“Because it’s there” is perhaps the most famous phrase in the mountaineering world. We are not mountaineers, and we don’t want to be, nor would we be good at it, but when we reached the top of Acatenango Volcano, we realized what George Mallory meant when he was asked, “Why do you want to climb Everest?”
Most people hike the Atatenango trail in two days, spending the night at Base Camp. This is undoubtedly the best option, as it allows you to see the eruption at night and gives you time to rest. It is possible to go up and down on the same day, but in addition to being much more physically challenging, the whole experience will be rushed and less satisfying.
In this article, we will explain everything you need to know to climb to the top of Acatenango Volcano and see Fuego Volcano in eruption, including the tour options, where to stay, how is the climb, what to take, and what to expect from this experience.
The trail we did and suggest is divided into two parts, the first from the village of La Soledad to the Base Camp and then from the Base Camp to the top of the volcano. The first stage is much longer but only about 6.5 km. La Soledad is located at about 2300/2400 meters above sea level, while Base Camp is approximately 3600 meters above sea level, so we have roughly 1200 meters of ascent.
The second part goes from Base Camp to the top of the volcano at almost 4000 meters. It is short but steep. Plus, the wind, volcanic sand, and altitude make our life much more difficult than it would typically be.
Acatenango and Fuego Volcanoes
At 3976 meters, the Acatenango volcano is the third-highest peak in Guatemala and Central America (not including Mexico). That’s why reaching the top is in itself a unique achievement for many people.
In addition, the views from there are absolutely fabulous as we can see the various volcanoes surrounding it (Agua, Atitlán, Fuego, San Pedro, Pacaya, among others), Lake Atitlán, and several cities such as Antigua and Guatemala City. These are some of the most famous landmarks in Guatemala.
However, the biggest attraction of the Acatenango climb is the Fuego Volcano. Fuego is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, constantly erupting and exploding. Every 15 or 20 minutes, there is an explosion where you can see smoke, ash, and volcanic rocks coming from the top of it.
During the day, you can only see the smoke and ashes, but the show is much better at dusk. The absence of light allows us to see the incandescent lava flying through the air and then flowing down the volcano. It’s really remarkable.
If you want to see an active volcano and feel its explosions up close, then this trail to Acatenango is probably one of the best options. It’s challenging and cold for sure, but it’s feasible for most people, and there’s a near guarantee that Fuego will erupt all day and night.
Good to know: The Acatenango itself is considered an active volcano, with several eruptions in the 20th century. The last one happened in 1972, and the next one is impossible to predict when or if it will happen.
Trail to Acatenango Volcano – general information
- Name: Acatenango Volcano trail
- Start: La Soledad
- End: Cumbre – Top of the Acatenango
- Distance – 8 km, 16 way and back
- Time – 2 day
- Dificulty – Very high
- Máx/min altitude: 2420/3976 meters
- Altitude gain: 1556 meters
- Type– Linear, way, and back
- Signs(1-5) – Can only be done with guides
- Highlights: Eruption of the Fuego volcano, top of the Acatenango, views to Água volcano, lake Atitlan and several cities of Guatemala
Best company to climb the Acatenango Volcano
In our experience, from what we’ve researched both online and live, the tours are globally identical. The climb is the same, they all stay at the base camp, and most of them primarily use local guides (although the owners may not be). Thus, each agency offers quite a similar service. Plus, all of them offer Lunch, Dinner, and Breakfast the next day.
The big differences are in the tents, the borrowed materials, the size of the groups, if the guides speak English, and the hikers themselves. Prices also vary widely, ranging from 300Q (38€) to over 100 Euros per person (2022 prices)
When choosing the operator, it is important to confirm that they have fixed tents and sleeping bags at the base camp. Most do, but you don’t want to haul it upstairs. It is also essential to confirm that the price included includes entry to the National Park, which at the time we took the tour, it costed 50Q per person.
After talking to many agencies and seeing what each one offered and their prices, we ended up choosing Barco, which is one of the cheapest, but it is also a 100% local operator, which is important to help the local economy.
Our experience climbing Acatenango with Barco
Because it was so inexpensive, we were a little wary of our choice, but after the climb, we would choose this operator again. The only negative point was the disorganization and initial delay in Antigua, as we spent more than 2 hours collecting our colleagues, picking up meals, and choosing materials.
Everything went smoothly from then on, especially from the start of the climb. The guides only spoke Spanish, but that’s not a problem for us. The food was more than enough. The borrowed materials (coats, sleeping bags, hats, gloves) had seen better days but served perfectly. This is an important point because, at night, it is extremely cold at the top of the volcano.
Is it possible to climb Acatenango independently?
