water and can leave most of your heavy crap behind. The bad news: the already steep and challenging trail doesn’t get any easier when you have to return in the dark.
Acatenango summit, on the other hand, is a gentle stroll through flowery meadows with a light breeze softly cooling your forehead. Just kidding, it’s a nasty 2.5 km slog straight up the hill 330 metres on yet more soft, slippery sand and ash (think 2 steps up, 1 down, then try to ignore that thought). If you’re going up for sunrise it will once again be completely dark and confusing, obviously very cold, and even harder because your legs are still like rubber from everything you put them through the day before, and because you probably haven’t eaten anything yet except for a handful of nuts and any other provisions you might have accidentally forgotten to wolf down in your exhaustion. When you reach the top, though, all your cares will be swept away by the glorious panoramic views, right before you and most of your belongings are swept away by hurricane-calibre plow winds. But hey, once again, small pack.
The way back down to base camp is a quick and fun 20-minute jaunt if you still have the energy to run and slide down the soft slope. However, if your legs are now suspiciously made of jelly, you’ll slip and curse your way down in around double that time. Then breakfast, then roughly 2 to 2.5 hours making your way all the way back down to La Soledad. Which means 1,500 metres of descent in one morning. And, a little tip for those who don’t do a lot of steep treks, while going down may be easier on the lungs, it can be torture on the legs, knees and psyche, for many people, just as hard or worse than climbing. So don’t underestimate it, either.
To summarize, you are looking at a minimum of 6 km and 1,200 metres ascent and descent if you just go to base camp. Plus, hillside climbs to find bathroom privacy.
If you do it all, though, you will face around 14 kilometres, 2,100 metres gain and loss, all of which must be tackled in roughly 24 hours. And, of course, everything is just that much harder at higher altitudes (the summit is just a hair under 4,000 metres). So the whole adventure is – let’s see, how would I describe it? – how about, “F’n crazy”.
Water and Pack Weight on the Acatenango Hike
Oh yeah, did I mention the super-heavy backpack? No? I guess my mind is starting to block that part out already. Each company or guide will have their own specific requirements as to what you carry but I’m pretty sure Wicho and Charlie’s was a fairly standard list. We had to carry all of our personal belongings, plus a packed lunch, snacks, the following morning’s breakfast and – this is where it gets tricky – a minimum of 4 litres of water. There is no water to be had up top. Not to be boiled, treated or even bought. So, 3 litres were for us and 1 litre needed to go into the communal cooking pot, so to speak, for making food and tea and such. However, the whole trip is over 24 hours and extremely strenuous, so most people should carry more than that. Especially if you plan to do the additional hikes to Fuego ridge and Acatenango summit. Personally, I carried 5.5 litres, giving one up for cooking and drinking the rest myself, plus one celebratory beer. I know of one guy who carried 7.5 litres and drank almost all of it, and several people who took the bare minimum, some of which found themselves desperately grovelling for leftover sips by the next morning.
Acatenango Hiking Times
As with any strenuous trek, times will vary wildly depending on fitness levels, determination and illicit drug consumption. Very generally, though, you can expect to take from 3-5 hours to reach base camp, 2-3 hours to Fuego ridge (return), 1-2 hours to Acatenango summit (return) and 2-3 hours to get back down to the bottom. We were told the fastest recorded time was just over an hour and a half to base camp and back down. If you can beat that, I’d love to hear more stories, since your imagination is incredible.
Acatenango Hike Map and GPS Tracks
Here are elevation maps and hiking times from our trek, which I’m sure will vary quite a bit for different people. We hired a private guide for the hike up which meant we didn’t need to spend as much time on group breaks. If you stick with the crowd expect it to take quite a bit longer. Meanwhile, on the way down we just went with everyone else and there were some seriously long stops, plus I forgot to shut off the recording until I was onto my second beer at the bottom. Basically, the actual moving time is going to be the most accurate number for that section.
The links are to the Wikiloc files. Wikiloc is a hiking app that is free to join and features hiking trails all over the world. Once you have the app installed and an account set up, when using your phone just click on the link in a browser (i.e. Chrome, Safari) and it should automatically open in the Wikiloc app. If you prefer a different trail app (All Trails and Maps.me are two popular ones) it is possible to download the actual GPX file out of Wikiloc. From there you should be able to import it into your app of choice.
Acatenango Hike Costs
We paid 450 quetzales ($US60) each for the base tour, 50Q to enter the park, plus 200Q each to do that added Fuego ridge hike. A warm jacket and a few other things were provided free of charge but any other gear you need has to be rented, with prices varying from $3-5 for everything from socks and base layers to trekking poles, boots and backpacks. Tropicana’s prices are very similar, but OX claims better service and charges around $US89 (700Q) for their base tour, and another $US40 (300Q) to climb Fuego. Old Town are the high-end option, offering smaller groups and a more comfortable experience, charging from $US125 (950Q) for 4 people or more but as much as $US170 (1,300Q) for an exclusive group of 2. Their website is unclear about whether that includes the side hike to Fuego, however, so you will want to check on that if you are considering them. Not sure how the different companies compare for porter services, but Wicho and Charlie’s offer someone to carry your backpack for $US25 (200Q).
While these prices could vary over time it should at least give you a pretty good idea of what you can expect to spend.
