Conquering Acatenango

Traveling is like a drug. it’s highly addictive. Though I have encountered several horrible experiences during my travels, there’s always that one moment in every place that i visit that makes me smile whenever I look back. And these experiences make me look forward to the next adventure, hoping to make more beautiful memories. All these experiences aren’t the same though. Some simply stand out, for one reason or another. That time when I volunteered in Africa was one of those. It was life changing. It gave me a different perspective in life. It opened my eyes to realities that I never knew existed before. For those reasons, it’s an experience that i will remember and cherish for as long as I live. Climbing Volcán Acatenango is another experience that I will never forget. It didn’t give me a new perspective in life, but the amount of effort I exerted to be able to climb that volcano guaranteed that I can never forget that day for as long as I live. It took a copious amount of blood, sweat, and tears to reach that summit. Despite that, it wasn’t a horrible experience. The spectacle I witnessed from the camp site up to the summit made it all worth it.

When you’re in Antigua, you will definitely hear about this overnight hike. Photographs of Volcán Fuego erupting will continuously tempt you. When you ask about the hike, tour operators would say that anyone who’s in good health would be able to do it. That may be true, but they would never mention how difficult it is to reach the summit. I did my research. Practically everyone I asked told me that the hike up was bloody murder. It’s like literally passing through hell. Even experienced hikers said the same thing. But you know what everyone also said? The view from above made it all worth it. I wasn’t exactly in my best shape. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a long hike. I’ve been traveling for a  while so I didn’t exercise regularly. I’ve been drinking alcohol on a daily basis which isn’t exactly how one should prepare for a strenuous hike. But I seemed to be in better shape that some of the people I asked. If they could conquer Volcán Acatenango , I could definitely reach the summit as well. Never mind the fact that Acatenango is more than 13,000 feet above sea level. The highest summit I’ve climbed so far wasn’t even half as high.

I stayed at Tropicana Hostel and they conduct their own Acatenango Hike. I asked around a bit before reserving a spot. Some were asking for more than 100 USD. One famous tour company was charging 80 USD. The hostel on the other hand was only charging 50 USD. I saw one operator that offered the hike for only  30 USD, but it had terrible reviews online. The one offered by the hostel seemed like a pretty good deal to me. I’d be hiking with a group of people I was already familiar with. A lot of the people staying at the hostel specifically chose to stay there for this specific hike. Meals were included, as well as breakfast prior to the trip. So yeah, it was no brainer so I signed up with them. But on that weekend when I planned to join the hike, there was a huge music festival near Antigua. So basically they had to cancel the hike for the next day since they didn’t have enough people who signed up (they need at least 4). Most people prefer to party I guess. But i was totally psyched up for the hike, I had to find a way for it to push through. While browsing the internet, I came across this local guide named Guilmer. Travelers have been raving about him on Trip Advisor. His number was posted so I sent a message asking him if they had a hike scheduled for the next day and he said yes. I asked how much. He said it’s 300 Quetzales and that includes tents, a sleeping bag, transfers to and from the volcano, packed lunch and breakfast, and dinner to be cooked by the guide. I guess it was a blessing in disguise that the hike arranged by the hotel was canceled. 300 Quetzales is about 40 USD. I managed to save 10 bucks. Plus I’d be helping out the local community as well. Turns out  all the money Guilmer and his brothers earn from the hikes are used for the construction of the school that they are building. He reminded me of the things that I would need to bring so I had to do some last minute shopping.

I already had a small flashlight so I crossed that off the list. I emptied the contents of my backpack and picked out the stuff I was going to bring with me. I’ve heard that although it was quite warm as you ascend, it becomes really cold at night. So I packed my snow pants, a sweater, a bonnet, gloves, plus my winter jacket. I brought an extra pair of socks so I could just double up in case my feet get cold. My hiking shoes were primed and ready. I put my camera inside the bag plus my power bank. And of course i shouldn’t forget my pouch filled with basic medications. That’s it. My huge backpack was practically empty. I made arrangements to leave most of my stuff at the hostel. I checked my wallet to see if i had enough cash to pay for everything. I made a mad rush to the nearest convenience store to buy snacks (they recommended nuts) and water. Guilmer said I should bring 3-4 liters. I decided to just buy three liters, which was a wise decision. Not only did that lessen the load inside my backpack. it turns out i didn’t need to drink that much (I only consumed a little more than 2 liters). The last item on the list? Toilet paper. In case I’d need to do a number 2. Hopefully I won’t. And no, I didn’t. 😉

