(UPDATED 2021) Central America is famed for its volcanos and The Acatenango volcano hike is one of the best hikes you can do in Guatemala…..by far! Not only is the hike itself pretty breathtaking as you pass through dense vegetation, opening up to break-taking views. But if you are lucky – as we were – you may even get to see lava erupting from the neighboring volcano.
In fact, your chances of seeing an eruption are pretty high due to the high levels of activity….unless you get unlucky and have a really cloudy day.
This is a complete guide for anyone wanting to do this trek. I do a full review of Soy Tours, the local operator we chose to go with due to price and good word of mouth, and provide my honest opinion on Gilmer Soy as a guide and the Acatenango hike.
Acatenango Volcano hike
It was 2am. I lay half in, half out of my tent, freezing cold and wrapped up in as many layers I had been able to borrow from my hostels ‘lost property box. Despite being tired from the gruelling hike to camp, I hadn’t slept for more than a handful of 10-minute cap naps. The eruptions from the neighboring active volcano kept disrupting my sleep and each time I would quickly unzip my tent only to be greeted with a view blocked by a thick cloud. But I had to check, just in case.
Eventually, though, my persistence paid off. The clouds parted and, for the first time that night, I had a clear view of the volcano. I waited patiently and then anxiously as I saw a new set of clouds rolling towards us. But then came the familiar rumble from deep below the earth. Thick dark smoke appeared followed by an explosion of bright orange lava exploding into the night sky.
It was so worth the wait!
Acatenango Volcano tours & who to go with
We had crossed paths with a lot of travellers on our way to Guatemala and almost all of them mentioned hiking Volcan Acatenango. General descriptions were ‘it was the toughest thing I have ever done’ followed by ‘it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen’. My sort of combination.
We had been staying at Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel. This was one of the best hostels I’d ever stayed in so I can really recommend it as a good base before and after your adventure! It was clean, a good location and the staff beyond helpful. We took the day off before our tour to rest and get our kit ready. It’s definitely worth doing this to give yourself the best chance of summiting.
Based on good word of mouth from other travellers we’d opted to do the hike with Gilmer Soy who runs Soy Tours. He’s a local man who had a good reputation amongst travellers and a good heart as is working hard to support his community. We gave him a call in advance to book on and he text us the day before to confirm collection details.
We opted for the Acatenango overnight volcano hike – which takes 2 day. You can do this trek in a day but I don’t understand why you’d want to. Seeing the sunrise was a highlight, as was seeing a lava eruption at night. You’d miss both these if you did it in a day.
We were collected at 7.30am from our the hostel Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel and driven to the start point, stopping to pick up our packed lunch, sleeping bags and tents along the way. We were a mixed group of 13 in total, with 4 friendly local guides.
The hike began 2,000 metres up where I hired a walking stick from a little old lady for 5 quetzales (roughly $0.65). There are lots of people hiring trekking poles outside the entrance.
I had a feeling I would need the help!
Up, up and more up
When it’s 7.30am and I’m panting and sweating on a tough incline, I’m usually thinking to myself that I wish I had opted for a lie-in instead. But not today. I was psyched. I hadn’t been on a proper hike in 6 months since we finished hiking the length of Israel. My fitness levels had dropped significantly but my love of walking still remained.
The terrain underfoot was loose rubble making the steep incline for the first hour especially difficult. When we reached the edge of the forest, underfoot turned to a dirt trail.
It felt less steep….well, a tiny bit anyway.
Some of the group were struggling, understandably. This was a tough relentless uphill hike. I was by no means finding it easy myself. My heart was pounding and I was taking it very slowly. One foot in front of the other. Remembering to enjoy my surroundings along the way. The view was hidden by cloud, but the moss-covered forest was super lush.
The lunch break was a welcome stop. Food was basic – sandwiches, crisps, biscuits. They were happy to cater for me having a vegetarian meal.
Seeing a volcano eruption for the first time
There was lots of high-fiving when we got into camp 5 hours from starting. It had been a relentless 5 hours. We’d heard the Acatenango Volcano hike was a tough one but now we’d experienced that endless incline and the tough terrain underfoot we knew exactly why.
The clouds had cleared and we were treated to our first view of Fuego, the active volcano. Before we had time to get our tents out, there was a loud boom. The floor shook and a huge mushroom of smoke shot out of the volcano right in front of our eyes.
I don’t know what I was expecting…but that was not it. It was magnificent!
The eruptions continued sporadically, sometimes just 5 minutes apart, sometimes an hour.
Award for the best pitch view available to mankind I think!
