Hiking Acatenango

One of the things I wanted to do most when I made it to Antigua was hike Volcan Acatenango. I’d heard through the travel circuit that there was some great hiking in Guatemala, and this tough trek up a now inactive volcano was one of the best out there. What makes this hike extra special is the view from the top of its neighbor Volcan Fuego. Fuego is still active, so some lucky hikers get to see lava shooting out of it. Lately those lucky hikers are almost everyone – the past couple of months Fuego has been more active than it has been in years.

Typically people who want to hike Acatengango go through a hostel or tour company to book a guide, rent equipment, cover food and transportation, etc. I did not do this. Brayan had been before, so he, Matt and I decided we would go it alone. We packed up our backpacks, borrowed sleeping bags and a tent, got enough Subway sandwiches to last us three meals, and set off on a local chicken bus to the base of the trail.

I underestimated just how tough the hike would be. The first hour was all climbing uphill on soft volcanic dirt. Think what it’s like to run on sand but up a steep incline. By the time we reached the ranger station we had to pause to remove layers and take an energy-boosting swig of Quetzalteca. We carried on, continuing our uphill walk, through the varying forest of the mountain. Acatenango is a beautiful, fascinating hike. It goes through four different temperate zones: high farmland, cloud forest, high-alpine forest, and volcanic. The changing scenery is a great distraction from the physical exertion. If we weren’t racing against sunset we could have easily stopped more and longer to take it all in. One place we did have to pause for a while was at the juncture between cloud forest and high-alpine forest. It felt like we were on top of the world as we watched the clouds swiftly moving over the land below us.

The normal hike levels off after the cloud forest, taking people around a crater with a view over Antigua before resting at a camp on the east side, ideal for watching the sunrise. Again, we said fuck being normal, and took a right instead of a left to keep walking on the sunset side to a newer camp someone had told Brayan about. This meant we had no idea how long we had to hike to get to camp or what it would be like. We had expected it to level out like the other side, but we were very wrong. This way kept climbing, sometimes requiring actually scaling up rocks. At one point we were walking along a foot and a half wide path in volcanic ash shrouded in clouds. It was eerie and awe-inspiring and challenging. We were getting anxious to find camp since we were quickly running out of sunlight, but when we reached the other side of the volcanic ash and were back in a forest the clouds broke enough to see a brilliant sunset. This view was one of the best of the hike.

Suddenly we heard a rumble. Fuego. We quickened our pace and within minutes found the almost abandoned camp, just as the final moments of sun expired. Camping on Acatenango is a whole other challenge. It is freezing cold. We set up our tent as fast as we could with our now numb fingers. I put on every layer of clothing I had with me – 2 pairs of pants, 2 socks, 3 shirts, 2 jackets, scarf, gloves, hat – and even then we had to huddle close together to try to stay warm. The three of us slept like sardines just to make it through the night. But Fuego rewarded us for our suffering.

Fuego didn’t just erupt a little bit; it shot lava into the sky for hours. We joined the other four people who had found this camp around a tiny campfire for dinner and a show, the show being the lava. The reason we decided to go to this side instead of the normal side is because of the lava trails. Most of the lava of Fuego runs down the west side; the east side doesn’t usually get to see where the lava goes. So we saw fire shoot into the sky and then bright red lines streaming down the mountain. It was breathtaking. Fuego conveys a sense of power. I couldn’t help but marvel at the incredible force of nature that was in front of me. I also had to thank my camera for being a great machine that could capture this sight.

The next morning I woke up with the sun. The sky was every color of the rainbow. Fuego was still erupting in front of us, and the moon was hovering over Lake Atitlan in the distance. It was gorgeous.

The Acatenango hike is absolutely a must do for anyone visiting Antigua. I’m already talking to friends about going back up soon. I am considering making it a personal goal to go at least once a month.

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