Hiking Volcan Acatenango
One of the most iconic volcanos in Guatemalastart
Lunar landscapes, awesome sun rises, and front row seats to an erupting Guatemalan volcano, what more could you want?
The third highest volcano in Guatemala, Volcan Acatenango (13,044 ft) sits at the epicenter of a chain of volcanoes that make up Guatemala’s contribution to the Pacific Ring of Fire. From its summit it is said that you can practically stare into the mouth of its evil twin - Volcan Fuego – one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. While you can finish hiking this Acatenango in one solitary day, the two day option includes camping in the barren crater of the volcano and getting up close and (probably too) personal with Fuego itself, It is not to for the faint-hearted. Just remember to bring plenty of water… oh and don't get lost…
- Trail length: 10mi
- Climb: 5000ft
Preparing for Volcan Acatenango
My friend Jeff and I were on the back-end of a three month stint as volunteer trekking guides hiking in the highlands of Guatemala. We were based in the land of volcanoes and by this point we had carried out guided ascents of Guatemala’s highest volcano, Tajumulco, a combined 15 times and taken over 40 clients on three midnight ascents up Volcan Santa Maria. To put it lightly, we were getting high on volcanoes, and Volcan Acatenango was our next fix.
As we had no knowledge of the ascent, no maps and concerns with issues of security, we were faced with two options – use a guide company in Antigua or use local knowledge and guides. We decided on the latter and after talking to Sergio and Darena, our kind hosts at Hostel Los Amigos, we had our first lead: Fernando Menchu, an ex-guide that had ascended Acatenango (Acata) numerous times. He was everything we could have hoped for: knowledgeable, friendly, and he clearly shared our love for climbing mountains and volcanoes in his homeland. After discussing our respective accomplishments to date, Fernando gave us the name of a reliable local guide at the base of the Acatenango volcano, in a village called La Soledad (which eerily translated to ‘solitude’). Our new mission was to locate a man called Francisco Sis.
We set off early the next morning, catching one of the renowned ‘chicken’ busses to La Soledad. Upon arrival and enquiring after our new guide, a boy ran off into the fields to fetch him. We waited. An old man with a walking stick ambled past. He then stopped next to us, nodded a greeting and said ‘soy Don Martin – su guia’. Jeff and I looked at each other with concern. We were young men at what we considered to be the peak of our fitness and now our ambitious trip was in jeopardy because our guide was, by Western standards, an old age pensioner. Not wanting to offend anyone, we shook hand and off we went. Maybe he would surprise us.
He did. I have never seen someone glide up scree slopes with such ease, let alone someone who we later found out was 73. After 6,562 ft of ascent over three hours we reached the barren crater of Volcan Acatenango. Jeff and I slumped to the ground and sat on our rucksacks while Don Martin perched on a rock and stared at us inquisitively. We discussed the usual topics of our countries and cultures and then I asked him how many times he had climbed Acata. He paused in deep thought and then said, nonchalantly, but confidently, 'cinqo mil' (five thousand). Without further ado, Don Martin, stood up, looked up to the clear sky with the sun shining, and said "Me voy, antes que cae la lluvia” (“I’m going before the rain comes”). We shook hands and he set off back down.
We took Don Martin’s word for it, setting the tent up quickly. Sure enough the cloud descended and the driving rain arrived. Don Martin had read the weather perfectly; he was a true man of the mountain if ever I had met one.
We were camped in the bleak crater of a Guatemalan volcano, and for the 12 hours that ensued, we felt like we had front row seats in a grand theater with nature playing the main role. The first act came as we huddled in the tent. While looking out of the door for a weather window, Jeff noticed what appeared, rather worryingly, to be some smoke coming from one of the outward facing slopes of the crater. Upon further investigation, we discovered an idyllic micro-oasis of plants and wild flowers built around a thermal spring. The 'smoke' was deliciously warm steam. We warmed our hands and huddled around this oasis while we had lunch, marveling at the surprises nature can throw up.
The second act almost didn’t show up. We woke up several times in the night to the loud eruptions from Fuego, but each time we rose; we were confronted with clouds, wind and rain. In a final effort, we woke an hour before sunrise. We didn't have any high-tech gear for cold weather or high mountain environments, so we dressed in all our layers and wrapped ourselves up in our sleeping bags and ventured out. Clouds were still present and in our hearts we had given up on seeing any lava, so we began walking toward the edge of the crater to find a nice place to perch and enjoy the sunrise. As we were walking, the clouds momentarily parted and we were gifted with two minutes of explosive lava eruptions - nature's very own fireworks display.
Next on Nature’s entertainment schedule was one of the most clear and starkly beautiful sunrises that Jeff or I had ever seen. The view was crystal clear and the colors were vibrant and starkly contrasted against the dark earth. To the north you could see the rolling Cuchamatanes hills, to the south, Volcan Fuego and the Pacific Ocean beyond, and to the west, framed by this spectacular sunset were Agua and Pacaya smoking away.
The force of Fuego
The fourth and final act came later that day. After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal we turned our attentions on Volcan Fuego - we wanted to get a closer look at the sulfurous lunar landscape that formed the upper part of the volcano. The colors and textures looked mesmerizing from our viewpoint and we were keen to get a closer look. We tore down the side of Acata, literally skiing down 3,281 ft of fine volcanic scree slopes, and began the climb up the ridge that led to the smoky summit of Fuego. As we climbed, the landscape began to change and the terrain that we had admired from across the way came to life - the slopes took on a spectrum of different colors from dark brown and orange to yellow and bright red. An insidious sulfuric smoke seeped out from behind rocks and creeped across the barren landscape.
We had finally arrived at the last point our guide had advised was safe to reach. But no sooner had we placed our rucksacks down, than a huge explosion roared from above, spraying rocks into the air as if they were popcorn. Luckily the rocks flew in the opposite direction of where we cowered, but nevertheless, Fuego had spoken, and we respectfully heeded its warning and began our return journey.
In the midst of all this excitement and natural splendor, we had been reckless. We had only three liters of water between us for the second day, and we had underestimated the effects of the scree and the sunshine on our water consumption. By the time we got back to crater of Volcan Acatenango, packed up our tent and had lunch, we were already partially dehydrated and had practically exhausted our water supplies. Alarm bells, at this point, were not ringing as we knew our return journey was almost over. All that stood in the way between us and a water supply was a two-hour downhill journey back to Don Martin’s house. However, those bells did start to ring clearly when we decided to take a shortcut that turned out to be very much a long cut. What was supposed to be a two-hour walk turned in to a six-hour stagger down a forestry track we began to believe would never end.
I have never been so happy as to see a pile of logs in my life. It was the first sign of civilization in five hours of walking. Another hour later and we arrived at a main road in Finca Concepcion, but this time it was dark. We were lucky enough to catch a bus back to La Soledad, where upon arrival, we proceeded to work our way through Don Martin’s shop - devouring Gatorade, water and snacks. He seemed relatively unfazed by our adventure and was probably thinking, ‘You should have asked me to come back and pick you up.’ He allowed us to stay on the floor of his store room where we noticed a large statue of Mary, gave thanks to her for our safe return (despite neither of us being particularly religious) and then promptly passed out.
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