If you’re staying in the beautiful town of Antigua, Guatemala, you’ll definitely be enamored by the city’s centuries-old cobblestone streets, quaint restaurants with verdant courtyards, and smiling and gracious local people. However, turn your head to the sky and you’ll be in awe of the massive volcanoes that lie on the periphery of the city. There are four main volcanoes that can be seen from the city: Volcan de Agua, Volcan de Fuego, Volcan Pacaya and Volcan Acatenango. Out of these four, only one can be seen erupting regularly. In fact, Volcan de Fuego erupts nearly every 20 minutes, emitting a dark cloud of volcanic ash into the sky.
For whatever reason, the impulse of some of us humans (including myself) is to look at an actively erupting volcano and think, I’d like to get as close as possible to that. So, when I found out that you could hike up onto Volcan de Fuego and get a front-row seat for those massive eruptions, I was delighted. However, in order to get to Volcan de Fuego, you first need to hike to a base camp near the summit of Volcan Acatenango. This is one of the most popular hiking tours in Antigua (for good reason) and there are a ton of tour companies that will take you to Acatenango and then over to Fuego.
According to a few of the other foreigners I talked to, it’s actually illegal to hike onto Volcan de Fuego. However, in the case of our tour company, they were willing to take us outside the confines of the law for the affordable price of an additional $25 per person. In my opinion, that was a small price to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime experience to see lava exploding out of a volcano up close. If you’re in Antigua, I’d highly recommend you make this trek. But, there are some things you should know before you hand your money over to a tour company.
Things to Know About Hiking Acatenango
The first thing on most people’s minds when it comes to signing up for a tour is the price. In our case, my partner and I paid $90 each for the tour up to Acatenango plus an additional $25 to hike over to Volcan de Fuego. The package included two tour guides to lead us up the mountain, a packed lunch, dinner, and breakfast, and a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad at the base camp.
A few things to note about all that. First, you will have to haul the food provided to you in your own bag, so make sure you have a bit of extra room where you can fit something about the size of a lunch box. Second, at least with our tour group, we slept two people to a single tent. Now, since I was hiking with my partner, that wasn’t an issue whatsoever. However, if you’re traveling alone and the idea of sleeping in a tent next to a stranger terrifies you, you may want to think twice about going on this tour.
Our tour guide sent us an email with things to bring on the hike, the most important of which were a headlamp (or flashlight), warm clothing, water, and sunscreen. Our guide told us that we needed to bring about 2 to 3 liters of water per person. In our experience, you should bring far more water than that. My partner and I brought about 3 liters of water each and we finished all of our water before we even arrived at the base camp. It gets very hot on the trail during the, which is also why you need to make sure you have sunscreen.
When you hike to Volcan de Fuego, you’ll be doing so at night, which means that it’s absolutely crucial that you have a headlamp to guide your way. I made the mistake of thinking that my partner and I could share one flashlight, but the path was difficult and I was slipping and sliding all over the place. Then, once you get up to Volcan de Fuego, it can be incredibly cold at night. Everyone who wasn’t wearing both a windbreaker and a fleece underneath was shivering. My tour company loaned everyone hats, gloves, and jackets, but you may want to bring these items on your own just in case.
The final thing you should know about hiking Acatenango and Fuego is that this hike is very difficult. By our calculations, the entire trip was about 17 miles, or about 27 kilometers for those of you on the metric system. And none of it is flat. You’ll either be walking up a pretty sharp incline or down a pretty sharp decline for the entirety of the hike. If you aren’t in good shape or you have problems with your knees, ankles, or back, this hike is going to be very difficult for you.
I want to make it clear, though, that this hike is worthwhile. Without question. Sitting on the slope of an active volcano and watching it shoot lava up into the sky from such a close vantage point is something I will remember for the rest of my life.
Climbing Volcan Acatenango
You start the hike up Acatenango in a small village called La Soledad. On the way up the mountain, there are essentially three sections: the cornfields, the dense rainforest, and the alpine forest.