The next morning, I was promptly picked up by Guilmer. We picked up several other people who signed up for the hike before going to his house near the volcano. He introduced us to his entire family, and he told us that the guide and porters who would accompany us were his brothers. Here he gave us the packed meals (lunch and breakfast), our sleeping bags, and our tents. And just like that my backpack was bursting at the seams lol. Everyone else hired a porter, but my bag wasn’t really heavy so I told them I didn’t need one. And it’s not like I had enough money. You’d have to pay a porter 200 Quetzales each way, and I only had around 100 left inside my wallet after I gave them the 300 Quetzales for the tour. If you plan on booking a tour with Guilmer, keep in mind that they only accept Quetzales. Pass by a nearby ATM if you only have foreign currency with you. Several kids were renting out walking sticks for only 5 Quetzales. I knew it was essential for this hike so i got one. We boarded the van again once we were all finished packing and we were at the start of the trail in about 20 minutes. There’s a small shop  selling clothes for cold weather in case you forgot to bring some. they also sell water and snacks, which are understandably more expensive than those you can get in town. And yeah, there are more kids renting out walking sticks. Get one in case you still don’t have one. Barely 10 minutes in you’ll be glad you did.

The trail consists of  distinct terrains, and the first part is arguably the hardest. You pass by cornfields so you’ll encounter a lot of locals along the way. It consists of loose volcanic sand on a steep incline. There are no switchbacks on this part, so you basically hike straight up. The incline makes it hard enough. The loose volcanic sand makes it even harder. Whenever I took a step forward, it seems as if I made two steps back. Then there were parts of the trail with barbed wires on both sides so there was practically nothing to hold onto. Make a wrong step and you’re going to slide down. I didn’t feel the weight I was carrying at first, but after only about 15 minutes, I felt as if I was carrying a ton. After 30 minutes, my thighs and calves started to burn. The sight of kids running up the trail hurt my pride. Jesus, I was so out of shape. And did I mention I went drinking the night before? I felt fine when i woke up. But after a few minutes of this hike i felt like throwing up. Man, I was really starting to feel sick. The group I joined all had porters so they managed to stay well ahead of me. At first I tried to keep up, then  I just gave up and walked on my own pace. i was sweating buckets so I removed the shirt I was wearing. Good thing i chose not to wear the cold weather clothes that i brought or I would have died from heat exhaustion. One of the porters chose to stay behind me. Once we reached the first rest stop, the group I was with was ready to move ahead. The guide who was leading us asked me if i changed my mind and wanted to hire a porter too. Truth is, if i had enough cash i would have said yes. But I didn’t have enough money so I just told him I can continue carrying my own bag. I told them I’d just rest for a bit, they didn’t have to wait for me. I dropped my backpack on the ground and that felt so good. Man, it’s like the the weight of the entire world was taken off my shoulders. After about ten minutes I carried my bag again, and i almost cried when I saw that the uphill climb right before me was even more steep. My God. We’ve been only hiking for about an hour and I felt like dying already.

At this point I didn’t care anymore. I stopped as I pleased. I could sense that the porter was growing impatient, so i tried talking to him with my broken Spanish. I was surprised that I could actually carry a decent conversation lol. Talking was a welcome distraction. The way up continued to be difficult, but at least talking and practicing my Spanish made me refrain from counting every step. After another stop, the porter offered to carry my bag. i told him I didn’t have enough money to pay him. He said it’s fine, I didn’t have to pay. I guess he got so restless that he didn’t mind carrying my bag for free lol. With that load off my back, we were able to speed things up a bit. When we were near the next rest stop, he was practically running uphill. By the time i got there, the rest of the group was almost finished eating lunch. I opened the packed lunch. It consisted of rice, fried chicken, some veggies, and an apple. It wasn’t bad at all, though I wasn’t really that hungry. I realized I just drank a whole liter of water already. I wondered if i brought enough, it was still a long way up. If there’s one consolation, getting rid of one bottle of water made a huge difference. My bag felt so much lighter.

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The terrain looked different at this point. We were entering the cloud forest. It was starting to get cold so I put on my sweater. Walking here wasn’t torture anymore. There were a number of switchbacks so there were parts where there was barely an incline. The fog grew thicker as we moved on, it reached a point where there was almost zero visibility so we made more stops. I was really thankful for that. I really needed to rest my legs. Disaster struck midpoint though, both of my thighs started cramping real bad. I tried to rest, but every time i tried to walk again, both of my thighs would start to hurt real bad. I realized i might not be able to make it all the way up.

By this time our guide sensed that something was wrong so he went back for me. I was already sitting down for 30 minutes and my thighs still won’t let me walk. He called Guilmer, debating whether they should send someone to pick me up or not. But we were more than halfway through, Guilmer said it would be easier to just continue until the camp site. Going down would also hurt my legs so I might not be able to make it back down before nightfall. At the camp site, at least i could rest for the whole night and I’d surely feel better in the morning. It was agreed upon that i would continue walking up, but at my own pace. It was only past 2 PM, there’s still about 4 hours of daylight. The porter aka my new buddy would keep me company the whole time to keep me safe.