Yes, it is possible, but we strongly advise against it unless you have all the equipment and a lot of experience in this type of activity. Note that it is extremely cold at the top, and it is necessary to take warm clothes, sleeping bags, a tent, etc.
Climbing to the Base Camp
One step at a time was perhaps the thought that most occurred to us on this journey. The whole ascent is hard, very hard, in fact. Especially for those who are not used to climbing volcanoes at 4000 meters in altitude. The trail is always uphill, and the accumulation of altitude, almost sandy terrain, and the weight of backpacks make everything even more challenging.
But fear not, you don’t have to be an athlete to make it to base camp. Or even to the top. There is no rush. There’s more than enough time, and if you don’t do it in 4 hours, you can do it in 5 or 6 hours, the volcano is not going anywhere.
Our trek started around 11:45 am in La Soledad, at an altitude of 2300 meters. One of the characteristics of this trail is that it starts with a tough section, with a steep slope on sandy soil that lasts between 20 minutes and half an hour. In this part, we are still on rural trails and go up continuously until we reach a small cafe. There you can have a drink and even eat something.
After a 10-minute break, we continued climbing, of course. But this time, with many stairs, we were exhausted. About 40 minutes later, we arrived at the second resting point, the entrance to the National Park. Here we have to register and pay for the park entrance. We took advantage of the stop to have lunch and get rid of some weight from our backpacks. We are already above 2700 meters of altitude.
Upon entering the park, we also enter a new trail stage, moving from a rural/agricultural landscape to a cloud forest. The trail continues to climb a lot, but it becomes a little less difficult without the stairs and the sandy volcanic terrain. On the other hand, the altitude starts to take its toll, and breathing is more difficult.
About half an hour later, and already above 3000 meters, the landscape changes again. We pass from the cloud forest to a pine forest, and continuing the ascent, this forest becomes less and less dense until the trees begin to thin out, and only shrubs and undergrowth remain.
At 15:20 and about 3450 meters of altitude, we have a kind of viewpoint where we have another stop to rest and hydrate. From here, there is an abrupt change in the trail, we continue to rise, but now the slope is much smaller. After everything we’ve climbed, it seems almost flat…
After another 40 minutes, we hear Volcano Fuego for the first time, and shortly after, we see it in front of us. At 16:20, we have one last effort to make. There is a final, super steep ascent of 2 or 3 minutes on volcanic soil that looks like sand. After so much effort, each step hurts, but it’s only a few minutes, and eventually, we see the Base Camp and our tent. First goal completed!
The Barco tent is located in a perfect spot, at over 3600 meters above sea level, right in front of the Fuego volcano. From there, we can watch the spectacle that Fuego puts on.
Going to Fuego Volcano
Nearly all operators offer the opportunity to go to the Fuego volcano to see and feel r all its power from even close. Since we were completely exhausted, we decided it wasn’t a good idea to do so. It seemed much more appealing to us to sit at sunset facing the volcano and watch the eruptions.
However, those who still have energy and physical stamina have this option. This part of the tour has an extra cost, which also varies from company to company. From what we were able to find out, going to Fuego involves going back down about 300 meters through Acatenango and then going up again another 300 meters. In addition to the physical effort, this involves the imminent nightfall means doing a good part of the trail at night.
The Fuego Volcano show and the night at Base Camp
As you can see from the photos, the view from Base Camp is fabulous, whether day or night. From there, we see Volcano Agua, which is almost forgotten due to the eruptions of Fuego, several small towns and villages in Guatemala, and Antigua Guatemala, from where we left.
As night falls, the Fuego eruptions become increasingly visible and spectacular. The whole trail, the views, and the experience are memorable, but seeing an active volcano right in front of us is an unforgettable experience. It’s worth all the effort to get there. Besides being the highlight of our trip to Guatemala, it is also one of the most spectacular we’ve seen.
However, at nightfall, the temperature also drops suddenly, and the wind makes it feel even colder. Fortunately, it is possible to make a fire to warm us up while we dine on Spaghetti with tomato sauce and drink hot chocolate. In the end, we have a little surprise for dessert: marshmallows to heat over the fire.
Climb to the top of Acatenango – Cumbre
The climb to the top of Acatenango is part of the tour, but in practice, it is optional as many people choose to stay at Base Camp. In our group, only 5 (us included) out of 13 people went.
The ascent to the summit begins at 4 am, still at night. The purpose is to see the sunrise up there; for that reason, it is done during the night, a good part of it with complete darkness. In total, it’s only about 350 meters of altitude gain, but it was probably the hardest climb we’ve ever done.
