This post is dedicated to our wonderful friend, Mr H, who sadly and far too early passed away whilst I was hiking Acetenango. All through the night Fuego erupted, shooting out masses of beautiful glowing embers high into the night sky, and I’d like to think that the universe was celebrating his life. To Mr H, who will be missed dreadfully.
Breaking the mold
Usually my posts are all about ‘how to do things independently’, but on this occasion I’m going to break the mold because I’m going to recommend an agency.
This is the MOST gruelling, physically demanding hike I have ever tried, let alone my two youngest kids who are 8 and 9 and hiked it too.
I’d do it all again tomorrow but I’d only ever use one agency to get us up there!
Our love of hiking
If you follow our journey, you’ll know that we love to hike and we try to do it as often as is feasibly possible. IE, how much the kids will tolerate before kicking off and refusing to hike any more.
From the tropical heat of Hamilton Island to the mountainous slopes of Pico Ruivo and from the beautiful lakes of Bulgaria to the frozen Lake District. We try to hike as frequently as we can. (This is just a small selection of our hikes because I’m pretty sure you’d be bored if I listed them all lol).
There are three volcanoes that overlook the lake at Atitlan; San Pedro, Toliman & Atitlan.
We stayed on the Lake the week before we went to Antigua and I had hoped we could hike one of them however I had severely underestimated the amount of time it took to travel around the lake from our very small village Agua Escondida and as a result we weren’t able to get to any of them.
I was disappointed but thank goodness we didn’t, because it meant that we got to hike Acetenango which is in Antigua.
So aside from Antigua being drop dead gorgeous, it is surrounded by not one, not two, not even three but FOUR volcanoes. Pure heaven AND two of them are active.
The volcanoes are Agua, Fuego, Pacaya and Acetenango:
- Height: 12,333ft (3,760m)
- Current Status: Dormant
- Claim to Fame: After several days of pouring rain in the mid-1500s, the conical summit of Volcan Agua filled with water. Following an earthquake caused by an eruption from the Fuego, the conical split, causing a catastrophic mudslide. It devastated Antigua, which was the capital of Central America, and forced the city’s relocation to Guatemala City.
- Hike: The summit can be reached in approximately 4 – 5 hours from the village of Santa Maria de Jesus. The hike is vertically challenging and will be tough for beginners.
- Safety: Many tour operators have discontinued organized treks due to the increased threat of bandits. You can still hike alone but do so at your own risk. See more info here
- Height: 12,343ft (3,763m)
- Current Status: Very Active. You can see its smoke from Antigua.
- Claim to Fame: Fuego is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America. It erupts many times a day.
- Hike: The easiest route goes through Volcan Acatenango and is broken up into 2 days. Options include climbing Acatenango the first day and then hiking over to Fuego the next morning. If you opt not to go with a tour then self-guided info can be found here.
- Cost: If you go up through Acatenango, there is a park entrance fee of Q50 (approximately £5/$7).
- Safety: Be aware people have died climbing Acetenango. Do not under-estimate how COLD it can get up there.
- Height: 13,044ft (3,976m)
- Current Status: Dormant
- Claim to Fame: Watching Fuego erupt from Acetenango is the greatest natural thing I’ve ever seen.
- Hike: This is a challenging trek and it can be done intensively in one day. Expect it to take roughly 7-9 hours to ascend and descend in one day. The overnight trip is broken into three parts; the hike to base camp, the summit hike and the descent. Expect the hike to take 4-6 hours, 1-2 hours and 2-3 hours. Self-guided hiking information can be found here.
- Cost: There is a park entrance fee of Q50 (approx £5/$7).
- Safety: Pack warm clothes.
- Height: 8,371ft (2,552m)
- Current Status: Active. It glows throughout the day and out.
- Claim to Fame: This is the most climbed volcano in Guatemala and as such is a tourist hot spot.
- Hike: This can be done in 2-3 hours and is perfect for those looking for an easier challenge. For those wishing to summit it on their own, click here for more information.