The fog began to clear, and the terrain started to change again. To my dismay, parts of the trail became steeper and steeper. The cloud forest gave way to a terrain surrounded by pine trees and wildflowers. The view was beautiful and even though my legs were still killing me, I took time to appreciate my surroundings and I made more stops out of necessity. Eventually the trees started to thin out, the ground gradually turned into volcanic gravel, and I could see people pitching their tents. I couldn’t believe I reached the camp site!!!

The guide set up my tent for me and it felt so good lying down on the ground. And man, the view from the camp site was breath taking. There’s Volcán Agua on the left, and directly in front of us was Volcán Fuego billowing smoke. And I got to base camp just in time. After about 15 minutes I heard a loud roar, as if a jet plane was fast approaching. Fuego was erupting right in front of us, and we had the best seats in the house! It wasn’t just any eruption, it was a huge one! Within seconds the sky turned grey, and we felt volcanic ash falling on us. Seeing one eruption would have made anyone of us happy. Turns out we picked the right day to hike. Two days before it was really cloudy, those who went on a hike couldn’t see much. And Volcán Fuego didn’t erupt then, it was just billowing smoke the whole time. As for us? We witnessed the volcano erupting every hour or so. Our guide told us that we were extremely lucky because that rarely happens. It was even more spectacular at night because you could see the volcano spewing out molten lava. It looked like a fireworks display. The volcano was continuously putting on a show for us all night, it felt like the fourth of July. It just sucks that my camera couldn’t get decent pictures at night.

 

Dinner deserves special mention. The guide cooked vegetable pasta and it was delicious. He also grilled sausages and made this paste made of beans that we put on chips and pita bread. I would’ve eaten a whole lot more but I was trying to limit my food intake to avoid having to do a number 2. He made hot chocolate for us as we exchanged stories by the campfire. Our guide then brought out a nice surprise. He brought marshmallows and we roasted them on the bonfire. In front of us, Fuego was still putting on a show. We decided it was time to get some sleep at around 9 PM since we had to wake up at 3:30 AM to begin our ascent to the summit.

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It was starting to get cold so I put my snow pants on. I also put on another pair of socks. I wore my jacket on top of the sweater I was wearing and tried to sleep. It was overkill cause I started sweating inside the sleeping bag lol. I removed my jacket and tried to sleep again. Outside, I heard Fuego erupt once more. It would be quite hard to sleep with all that noise, good thing I brought earplugs. I don’t usually sleep early so it was a struggle. I guess i fell asleep after an hour or so of fidgeting on the hard ground. The guide woke me up promptly at 3:30 AM, asking me if I would join the group to the summit, or if i’d rather stay at the base camps and get a few more hours of rest. My legs were still hurting, though not as much as the day before. I figured I was already near the top, so I might as well join them. Would seem silly to hike all this way and not reach the summit when one can practically see it from base camp. The guide said he thinks I can make it. The hike up would take only 2 hours, and that included several stops. I ate some nuts for energy and did a number one by the bushes. We all moved slowly on a narrow path uphill. It was pitch black. One wrong step and we could fall to our death i guess. There were a number of switchbacks and on some parts the incline was barely noticeable. But on several parts of the trail we had to climb up very steep inclines. The ground on this part of the trail consisted of volcanic gravel. Like the part of the trail by the cornfields, whenever we made a step forward, it seemed as if we made two steps back. This part of the trail is probably more difficult than the first part, though you don’t feel as tired because of the cold. And man, it got so cold my phone eventually turned off. The strong wind made the experience worse. Another problem? Altitude sickness. It wasn’t as bad as the one I experienced in Cuzco, but it was noticeably harder to breathe. I didn’t get dizzy, but the altitude still made it harder to climb. I managed to keep pace with the rest of the group even though my legs were in pain. After about an hour though, my legs cramped again. It got really bad that I couldn’t climb up anymore. I tried walking downhill and it didn’t hurt as much, but it wasn’t safe to go back to the camp site on my own since it was still pitch black. I told the others to just go ahead, I’ll just sit down and wait for them on the same spot as they’re going downhill.

My phone went dead so I had no idea how long i was sitting there. I’d guess it was about 30 minutes. On the horizon, the sun started to rise behind the volcanoes and mountains. And man, the view was so beautiful. Everything was so quiet, I could actually hear my own heartbeat. For one fleeting moment, everything seemed all right with the world. I felt happy for some reason, i felt so at peace. As the sun rose, I started to see my surroundings clearly. I looked up and realized i was almost to the top! There’s just one long steep incline ahead of me. One switchback. Another steep incline which ended by a boulder that seemed to be on the summit. To hell with the pain, I am going to reach that summit. It took a whole lot of effort, my legs were practically screaming in pain, but if I gave up that moment I knew I would regret it for as long as I live. I would keep thinking of what could have been. Finally I made it to the top and my companions were all cheering. The sun was up at this time and i was on the summit for only about 5 minutes before our guide told us it was time to make our descent since a couple of people in our group had a bus to catch at noon.

