HIKING VOLCAN ACATENANGO FOR $17 USD
29th March 2017
Everyone told us it was the hardest thing they had ever done. If anything was going to egg us on, it was being told that!
Our week at our Spanish school had come to a close. Our brains were caput, so only fair to put our bodies through the mill too!
Volcan Acatenango stands at 3,957m/12,720ft and is the 3rd highest volcano in Guatemala. Most people will take on this beast of a Volcano over the course of 2 days, doing most of the hard work on the first day – trekking to 300m beneath the summit. At the early hours you are painfully peeled from your sleeping bag to take on the last hour and a half up to the summit – two steps forward, one set back – to watch the sunrise over Acatenango’s neighbouring Volcano: Volcan de Agua.
This is our experience of going with a cheap tour company that we found in Antigua.
Prices for hiking Volcan Acatenango can be as steep as $120+ per person. Companies such as OX will take you up there with top of the range equipment and tasty food for $89 (+50Q admission fee).
All around Antigua you will see local tour operators advertising all of the Volcano hikes – just without prices. As we had only seen the steep costs for the trek online we were blown away when we heard through friends that their friends had managed to get a tour for only $17 (+50Q admission fee)!
We bought ours for 130Q (equivalent at the time of writing to $17.70) inside the bakery opposite McDonald’s in Antigua. The price he originally quoted was 160Q, but we refused to pay more than 130Q knowing our friends had paid 125Q.
On completing the tour we found a cheaper launderette outside of the centre selling the tour for 125Q ($17.02) before group discounts – you can find it here:
On the north side of the road on 1a Calle Poniente, just before the corner turning up to Av El Desengaño
This is also the place where we got cheap transfers to Lake Átitlan and to Copan, Honduras.
Unbelievably in the tour price the following is included:
Transport – Pick up from hostel/homestay and drop off in the centre. (A colectivo to the Volcano alone is almost the cost of the whole hike!)
Guides – We had 3 guides for our group. One who walked in the front, one in the middle and the last at the back to look after any stragglers.
Food – A pot noodle, hot chocolate and coffee (all excluding the water), two cheese and ham sandwiches, two boiled eggs, two bananas and a yoghurt (complete with spoon!),
Tent – Shared with other people in the group.
Entrance fee – Paid at entrance to the hike: 50Q
Water – We were told that the price included 2 litres: this is not the case! You need to bring 5 litres each!
Additional food – You will need this!
Walking sticks – These need to be hired at the beginning of the hike. Aid walked with 2 and walked with 1. Preference, but essential!
Rucksack – Minimum 40L
You will need to share the tent load with those you are sleeping with. The sleeping bags are not modern and packable – they’re the size of duvets, so you need to be able to fit or attach it and the roll mat to your bag. PLUS, 5 litres of water and all your clothes and food!
Warm clothing – As many as you can physically pack and carry.
I wore 4 layers on the top and bottom (including Uniqlo thermal layers and North Face wind breakers) and I will still cold. You will need thick gloves or more than one pair, hiking socks and a hat. These can be purchased or hired at the entrance but always best to have your own. The tour company also hires out warm clothing, but these are just as dirty as the sleeping bags.
I had packed two additional legging layers, but as a friend I had made on the hike only had the one pair she was wearing, her need was greater, so I gave them to her for the trip. On the return home I bumped into another friend in the same situation so I lent them to her too. Both said without them the journey would have been hell.
Toilet roll and toiletries (toothbrush, etc) – There are no toilets up there, but there are no leaves up the top either, so be prepared!
Baby wipes – You’re going to get very black in places you never knew could get dirty
Painkillers – If you’re like me and suffer from altitude sickness, you’re going to want these!
Blister plasters – Just in case!
What we would take with us if we did it all over again:
MOUNTAIN BOOTS! – We didn’t bring ours with us as we didn’t think we would do enough hiking to warrant the weight: mistake! The 4 hour trek down is treacherous in running trainers.
Gloves – An additional glove layer would have made the world of difference to freezing fingers. When I woke up I changed my Merino wool socks from my feet to my hands as additional protection as the wind was bitterly cold and I could live with a blister better than no fingers.
Head lamp – The morning hike is in pitch black, having a lamp would have made the last part considerably easier!
After being picked up you are driven to the outskirts of Antigua where you pick up your included food, sleeping bag and roll mat so you can pack your bag before getting to the entrance.
The exchange is done on a muddy, dog shit covered road and is the place where most people become very aware that their bags are not big enough and they’re going to have to trek up the volcano with a duvet bouncing around on the outside of their backpack because they didn’t allow for it in the size of their bag. You do not want to be this person.
Next stint it to the entrance of the Volcano.
Here are a few wooden shacks where you pay your entrance fee of 50Q for a wristband. It’s the last opportunity to use a real toilet and purchase gloves, hats, walking sticks (essential) and flavoured rum (15Q a small bottle) for the top.
This is also the place where you are are separated into groups for a tent. The best method is to divvy up the parts of the tent so someone doesn’t need to carry the whole lot.
Although the entrance can be quite windy and cold in comparison to the city, you do not want to start the hike layered up as you very quickly start to sweat from the heat of climbing.
Team photograph and a safety briefing before starting the hike up Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala
After a quick security briefing (basically, stay with the guides) and a few team photos we started the torturous climb up.
The first hour is the worst of the day. Everyone had told us so. But if you do it, it really is the worst – so look at it as though once it’s done, the remaining 4-6 hours can’t be that bad..! The final hour/hour and a half is mostly flat, minus base camp itself.
The trek is broken down into approximately 30-40 minute stints, broken up with short 10-15 minute breaks after each section with a longer 30 minute stop for lunch.
