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 neighbouring active volcano kept disrupting my sleep and each time I would quickly unzip my tent only to be greeted with a view blocked by 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 climb
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.
Our tour was with Gilmer Soy, a local man who had a good reputation amongst travellers and a good heart as he worked hard to support his community. We were collected at 7.30am from our the hostel we were staying in, 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 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). 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 slow, 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 forrest was super lush.
I might not be in the best shape but after Israel, I’ve got a serious amount of stamina behind me. You can get yourself far just with the knowledge that you know you can do it!
What it was all about
There was lots of high-fiving when we got into camp 5 hours from starting. 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.
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 though. 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 had, 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.
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 ricks 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 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 food coma from way to much overindulgence, there seemed only one suitable ending to the day…a celebratory drink at the local bar ‘lava’ with new friends in tow.
What a memorable way to finish a great 2 months in Central America.
Acatenango Volcano Gilmer Soy tour
We did this tour with Gilmer Soy (or Soy Tours). The usual price is 300 quetzal ($40). Included in the price is 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.
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. You can contact Gilmer at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or on 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!
Top Tips for hiking Acatenango
- Hire a stick at the start of the hike for 5 quetsalas…it’ll save your legs!
- It can get very very cold at night and especially on the summit. Take as many warm clothes as you can (a lot of hostels are happy to lend you spare items or a blanket). Avoid wearing cotton and as soon as you arrive in camp, remove any wet clothes. (Don’t underestimate this…6 people sadly lost their life on the volcano in January 2017 due to hypothermia. Thankfully there are now rescue systems in place)
- Take a spare set of dry clothes for night in case it rains during the hike
- 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 of snacks, the food provided alone will not be enough
- Don’t forget to put on sunscreen. It can be easy to burn because it feels chilly.
- Advice is to take 2-3 litres. 4 is more realistic! I took 3 and it ran out before I got to the end
- 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 off season, 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.
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. Please note that many of the links on my website are affiliate, meaning that if you click them and make a purchase, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Thank you for reading and for your support! x