Climbing Guatemala's Acatenango Volcano
Guatemala specialist Daniel recalls the day he became fascinated by volcanoes in Guatemala.
It all started in 2007 when I was studying Spanish in Costa Rica. There, I saw Arenal Volcano rising above the surrounding rainforest. A classically shaped conical stratovolcano, at the time it was erupting on a regular basis. It’s triggered my life-long fascination for volcanoes.
There are over 30 volcanoes in Guatemala, four of which are active. I learned that the country’s Fuego Volcano was having a particularly energetic 2016. Earlier this year, while I was researching some of Guatemala’s more off-the-beaten track destinations, I hit on the idea of trying a day climb on the volcano next to it, Acatenango, in order to see the eruptions up close. Yet at 3,976 m (13,044 ft) high, it was hardly going to be a pleasant stroll.
Preparing to hike the volcano
Typical street in Antigua, Agua volcano dominating the horizon
View of El Arco and Agua volcano
D-Day began at 5am, when my English-speaking guide, JJ, collected me from my hotel in Antigua.
After a 45 minute drive to the trailhead, we met up with a trekking guide. He checked to make sure that we had enough water and sustenance for the ascent. A bit of an advance warning, here: unlike other hikes in Guatemala, Acatenango has no shops selling snacks or drinks, and no sanitary facilities.
We checked the altimeter: we were already 2,300 m (7,545 ft) high. Reaching the summit crater would mean climbing another 1,600 m (5249 ft). Thankfully, it was still early, and the morning coolness made it seem a little less daunting as we set off from the car park. As if on cue, Fuego sent up a large plume of ash. I like to think it was welcoming us onto the trail.
I was asked to walk at the front so that I could set the pace. I really appreciated the gesture, given the elevation. When I trekked in the Himalayas back in 2012, I learned that one of the best ways to reduce potential altitude sickness is to walk at half your normal pace. Altitude sickness, as you probably know, can affect even the fittest of people. The key is not to exert yourself in the climb.
What you’ll see on the Acatenango summit trek
Agricultural land at the base of Acatenango Volcano
The old craters on Acatenango Volcano
The trail wound its way up through fields cultivated by local farming communities. Ash from previous eruptions has created fertile earth – ideal for growing crops.
As we got higher, the cloudforest metamorphosed into the skeletal remains of dead pines. They had been ravaged by a fire many years ago. Now, they form an eerie ghost forest, clinging to Acatenango’s slopes.
We kept climbing, and clouds started to sweep into the valley below us. I glimpsed other volcanoes nosing through them, including the peak of Agua Volcano, towering over the colonial city of Antigua.
By 10.50am, we reached Acatenango’s first crater. It erupted in 1972 and has been a scrubby, gaping mouth ever since. This is the highest point you can reach by mule. It’s also the start of the volcano’s most challenging section.
The final push to the top
View of Fuego Volcano from summit of Acatenango Volcano
View of Fuego erupting from the summit of Acatenango Volcano
We now began a steep ascent on loose soil to the peak. If you’re not careful, for every two steps you take, you’ll slide one step back. It was like walking up a sand dune.
Eventually, I reached the summit and was greeted by a barren grey crater. I crossed it to get to the peak’s viewpoint. Immediately, it was as if I were on top of the world. Guatemala was stretched out below and all around me. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the coast.
Across the saddle from where I was standing, Fuego was a hive of activity. Every 15 minutes or so it would blast out a cloud of ash, sometimes accompanied by a thunderous noise. I could even see whole rocks being thrown clear of the eruption.
My guides began to relax around me and prepare lunch, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Fuego. It had taken me five and a half hours to reach this summit, but every second had been worth it. I was witnessing Mother Nature at her most raw and powerful.
Later, at sunset, I capped off the day by having dinner at a rooftop restaurant in Antigua, watching the red glow of lava on the horizon.