Hiking Volcan Acatenango in Guatemala is one of the most popular outdoor adventures you can do from the pretty cobbled city of Antigua. Acatenango is the third highest volcano in Guatemala with a summit of 3,976 metres. It’s part of the Horqueta complex, along with its twin, Volcan Fuego which stands at 3,763 metres. The overnight 2-day hike is about an 18 km or 11 miles (round trip) with an elevation gain of 5,150 ft or 1,500 metres. What makes it so special is that you camp at the top of Volcan Acatenango overlooking the very active Volcan Fuego. Providing the weather’s good there’s an excellent chance of watching it (and hearing it) spectacularly erupt.
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Volcan Acatenango Hike Adventure
I’d originally planned my Volcan Acatenango Hike Adventure when Andy and I first visited Guatemala in 2014. It wasn’t to be though as we got waylaid on Caye Caulker in Belize
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and I ran of time.
I always regretted not doing it so as soon as I knew we would be returning to Guatemala I booked us on a tour. Once again though it seemed it wasn’t to be. When we arrived in Antigua at the end of May 2019 the weather was atrocious. Reluctantly we decided against the hike as we didn’t want to risk not seeing the volcano erupting. Luckily we had plans to head back to Guatemala at the end of our 4 month Central America trip. We postponed our hike until then in the hope the weather conditions would improve.
Every blog post and review we read about hiking Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala said it was one of the hardest things they’d ever done. This hadn’t bothered me back in 2014 when I’d first planned it, but I was rather apprehensive this time. I definitely wasn’t in as good shape as five years earlier, but I’m headstrong and like a challenge. I was adamant it was happening this time and that Andy was going to do it with me. He wasn’t convinced!
Acatenango Volcano Hike
Balam Tours Acatenango provided us with an Acatenango Hike tour which I’ve reviewed below. Read more in our full Product Review Disclosure.
I spent the next four months as we travelled around Central America trying to persuade Andy to join me on the hike. I asked everyone we met if they’d done it and if it was as hard as we kept reading. Most said no – it was challenging but 100% worth the effort…Andy still wasn’t sure.
Finally, on the day we arrived back in Antigua from Panama, Andy caved and agreed to do it with me. I immediately confirmed our booking on the hike with Balam Tours Acatenango who had invited us to join one of their tours.
En-route our guide told us all about the three towns we passed through. There was Jocetenango, known for its abundant fruits. Pastores where they craft high-quality leather cowboy boots. And Parramos which is well known for its vegetables. We were also given an overview of what to expect from our two-day hike.
At about 10 am we arrived at the trailhead at Aldea de Soledad where we were each given any extra clothing we were missing. We got a warm jacket, waterproof, hat and gloves, plus a wooden walking stick, torch, packed lunch, breakfast and a blanket. We had to squeeze all this into our backpacks with the four litres of water and other clothes we’d brought along. Not everyone’s bag (including Andy’s) was big enough – but they did have spares to lend out so that was o.k.
The gear was fairly standard but was enough to keep us warm at the top and that’s all that mattered. Luckily we didn’t have to carry our sleeping bags up like some of the tour groups as they were already at the campsite. The guides also carried the rest of the food to prepare at the base camp.
Hiking Up Volcan Acatenango
Once kitted up it was time for a quick ‘before photo’, then off we set. We immediately all started feeling feel rather anxious about the weight (about 10 kg) and the bulk of our bags! And rightly so, it was definitely challenging.
We took it slow and steady though and ascended through the four distinct microclimates to reach the base camp of Acatenango Volcano.
First Microclimate – Agricultural Land
The hiking trail starts out winding through a patchwork of fertile agricultural land. Depending on the time of year the local farmers may be growing flowers, corn or snow peas. We bumped into a few friendly locals as we walked who were eager to say hola to us! This part seems relatively easy but don’t let that deceive you.
Once you’ve passed the farmland you reach one of two of the hardest parts of the hike on very loose sandy, gravel terrain. Like us, you’re sure to find yourself taking two steps forward and one step back for about an hour. Be sure to take your time and stop for plenty of rest breaks to admire the views behind you. Our guides from Balam Tours were the best and made us take a break every 20 minutes or so. We had three guides, one at the front, one in the middle and one at the back. They were in constant contact via walkie talkies at all times so we felt very safe.
After about an hour of slipping and sliding you reach the ticket booth. This is where you have to pay an extra 50 quetzals ($7 USD) entry fee (in cash) which isn’t included in the tour price. This is also the point where you’ll probably begin to wonder what the hell you’ve signed up for, I know we did, especially as it had just started to rain. But push on, I promise it’s worth it in the end.