At the lunch stop there is a hot meal option, if you want to pay for it. As we had our sandwiches – and we’re really tight – we didn’t enquire into the cost.
One piece of advice for the lunch break is not to eat too much. We both made this error and spent the next hour’s climb deeply regretting it.
Every stop seems to take you into a different micro-climate. You travel through lily fields (never seen those before?), a range of different forests and jungle, to the top where the trees thin out, their branches broken or non-existent and entirely bald. Every stage is stunningly beautiful. One of the more breath taking is when you get out of the cloud line and look down at all of Guatemala beneath you from above the clouds. A view you would normally only ever see from a plane.
A recommendation is to keep your head down and just look at the steps in front of you. Put on some music and power through.
A guide rides down Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala, through the dense cloud.
It normally takes anywhere between 5-7 hours to reach base camp, taking into account the breaks between each section. We had a slower group and took 6.5 hours to get to the top. It’s not a race after all!
At Base Camp you unpack the tent and leave it for the guides to build while you take selfies and pictures of the nearby volcanos Fuego and de Agua.
We were sharing a 3 man tent with a total of 4 people. We got into our tent to hide from the wind to find that the door did not zip closed. Huge problem, as it was only 6pm and already another level of cold. There was little the guides could do, so we rubbed our brains together and begged other tents to house us.
In the end 7 of us were in a 4 man tent and used the broken one for storage. I won’t lie, the warmth of 7 people in one tent was a good thing, but 3 additional bodies means that the ‘sleep’ was incredibly uncomfortable with no space other than to lie on your side spooning the 6 other people next to you.
Small eruptions and orange soil and lava on Volcan Fuego, Guatemala
At base camp, the guides set up a fire for everyone to sit around, socialise and eat dinner. The weather was so poor at the top the fire was pretty useless except to boil the water for the pot noodle and hot chocolate. (To qualify for some boiled water you needed to donate your own supplies).
Nothing more than a few puffs of smoke from the active Volcano Fuego and freezing cold from the bitter and relentless wind everyone had taken refuge in their tents and turned in for an early night by 9 pm.
Night falls over Guatemala. The view of Volcan de Agua, Guatemala City and the active Volcan Pacaya in the background.
Woken by what sounded like a car crash at around 12:30 am all 7 of us screamed ‘ERUPTION!’ and scrambled to unzip the front of the tent to crawl out.
And there it was, Fuego was spewing out lava with half of the cone a burning red. It was one of the most incredible things we had ever seen.
Our one and only eruption from Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala.
I grabbed my camera to find the battery had died from the cold – tried to undo the tripod attachment, change the battery and get the camera back on the tripod in time… This was the only image I managed to get before the lava cooled and the crater went quiet. The quality could be better, but due to the circumstances, I was just pleased to get one!
Some people are lucky and have eruptions every 20 minutes whereas others are unlucky and get no eruptions or some even more so with zero visibility once they reach the base camp and above. This is the risk you take before making the climb.
When we woke the Milky Way shone brightly outside of our tent, leading the way to the top of the Volcano. This was the first time I had ever seen the Milky Way with my own eyes.
Woken at 4:30 am you are dragged from your tents to climb the final hour and a half to see day break from the summit, overlooking Volcano de Agua.
You leave all of your possessions behind, just taking your walking stick/s, water and camera.
Fog and frost covers the whole of the summit of Volcan Acatenango, Guatemala.
This hour and a half is probably worse than the first hour of the initial hike. The hike is steep and largely volcanic rubble with two steps forward, one step back. Body shattered from the day before, freezing cold and in pitch black it’s tough to muster the power to get to the top – especially so as the morning we went you could barely see in front of you for the frozen fog.
As we climbed the final section the top it was layered with white frost. It gave the summit a sense of being otherworldly, kind of how I would expect the moon to be… if it had water to freeze over it’s bare and rugged landscape.
We were unlucky in the fact the dense layer of cloud meant you could see next to nothing but dim oranges and pinks.
The sun finally broke through the cloud above the adjacent volcano and shouts of joy came from everyone around. Short lived as a cloud immediately covered the sun again. This continued throughout the 10 minutes we were at the peak before being beckoned to make the descent back down to base camp.
The temperature had been -2˚C before the horrendous windchill. My camera lens kept freezing over and within 10 seconds of clearing it the layer of ice would be back where it had been.
Bright oranges and pinks come from the sun rising over Volcan de Agua, Guatemala.
Back at camp, you have 30 minutes around the campfire drinking coffee and hot chocolate, breaking into the boiled eggs (which are so boiled they’re grey) and scooping up yoghurt if you’re lucky it hasn’t exploded on the hike up.
Everyone clubs together to pack away the tents and the trek down begins.
Initially it feels quick and relatively easy. Once the flat section is done, you realise how much hell is ahead of you – especially if you have running trainers on like myself.
The ground is mostly dust. The worst injuries come from this leg of the hike. You will slip and fall, and you will fall hard and often. Just prepare yourself for a few bruises along the way.
At the bottom you will see fresh faced people on the first leg going up. You’ll be elated you went but bloody grateful you’re not in their shoes!
This was our experience of going with a cheap company. Would I recommend it? I would, but only for those happy with a rustic approach. The tent was an absolute fail and the sleeping bag probably hadn’t been washed in a year but you get what you pay for. The guides were local and had done the hike hundreds of times between them, that we felt confident that they would know what to do in an emergency, and, when the weather was poor at the summit they did force us to come down quicker than expected.
Whether you do it on the cheap or not, the actual hike is absolutely breathtaking. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it – even if you’re not lucky enough to see an eruption. Just being in or above the clouds is worth the sweat it takes to get to the top.
SAY HELLO, HOLA, CIAO, BONJOUR!
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