Almost every country we visit has a “must do” tourist activity every person tells us to do. In Peru, it’s Machu Picchu. In Bolivia, it’s biking the Death Road. In Nicaragua, it’s volcano boarding down, Cerro Negro.
In Guatemala, it’s hiking Acatenango volcano. Anybody and everybody I talked to about visiting Guatemala told me to hike Acatengango.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” they told me. “It was one of the biggest highlights of my trip,” they’d say.
So I did it. I hiked the 3,976-meter volcano. Does the trek live up to the hype? Is it worth the money, pain, and time? Here are my thoughts.
The Hike Up Acatenango is Tough
I’m not new to hiking. I grew up in the mountains. I’ve walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I’ve summited a 6,000-meter mountain in Bolivia, and I’ve trekked to the Lost City in Colombia. I love hiking. It’s one of my favorite ways to explore a new area and see the natural surroundings of a country.
For me, hiking up Acatengago was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s relentless. There’s no “warm-up” to ease you into the a**kicking you’re about to receive, and from the moment you step on the trail until you get to basecamp at 3,800-meters, it’s up, up, up. I guess that should be expected when hiking a volcano.
If that doesn’t sound grueling enough for you, please note that you’ll be carrying all of your stuff up the entire way, too.
Leave the Extra Weight at Home
The set up to hiking Acatenango is similar to when I hiked Telica Volcano outside of Leon, Nicaragua. Most companies have the same setup, so please do yourself a favor and do not pay more than Q175 for this excursion. I paid Q125 but booked throughout a company outside my hostel, which is why I was able to find it cheaper.
You’ll be required to bring at least three liters of water and asked to carry your food (which is minimal and I suggest bringing snacks). You’ll also need to carry your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a portion of the tent, and warm clothes for the summit (i.e. a warm hat, gloves, warm pants, and rain jacket depending on the time of year).
All of this goes in your big backpack, and the entire journey up takes four to seven hours depending on the group. For us, it took five hours from start to basecamp. Each person carries anywhere between 10-15 extra pounds of weight on their back. Believe me when I say the trail up is no walk in the park.
Prepare Accordingly for the Weather
I mean this with all seriousness.
Our first day up to basecamp, we had perfect weather. It was beautiful, slightly overcast and not too hot. That night, though, it started raining and it continued all night. It rained all morning. It rained the entire way down. It took us about two and half hours to get down Acatenango, and it rained the whole time. I slipped in mud three times because the trails were so saturated with water. I was so dirty when I got to the bottom that my guide and my shuttle driver were making fun of me in Spanish, telling me they were going to strap me to the outside of the van on the way back to Antigua.
My advice is to bring nothing you don’t need with you… but bring every piece of waterproof clothing you own. Do you have a waterproof cover for your backpack? Great. Bring that too. And when they say it gets cold at the top, they’re not lying. Bring all the warm clothing you have. I didn’t have very much with me because I’ve been sweating in Nicaragua for the last two months, but you can rent stuff from the company or buy cheap clothing at the market in Antigua.
Hopefully, You’ll See a Volcano Explode…
Acatenango is about an hour outside of Antigua, Guatemala and is right next to Fuego Volcano, the very active stratovolcano that erupts regularly. Very regularly. There’s a good chance you’ll see Fuego erupt when you get to Basecamp, but it is Mother Nature, so there’s no guarantee of anything.
Thank god I did see Fuego erupt, multiple times, otherwise, I would’ve totally written off this entire experience. Fuego erupted for us throughout the night, so much so that it woke me up in the middle of the night multiple times.
I’ve never seen a volcano erupt and to see it that close was a special experience. If you set your tent up the right way, you can lie in your sleeping bag and watch it throughout the night, which is something not everybody can say they’ve done. “Oh, you know. I was just lying in my tent watching a volcano explode all night.” Of course, this is all weather dependent, but it’s possible.
Does that make it worth it? I don’t know. But it was the highlight for me.
And Maybe You’ll Make it to the Summit
I can almost guarantee that all of those amazing photos you’ll see of the Acatenango hike are from the summit of the volcano. The last hour to the summit is apparently the coldest and hardest part of the entire trek. Your guide wakes you at 3:30 AM to hike to the top to watch the sunrise, and it’s apparently beautiful.
I use the word apparently because, unfortunately for me, it rained all night and all morning so none of the groups that day went to the summit. They tell me it was snowing at the top. I think I was maybe the only person in my group that was disappointed about not doing this, but it’s the reason I did the hike in the first place. So, yes, I was bummed. I wanted my cool photos to show off to my friends and family. And when I no longer had my cherry-on-top experience, I couldn’t wait to get off the volcano and back to my hostel. I practically ran down that volcano.
Maybe that’s why I slipped in the mud so many times?
So, Is it Worth It?
I can’t tell you what to do and whether you’ll like hiking Acatenango.
At one point on the way down the volcano, and on the way up for the matter, I yelled out how much I hated the hike. I was miserable.
You win some; you loose some. Right? I wouldn’t necessarily call this a loss, but I wouldn’t categorize it as a win either. I guess I’ll chalk it up as an experience I had in Guatemala.
Weather is everything when it comes to this trek. Had I done it the next day, I might have gone to the summit, which would have made the entire experience worth it, for me. I did the hike in the beginning of the rainy season and you just never know what you’re going to get.
Another guy in my group loved the hike so much that he did it a second time when his dad came to visit from Austraila. I can’t tell you whether the experience will be worth it for you or not, all I can do is lay out the facts from my experience and let you go from there.
My advice, as with anything, is to go with your gut. If it’s something you really want to do, do it. Don’t let my crappy experience talk you out of it. Like I said, every other person I talked to said it was the most amazing thing they’ve done on their trip.
So, there’s that.