Antigua, Guatemala has stunning panoramic views. From anywhere in the city, you can see volcans Acatenango and Fuego looming above. It’s a beautiful little town with friendly people, culture, and chicken buses – which, I sit and watch on my first day here, as they come and go. Funnest looking buses ever! But that’s another story.
Where was I?
Oh yes, looming volcanos.
I wonder what it’s like living next to a volcano that constantly belches up huge clouds of ash and lava. That constant threat of, will this be the day Fuego gets really angry and shows what he’s made of? Sadly, in June 2018, that day arrived.
Before that, however, I had the opportunity to see Fuego up close, by hiking its neighbor, a much tamer, and, more importantly, dormant, volcan Acatenango.
I’m not the most experienced volcano hiker out there, but I have done a couple. And let me tell you, this is, by far, the hardest one I’ve done so far.
Also, I don’t like camping. Why would I pay to sleep outside? But hiking Acatenango meant spending the night at the top because it was too far to ascend and descend in one day. So I had to camp. In the cold. On a volcano. I am more nervous about this than I am about the actual hike.
I book my trek through my hostel. They lend me hilariously ugly, but warm, clothing. No backpacker in central America travels with winter clothing. So, I happily pack up an oversized purple coat, that is an eye sore at best, along with gloves and wool socks that are meant for a giant man. Fashion is not your concern up on that volcano. If you are warm, you are happy.
By chance your hostel doesn’t have anything, go to the market. If thrift shopping is your thing, this is the mothership!
Now, if you book with a reputable company, tents will already be set up at base camp, meaning you don’t have to carry one up. You will carry all of your own things though, including water. Food and dishes are provided, and you will be well fed. Leave room in your bag for these items. I do not, and squish my food package into my bag without knowing what was in it. Later, when I pull out a mangled, mushed, gloopy mess that was once a banana, I realize that perhaps I shouldn’t have done that. Hopefully a wild animal found it and had a good meal. In addition to the supplied food, I bring two chocolate bars, 3L of water, Advil, and multiple layers of clothing.
Let’s get serious for a minute. Clothing. Mucho importante mi amigos!
In addition to my awesome outerwear that has everyone staring when I pull it out later that evening – because they are envious of my obvious fashion sense, and not because I now look like Grimace – I wear layers of dri fit underneath.
I cannot recommend layers enough. Layers layers layers. Say it with me, people!
Some in the group wear big bulky sweatshirts and sweatpants. They freeze, and let us all know. I wear base layers of dri fit, and am fine. Considering I’m not even 100lbs, with minimal body fat, and am always cold, I definitely did this part right. Also, packing light is much easier if you aren’t trying to compress big bulky items.
So, please, (PLEASE!) be smart about your clothing options.
Let’s also talk footwear. So many guides and tour companies kept telling me, “hiking shoes, hiking shoes, hiking shoes!” My suspicions on whether or not they all had shares in the hiking shoe industry grew, so I asked every traveller I met if I could, in fact, do this hike in an old pair of Asics. I was told the same thing by everyone. And now I can now tell you:
Sure, hiking shoes give you a bit more grip, but are they a requirement? No. Will you fall off the volcano to your untimely death because you don’t have the perfect shoes? No. Any running shoe with a good tread is fine. Just know that your shoes will be demolished by the end, so don’t buy a brand new pair just for this hike.
On the day of the trek, I am picked up at 9am. We drive up and up and up. I’m confused – are we hiking or driving up? Turns out, the hike starts around 2200m. We pull up to a little shack on the side of the road and are given food, dishes, and a walking stick.
I initially decline the stick, because who wants to carry a big giant stick up a volcano?! Certainly not I. But the guides insisted. They were very right. It’s almost like they have experience with this volcano. That stick was my balance, my reassurance, my confidante, my security. Basically my best friend. I named it Jose. Take the stupid stick. Trust me.
