We enjoy a good hike and especially a challenging one. Some of you are probably wondering why?
- Completing challenging hikes and ascents offer a great sense of accomplishment (and some opportunity for character building).
- Hikes can be an interesting way to meet new people and bond. Pain loves company.
- Stunning views can be experienced.
- Challenging hikes are a great way to cross-train and work a different set of muscles.
- Oh and there is usually the serene bliss of an early morning start.
We have done our share of trekking in South and Central America over the last couple months so I needed to remind myself of these benefits when we geared up for a short, acclimation hike up Volcano Pacaya and the longer two day summit attempt of Volcano Acatenango (the third highest point in Central America – we heard this a lot while in Guatemala but are still trying to figure out if that is impressive or not) and in the shadows of the third and active volcano, Fuego.
Acatenango only has had two recorded eruptions- one in 1920’s and the other in 1970’s. Fuego, on the other hand, is known for pretty regular, low volume eruptions. The last major eruption for Fuego was in 2007 when it spewed huge amounts of lava, rock and ash. The evening we arrived, from the town of Antigua, you could see small amounts of red lava being jettisoned.
There are two options to hike Acatenango- either a long day hike or overnight. We chose the overnight as the day hike is a long hike taking upwards of 12 hours and does not provide the best views of Fuego and its eruptions. Acatenango is a challenging hike up to 13,040 ft, and the trail climbs thru steep scree fields. It also provides stunning views of its twin volcano to the south, Volcan Fuego, overlooks the historic former capital city of Antigua, Guatemala and the valley in which it is nestled.
The overnight experience on Volcano Acatanengo starts with a roughly 1 hour drive from Antigua. On our trek, there were five of us (two women from the States, Ada and Lee, a guy from Finland and Chris and me) plus a guide (which is required) and 3 porters (for which we were thankful).
Day 1 of the hike was a solid uphill with some deep, sandy scree. All up, the hike took us 6 hours including breaks and lunch. We estimated actual hiking time was about 4 hours and 10 minutes to some great campsites created by the local folks that live around the mountain with awesome views of Volcano Fuego.
We had a gorgeous day hiking but typical for May in Guatemala at elevation, the clouds and fog rolled in that evening, and it got pretty cold (close to freezing which is cold if you have been in sandals the last few months). But we had a great pasta dinner and fresh, homemade tortillas over the campfire (and a little bit of rum) before going to bed early.
The following morning, we were up at 4 am and started hiking at about 4:15 am to the summit. Mentally, day 2 was probably the most challenging part because of little sleep the night before due to the constant and vigorous flapping of the tent all night, cold and damp morning weather, no breakfast, no coffee!, and a lot of shin-deep scree. We both considered mutiny and staying in our cozy sleeping bags, but when a quick look out of our tent at the approaching dawn presented a clear night sky and a spectacular lightening storm hundreds of miles away, we knew that it was going to be a spectacular sunrise and morning. The sunrise and views did not disappoint.
The hike to the summit only took about 1 hour, but it climbed a grueling 1200 feet through more deep scree over less than a mile. And at 13K feet, we were sucking wind the whole way up, but so were some of the 20 years old making the push or turning back (which, of course, we took as a small victory). The summit also did not disappoint. We were the first of the groups to summit. The lunar landscape with its large crater, a brisk cold wind, the surrounding volcanoes, the rising sun, and the exiting storm front in the distance, combined to create a surreal scene that many out there that have summited other mountains will appreciate. However, it was cold so with a few more minutes of the stunning views of Antigua and the Volcano Fuego, we headed back down.
The hike back to camp only took about 40 minutes, and we knew there was food as well as a fire waiting for us. The hike up was definitely challenging but the hike down was not a piece of cake. The start of the hike down has some solid uphills followed by a downhill section that was hard to get a solid footing upon. We were sliding all over and most of the group went down on the ground a few times.
If you decide to hike Acatenango, consider hiring a porter. We did and although we still had packs, our loads were definitely lighter and you are employing locals. Also, be sure to take plenty of water. There is no water source on Acatenango. Between the two of us, we had 10 liters of water and only had about a liter and a half for the way down which worked out fine for us.
Volcano Pacaya is another active volcano located about 1.5 hours from Antigua. The last activity reported has been the eruption that peaked on March 2, 2014 causing ash to rain down in Guatemala City and Antigua. But Pacaya was a “walk in the park” compared to Acatenango, and a great hike to get acclimated for bigger hikes in the area. We took about 2 hours to cover a 4-5 mile loop, stop to discuss the flora and fauna of the area and toast some marshmallows on the lava field (it seems to be a bit of a thing). We had some rain and a lot of cloud but caught some cloud breaks when hiking the lava fields which made the outing worthwhile.
We really enjoyed both hikes and the views of all three volcanoes. There are many more hikes and volcanoes in the area, and they are all worth checking out. Acatenango is supposedly the hardest but very doable and fantastic. We highly recommend it. And the next time I want to roll over and hit the snooze alarm (especially at 4 am), I am going to remind myself of the value of hiking and ‘summiting’.
Check out our other activities in Guatemala here.