- Cost: There is a park entrance fee of Q50 (approx £5/$7).
- Safety: There are two different trails, the most popular starts in San Francisco de Sales as it’s patrolled by rangers.
El Volcan Acetengango
So, let’s get onto ACETENANGO!
At 13,044 feet/3976m Acetenango is a biggie! But it is not the highest! That medal goes to Volcán Tajumulco with Tacana following shortly behind.
Whilst Acetenango might only be the third highest, it is not to be taken too lightly. Acatenango is a volcano with two peaks. The northern summit, Yepocapa, stands at 3,830 metres, and the southern and highest summit, Pico Mayer, stands at 3,976 metres.
What makes it distinctive?
It is a strangely distinctive mountain in that it has three very different areas and sets of trees.
The Oak Forest sits at the base of the volcano, about half way up you pass through the Cloud Forest, which has the greatest diversity of flora and fauna in the country, and then the higher you climb you’ll find the Pine and Sub-Alpine Forests.
People have died on Acetenango
At the beginning of January 2017 the weather suddenly changed and twelve rescue missions were launched to rescue a number of hiking groups on Acetenango. Sadly six hikers lost their lives to hypothermia and about four more were rescued in one night (from those four, two others died). Over sixty locals rallied around that night to rescue many other hikers and get them down to the villages.
Every bit of research I did told me, do NOT underestimate this hike.
So; unless you’re an experienced hiker, who can map read, is used to hiking elevations; is confident in their own abilities; can carry all the camping gear and is happy to take kids up onto an extremely cold, blustery and icy summit, then I would never recommend that you hike Acentenango alone.
If you are all of the above, I doubt you’d be reading this blog however if you do want to hike it alone, read here.
No experience hiking?
There are many climbable volcanoes around Antigua but the most common is Pacaya.
If you have no experience in hiking, I’d opt for Pacaya. It’s a simple up and down in a little over two hours. It’s also active and from what I can ascertain it’s a lot of fun to straddle the hot spots and cook marshmallows on its glow.
Acetenango however starts steep, middles out a bit flatter and then that last ascent to the summit is a killer!
Why I chose Gilmer Soy (Soy Tours)
I contacted Ox Expeditions who despite receiving my WhatsApp messages, decided to ignore me. I later realised that their groups comprised of young, 6 foot tall beauties with ravishingly long hair and perfect teeth… Make of this what you will.
I then contacted Adventurisma who did respond and told me the hike would take three hours up and two down and they’d charge half price for the kids. They glossed over all the details and I didn’t feel confident in them.
Then somebody recommended Gilmer Soy; a local man who employs local guides and REALLY takes care of you. I contacted him and within five minutes he had responded; answering all of my questions and more. All of the guides have been certified by INGUAT too and I felt he was trustworthy and honest and I decided to choose him.
Why is Soy Tours different?
Because he cares. That is the ONLY reason why his is the best tour to book.
The gear is already at the top of the volcano on base camp awaiting you. That means you do not have to carry the tent, sleeping bag or sleeping mat. PHEW!
He also provides you with THREE MEALS. None of this boiled egg and instant soup shit. We got vegetable rice, salad and an apple for lunch along with a drink. For our evening meal our guide cooked us vegetable pasta, re-fried beans, mashed potato, hot chocolate and marshmallows!! For breakfast the next morning we got corn-flakes.
I’ve read a lot of horrendous stories about awful guides who couldn’t give a crap about their groups, who don’t prepare them and who leave them behind if they’re slow (yes we saw this). If you hear a whistle, it could be a tour guide letting his group know they’re going too slowly. Isn’t that awful!
We also heard stories of people hiking who had turned back in protest and descended alone in search of an Uber, groups who were left walking in the dark, people who had to set up their own tents in the rain but most blogs I read were just about being incredibly hungry.
I did not want that and we felt that Gilmer would be good for us.