Determined to see lava
The temperature had dropped massively. We were now over 3,500 metres and I struggled to stay warm – I hadn’t planned this trek so didn’t have my usual outdoor gear with me. I’d managed to borrow some random items from my hostel and used my travel towel as a blanket but the cold was really cutting.
The Soy Tours guides were brilliant. Rushing around cooking our meals and making sure we had a good supply of hot drinks. They’d also been very supportive on the trek up, encouraging those who were struggling at the back.
As night set in we got our first glimpse of lava but, as it was raining, it was partially obscured. Dense cloud surrounded us soon after. It was frustrating hearing the eruptions but not to be able to see them.
I was optimistic that the rain would pass. I suggested that we wake up regularly throughout the night in case the clouds had cleared (I’d heard that other groups had done this). Everyone was keen on the idea of being woken if there was a chance of seeing lava, but then all went quiet when it came to volunteering to get up.
I guess it was down to Gil and me then…like always!!
It was worth it
You could literally hear the lava spitting out of the volcano. I found it impossible to sleep. I turned off the alarm we had set, knowing that I’d stay awake anyway, and let Gil sleep.
At last, at 2am, I got what I was waiting for. I yelled at the top of my voice for everyone to get up and their heads all appeared just in time to catch the most magnificent display courtesy of mother earth.
Summiting Acatenango Volcano
At 3.30am the guides came round and told us to get ready. Our hike wasn’t over yet, we still had to reach the summit. I’d had an hours sleep but I didn’t care. I was ready to get to the top.
Man, it was tough!!!
Ache and sleep-deprived, we set off in the dark and instantly hit a steep incline on fine scree. Two steps forward, one slide back. My thighs were burning. Gil and I, along with 2 other hikers in the group, powered on ahead. We were getting really cold stopping every 5 minutes for the slower members to catch up and were determined to get to the top in time for sunrise. We could see the sky behind us turning slightly orange. It was like a big clock ticking, urging us to keep going.
The path to the top was easy to follow and there were other hikers heading that way so we didn’t worry about leaving the guides at this point.
My legs were hurting and I had no breath in me but I gave it my all on the last 100 metres to the summit. The clouds, the sunrise and the volcano below us were almost too much to take in. Do I look at the colour rich sunrise or the lava-spewing volcano? This was the most spoilt my senses have ever been. I savoured every minute!
A great end to a great day
It took over an hour for the last of our group to join us at the top. I would have stayed up there forever. But the bitter cold became impossible to ignore. We had spent the last 10 minutes clinging on to hot rocks warmed by volcanic vents.
The way down was hard on the knees but quick. We sprinted (and slid) down the scree sections and stumbled over muddy patches from last night’s rain. It took about 3 hours in total. I came out the end covered in volcanic ash, sore, hungry and tired…..and smiling from the memory of the last 24 hours.
After an immense hot shower and the onset of a food coma from way too much overindulgence, there seemed only one suitable ending to the day…a celebratory drink at the local bar ‘lava’ with new friends in tow. We’d all arranged to meet there that night before heading of to our retrospective hotels and hostels.
What a memorable way to finish a great 2 months in Central America.
How hard is it to do the Acatenango hike?
You are going to need a good base fitness level. It’s a brutal upwards hike on day one that will burn your leg muscles. The next morning you’ll wake up tired and achy and will have to push on up more steep terrain to reach the summit.
If you are not fit enough to do the hike, your get-out will be at base camp where you can choose to stay behind rather than continue to the summit. However, if you don’t have good fitness (I’d say as a baseline being able to do a full day hiking with a backpack on) then you shouldn’t attempt this hike.
You also need to account for getting yourselves down that steep climb you did up. It’s hard on the knees!
Having said all that, it’s just 2 days worth of discomfort. Ensuring you have comfortable footwear and warm clothing for a good nights sleep, plus taking it slow (the guides will make sure you keep a steady pace), will mean that most people attempting the hike will reach the summit without problem.
Can you hike Acatenango Volcano solo?
This trek is fairly straight forward and the trail, for the most part, is easy to follow. There are 2 very important reasons why I strongly advise against hiking Acatenango Volcano Guatemala without a guide!
- Tourists have died doing this hike. Just a few months before us 6 people lost their lives when the weather turned. If you are with a tour they will prioritise helping to get their clients off the mountain. You do not have this if you are doing the trek solo. There is no mountain rescue or number you can call and remeber…..you are hiking on an ACTIVE VOLCANO!
- By taking a guide – in a group or on your own – you are supporting the local economy. It costs nothing to pay for their services yet you are supporting the locals who are poor and reliant on tourists paying them to work.
Gilmer Soy tour review
We did this tour with Gilmer Soy (or Soy Tours).
