Antigua is an old colonial town, sitting in the shadows of 3 surrounding volcanoes that dominate the surrounding landscape.
Two of these volcanoes in particular, sit very close together.
They’re similar in size and height, but they differ in one key way…
Only one of them is dormant.
The other one, Volcano Fuego, is the longest continually erupting volcano in the world.
If you’ve spent any time in the town, you’ll no doubt have seen it letting off some steam on the horizon just off to the West of the town itself.
It usually goes off every 20 minutes or so, although rarely enough to warrant anything more than a casual glance.
At least, from town level that is.
Up close and personal, it’s a different story altogether.
The difficult and relentless climb to the top of neighbouring Volcano Acatenango puts you within touching distance of eruptions that seem many times larger and significantly more scary face to face.
And I mean that in more ways than one, since the altitude up at the peak is only a pole-volt under the 4,000 meter mark. Or 13,000ft in old money.
Guided Or Solo?
I’ve seen and heard of some people doing this hike themselves and without a guide.
It’s totally possible and easy enough to do, if you’re keen on saving yourself a bit of extra cash. The route up is easy enough to follow, and aside from the nearby erupting volcano, there isn’t too much danger for solo trekkers to avoid on the way up.
If you’re going up without a guide, download the maps.me app (insanely useful and well worth checking out if you haven’t seen it already) and check out this great guide for hiking Acatenango solo. It should give you all the info you need on how to get there yourself.
Choosing A Guide / Tour
Personally, I opted to go with a guided tour.
It’s cheap (prices range from 125Q/17USD to around 300Q/42USD), you get information and the chance to ask questions, and it’s always fun to meet new people.
Guided tours can be arranged with any one of the many tour agencies in and around Antigua. Most of the hostels and guest houses in town will be able to arrange it for you via their travel desk.
It’s worth asking around a few of them for prices, as quotes can vary a lot from place to place. When we went, everyone in our tour group paid a different price depending on which hostel they booked with. Some paid as low as 100Q or up to 200Q in some cases. All for exactly the same tour. But hey, that’s Guatemala for you!
Once you’re all booked and it’s time to head off, a shuttle bus will come and pick you up from your hostel or hotel. As with all shuttles in Guatemala, it’ll most likely be running a little behind schedule, so don’t panic if it’s not there bang on time.
The shuttle will then take you to a place where you’ll pick up the stuff you’ll need to survive the hike.
In our case, this place was basically just the living room of an elderly local woman who had managed to get her hands on a bunch of old secondhand sleeping bags and big winter coats. Still…it did the job!
After a quick stop off, you’ll be armed with everything you need to get up and, hopefully down, the volcano. Warm sleeping bags, big coats, hat and gloves, tents and sleeping mats. Just make sure to take a big backpack with you to fit all your bulky warm gear in. The sleeping bags in particular are very big, and will take up most of your pack. So you’re going to need something more than a little day pack.
If you don’t have a big backpack, you should be able to rent one for around 75Q/10USD when you’re picking up the rest of your gear.
You might not think you’ll need most of this stuff, but the peak of the Volcano is just under 4,000m high. And at that altitude, believe me, things start to get a little chilly. Even in Guatemala.
And if you’re thinking of doing a few high altitude hikes while you’re down in Central America, you could even head down to the market and try to pick up a secondhand coat from there to save on rental costs. I was able to find a decent warm coat for around 40Q/5USD, whereas the cost to rent one was 25Q/3.4USD.
Because we were travelling Central America during the rainy season, we took a few extra bits and pieces with us to make sure the weather didn’t spoil our hike. Basic waterproofs and a bin liner inside your backpack is an easy and cheap way to make double sure all your gear stays dry while your out there.
Insider tip: Most hostels in town will offer to store your luggage for you while you’re gone. Grab yourself some big bin liners from the grocery store, and empty the contents of your backpack (i.e. all the stuff you’re not taking on the hike) into those. You can use those to store your stuff in while your away, and save yourself from having to rent a 2nd big backpack.
Then it’s onwards to the base of the volcano, and the beginning of your hike.
Depending on which tour you booked on, you might find yourselves being switched onto a chicken bus for the rest of the journey to the start of the walk. Either way, you’ll only be on there for 45 minutes or so before it’s time to see what your legs are made of.
The hike itself takes around 5 hours from the start to your overnight camp, which is situated just slightly below the summit at around 3,800m above sea level.
You’ll be in a group and the going is slow, with plenty of well timed breaks.
You don’t have to be super fit to get up here, but it helps if you’re at least somewhat active. We came to Central after a summer of heaps of hiking around New Zealand’s South Island, so we were in reasonable shape, but the altitude here certainly makes things tougher for sure.
It’s fairly steep for the majority of the way, and at some points the surface is loose and kind of slippery. This isn’t too much of a major for the ascent, but on the way back down you’ll want to take a bit of extra time.
For most of the climb, you’re around the other side of Acatenango and you wont be able to see Fuego. Instead, you’ll get great views of Volcano Agua and the town.
Once you reach camp, it’s time to pitch the tents and get the camp fire going. You’ll notice the colder temps as soon as you stop moving, but it’s when the sun goes down that you’ll really feel it.
The campsite is right opposite Fuego and you’ll have clear and closeup views of her from there on in.
As night comes, you’ll notice Fuego becoming more and more aggressive with its eruptions. No-one knows quite why that is, but it certainly seems to be the case.
During the day, you’ll struggle to see much more than a big smoke show. But as darkness creeps in, you’ll start to see more and more lava activity. And, set against the dark backdrop of the night sky, that’s a pretty special sight.
After dinner and some of the best evening entertainment anywhere in the world, it’s time for a quick nap.
And yes, it pretty much is a nap, as you’ll need to set an alarm for about 3:30am if you want to make it to the summit for sunrise.
This is really the cherry on top of the cake.
If you’re not too tired from staying up watching the volcano all night, I’d highly recommend making the 1 and a half hour climb to the very top of Acatenango in time for sunrise.
You’ll need a good headlamp, as the going is steep and very loose. Not an easy feat in the pitch darkness.
But well worth the effort:
Coming back down to camp after you’ve soaked up the first rays of the morning sun is super fun.
There are big sections of the slope of the dormant volcano that are deep in loose ash, and ideal for running/skidding down.
Embrace your inner 5 year old and just go with it.
Make sure to zig zag it to avoid building up too much speed…there are still some big rocks lurking around and if you’re hurtling along too fast one of them is sure to take you out. Just pretend you’re snowbaording or skiing.
But even if you fall, you should be in for a fairly soft landing.
After coffee and a quick breakfast, it’s time to pack up and start the knee destroying hike back down.
I’m not going to sugar coat it…it’s tough.
By the time I reached the bottom my legs were completely done, and my knees were hating me. But I suppose a couple hours of discomfort is a small price to pay.
Insider tip: Some enterprising guys at the bottom were renting out wooden walking sticks for 5Q. I hesitated at first, but on the way down I was really glad that I caved in and got one. I would have spent significant amounts of time in the dirt on the way down without the stick and I’m sure my legs would have hated me even more. Get one. It’s well worth it.
Overall, one of the things you should probably know by now about Guatemala is that it is home to some really impressive hiking, with major ‘bang for your buck’ views. And Acatenango certainly features pretty high up that list.
If you’re in Antigua and you have a couple of days to spare, I’d seriously recommend hiking it.
Have you hiked Acatenango? Let me know what you thought in the comments below 🙂
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