We were actually staying in a small village outside Antigua called Santa Ana. It was much more authentic and we were the only ‘gringos’ there however it did mean that we had to be up, packed, dressed, washed and ready by 7am to leave the house.
After a tricky start with NO Uber in 20 minute sight.. EEK, we managed to walk out of the village onto the main road and find a tuk-tuk. Thank goodness for tuk-tuks!
We met our driver and mini bus in Antigua central plaza at 7:30am!!
Prepare Accordingly for the Weather
I mean this with all seriousness.
Our first day up to base-camp, we had glorious weather. It was beautiful with blue skies and a full sun. I started to regret how many layers of clothes I had on and had packed… I had to strip off because I was sweating so much.
However, the higher we climbed the COLDER and WINDIER it got.
Bring all the warm clothing you have. In the end I had two singlets, two short sleeve tshirts, a long sleeve tshirt, a jumper, a jacket, a coat AND I SLEPT WEARING ALL OF THEM and still shivered.
Meeting Gilmore in the village
We met Gilmore in the village of San Jose Calderas where we rented hats and gloves for a small cost (Q8/£80p/$1.20), borrowed warm coats and met our Guide.
Our guide was called Dervin and we opted to employ two more men from the village to carry our packs. They were Robin and Abel.
Why did we opt to employ two more men?
- I know my limits and my pack can’t weight more than about 4-6kg. Our two packs weighed roughly 8-10kg each. I just didn’t want the burden of carrying a pack on an already difficult hike.
- I wanted to support the local men and give back to their community.
- I will not abuse a horse who has no choice but to carry 10+ backpacks on its back, whilst dragging a man behind it.
We were transported to the bottom of the volcano in the minivan, where upon sliding the door open loads of people pounced on us waving sticks. I was thinking ‘holy shit what do they want!?’ when I was reminded that we could rent walking poles (made from wood) from the locals.
We rented one each and paid Q20/£2/$2.60 in total. This money is vital for a rural community that has few opportunities to gain regular employment.
There’s no touchy feely warm up
For me, hiking up Acatengago is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have never felt so physically challenged and I know the kids felt the same too.
There’s no “warm-up” to ease you into the kicking you’re about to receive, and from the moment you step on the trail until you get to basecamp at 3,500-meters or whatever it is, it’s an up-hill slog.
I guess that should be expected when hiking a volcano. The first ninety minutes are definitely the worst and after that you reach the switchbacks and it does become slightly more enjoyable. I definitely enjoyed it much more when we passed through the pine forest.
Now can you see why we hired Robin and Abel too? I cannot imagine hiking that with packs too.
Paying the park fees
The fee to enter the park is Q50 each. It’s about £5/$8. You’ll need cash to pay this and you’re given a ticket. Keep hold of it, just in case.
Please, please pay the fee. Don’t try and sneak through. The trail employs men, it keeps the pathways in good condition and it keeps the route open for all of us.
Opposite the fee hut is a man selling freshly cut watermelon and cans of drinks. We bought watermelon for the kids which cost us something ridiculous like Q5 in total. 50p/80c.
We stopped a number of times on the way up.
- The first was about 30-40 minutes into the hike where there’s a large cafe that sells breakfast, burgers and drinks etc. I have no idea on prices. The panoramic photo above is from that stop.
- The second was for the park fees, mentioned above.
- The third stop was for lunch at the ‘blue hut’ where a man sold coffee and hot chocolate plus biscuits. There are two eco-toilets here – although you’ll need your own toilet paper. Hot drinks were Q5 each. We spent about 20 minutes here and had two drinks each.
- Then we had another stop later on but only for 5 minutes or so.
I have NO idea who these dogs belong to or where they live but there are about twenty dogs at various points up the volcano. Sometimes they have their own agenda and other times they stick with a group.
I saw dogs at the bottom who ran in front of us who I then saw the next morning sleeping at the summit.
Stripping off and getting dressed again
Remember how I said there were three types of forest well the temperature changes drastically.
