Watching eruptions: Acatenango volcano hike in Guatemala
The Acatenango volcano hike in Guatemala is one that should not be missed. The country is home to 37 volcanoes of varying sizes and Acatenango is the third tallest. It’s a huge bucket list activity to complete in this Central American country and it will definitely be one to remember.
With all the many volcano trails in the world, there are not many that you can hike safely while also witnessing an eruption. Acatenango allows you to do just that which is what makes it such a unique experience.
When it comes to natural landscapes, Guatemala is listed as one of the world’s 17 megadiverse destinations. Because of where the country is located, it has the perfect conditions to create these many different environments.
I’m not going to lie to you, this hike up the Acatenango volcano is exhausting (although most people are fitter than me so you might be alright).
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Acatenango volcano hike – Trail stats
Length of trail:
13.7 km out & back trail
Time to complete:
8 hours of walk time on average
Acatenango volcano, unlike its neighbouring Volcan Pacaya (Pacaya volcano), is a dormant stratovolcano located near Antigua in Guatemala. This hiking route is no doubt the most popular trail in all of Guatemala and it’s no surprise why.
Although the total walking time averages out at 8 hours, it often takes much longer than this when you factor in all the stops. Most tour groups will stop the group every 30-45 minutes for a break to rehydrate and catch their breath. When you consider that the average group size is around 25 people, each break gives the people falling behind some time to catch up.
Note: The Acatenango volcano hike in Guatemala is an overnight tour so you will be with the tour group from 8 am on day one until roughly midday on day 2.
It is advised to acclimate to Guatemala before attempting the Acatenango volcano hike. Spending a few days in Antigua or Guatemala City before attempting the climb can help your body adjust before you deal with the sudden increase in altitude. This can also help prevent sickness.
Where to book the Acatenango hike in Guatemala
Since the Acatenango trail is easily one of the most popular volcano hikes in all of Guatemala, there are lots of places to book it. There doesn’t seem to be a way to complete the hike alone so you would need to join a group and tour guide.
You can either do a 1 night/2 day hike or a 2 night/3 day hike – depending on how brave you are and the tour company you choose. If you’d like to book your tour ahead of time so you can plan an itinerary for your trip you can do so with one of the examples below:
- Overnight camping PRIVATE tour From Antigua
- Overnight camping GROUP tour – From Antigua
- 3-day hike of all 3 volcano cones – From Antigua
If you’re less organised or would prefer to book directly with your accommodation after arriving in Guatemala you can do that instead. This is also a great way to compare and maybe join a tour group your new travel friends have joined.
I booked my tour through Tropicana hostel in Antigua as my friends had recommended this exact one and loved it. One difference between Tropicana and some of the other tours is they only offer thermals for an additional deposit cost, whereas some other tour companies loan them for no extra cost.
Hiking add-ons & extras
One thing to note is you will always be with the guides, even in large groups. The guides (also known as Sherpa’s) are familiar with climbing these local volcanoes regularly. Once you’ve joined your tour group you’ll have the option to pay a sherpa to carry your bag up to the top if you don’t think you can manage it yourself.
There is also the option to ride a horse to one of the final rest points about 3/4 of the way along the trail but of course, this comes with a cost. The horses will generally take you as far as it is safe for them to do so.
This just so happens to be at the same point in the hike where the incline flattens out and it is mostly no longer steep.
Money tip: Each of these will cost extra and you will need to purchase with cash.
What to expect on the Acatenango volcano hike
As you can imagine due to the size of the volcanoes, there are a few different routes you can take on Acatenango. The various guides will take you along almost the same path with just one or two variations between a few of the central breaks.
When you first arrive at the entrance where the hike begins, the guides will make sure everyone is together before introducing themselves and showing you a small volcano replica of the two cones of Acatenango. They will show you what way you will be taking on the day’s hike.
There are two bathrooms to use for a small fee behind a small stand. The stand holds a few items that visitors may want to buy before setting off:
- Plastic covers and ponchos to protect yourself and your bag from the rain
- Walking sticks to help you climb up and down the trail
If you are likely to need any of these you have to get them before the trail starts as you will not get another opportunity to get them later on. Just be aware that you will need to pay in cash.