The first hour is grueling. It is insanely dry and dusty, the ground is loose volcanic rock, and on a steep incline. Obviously. Any step I take, I slide backwards. At times, we are in a narrow walkway with dirt walls on either side, like in a trench. It’s awful because there’s no breeze to move things around, it only swirls around me in a big, suffocating cloud.
Because of the altitude, I am naturally breathing heavier. I have a buff to cover my mouth, but guess where it is? In my bag, of course, because it didn’t occur to me that I’d need it so soon. There is nowhere to stop, so I am stuck breathing all that dirt in. It is so gross! My teeth feel really gritty and thick.
This seems like a good time to mention – don’t wear contacts! I wore my glasses, which, embarrassingly enough, match the ugly purple coat. So fashionable!
I am also very aware of the altitude. I vividly remember the awful feeling of altitude sickness in Bolivia. I couldn’t even function! At least back then, I was able to curl up in my hostel bed with Advil and water and wait to acclimate. Out here, I am forced to move, so I am very scared of becoming dehydrated and going through that again. I cannot fathom the idea of doing anything at all physical while feeling like that! So I am all over the water. If I could have hooked up a garden hose and taken it with me, I would have.
If you’ve never dealt with altitude, know that you will drink a lot more water than you normally do. In addition to your own drinking water, you are expected to contribute some for cooking, cleaning dishes, etc. – about a half litre. I brought 3L, and had to ask for more from others for the descent the next morning.
In the next part of the climb, the topography changes to more of a damp, lush forest scene. A very steep forest.
Oh, hello Jose, buddy ole pal, lovely to have you here. I lean on that stick a lot, let me tell you. Some parts are so slippery and steep, I have to get really low, grab whatever I can that is sticking out of the ground, and crawl up. It is very physically demanding. Many of us fall. We learn pretty quick to keep space between us so that if one person falls, we don’t all go down like dominoes.
A couple people start falling behind, so one guide stays back. Our guides are a father and son team, and I like that we always have a guide at the front, and one at the back, so no one is ever left behind.
The next rest point has a registration booth, where every hiker fills out a form and pays 50 quetzal (about $8 US). It’s an entrance fee, but it also helps keep track of visitors in case anyone goes missing, or there’s an accident, etc.
We stop for lunch, and the altitude is starting to affect the temperature so I add a long sleeve shirt to the dri fit pants and t-shirt I’m already wearing. Around 3,600-3,700m, we finally reach the flatter part of the hike, where we walk around the perimeter of the volcano to get to base camp. My legs, by the way, feel like jell-o, and I’m pretty sure I’m walking funny.
At the last rest stop, we are told, it’s only 15 minutes left. Great! Yay! Celebrate!
What they don’t tell us is that this is the narrowest, steepest, slipperiest, hardest part of the whole hike. OMG, it is f*cking grueling. I hate every minute of it! Jose and I are no longer speaking, and I want to toss him off the side of the volcano. But alas, I trudge forward, and drag his sorry ass to the top.
Finally arriving at base camp, relief and exhaustion wash over everyone, and we all sit quietly in awe of the clear, front row view of Fuego. I’d never seen anything like it.
Base camp, by the way, is a fantastic set up. The tents are big and brand new, as are our sleeping bags. There’s four to a tent, and we are each given a foam mattress and pillow. There’s also a fire pit, a cooking grill, and lawn chairs to relax in.
It takes 5 hours to reach base camp. We are all so tired, some doze off in the lawn chairs, some disappear into the tents. I – classy as always – don’t even make it that far. I sit on the ground, in the dirt, and pass out. I ain’t even embarrassed. I am exhausted!
Then comes a big decision – do I want to hike to the summit for sunset? I know, that if I try for sunrise, it will not happen. There is absolutely no way I’ll feel up to hiking upwards at 4am, in the dark, before breakfast, at this altitude. Nope. It’s now or never.
Me: It’s only 200m up. How hard can it be?
Volcano: Challenge accepted.