For the first part of the hike we had beautiful blue skies however you soon feel the clouds hugging your with their misty coolness. It’s pretty cool that you can stand and watch them fly past.
I think base camp is around 3,500 feet. I’m pretty sure that Abel told me the final ascent to the summit was 378 feet but my ability to retain much information at that height was pretty poor.
I’ll be honest, although I was tired and I was ready for base camp, I could have gone on to climb the summit. In some respects I think climbing the summit during day-light hours would have helped me a lot. It certainly would have been easier to see where I was going and a considerable amount warmer.
Base camp was us and our guides. Pretty cozy with just two tents and a camp fire. I am improving my Spanish every day and it was really nice to sit around the fire, chatting with the guys trying to get an insight into their lives.
For anybody who is interested, we westerners are incredibly indulged. I was joking about having a hot bath and a massage at the top of the mountain when their village doesn’t even have running water.
There is an eco-toilet for the camp which you share, it’s a bit smelly and some inconsiderate men from the above camp peed on the wooden seat but after I’d cleaned it up it was more than usable.
The amazing thing about base camp is that you’re almost level with Fuego and the weather changes minute by minute! It is fascinating.
Enjoying the camp fire
The best part of the day for the kids was the camp fire (la fugata) which we desperately warmed our hands on, ate around and then later cooked marshmallows on…. for once we said nothing about not eating sugar and let the kids eat them.
It’s not everyday they hike 5+ hours.
Can you imagine how exciting it is to camp right opposite an active volcano?
Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego are joined and form the ‘La Horqueta’ volcano complex. Fuego is the most active volcano, frequently rumbling, letting out steam and about five times that night it erupted with gusto!!
As I peered out from my tent multiple times in the night, I could see its sides glowing red with tumbling embers and on two occasions breathing fire like a dragon.
The night from hell
Before it even got dark the winds started to bellow and the cloud coverage became dense. We were camped at the entrance of a gully and the clouds whisked past us as a tremendous speed.
The tent which had been flapping around started to lurch drastically from side to side as we shivered inside. Being wrapped in at least five layers of clothes, not including a jacket didn’t seem to help so I put on my gloves and hat too.
Have no pretense that tents have ZERO thermal qualities and that the only warmth your hands will receive is if you sleep on top of them! With just the top of my face poking out of my hat and sleeping bag, there was no relent from the noise of the wind and the feeling that we might just take off.
Let’s get something straight….
At 3:45am, having managed about 40 minutes of sleep, Fuego let out an enormous rumble and a big blast of molten lava. I leapt out of the tent to photograph the redness spewing out of it and decided that I should just not bother going back to bed.
Before we proceed, two quick things: firstly, you will notice from here that there are zero photos from me hiking to the summit. This is because it is THE MOST DIFFICULT hike I’ve ever completed. I physically could not think past my next step.
Think -5*c, shivering under my seven layers of clothes, wind howling around my face stinging my cheeks, hiking 80 degree angles in the dark on a volcanic surface that I immediately sank into, my nose was dripping in protest and my fingers numb from the cold. For a while I thought this might be hell – until I remembered how cold it was.
This is to demonstrate this is not the type of adventure you do just for Instagram. It’s tough, tiring and testing (but I would do it again)!
I beat the beast inside my head…
You know that beast inside you head? The one that tells you you can’t do something? The one that says it’s too cold, you should be in bed. The one that tells you no matter how hard you hike, you won’t make the sunrise?
I beat that voice (with a little help from Dervin our guide) by setting myself points to reach. These points were probably thirty steps apart from each other and I was walking with baby steps, sinking into the soft black ground, trying to forget that my fingers were excruciatingly numb and painful.
I kept thinking of the kids and Rich, fast asleep in the tent and wondered what the actual f*ck I was doing!
Frost lay glistening white on the ground around the path and icicles clung to the few plants that were able to grow.