Second Microclimate – Tropical Cloud Forest
The second stage of the hike begins on a trail that winds up through a beautiful tropical cloudforest. Although there’s still an incline it’s not as torturous as the first stage. There are even a few flat(ish) stretches which are a real relief for the legs and lungs. The canopy also offers some welcome shade from the sun and a little shelter if it rains like it did for us.
When you emerge from the cloud forest into an open clearing it’s time for lunch and a rest. Balam provided a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, banana, muffin and fruit juice. It was just enough to refuel us for the rest of the hike. During lunch we also played a game to learn each others names. This took our mind off the rest of the daunting hike ahead of us.
Third Microclimate – Alpine Forest
As we finished our lunch the guides warned us that the next stage was going to be the most strenuous. To be honest, we’d have rather not had that pre-warning.
You set off again upwards through sparse alpine forest; it’s about two hours (maybe more) of steep switchbacks until you emerge over the treeline. I’m not going to lie – it wasn’t easy, it was very tiring and repetitive. However, after what seemed like forever and with regular rest breaks we reached a gorgeous viewpoint which marked the end of that stage of the hike.
We had the company of several local dogs on this stage too which kept us entertained and lightened the mood a little.
Forth Microclimate – Volcanic Landscape
That’s the hardest part of the hike done and is where you find yourself at a fork. You can go left or right depending on where your tour agencies campsite is. We were headed for the Balam Tours Acatenango Basecamp so we took a right.
The last stretch is through the forth microclimate, a mysterious volcanic landscape. It isn’t as difficult as the rest of the hike as it’s flatter. It is rather tricky though as it involves scrambling over volcanic boulders and scree. Remember to watch your step.
It was at this point that we began to hear loud rumblings and explosions. With excitement we realised we were about to see Volcan Fuego erupting just round the next bend. That gave us enough motivation to drag ourselves the last few hundred metres to basecamp.
Balam Tours Acatenango Basecamp
We finally arrived at Balam Tours Acatenango Base Camp at about 4:30 pm; six hours after we’d set off from the trailhead. This was slow compared to other groups, but we did take our time and had plenty of breaks so we were just happy we all made it.
Basecamp sits at 3,800 metres (about 12,467 feet). At that altitude it was cold so two of the guides swiftly set about getting a campfire going for us. We dumped our backpacks and walking poles, just as Volcano Fuego made us jump by welcoming us with a loud rumbling eruption and big plume of smoke. At this point the top of the volcano had a fair bit of cloud cover so the view wasn’t that great. There was a good breeze though so we had high hopes the cloud would clear to allow Fuego to put on a real fiery performance for us.
Whilst the campfire was being readied, another guide showed us around camp. Balam Tours is known for having one of the better, comfier campsites on Acatenango, with one of the two best views of Volcano Fuego. These were the two main reasons for choosing them for our tour.
Another great thing about the Acatenango campsite are the tents. They’re huge compared to many of the other tour agencies and also have elevated camp beds. The beds, along with sleeping bags and blankets keep you warmer during the night than only sleeping mats would. One thing that did make us slightly nervous when the guide showed us our tent, were the hard hats hanging up. We never did get to the bottom of what exactly they were for.
Once the guide had shown us the tents, he ran through the outside toilet rules. Although they were as hygienic as possible they were very much at one with nature. Campsite walkover done it was time to settle down for an evening of volcano watching.
Explosive Evening of Volcan Fuego Erupting
If you hike Acatanenango Volcano, hopefully you’ll get as lucky with the weather as we did. Soon after we’d arrived the cloud shrouding Fuego Volcano began to clear and the real display began.
As the sunset Volcan Fuego erupted over and over again. There were loud roars, followed by huge plumes of smoke. More often than not this was accompanied by red hot lava ejecting high into the air, then flowing down the sides of the volcano.
We sat around the campfire watching the volcano erupting, taking photos and videos whilst the guides prepared dinner for us. It was a big serving of pasta, chicken breast and vegetables, along with some very welcome red wine.
As it got dark the display got more and more spectacular. Fuego spewed molten red and orange lava every 30 to 40 minutes throughout the night. It was one of the most breathtaking and surreal things we’ve ever seen.
There was also very little light pollution so we had an incredible view of the stars twinkling brightly in the clear black sky. They were mesmerizing. Looking down into the valley we also had beautiful views of the lights flickering in the towns and villages below. I can’t imagine how it must feel to live in the shadow of such an active volcano like Fuego.