What You Need to Pack
Well, we’ve already discussed the water situation. Wicho and Charlie’s provided two 1.5 litre Nalgene bottles to each person and we had to have our own bottles for the rest. They also have unlimited filtered water at their office so you don’t need to stock up before you arrive.
Overall, do not underestimate just how cold it can be at the top. The temperature routinely drops to freezing or below and the wind is powerful and frigid. At the summit of Acatenango I was wearing a full base layer (long underwear, merino wool long-sleeve shirt), a quality fleece jacket, a thin wind jacket, plus a Gore-Tex shell I borrowed from the company. And I was barely warm enough. The wind was almost strong enough to knock you over if you didn’t brace yourself.
Other essentials that were provided free of charge by Wicho and Charlie’s (be sure to check the specifics if you choose another company):
All of the sleeping gear is already waiting at the top
Lunch / Dinner / Breakfast / Snacks – I found it to be plenty of food for me but I’m not a real big eater. If you really like to fill up, especially when hiking, pack some of your own snacks as well.
Toque / Beanie
Buff – very important, in my opinion. This was probably the dustiest, dirtiest hike I’ve ever done. I had my buff up over my mouth, nose and ears the entire time on the trail and was still cleaning dirt out of them days later.
Headlamps (but you need to bring your own batteries)
Helmet – Wicho and Charlie’s claim they are the only company that provides these for the hike to Fuego ridge and that seemed to hold up, since I definitely did not see anyone else up there wearing goofy little plastic orange helmets. In fact, I was even one of the only ones in our group that wore one. Despite the justifiable skepticism regarding their effectiveness should any actual lava rocks fly far and accurately enough to hit one of us in the head I, personally, felt like it was easier to wear it than carry it like most people were doing. Although, to be fair, some of them did not look great in orange.
Essentials that you will definitely need and can provide yourself or rent there:
ID – you’ll need this to rent anything.
Wool socks – you’ll want 2 pairs
Trekking poles – not everyone uses poles but if you are ever going to, this is the hike. It is steep and slippery so the poles help both climbing and descending. Also, because your pack is going to be so heavy poles are also helpful to maintain good posture, especially while climbing.
Also, while all of the gear listed above is available from the company – which is very handy for those in the midst of a longer trip who may not have the luxury of planning for every possible activity – keep in mind it is all very used and not necessarily going to fit you perfectly. So having your own personal gear is definitely the best choice, especially when it comes to shoes/boots and backpacks.
Other stuff I’d recommend
Gaiters – normally used in rainy, muddy conditions, I found them extremely useful for keeping my shoes from filling up with sand and rocks. You spend a lot of time trudging through deep gravel or sliding down through it, and the gaiters saved me having to empty out my shoes every 10 minutes (except when I forgot to wear them on the Fuego ridge hike).
Minimal clothing – yes, you want plenty of warm clothing (including long underwear) but don’t bother with any extra changes of clothes, there simply isn’t time or reason. You will undoubtedly be sweaty, dusty and filthy, but there is nowhere to clean up and no water to clean up with so what’s the point of clean clothes? It’s only 24 hours, you’ll live, and the people around you will be in exactly the same boat and won’t hold it against you.
Power bank/battery pack – you’ll be taking a lot of photos and videos and, in my case, recording your hikes which means you will burn through your phone or camera battery faster than normal. You will know the life of your battery better than anyone else so you can judge for yourself but, rest assured, there are no electrical outlets up top.
Small medical kit – band-aids, ibuprofen, disinfectant, etc. just in case.
Toilet paper/tissues – not only do you need to provide these yourself, you also need to make like a 19th century pioneer and scout out your own bathroom spot. Which, on the side of a steep hill with minimal tree cover and plenty of surrounding camps, is sure to be a challenge. Especially in the pitch dark at 4 am, groggily trying to prepare for the scramble up to the summit. For example. Overall, this is my biggest complaint with Wicho and Charlie’s and (presumably) the independent guides that do this trek (I know that Old Town and Tropicana each have pit toilet, not sure about OX). Having no toilets and encouraging people (up to 200 per day!) to simply do their business wherever they want is a disgusting and short-sighted plan. Our guides did provide paper bags for the used tissues but, as you can imagine, that only deals with half the problem. Not to mention, having people climbing around in the hills in the dark among some pretty steep and dangerous drop-offs is not a good idea, either. We brought it up with them after the hike (I’m sure we weren’t the first) and they assured us it is something they are working on. I’m guessing they are having trouble agreeing on exactly who will be responsible for any toilets that are built – the guides, the company, the park? Regardless, it should not be the trekkers who are paying to be up there.
Acatenango Hike Summary
This is an incredible experience and a highly unique opportunity to witness an active volcano up close and personal. It absolutely deserves its rampant popularity. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that just because it’s popular it can’t be that hard. It is. Very. Hard. You can certainly minimize the strenuousness by sticking to base camp, which still offers views you can’t find anywhere else. But that means passing on the optional Fuego ridge and Acatenango summit hikes, both of which are amazing and well worth it if you have the energy. So I’m not saying don’t do it, just go in with realistic expectations and be willing to go slowly as needed and miss out on the add-ons if your body’s not cooperating, either due to altitude or exertion. Probably both. Good luck!
See also: A Guide to Lake Atitlan
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