The altitude, the sandy soil, the wind, and the cold make everything more complicated, but in the end, we are rewarded with majestic 360º views. It is truly a panoramic view. We see Fuego for sure, but also 5 or 6 other volcanoes, Lake Atitlán, and they say that on days with great visibility, you can even see the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, staying up there for a long time is impossible. It is very windy practically every day, which makes the low temperature seem even lower. You can feel the cold penetrating even with several layers of warm clothes. The good news is that from here, it’s always downhill. The descent is much faster and easier, and in 30 to 45 minutes, we are back at Base Camp.
Descending the Acatenango
After a quick breakfast and a few more Fuego explosions, it’s time to head down. We’re going exactly the same way, so it’s straight downhill. The descent is much faster, but you need to be careful not to slip, fall, and ruin the trip with a sprain or worse.
Despite some slips, we left Base Camp at 08:00, at around 11:00, we were at the beginning of the trail, and at 12:00, we were back in Antigua at our accommodation.
We were ready to rest for the rest of the day and go to sleep very early because the adventure was memorable, but we hadn’t slept at all.
Best time of year to hike the Acatenango trail
As far as we know, this is a climb that can be done all year round. But it is definitely better to do it during the dry season. Both weather and visibility are generally better.
However, we have to point out that in high mountains, the weather is completely unpredictable and changes very quickly. Besides, it can be good weather in Antigua and lousy weather in the mountains. Or the reverse.
If you have time and flexibility, the ideal is to follow the weather forecast and try to go on a day when rain and fog are not expected.
Who can hike the trail?
This is a pretty tough trail, it’s really the toughest we’ve ever done. However, anyone who is used to taking long walks or physical exercise will be able to do it. It is not at all necessary to be a professional athlete (we surely aren’t). You will likely have sore leg for the next few days, but that’s about it.
As we said at the beginning, if you don’t do it in 4 hours, you’ll do it in 5 or 6. The mountain isn’t going anywhere, and you have the whole night to see the volcano erupt. Lastly, if you feel the climb has been tough enough for you, you can stay at base camp and not climb all the way to the top. Although very satisfying, but not at all mandatory.
That said, it is not recommended for children or the elderly.
What to pack for the ascent to the Acatenango Volcano
This is a two-day trek, with the night spent in a tent on an active volcano at almost 4,000 meters altitude. So, you need to be very careful with what you take and what you need. Don’t take more than you need; you’ll have to carry it up and down. All agencies will explain in detail what you need, but here is what we took and what we think is essential:
- Plenty of water (minimum 3l per person) – note that all agencies ask you to take an extra liter to contribute to the meals you take at base camp. In some cases, the agency supplies the water, as was the case with Barco, but you should always confirm.
- Extra snacks – the food we received is more than enough, but it’s always good to take some cookies, nuts, or sweets to have on the way up/down.
- Hiking shoes – it is essential to wear comfortable shoes and, above all, with good grip so as not to slip.
- Comfortable and Warm Clothing – Bring warm clothing, preferably layers of clothing.
- Rain jacket in case it rains;
- Winter coat, gloves, hats, socks;
- If the weather is good, we advise you to take light, comfortable hiking clothes for the climb. Warm clothing will be needed at night and in the last climb.
- Sunglasses, hat, and sunscreen;
- Head torch for the climb to Fuego and the top of Acatenango. It is possible to use a cell phone, but it is much more convenient not to have it constantly in your hand.
- Walking pole – it’s really handy, but you don’t need to worry about this as people are selling wooden poles at the beginning of the climb.
- Camera and cell phone, as there are plenty of opportunities to take beautiful pictures.
- Backpack as small as possible to carry all this;
Good to know: Agencies lend or rent (depending on the agency) practically all the material you need to take. From warm coats to backpacks and flashlights. Check what each agency offers, as you may need it. In our case, we had virtually nothing that we needed to take (only a backpack and pants), and even so, we went up because the agency lent us coats, gloves, and hats.
As always, please don’t litter. Bring everything you take with you.
How to get to the trail?
The trail starts in La Soledad, next to the cemetery. However, as it is a trail done with guides and through an agency, this is not a concern. Some agencies will pick you up at the hotel, as was our case; others ask hikers to visit their facilities in Antigua and depart from there.
In any case, the center of Antigua is relatively small, so you can quickly get from one place to another, either by Tuk-tuk or on foot. It’s just a matter of confirming with the agency when booking the tour.
Where to stay when climbing the Acatenango Volcano
The best place to stay is definitely in Antigua, preferably very close to the center. There are lots of accommodation options for all budgets. Check the map below.
Climbing the Acatenango Volcano was one of the toughest physical challenges we’ve ever done, but reaching the top and seeing the world from above also brought us one of the most pleasing accomplishments we’ve ever felt. Additionally, it’s not every day that you see a volcano erupting.