We sat up for several hours huddled around the campfire, chatted and enjoyed toasted marshmallows and hot chocolate. All the time ooohing and ahhing over every ferocious eruption. Eventually, the cold got the better of us and we all retired to bed at around 9 pm.
Again, I’m not going to sugar coat it, it wasn’t a pleasant night because it was so bitterly cold. Despite wearing all the clothes we’d bought and putting extra blankets under and on top of our sleeping bags we just couldn’t warm up. We were awake much of the night trying to keep warm or listening to the huge eruptions coming from nearby Fuego.
Sunrise Acatenango Summit Hike
About 4:15 am the guides came round the tents to wake everyone up for the sunrise summit hike. This was completely optional and we’d already decided to give it a miss. Mainly because I’m not a fan of hiking in the dark – I’m rather accident-prone. Also because Andy’s balance in the dark is awful – another accident waiting to happen. We were still freezing though, so got up soon after the others left. We sat around the campfire with hot chocolate, watching and listening to Fuego showing off again.
Although we didn’t do the sunrise summit hike ourselves, those of the group who did, said the one hour steep and tricky hike was worth it. They were treated to a stunning sunrise and more eruptions from Fuego, although they only stayed at the summit for a short time as it was very cold up there.
By about 6:30 am everyone was back down by the campfire where the guides cooked up a delicious and filling breakfast of burritos, oatmeal and coffee. By about 8:00 am we had packed up and were ready to make our way back down Volcan Acatenango.
A Speedy Descent
The way back down Acatenango Volcano is exactly the same as the way up, except much faster and in my opinion more dangerous. We were slipping and sliding the whole way down and several of us ended up falling over. The walking sticks were lifesavers, it would have been much worse without them.
We saw other groups running down the slippery slopes of the volcano, but our guides told us not to and to take our time. This was good advice.
Even though we were careful and took our time we were still back where we started within 3 hours. We were all filthy, sweaty and full of aches and pains but we also all had huge grins of satisfaction on our faces. We’d conquered Volcan Acatenango and watched Volcano Fuego erupt throughout the night. What an achievement and a once in a lifetime experience.
Is an Acatenango Hike Worth It?
So was the steep ascent, slippery and uneven ground, freezing cold, the worst nights sleep ever and the aches and pains worth it? In our opinion, the answer to that is YES, although Andy has vowed he will never, ever do another big hike like that with me again.
It was one of the best, most memorable experiences we’ve ever had together as a couple, although I don’t think we’ll be repeating it any time soon!
We were thoroughly impressed with Balam Tours. The only negatives were we ended up carrying more than we’d anticipated and we could have done with one more extra blanket each on the beds. Otherwise, we can’t fault them.
The guides were fantastic. They were friendly and very knowledgeable about the volcanoes and various microclimates we hiked through. They were also extremely patient, considering we weren’t the fastest group. They kept our spirits up and made sure we were safe at all times. The food was also surprisingly good considering it was carried up the volcano and cooked at the campsite.
So, although Balam Tours are a little more expensive (400 quetzals or $55 USD) than some of the other tour agencies we thought they were totally worth paying that little bit extra. As they say “you get what you pay for”.
Where to Stay in Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua has an excellentselection of hotels, hostels and guesthousesto choose from. On our first stop we stumbled upon a lovely centrally located guesthouse calledPosada Juma Ocag, which we loved so much we stayed there our second time in town too. It has several rooms on two levels above a central courtyard with an upstairs terrace. There was also a kitchen where you could cook your own food. It was simple but clean and the owners were very friendly.
An Acatenango Volcano hike is definitely not for the faint-hearted and you do need to have a reasonable level of fitness. However, if you’re an outdoor adventure lover, it’s an experience we’d highly recommend.
If you’re in Guatemala and you love a good challenge, don’t skip the Acatenango hike, it’s worth every bit of discomfort.
Guatemala Travel Resources
Planning your trip to Guatemala? Here are some of our recommended useful resources to help:
● DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE. If you’re travelling long-term like us and from the EU True Traveller is best. If you’re from other countries worldwide, World Nomads is good.
A new contender for long-term travel insurance is SafetyWing, which you can pay for on a month by month basis. This is also a good option for shorter trips.
Product Review Disclosure: Balam Tours Acatenango provided us with a complimentary Acatenango overnight hike tour. This did not influence my post in any way and as always I’ve provided balanced and honest reviews. Read more in our fullProduct Review Disclosure