Reaching the summit
The exhilaration of reaching the summit was short lived as I realised I could barely move. The wind blasted me from every direction meaning I could hardly balance let alone put one foot in front of the other.
And then I saw the moon, shining brightly above the grey volcanic dust and the pink hues of the clouds reflecting the rising sun.
Dawns first rays
I’m still amazed that I made it up there in time for sunrise.
Seeing the sun peek above Agua was a huge accomplishment but ultimately one I’m sad that I achieved alone. It was too dangerous for the kids to hike due to the wind speed so they had to stay in the tent… sleeping!
Would I hike Acetenango alone in the future?
YES!! We all would. If we had further practice at hiking Acetenango a couple more times and if I felt confident, I’d be more willing to have a bash at it alone but on this occasion I’m very, very pleased that we used Gilmer Soy Tours.
I’d love to have another go at hiking this beast Acetenango and I’d love to set some proper goals to climb it in under three hours. I know that I can!
I’d also like to climb Volcan Fuego which I’ve heard is incredibly exhilarating. It just means that I have to go back to Guatemala – which is not bad at all 🙂
The hike down might be worse
If I thought the hike up was gruelling, the hike down might actually have been worse. It was MUCH quicker but that’s mostly because you have no option but to slide down the mountain with little control.
The kids thought it was wonderful and they slipped down using their hiking pole as a ski pole. With the help of Robin, Imogen had the best time skiing down the mountain side.
Fuego let out one last blast just as we left…
Let’s talk about the DIRT
I emptied my shoes out at regular intervals down the mountain but I managed to empty this out onto the floor when we got back to our rental.
In fact, three weeks on, my shoes have still not recovered and they’ll be going in the washing machine.
Maps & Stats
Further stats found on our MapMyHike Profile
Up to base camp
AVG PACE 56:40
Hike up to the summit
AVG PACE 59:57
The hike down Acetenango
AVG PACE 30:50
If you choose to go with Gilmer Soy, you don’t need to pack camping stuff and you can hire a man to carry your backpack. You can even borrow a backpack from Gilmer’s headquarters too.
- Backpack (if you don’t have one don’t worry)
- Trainers (sneakers) or light weight walking boots
- Layers: 2 x singlets, 2 x short sleeved tshirts, 1 x long sleeved tshirt, a jumper/hoodie
- A jacket or coat (you can borrow these from Gilmer too but it’s always best to have your own)
- A rain proof outer-layer
- 3 pairs of socks
- Hat and gloves (rent these from Gilmer)
- Head torch (don’t worry if you haven’t, your guide will have one)
- Trainers (Sneakers) or lightweight walking boots. Nothing too heavy.
- Tights (both of our kids wore a pair of tights!)
- Leggings (only our daughter wore leggings)
- Trousers and Shorts (Take both because at night they can sleep in the trousers)
- Layers: singlet, short sleeved tshirts, long sleeved tshirt, a jumper/hoodie
- A jacket or coat (sometimes you can borrow these from Gilmer but it depends if he has the right size)
- A rain proof outer-layer
- 3 pairs of socks
- Hat and gloves (rent these from Gilmer)
Gilmer provides 3 meals but you don’t want to eat these before you get to camp
- Biscuits & Cookies
- 2 x jars of peanut butter (it really helped motivate our two and keep them going)
- Water – don’t take more than 4-5 litres of water per family because you can buy drinks on the way up
- Money – You’ll need roughly: Q500 extra for glove/hat rental, entrance fee, pole rental and drinks and a tip for your guide
- Wet wipes
- Toilet roll
- Plastic bag to wrap things inside. The dirt gets everywhere!
My next challenge
I have been desperate to paraglide for ages (we already did it off the back of a boat) and I had hoped that Guatemala would be the place. Sadly not but check out these guys who did it from Acetenango!!
This was, without a doubt, a spectacular hike to complete with our kids. I’m so proud of them. If you’re interested in hiking this with your kids, add this to your Pinterest board.