Let me start this guide off with how serious you will need to be about hiking Acatenango. I was running low on time in Guatemala, and Sunday would have been the last possible day for me to camp at Acatenango overnight if I wanted to catch my flight out of Guatemala. I had my mind set on doing it, but it was also a Saturday night in Antigua. For those of you who have been to Antigua, you definitely know that Saturday night is the night to party. They have a weird rave in an abandoned swimming pool that lasts well into the morning, and even if you’re not much of a partier, you can’t miss it.
Everyone I spoke to warned me about how difficult Acatenango was. Definitely doable, but far from your average stroll through the park. I brought up the possibility of me having to do it after the pool party, and it was a unanimous “you’re an idiot.” Basically, I would have to choose between one or the other. The pool party would have to be an absolute no if I wanted to make it to Acatenango in the morning.
Having absolutely no self-control and completely lacking the ability to resist a good party, I went to the pool rave. I even told myself that I would leave early, like maybe around 3 or 4 AM to give myself even four hours of sleep. Nope.
I left well after the sun was up and got back to my hostel around 7:30 AM, threw all of my stuff in a locker, and set off to meet the rest of my trek group for breakfast. There was an empty pit in my stomach as I played with my bananas and pancakes, completely too anxious to eat because of how much I hated myself for being the way that I am.
Last minute messages from my friends included “you’re insane dude…”, “if you do it and die, i will have no sympathy” and “I’m going to say one more time please don’t it’s a terrible idea.”
I don’t know what was worse at that point, my physical state or mental state. Although I’ve had a lot of experience with treks, gave myself plenty of time to adjust to the altitude, and am relentless when it comes to finishing treks, I knew that the lack of sleep would eventually catch up to me. Mentally, my confidence was at rock bottom but I decided to push through.
“Somos soldados.” (We are soldiers.)
That was all our guide had to say after our small group pushed through awful weather conditions to reach our base camp in just over four hours. Each of us carried packs weighing around 50 pounds, filled with our gear, equipment, food, and water. We trudged for nine kilometers and ascended about 1500 meters through some of the most challenging terrain I have ever experienced.
We set up our tent in the rain, ecstatic but exhausted, and I immediately passed out listening to the rain drops and the volcano rumbling in the background.
Don’t let my stupidity be an example of a “success story.” Acatenango is extremely challenging and in 2017 alone, nine people have died on the volcano (as of April).
Acatenango is one of the most physically grueling treks I have ever taken on but it was easily one of the most rewarding. Every heavy step I took towards the top would have been made worth it if I had seen even just one single earth-shaking, ear-splitting volcanic eruption, but we were blessed with probably over a hundred over the course of our time there.
Anyway, some actual useful information.
What You Need To Bring
Most people suggest bringing 4 liters of water, but this can definitely vary between person to person. I brought 5 liters but finished the trek with more than 2 liters left over, which was pretty annoying. I guess it’s better to bring more, but every tiny bit of weight in your pack adds up as you trudge uphill step after step.
Food is another thing that varies person by person. I brought three sandwiches and ended up just giving almost all of it to the two dogs that followed us up the volcano. My trek with Tropicana Hostel provided our meals, but I brought extra food just in case, none of which I ended up eating. My other trek mates brought a ton of snacks and a bottle of whiskey. It’s up to you, but just remember that you’re carrying everything up with you.
Raincoat (for you and your pack):
You’ll be sorry if you don’t bring one. My raincoat was complete shit and did absolutely nothing to keep me dry. Meanwhile all my other trek mates who purchased garbage bags for 3 quetzals at the beginning of the trek were dry and in high spirits. My pack was soaking wet which added a ton of extra weight. You might want to be stingy with packing, but a light raincoat or poncho will be absolutely worth it.
Gloves and Hat:
It gets freezing up there and I ended up having to use my extra socks as gloves just to try to keep my hands from freezing. A nice warm hat is also fantastic until it gets wet (this is where that raincoat comes in handy).
You can rent one for 5 Quetzals at the bottom of the trek. Do it. The conditions can get slippery and the terrain is often more tricky than not. When you’re sliding down volcanic rock with every step, you’ll be glad you have a walking stick to help you keep your balance. With a ton of gear on your back, it’s much easier to lose your balance and you definitely will not be as agile as you normally are. Everyone looks silly when they fall. Just spend the 5 quetzals to protect your body and your pride.
I almost gave up after the first ten minutes of the trek. The terrain at the beginning was both physically and mentally tasking. With every step you took on the soft, ashy ground, you’d slide half of the way back down. It was not pleasant. Once we got to our first break, I was literally just a few seconds away from telling our guide that I probably was not going to make it. If the terrain was like that for the next four hours, I definitely would not have made it.
Soldier on through this part, which took us about 45 minutes to struggle through, and it gets much easier. By much easier, I mean still difficult. You are still going uphill the entire way, but the ground is much more stable and firm. There will be a lot of switchbacks but you will be thankful that you can almost relax after the physically exhausting first part.
Unfortunately, the last stretch is back to that volcanic rock type of terrain. The altitude also became a bit of a problem for some people. Take it slow and just keep in mind that you’ll get to base camp soon enough. It rained during the last hour of the hike up which made us exponentially more miserable. Pray for good weather.
After lounging around Central America for several weeks, I was kind of over the whole volcano thing. It seemed like literally every town in Central America was situated near a volcano for some reason. Acatenango was unlike any of those other volcanos, or really anything else I had experienced to be honest.
Our first eruption happened just a few minutes after we finished setting up base camp. No matter how much I wanted to stay up and watch the eruptions, the lack of sleep caught up to me and knocked me out until around 2 AM. I was woken up at some point to eat dinner but I honestly was half asleep for that also.
I know you will be exhausted after the trek, but please stay up (or wake up) for when the stars come out. Volcan Fuego erupting is an entirely different sight at night.
The difficulty is well worth the reward. It is challenging, but honestly it’s not like your guide or group will leave without you. I was unlucky enough to be with just a small group of very athletic guys. I was undoubtedly the weakest link in the group but we still made it up in around four hours. Other groups I spoke to said it can take up to six hours depending on how many breaks their group took.
Have you done this trek? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments and make sure you’re following me on Instagram!
going straight from some weird rave at an abandoned pool in Antigua to take on the brutal Acatenango trek with no sleep was one of my more questionable decisions, but being able to camp out in front of Volcan Fuego and see loco eruptions like this all night made every step of suffering beyond worth it 🌋 @gopro