We wrote this article just a few days before the devastating news of Volcan de Fuego erupting. We’re thinking of those affected by the events and to friends we’ve met along the way that live nearby.
The main attraction in Antigua, for people who are fit and active (yes we do more than drink all the beers) is the Acatenango Volcano overnight trek. Everyone we know or have met whilst travelling raved about it so much that is was a must on our trip to Guatemala. What makes this particular volcano trip stand out from the many on offer throughout C. America is the Volcán del Fuego situated right next to it. This volcano is still active and erupts every 20 minutes on average.
There are plenty of travel agencies, hotels and hostels organising the trip. We booked with our hostel, Hostel Tropicana, which was highly recommended from friends who have previously visited. The cost of the trip was 450 quetzals, so give or take 45 pounds. This included transport to the base of the volcano (1 hour drive away), two guides, tents and sleeping bags brought up for us, 4 meals, wine, coffee/hot chocolate and of course the entrance to the volcano. We were told to prepare for all weather types: hot sunny weather, tropical downpours, frost and high winds.
On Tuesday we were given a free breakfast before starting the trek at the hostel followed by renting out equipment such as warm clothes, big backpacks and head lamps. The tours on offer from the hostel can be up to 20 people, we however got quite lucky and we only had 12 people which was a great number. After an hours drive we arrived at the bottom of the volcano.
We were introduced to our guide Jaime and Oscar and started our long trek to base camp. The bus dropped us at 2600m altitude, the start of the trek at 2700m, base camp at 3600m and the summit at just under 4000m. They told us the trek usually takes 6 hours to climb. Some groups have done it in 5 but some have also taken 8 hours! Having never done a trek of this amplitude before we thought as a group we’d take around 6 to 6/half hours.
Jaime and Oscar explained that we will be taking a break every 30 minutes and eating lunch roughly half way up (apparently this helps to avoid altitude sickness).
For the 1st step of the journey we ascended steadily, climbing steps built into mud to reach the first break point. If you think the climb starts nice and easy to get you into it you’re wrong. From pretty much the word go we were climbing steep and slippery slopes for 30 minutes non-stop. Although hard this first part took us through farming fields with great views of the surrounding villages. We knew it was going to be tough and this confirmed it for us.
The second part of the trek had a different landscape to the first after only having climbed a couple hundred meters. Here we walked through dense forest with trees covered in moss, we weren’t expecting such a green surrounding at the foot of a volcano. It made the steep climb more bearable and enjoyable even! During this stage of the trek we had one break plus lunch at the end. When the jungle disappeared we were left with stunning views from the volcano down towards the lower lands. We were now at 3200m altitude.
Following a well deserved 30 minute lunch break we slung our bags back on and carried on the steep climb. Having changed landscapes from jungle to a more arid and rocky one, this part proved to be really hard. Having just eaten a massive burrito and a strawberry granola yogurt, a steep trek in the afternoon sun was probably not near the top of our priorities but it had to be done. The path took us up through snake like paths up and up. By the end of this part we were at 3500m altitude. Looking back at the day this section was probably the most difficult and challenging even with two breaks.
For our final section of climbing we arrived in landscapes as to what we were expecting on a volcano trek. Burnt out trees, black volcanic rock and an air of emptiness with the occasional thunder-like sound of the Volcan del Fuego. Picture Mordor minus the thousands of orcs. The cloud cover had lifted just in time for us to see the Volcan del Fuego from the earliest moment possible, which was on the relatively easy path towards the campsite.
After the long treck we eventually arrived at base camp directly overlooking Volcán del Fuego which was pretty surreal. We arrived in good time (5h15 to be precise) so we had a couple hours of daylight left in the day which meant getting into tents and changing into warmer clothes. After sitting by the camp fire for half an hour watching the volcano erupt we were interrupted by a 30 minute passing shower.
Once the rain had stopped we got out of the tents to go back to the fire. By this time the cloud over the volcano was clearing once again and the sun was starting to set for the night. The sunset from above the clouds was spectacular and lit the sky with pink shades. With daylight fading away, the volcanic eruptions really started to come to life. What before looked like flying rocks with each eruption was bright orange lava. Just after sunset we had our evening dinner which comprised of spaghetti, cheesy tortilla wraps, wine, hot chocolate, marshmallows (grilled over the fire of course!).
Being able to just sit around a camp fire at 3600m of altitude, in the freezing cold, watching the eruptions was one of the best things we have ever done. This is one of the things where photos, videos and words won’t be able to come close to explaining just how amazing the experience was. We stayed up until about 9pm watching the eruptions and chatting with the rest of the group before heading to bed to try and get a few hours sleep before our 3:45am wake up call to start climbing to the summit.
After a few hours sleep, interrupted by loud eruptions, we set off again at 4am in the dark to climb the final part all the way to the summit. Fully wrapped up in 5 layers of clothing, equipped with our walking sticks and torches, we climbed along volcanic rock snake paths, over rocks and plants. This 1 hour trek was the hardest part by far and not everyone could make it to the top for various reasons like altitude sickness and illness. Eventually we made it to the summit about 10 minutes before sunrise.
Having been treated to lava eruptions all night, this offered something just as exceptional, yet completely different. Watching the sun rise through and above the clouds at 4000m altitude was like nothing either of us had ever seen. Photo below will do a much better job of trying to explain this than words but it felt amazing and relieving to be there after such a hard trek up the day before. With the huge crater in the middle, the erupting volcano on our right, one more volcano in the distance poking through the clouds and the sun rising on our left, it was out of this world. We could only spend 20 minutes at the top due to the freezing temperatures and then we had the slippy walk back down to camp to collect our bags and eat the breakfast of pot noodle, banana bread and coffee.
After breakfast we started our descent. We got lucky with the weather as the clouds started to completely clear at the most visible part of the trek. From the top of the trek we could see all the way down to the lower parts surrounding the volcano. It was really from here that you could grasp just how high we were. Going down was quite good fun as you could run down most parts of the trek. We made it down to the bottom in 2h30 after taking 4 breaks or so to catch our breath and to drink some water.
Needless to say we were completely exhausted by the time we got back to Antigua at the hostel with the trek being 10km up and the same down. This is by far the most incredible experience we have ever had and was a perfect end to our timein Guatemala.