Cursed Beauty: Climbing Volcán Acatenango

After postponing climbing a volcano for most of our Latin American trip, we decided that Antigua would be our base for climbing at least one. From Antigua, we had at least a few options: Volcán Pacaya, Volcán Tajulmulco and Volcán Acatenango. The first one, while intriguing for its marshmallow roasting opportunities, was a short 1.5 to 2 hour wimpy hike to the top. We ruled that out pretty quickly in search for a more epic one. The second one is the highest volcano and peak in Central America and would have fit our desires better. However, at Volcán Acatenango, we were promised a a good view of and a chance to see lava spurting from Volcán Fuego. That made our decision for us.

We had heard from other travellers and read online that a guided climb up Acatenango would set us back about USD $100. After hearing this, we were determined to do this unguided, but a visit to the tourist information office convinced us to survey the guided options. The office informed us that due to conflicts with the community and the agency that administers the park, visitors may be charged twice for an entrance fee (one from each group). Furthermore, she showed us an official statement from INGUAT issued on May 16, 2017, the tourist bureau of Guatemala, saying that the bureau cannot guarantee the security of tourists on the mountain. She emphasized that robberies do occur on the trail, and this is best avoided with a guide. This is utter scaremongering. (Emily prefers bullshit.) From what we saw, the community of La Soledad is consisted of three shacks with 6 older women, a few chickens and a dog. When we did finally climb up the mountain, the official looking booth that we suppose was there to collect entrance fee on the mountain, was permanently closed. Instead of paying the “entrance fee” twice, nobody ever asked for one. We did see a young gentleman with a machete near the entrance, but he seemed just to make sure that the nearby dogs didn’t attack us and looked rather friendly. But, all of this is in retrospect, so after we were sufficiently scared, we decided to do a guided trip. We asked 2 tour agencies that offered to take us up with gear and meals for Q 250, but negotiated a price with another for Q 125. For this price, all tour agencies put you in a large group and give you terrible and broken equipment. (One guy in our group had to miss the morning climb after his tent ripped open and his sleeping bag was soaked from the rain at 6 degrees celsius.) We were thankful that we had our own equipment.

They say that third time’s the charm. They’re not wrong. Starting to climb the volcano turned out to take a lot longer than we anticipated. The day after we had checked out prices, we were picked up by the tour agency’s van, brought to the trailhead, rented walking sticks and made it probably 20m up the hill before Emily got hit by a serious wave of food poisoning and we had to stop the hike right there. At an altitude close to 4,000m at the top, we decided that making bathroom runs in the middle of the night would be an unpleasant experience at best. We returned to the trailhead, where we were told that there would be chicken buses every hour back to Antigua via Parramos. Instead of waiting for this, we hitchhiked back with a great family, that after seeing how sick Emily was, detoured to Antigua and dropped us off right at the hostel. The next day, Emily was still too sick to climb so she visited the Macadamian nut farm instead (see post here), so Laurent went to climb the mountain instead. The tour agency was kind enough to let him go again without having to pay anything extra, so up the mountain he went. Just after the point the day before we had turned back, torrential rainpour started to come down on the group. A few hours later walking in the bone-chilling rain later, we had met three other groups descending the mountain who had initially aimed to go to base camp, but the weather made it impossible for them to set up camp. Having inadequate mountain equipment and hiking experience, most of his group was truly freezing at the time of the decision, Laurent’s group ended up turning back around after making it nearly 75% of the way there. This was one of the disadvantages of going in a large group. A very surprised Emily opened the door to a very wet Laurent that evening. We checked the weather forecast for the next day and since we saw that it would only get much worse, decided to abandon the cursed Volcán Acatenango and move on.

The next morning however, Emily was feeling better and the weather forecast was too, so we decided to give it one last shot. We decided that it would be unnecessary to hike in a large group given the absence of “entrance fee officers” or robbers and a clear enough route, so we took public transport to La Soledad via Parramos. This cost us Q 15 in total per person. Once at La Soledad however, we changed our minds and decided to hire a guide for Q 50 each, and joined a larger group once again. Thankfully, this guide would have none of the nonesense of complaining hikers, and told those lagging behind wanting a break that they could rest at the top. We followed this very fit sixty year old hilarious man up the mountain in no time.

Volcán de Agua as seen from trail

The hike itself wasn’t too tough. Sure, it was steep, making us quite sweaty, but the cold mountain breeze kept us on our toes and we wanted to go as far as we could without stopping. After all, the climb was only 6km in total to base camp. Along the way, there are two opportunities to purchase some snacks. We went up through the farmland, through the cloud forest, and finally through the pine forest before making it to the ashy site. It had rained for most of the hike, but by the time we got to the last hour (which is almost completely flat), the rain had stopped. We were treated to a magnificent view of Volcán Fuego and Volcán Agua while our guide got immediately to work and made us a fire.

View of Volcán Fuego

Location prime for being covered in ash

Once the fire got hot enough, we made some s’mores. (Laurent’s first!!!) However, it soon started to rain and we huddled in our nice warm non-broken tent and eventually did not leave. An hour in, we heard the crowd below exclaim and we quickly zipped open the tent. Right in front of us, we saw Volcán Fuego burst open in flames and lava violently spill over the sides. It was truly magnificent. However, the clouds rolled in soon after and obstructed our view of other explosions that we could only hear and not see. It was time to go to sleep anyways, with the alarm on at 3:30am the next morning. Throughout the night, we heard rain pouring. Only later we found out that not all of this was rain, and instead also included dark volcanic ash, which meant that we had to scrub down our tent and virtually everything later.

Fuego has the hiccups

At 3:30am, we got up, but Emily’s food poisoning had clearly not yet subsided. Just after crawling out of the tent, the skies had cleared up enough for us to see Volcán Fuego turn the horizon orange with its explosion. Laurent made the last 300m up over the next hour in ankle-deep ash to the top of Acatenango to take a look at the crater and the sunrise over Volcán Fuego and the valley surrounding Antigua. Once at the top, he realized that the crater of Acatenango is very much not the main attraction of the hike, but its exploding little brother next to it very much is. Emily stayed at base camp and watched Volcán Fuego exploding at a lower altitude (you will still get a nice view from here). We were extremely lucky that this morning we had very clear skies and a perfect view of the volcanoes and the landscapes below.

view from the top of Volcán Acatenango

Two people waiting to be showered in ash

Ash EVERYWHERE!!

Once everyone had returned back at base camp, our guide, whose name we shamefully had forgotten, made everyone some coffee. We packed up our stuff, grimaced at the amount of black volcanic ash that was positively in every nook of all our gear, and raced down the volcano in just over 2 hours. We left most of our group behind and hitchhiked back to Antigua. Once back, we went straight to McDonald’s (one of the world’s most beautiful apparently), took a long shower, repacked our bags, and took a chicken bus to Guatemala City. This climb came with some setbacks, but all in all, it was definitely worth the experience.

Sunrise from blue to

Orange

Benefit of going with a guide- coffee is ready