It takes about an hour and a half to reach the summit, and is harder than anything we’ve done all day. It’s really loose volcanic rock, slippery, really deep, and really – really – steep. It is way worse than the final ascent to base camp. Every step requires massive effort. Every three steps I take, I slide backwards two steps. It is so hard, I almost quit after the first ten minutes.
It. Is. Such. A. Struggle.
OMG, I hate every minute of it. Jose, once again, bears the brunt of my frustration. As we go higher, I grow more tired, and more dizzy. We pause to rest at one point, and all I can do is close my eyes and lean on dear Jose. The last part is vast, open, and it seems like it’s straight up. It is absolutely horrific. I’m going so slow I may as well just get on all fours and crawl. I think I actually do, at one point.
Finally, we claw our way to the top, and holy sh*t…it is INCREDIBLE. It’s vast, open, rolling hills. We are above the clouds. We can see volcans Fuego and Agua clearly. The sun is right in front of us. I feel like I can reach out and touch it. The clouds look like a soft, pillowy blanket. The colours are different from every angle, and there’s no way to take a bad picture. It is just stunning. I’ve forgotten the struggle. I even love Jose again. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
I left most of my bag at base camp, but did bring an extra layer, and am really glad I did – it’s COLD up here! I also had a headlamp. Crucial! You can’t see a damn thing once the sun sets. Obviously. There are no street lights on top of a volcano.
After watching Fuego and the sunset for about 45 minutes, we make our way down.
The descent to base camp is SOOO fun! Because the gravel is so deep, we can’t just casually walk down. This ain’t no normal hill on a breezy summer day, my friends. So, I follow the guides actions and skate down. Every step I take, I literally slide down about five feet. Once I got into the rhythm of rocking back and forth, leading with my heels, I fly down in no time. I could’ve done that all day.
Back at base camp, dinner is served, and we watch as Fuego puts on a casual show. By 9:30pm, we are all eyeballing our rustic foam mattresses as if they are the fanciest beds we’d ever seen. I sleep with all of my layers on, winter coat, wool socks, and gloves, and am zipped into my sleeping bag. I am comfortably warm all night.
At some point in the middle of the night, I wake up with a serious migraine, extreme nausea and low blood sugar. Oh, hello altitude. I feel like death, and it terrifies me. Luckily, I anticipated this, knowing that I struggle with overnight hours at these altitudes. Before going to sleep, I had put candies, water and Advil within reach. When I wake up a couple hours later, I feel semi human again.
Altitude affects everyone differently, and some not at all, but be prepared in case it affects you as harshly as it does me. I am SO thankful I had previous experience, and knew how to prepare myself.
By 6am, the sun comes up and camp starts to wake up.
I feel like I should also discuss bathroom breaks. Let me just say, there is nothing at all graceful about peeing on the side of a volcano. I thought I was a pro at it after the hike up, but this morning, I find myself literally sliding down the volcano in broad daylight as I pee. And I can’t stop. The peeing or the sliding. So much for being discreet behind a tree. I’m surprised I haven’t peed in my shoe yet.
You are most welcome for that visual.
We eat breakfast and start heading down by 8am. The hike down is just f*cking treacherous. Of course. Not at all the skiing, fun descent I experienced last night. Instead, it’s a slow, unsteady, slippery, difficult trek, that is most ungraceful and really hard on the knees and toes (they smash into the front of my shoes with every step). The group spaces out as we quickly realize that we are dominoes once again, and will crash into each other if we don’t. It takes about two hours to get down and we don’t pause for any breaks. By this point, we just want to get down, and for it to be over.
I am back at my hostel by 11am, and let me tell you, that is the best shower I’ve ever had. The water is BLACK! I’ve never been so dirty in my life.
Overall, this was an incredible experience. But yes, I am very glad it’s over.
Have you hiked Acatenango or something similar? Better yet…would you? Let me know in the comments below!
(This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on a link and purchase something, I earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you. See my full disclosure policy here.)