Jan, 2017: How long has it been since you climbed an active volcano and watched molten lava explode into the night sky? A while ago we did exactly that when we climbed Guatemala’s most active volcano, Volcan Fuego. The mildly ridiculous, and downright exhausting thing was that we were climbing Fuego and it’s silent partner Acatenango for the second time, just a few weeks apart.
Acatenango and Fuego are about one hour’s drive from Antigua and, cloud permitting are easily seen from Guatemala’s old capital. At 3976m and 3763m respectively they aren’t the highest climbs but they certainly still give you a good work out. Helpfully, the two peaks are joined by a bridge of land which means if you’re feeling really energetic you can do both summits in one overnight trip. While most agencies don’t advertise this ‘two for one’ package, if you negotiate with your guide and are prepared for three exhausting hours extra of climbing, you should be able to make it happen. Having said all this, really the main reason people climb Acatenango is the opportunity to see the lava show from Fuego. Basically as soon as you collapse on the ground at Acatenango base camp, you have a good chance of ring side seats to massive Fuego eruptions just a few 100 metres away. This is what makes it such popular hike offered by so many agencies in Antigua.
Unfortunately the first time we attempted the climb we had to turn back due to atrocious conditions. We got up to the Acatenango base camp to find white out conditions. Throughout the afternoon and evening, the most we saw of Fuego was through a couple of quickly vanishing breaks in the cloud. That night while we could hear Guatemala’s most active volcano the awful weather meant we saw nothing. The next morning, after an awful sleep in a tiny wet tent, we heard our guides yell out that we would have to turn back. Poking our heads out the tent we could see why. We couldn’t actually see a damn thing. A couple of metres from our tent visibility disappeared into a blustery, swirling soup of mist and rain. It was quite disconcerting. When we returned to Antigua that afternoon we heard that tragically, those same conditions had claimed the lives of eight Guatemalans. They had attempted the climb the same day as us, had their tents blown away and then died from hypothermia.
Initially after this awful first attempt at Guatemala’s most active volcano we were not at all motivated to return for a second go. Then one night we were walking through Antigua and saw massive eruptions coming from Fuego in the distance. For a moment we stood transfixed as huge fountains of lava spewed into the sky. Almost immediately we were convinced to sign on for a second attempt.
There are two main routes you can take to Acatenango base camp spilt into 4-5 sections. Both routes start with a tough 30 minute climb up a steep and gravelly incline where the gravel seems to be forever pushing you backwards. The second section isn’t much better but with less gravel it becomes slightly less taxing. From there you can either take a more direct and steeper path or the usual one which tackles the ascent in a series of switch backs. Mercifully, the last hour long section is virtually flat except for the painful last five minute scramble through loose gravel to get to the campsite. Depending on the pace of your group and how many stops you take, the whole thing takes 5-6 hours. It’s definitely not the hardest climb but it isn’t easy and some people suffer from the altitude.
When we arrived at base camp for our second attempt we immediately flopped down exhausted. Thankfully this time we had clear skies and before us we could see the smoking crater of Fuego puffing away. Almost immediately one of our climbing compadres started putting it out there that we should also climb Fuego. Initially I wasn’t having a bar of it but gradually his annoyingly pervasive enthusiasm wore me down. It didn’t help that my FOMO affected wife was immediately keen. Around 5pm all but two of our group set off for the 1.5 hour climb across the saddle between the two volcanos and up to the top of Fuego. The first 30 minutes was a hairy down hill scramble with the final hour being straight up. If I wasn’t super enthused at the start of the hike, thick fog and cloud did nothing to further my enthusiasm. Still, when we eventually got to the top the cloud thinned enough to treat us to a stunning sunset.
While we could hear the rumble from Fuego’s eruptions the cloud still prevented us from seeing anything. Awesome! Half the group continued a few hundred meters closer while five of us stayed put, huddled together for warmth. Before long we could feel massive eruptions kicking off. Cheers from the group that had ventured closer could just be heard above the thunderous roar. It was like being right next to an A380 jet taking off. While we couldn’t see anything, the closer group were about 150m away and got an amazing view. When they returned they were all buzzing about the lava show they had just seen. I put on a brave face but quietly kicked myself for not going with them. In some ways I was thankful for the exhausting walk back as it kept my mind off what I’d missed.
That night back at Acatengango base camp we were treated to an awe inspiring display of volcanic pyrotechnics. The cloud cleared completely leaving us with a perfect night sky and uninterrupted views to Fuego. The whole night enormous eruptions shook the earth and provided spectacular views of exploding lava. My initial disappointment from Fuego was replaced with the sobering realization at how close the guys would have come to being cooked by the molten rock. All night as we tried to sleep in our freezing tents, we were repeatedly drawn outside by the eruptions. It was like having front row seats to the best fireworks show that mother nature could offer.
The night’s eruptions meant the dawn ascent to Acatenango’s peak was a mild let down. The hour long climb in the pre-dawn darkness was steep, slippery, exhausting and freezing cold. To make matters worse we didn’t quite time our ascent right so we got to the summit about 30 minutes before sunrise. As soon as we got to the top we took shelter from the wind behind a big boulder. Strangers cuddled up together for warmth as we wished the sun to come faster. By this time Fuego had gone relatively quiet and we only saw a couple of minor eruptions. Eventually, the sun peaked over the horizon highlighting the stunning view across the top of Guatemala. The freezing temperatures sapped at our enthusiasm but it was still amazingly beautiful.
As we happily scrambled back down towards the warmth of our camp fire we were all stoked that we’d made the decision to have a second crack at Acatenango. Steaming mugs of hot chocolate were produced by our guides and we all slumped in the dirt exhausted but happy. We definitely wouldn’t do it a third time but the second effort had been worth it.
Climbing Acatenango tips:
For both of our treks we went with Planeta Maya on 7a Avenida Norte between Poniente and 5a Calle Poniente.
- From what we heard, Planeta Maya is the cheapest outfit in town. The trek cost us USD17/person (130Q) which included tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, guides and food. After the people died on the trek they have also started charging a 50Q entrance fee. You also need to register and sign a waiver at the start of the climb.
- The food and gear provided was adequate but don’t expect anything fancy or high quality. The tents were a bit worse for wear and some of the sleeping bags were basically useless. We were given a food bag to carry which consisted of two salad sandwiches, yoghurt, 2 bananas, 2 boiled eggs and a cup of noodles. They also provided hot chocolate in the evening and coffee (no tea) in the morning. They didn’t provide walking poles but these could be rented for 5Q each from the start of the trek. Unless you pay for a porter, you will need to carry all of the above gear.
- What to bring: Given the food provided it’s definitely worth bringing some extra snacks and some rum or whisky to warm you up at night. Make sure you bring enough warm layers of clothing, gloves and a beanie as it is freezing at night. These can be hired from the agencies in Antigua or at the start of the hike from some enterprising locals. Bring a head torch or light of some kind, plus toilet paper. Definitely make sure you hire at least one walking stick.