The beginning of the hike is through a series of cornfields. Actually, our tour guide said that they were corn fields, but they may have been growing other types of produce as well. This part of the hike isn’t particularly beautiful, particularly just after a harvest. However, you may get to see some cows and horses standing along the trail.
Once you make it through the cornfields, you ascend some primitively made stairs and end up in a dense rainforest-type area that’s lush with all different types of vegetation. The corn fields can get quite hot, so walking into a moist and shaded forest is quite a welcome relief. This section is also a great spot to see mushrooms for any amateur mycologists out there.
Finally, you’ll arrive in an alpine forest and you’ll begin to see more and more pine trees. Personally, this was my favorite section of the hike. The views of the surrounding volcanoes was just mind-blowing. At this point, you’ll actually be above the clouds and you’ll see the peak of Volcan de Agua poking through the cloud layer. Some of the trails in this section border on steep cliffs, giving you the impression that you could fall right down through the clouds.
This whole part of the journey is absolutely stunning, but it’s also difficult. The hill is fairly steep and the sun can be quite oppressive, especially considering you’re much more susceptible to being burned at such a high elevation. However, there’s a great payoff when you arrive at the tip of the mountain to see Volcan de Fuego with dark clouds of billowing smoke rolling out of it every 20 minutes. You can even feel the rumble of Volcan de Fuego from the base camp at Acatenango. It was one of the most terrifying-slash-exhilarating experiences of my life.
The Journey to Volcan de Fuego
The rest of my group and I reached the base camp on Acatenango around 2:00 and all of us were pretty exhausted. The guide then gave use the option to hike over to Volcan de Fuego after a two-hour break. Of course, not wanting to pass up on an incredible opportunity, everyone in the group departed for Volcan de Fuego around 4:30.
The hike involved walking about 45 minutes downhill and then 45 minutes uphill. Both slopes are very slippery and sandy. As our guide said, “You’ll take one step forward and two steps back.” This part of the hike can be a bit frustrating, but the view from the slope of Volcan de Fuego is 100% worth it.
At this point, everyone on the mountain finds a place to stand or sit to watch Volcan de Fuego erupt from an up-close-and-personal perspective. On the right side of the ridge, you’ll see the sun setting behind a beautiful layer of clouds. On the left side, you’ll see a beautiful stratum of colors around Volcan de Agua. And, in front of you, you’ll see Volcan de Fuego erupting, the lava becoming more and more clear as the sun goes down.
Like I said, it can get very cold up on Volcan de Fuego and you’ll definitely want to have as much of your skin covered as possible. Some people brought bottles of wine up to Volcan de Fuego. However, in my opinion, that’s a mistake. The hike back to base camp is quite tough.
Camping on Acatenango
When we returned back from Volcan de Fuego, our tour guide heated our dinners up, brought us hot chocolate, and gave us marshmallows for roasting. Then, the guide told us that we had the option to either wake up and hike to the peak of Acatenango for sunrise (which takes about one hour) or sleep in. By that time, pretty much everyone in the group was exhausted and only two young men decided to go to the peak at sunrise.
Personally, I probably should have just gone on the sunrise hike because I didn’t sleep much anyway. I’m a pretty bad sleeper as it is, plus, the sleeping pad wasn’t very soft, I didn’t have a pillow, and the volcanic eruptions can be fairly loud. I wasn’t really upset that I couldn’t sleep, though, because we were able to see Volcan de Fuego from our tent. Essentially, I just sat up in my tent all night and watched the volcano erupt. The lava flying upwards against the night sky was one of the more beautiful things I’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness.
So, although I was exhausted, I thoroughly enjoyed the night. Then, the next morning, we packed our things and descended the mountain. The way down was fairly slippery, so make sure that you walk slowly or even walk sideways (for increased traction). The descent can also be pretty hard on the knees and back, so you might want to stretch before starting your walk down.
All in all, this hike was one of the best hikes I’ve experienced anywhere in the world, but it was also one of the more difficult commercial hikes I’ve done. If you’re up for a challenge, then you should absolutely hike Acatenango and Fuego while you’re in Antigua, Guatemala.