fuego

 

Going downhill has never been a problem for me. I thought I’d have a problem this time though because of the steep angle of decline, but it turned out i had nothing to worry about. The best way to go downhill from the summit to base camp would be to run. If you’re afraid you’ll tumble all the way down, that’s not gonna happen because the ground is so soft. With every step you make, your legs would get buried in gravel right up to the knees. If you do fall down and slip, you won’t slide that far since parts of your body would eventually get buried in gravel. You can easily stop your fall. You can do your descent slowly if going down rapidly scares you, but according to some people in our group that really hurt their knees. Try both ways and see what works best for you.

When we reached the camp site, we had a quick breakfast consisting of cereal and some fruit. I also devoured the remaining nuts that i brought. As we were eating breakfast, Fuego had a huge eruption again, blanketing the entire sky. I guess it wanted to give us a proper send off. After packing all our stuff, i dreaded carrying my back pack again. With only half a liter of water left, it was so much lighter though. And as i was walking downhill, it felt like i wasn’t carrying anything at all! The steep decline also means our descent was much faster. We laughed out loud when we reached the nearest rest stop. It felt like forever heading to the camp site from there, and as we were walking downhill we reached it in less than 20 minutes. When we reached the cloud forest it wasn’t as foggy, so i took my time to admire the view. The others kept walking so i was alone for the most part. i caught up with them on a rest stop near the cornfields. All their knees were hurting so they needed rest. As I’ve said, i never had a problem going downhill for some reason, but I understand that for most people, going downhill puts a huge amount of stress on their knees. After about 20 minutes we started walking again, and everyone was walking slowly now. I was actually walking ahead of all of them, for the very first time! On the last rest stop i got really bored so I told them I’ll go ahead. I was back in the cornfields now, and i passed by a number of hikers on their way up. I remembered how I was feeling the day before and I couldn’t help but smile. One guy told me he felt like he was going to die and that he wanted to quit already. I told him I felt the same way yesterday, but the view at the top would make everything worth it. I was first to get back to the starting point. I thought that was really funny. I was the last one up, but i was the first one down. It took me 7 hours going up, and it only took me less than 3 hours going down. I was 15 minutes ahead of the next guy. Guilmer was right there at the start of the trail waiting for us and he asked me how was it. On impulse, i gave him a huge hug and I said thank you.That was definitely a one of a kind experience and i couldn’t thank him enough for that. I was also glad that I went with his group. I’ve spoken with other travelers and they said the other guides weren’t as hands on. Some tents and sleeping bags were in poor condition. Their packed meals suck. Plus a whole lot of other complaints that we never experienced with Guilmer and his brothers. We never felt neglected during the hike, not even for a single minute. In fact, if I went with another group, I would have probably given up halfway and I can never claim that I’ve managed to conquer Acatenango.

So I guess the question is, can anybody do this hike? It’s a very difficult hike, and it’s best suited for experienced or advanced hikers. But since i was able to do it, as long as you have no major health issues (like a heart problem), I would say YES. As long as you take your time and hike at your own pace, it’s certainly doable. It will feel like pure torture, but it is doable. Consider the fact that although I’m in good health, I wasn’t exactly in my best shape. I haven’t exercised in weeks, I haven’t done a hike in months, and the highest peak that I’ve climbed was only about half as high as this volcano. And also I was hungover that morning. I also experienced muscle pain and cramps, to the point that my legs gave in. Still, I was able to reach the summit. Once you reach the camp site, the view around you would make all your suffering worth it —unless you get extremely unlucky and all you’d see is a thick fog, but that rarely happens according to our guide. Seeing a volcano up close is a one of a kind experience, as well as hiking a volcano this high. If you’re in Antigua, this hike is a must do activity as long as you have no health concerns. It’s going to feel like torture, but once you’ve done it, it will be a memory that you will cherish for as long as you live. No wonder all tour agencies keep promoting this hike. This is arguably the best thing you can do in Guatemala, and it will definitely be  one of the highlights of your visit to the country.

Just a word of caution. A few weeks after I did this hike, tragedy struck. Six hikers died one night due to inclement weather, and a couple of other hikers were injured. Some of them went on a tour organized by a not so reputable company, while others did the hike on their own. This highlights the importance of going on a hike with reputable and trustworthy tour guides. Sure, as backpackers we always look for ways to cut costs, but no amount of money saved is worth risking one’s life over. Even if you’re an experienced hiker, I do not recommend doing this hike without an experienced guide unless you’ve already done it several times before. Even the most experienced hikers would find any trail they aren’t familiar with troublesome. This hike is a must do, but don’t risk your health or life just to have bragging rights.

 

 

 

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