So here is another Volcano story. Since there were not enough people who wanted to go visit the Maya ruins in Tikal, I planned something entirely different. Hiking Acatenango, which is one of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua Guatemala.
A large part of the Central American Volcanic Arc runs through Guatemala. 33 volcanoes of this arc are situated on Guatemalan territories, 3 of which are active nowadays:
- Santa María, close to the city of Quetzaltenango
- Pacaya, a little south east of Antigua Guatemala. I had the chance to visit this volcano on my first weekend here in Guatemala
- Fuego, overlooking Antigua Guatemala
Acatenango is an extinct volcano with an elevation of 3976 m above sea level, overlooking Antigua Guatemala and also the slightly less tall (3763 m.a.s.l.) active volcano Fuego. With its elevation it is the 3rd highest point of central America. For comparison, the highest point is the volcano Tajumulco with an elevation of 4220 m.a.s.l. Here is the view from my office on the two volcanoes:
The thought that I was going to climb such a high mountain was a bit intimidating, also the sad news that a group of 6 people recently died due to the rough weather conditions on the mountain did not help. On the other hand, apparently they did not climb the mountain with a guide, ignored warnings and did not have the proper gear.
I was going to do all these things a little differently. First step was looking for a guided tour. I teamed up with Romina, a student from Germany at my Spanish school. We went for the travel agency which I already knew from the tour I did to Pacaya. We went for the 2 day option, with an overnight stay on a campsite from where we could watch the sunset, and served as a base for the final ascent to the summit of the volcano early in the next morning.
I also did some research on the Internet. And that research showed that this hike was not going to be a piece of cake. It promised a steep path on loose ground, a heavy backpack, shortage of oxygen at these altitudes and a rough climate.
On Saturday at 9 in the morning we went to the office of the travel agency, where an elderly man constantly sniffing on his Sinex spray showed up. He drove us for about an hour to the beginning of the climb, where a younger looking guy introduced himself as our guide. We added tent, sleeping bags, mat, and some food to our already full backpacks, which made me worrying even more. The backpack was really heavy by now, water being the main reason. Each of us carried more than 4 liters of liquids in our backpack. The weather also worried me. It was a cloudy morning, and the rapidly moving clouds suggested strong winds at higher altitudes.
We started to climb, at an altitude of about 2450 m.a.s.l. The first part led through steep fields where the farmers cultivated corn. The ground was very loose, which meant that half of our energy went into stirring dirt downwards. Many of the blog posts I studied beforehand suggested that the first bit would be the hardest, and it is true. At an altitude of around 2800 m.a.s.l., we entered a thick forest. It felt really strange thinking about it, back home you can find nothing but rock, snow and ice at these altitudes. Here we had solid, but wet ground under our feet, but still a very steep and challenging path. We kept going. Slowly but steadily. When we took our lunch break, we met another group, an US-Canadian couple with their guide. We joined forces for the rest of the hike. After lunch, we suddenly left the forest at an altitude of around 3400 m.a.s.l, and the sky cleared up. Partly because we left the clouds below us, and partly because the weather got better in general. At this point we started to surround Acatenango to get to the other side, where Fuego is situated. We had a fantastic view, and at this point I really began to enjoy this hike. After roughly 6 hours of an exhausting hike, we finally arrived at our camp site at an altitude of 3670 m.a.s.l. I can’t imagine a more beautiful camp site. On the left, we could see the volcano Fuego, really close at that point. On the right, the north-western highlands of Guatemala with many more volcanoes. Our guides set up the tents and cooked dinner on the fire. We all were so happy, knowing that this was worth all the effort. We watched the sunset. It was breathtaking, I think the most beautiful I have ever seen. The real spectacle started when the sun was completely down. Every once in a while, Fuego ejected glowing lava. This is a spectacle that is hard to describe in words or even pictures. We just stood there in awe and watched. Above us, a starry sky, and in front of us, this volcano ejecting glowing lava. We could even hear it, it sounds almost like a thunderstorm which is far away. Wow. I really thought there is nothing that could top that. At the same time, we were exhausted, and went into our tents early. I didn’t sleep much, 2 hours tops. Heavy wind was coming up, constantly shaking our tents.
At 4:45, my alarm went off, time to climb to the crater of Acatenango. Fortunately, we could leave our heavy gear at the campsite. It was a hard climb. Still dark, very steep, low oxygen level, and loose ground again. Mainly ash coming over from Fuego I suppose. And it was windy. Completely out of breath, we reached the crater and the cross at the summit, the clock showed 05:55. Altitude: 3976 m above sea level. And precisely at that point in time, Fuego on the other side started to erupt again. What a sight. We didn’t stay long at the top though, because the wind was so strong that it almost knocked us over. Walking upright was almost impossible, so we started to climb down to the campsite quickly. The guides prepared us some breakfast and we started to clean up the site in the meanwhile. After a nice breakfast (including coffee!) we started to hike down. Going downwards and only half of the weight, on our back, the descent was done in only about 2.5 hours. Our Sinex sniffing driver was already waiting for us, and took us back to Antigua, where we were looking forward to a shower and a bed.
Wow, what an experience. Probably one of the best I ever had on my trips. For those who are thinking about hiking Acatenango, I’ve written down some tips for this incredible adventure.