Everyone who visits Guatemala must visit Antigua, and anyone who visits Antigua, must try to climb Acatenango, a dormant volcano since 1972. It is the dream destinations for activities as a backpacker. Cultures, nightlife, colors, foods, nature, ruins… Guatemala has it all! One of the many reasons why Guatemala falls on the top of my favorite list is Acatenango.
Why must you climb this volcano?
Reason 1: Acatenango is a twin peak. That means, sitting right across from it is a twin sister, Fuego, who happens to be a very active and angry erupting volcano. The twin volcanoes Acatenango and Fuego draw hundreds of visits from travelers every day. Fortunately, there have been no casualties of people hiking to see the eruptions.
Reason 2: At over 13,000 feet high, Acatenango is the tallest volcano in Guatemala, and the third tallest in Central America. To put this in perspective, Grand Canyon is only 6000 ft deep. Therefore, scaling it is not for the faint of heart. Not only is Acatenango very tall, the incline is ridiculously steep throughout the hike, averaging about 20 degrees incline. People who wish to scale the volcano are recommended to join a group guided hike. Cuong and I, being budget travelers and very, very brave individuals, decided to go on this trek by ourselves- no guide.
Going up 13,000 feet stressed the importance of traveling light. I only took the things that I truly needed: cellphone (which unfortunately got stolen on the bus ride there), tent and sleeping gear, outerwear, 4 liters of water (heavy, but paid off), 2 giant bags of red beans, 1 bag of apples, 1 bag of tortillas, and 1 bag of bread. All these things were essential in supplementing our energy. We also invested in two hiking sticks in preparation for the steep hike.
The Hike took blood and sweat to climb all the way up to Acatenango. With the incline, I felt as if I was trying to climb a vertical wall. About 30 minutes into the hike, I was already out of breath. There was still over 8 hours left! We took frequent breaks, and were able to admire the beautiful views of the nearby Guatemalan cities. About an hour into the hike, we encountered park officials, who required that we pay an entrance fee of 50 quetzales (about $7, a pretty hefty fee for Guatemala). We thought that they may be corrupt, and were taking advantage of us. So we haggled it down to about 40Q. It turns out they were legitimate, and were there because they started collecting fees to deter criminals and thieves away from the trail- perfect.
We set off again on long trails of dirt paths, switchbacks into the woods. Once we’re high enough, we started to see beautiful lush green floras. Large vines, thick shrubs, and huge trees surrounded us. The one downside of going on a grand hike without a guide is the inability to know where you’re going. About halfway through the hike, we were lost. To make it worse, it started to rain. We weren’t going to make it to the peak before nightfall. Thankfully, we ran into two guys. Misery loves company. We were so happy to meet people who also don’t really know what they’re doing. We set up our tents next to each other and huddled to keep warm and talked through the night. Careful to not deplete our food supply, we restrained ourselves from eating large meals.
The higher we climbed, the colder it was and the thinner the trees became. Pine trees were abundant in this section of the volcano. Soon enough, we reached the cloud forest. It was bizarre to hike through the clouds, and see it around us. I thought of how being above the clouds meant that we can’t be rained on anymore.
Each we start again on the torturous, I would be reminded of why we took the break in the first place. In my head, I was kicking, screaming, and deeply regretted my decision to do this hike.
…. and then…
There it was. A deep rumble coming from within the ground. It’s difficult to describe what I felt at the time. It was a mixture of excitement, adrenaline, and fear. It reminded me of the first time I scuba-dived with a whale shark, completely out of my comfort zone. It was so large, dangerous and strange, yet so natural and comforting. We were just a two miles from the lava erupting from Fuego. We were close enough to hear and feel Fuego. The angry twin sister erupted every five minutes. Every time I started to feel hopeless, Fuego erupted again, and renewed my determination to finish the hike.
Finally, we’ve reached the top! I thought this moment would never happen. Hours and hours of scaling up the massive volcano. What they didn’t tell us enough about the peak: it’s freezing cold. You’d think being on- or near- a volcano would be at least tropical warm. Wrong. There was nothing shielding us from this force of nature. The air is paper thin, the wind is vicious, and it’s absolutely frigid cold. You’d think being across from a volcano would warm you up a little. We set up our tent right across from Fuego, seeing first class views of the bright eruptions throughout the night. That night, we laid wide-awake, freezing, breathing in ashes, and listening to the volcano roar. We watched as the lava fill the night sky with angry, bright red. We were enthralled by the rumble, captivated by the colors, and felt fear of mother nature’s true power. The satisfaction of watching Fuego far outweighs all the hardships we’ve been through. I can’t wait to come back.
I would love to hear from you! Please leave your thoughts, comments, questions, and let’s exchange stories!