The guides were professional, friendly and kind. Gilmer is fast to answer and flexible to meet demands. They have safety procedures in place in case of an emergency so they get my full recommendation.
How much does it cost to do the Acatenango volcaon hike with Gilmer Soy?
The usual price is 300 quetzal ($40) plus 50 quetzal entrance fee. Included in the price is a collection from your hostel, food (preferences need to be given in advance) and tents, roll mats, a poncho and sleeping bags (and a rucksack on request). The tour is guided, leaving at 7.30am on day 1 and finishing midday on day 2.
Sometimes they also have hats, gloves and jackets you can hire – just ask when you book.
It’s a pretty good deal!
*UPDATED INFORMATION 2021* Gilmer has since informed me that the base camp has been improved to provide a more comfortable area in the evening. He also says that his company have exclusive access to a private trail that will get you from the base camp to the summit in 45-60 minutes rather than joining the usual 90 minute long trail.
The other change is they now have additional porters who will carry your tent and sleeping bags to the base camp. This means in your day pack you’ll only need to worry about carrying water, food, waterproofs and additional warm clothing.
How to contact Gilmer Soy to book your tour?
You can book via email or via phone.
Gilmer Soy Tour email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gilmer Soy Tour phone number: WhatsApp, +502 41692292
While in Antigua, I stayed at Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel who were absolutely brilliant. They were more than happy to store our bags during the hike and let us borrow warm clothing from the lost property box. Don’t hesitate to stay here!
What to wear on the Acatenango Volcano hike?
You’ll want a decent pair of trainers or walking shoes. Make sure you have a good base and the tough surface can really start to pound your feet.
I then just wore shorts and a T-shirt for most of the hike on day 1 and coming down from the summit. Avoid wearing cotton as it doesn’t dry quickly and the wet cloths (from your sweat) will make you cold. It is humid and you’ll be sweating lots on the way up.
Have a fleece jumper easy to hand in case the clouds come in and the temperature suddenly drops. As well as a waterproof in case it rains. We had a brief 15min light shower although the group hiking the day before walked up in non-stop rain.
From camp to the summit it is COLD regardless of temperatures elsewhere. You are at altitude. You’ll want lots of layers to help keep you warm as well as hats and gloves. And as soon as you arrive at camp get out of your wet sweaty clothes and into your dry warm ones. In the day keep your spare clothes in a dry waterproof bag to protect them if it does rain on the way up.
Take as many warm clothes as you can (a lot of hostels are happy to lend you spare items or a blanket). Don’t underestimate the importance of staying warm and dry…the 6 people who sadly lost their life on the volcano in January 2017 died due to hypothermia. They got wet in the night when their tent leaked and rather than responding and getting off the mountain they stayed. One of the reasons was because they didn’t have head torches…..so take a head torch!
If you want more of an idea of what to expect on the hike, my husband put together this short film about our trip. It’s in Hebrew but the views and scenery are pretty universal!…
Top Tips for Hiking Acatenango
- Hire a stick at the start of the hike for 5 quetzals…it’ll save your legs!
- It can get very very cold at night and especially on the summit.
- If you don’t have a waterproof bag, put all your stuff in a binbag in your rucksack to keep things dry
- Hike slowly and don’t feel pressured to go fast. Take as many breaks as you need, although it’s better for your body to have short breaks rather than long ones
- Take lots and lots of snacks, the food provided alone will not be enough. The Guatemala portions are small!
- Don’t forget to put on sunscreen. It can be easy to burn because it feels chilly but at altitude, the sun is stronger.
- Advice is to take 2-3 litres. 4 is more realistic!! I took 3 and it ran out before I got to the end of day 1.
- Account for tipping the guides at the end of the hike. They work hard and earn it!
- Look into weather and the best time to hike Acatenango. Although I went offseason, I was very lucky with my hike. Most other travellers I spoke to though experienced rain and cloud cover so they didn’t see as much of the volcano. If the weather is poor on the second morning, you won’t do the hike to the summit. Although the volcano is active, it is unpredictable so you might also catch it on a day when there are few eruptions. So go with realistic expectations! If you have the time, I’d allow for a few days flexibility to check the weather for a good window.
- The guides will put up and pack down your tent. When they do this, make sure your door is facing the volcano. When we arrived we picked the spot we wanted and put our tent there to mark where we wanted to go.
Huge thanks to Gilmer Tours for inviting us to take part in this tour. As always, I write with 100% honesty and all text and photos are my own!
I’m very happy to answer questions – just use the comments box below.
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That looks amazing! How long has that volcano been active?
It really was! It has been consistently active since 2012, so you’ve got a good shot at seeing lava if you do plan to go in the near future.