The start of the trail
The start of the trail starts about halfway up the volcano so you will already be at somewhat of a high altitude, to begin with. You will join your guide and walk for a short while up possibly some of the steepest terrains of the entire trail. You will walk past some cow fields and a few staircases.
The first break you get will be after a long set of steps built into the ground and they take you up by a cornfield that overlooks the small town at the base of the volcano. This break area has a small snack shop filled with crisps, chocolate, pancakes and drinks for purchase.
Plus this is where the famous “Acatenango” sign is located which is a popular photo op for visitors to this Guatemala volcano. You can take some photos here before the “real” hiking begins.
Note: There is also a pair of toilets around the side of the building that you can use for a small fee, Make sure you bring cash with you.
The steep climb
As you continue along the trail, it is practically uphill the entire way. Many sections of the walking route are just soil and dirt, but occasionally you might find rocky terrain. You should be aware that much of this hike has hairpin turns so there is a lot of back and forth as you progress uphill that it can feel like it’s taking forever.
What many people love about the Acatenango volcano hike in Guatemala is how you will see stunning views throughout 80% of the trail. The remaining 20% is typically when you are inside the forest where your vision is restricted.
As you progress through the volcano hike you will notice how you gradually get closer to the clouds until you are literally in them. Before you know it you’ll be out the other side and looking down on them.
Throughout this entire trail, there are dangerous sections that have man-made handrails made out of wood to offer some assistance. As you reach each rest stop you will notice the occasional bench carved out of logs for people to use. These are usually located by a viewpoint or something worth admiring for a short while.
This can be a well-deserved treat when your legs are starting to struggle to carry you and your 4 litres of water up the steep volcanic mount.
Note: The guides will stop the group regularly to catch their breath and take a break
Check out the Pacaya trail if you want to climb another volcano in Guatemala after Acatenango.
Plus, take a look at these other volcano hikes worldwide:
- Walk the Mount Maunganui volcano: All you need to know
- Mt Eden Summit: A dormant volcano walk in Auckland
The diverse landscapes & other hikers
At one of the stops about 1/4 of the way along the trail, you will get to an area which is the gateway to the National Park. Here you will each need to fill out a form with some personal details. There are small wood tables sticking out of the ground that you can use to write on. Once your form is filled in you will be told which park ranger to give it to along with your cash for the park entrance fee.
The group will not progress until everyone has completed their document and those who need the bathroom have been. There is just one eco toilet at this stop.
Once walking again, you will weave in and out of the forest and the steep cliff edges. Each sight is more fascinating than the next. There will be some rest stops that are quite small which can feel extra crowded when everyone stops, and others are really big so it feels nice and spread out.
You are also likely to bump into other tour groups along the trail, heading in both directions. This is completely fine until you meet at a narrow section of the track. When this happens the guides will normally hold up the group and allow one whole group to pass before continuing along the way rather than all trying to squeeze past. They do this for two reasons:
- To make sure nobody falls down the side of the steep volcano edges
- So visitors don’t get mixed up and accidentally join another group
Climbing above the clouds & a lunch stop
There is one more small stop with a view over the small town, but when we did the Acatenango hike we just saw clouds at this stage. After taking a small crowded rest we all continued to the halfway point where we all sat and had lunch.
Lunch lasts about 20-30 minutes which is plenty of time to eat, hydrate and rest before the 2nd half of the hike. Although only about a quarter of the remaining hike from here is steep before it gets flat, this is the last “good” rest stop before newcomers start to feel the effects of altitude sickness.
Before we had even left the lunch spot I was seriously feeling ill. I was extremely grateful for the anti-nausea tablets but they didn’t really work as well as I’d hoped.
If I felt that bad, I can only imagine how awful it would have been had I not taken any medicine.
The trail flattens out
The hike will take you around the side of one of Acatenango’s volcanic cones before you meet the second. It’s around this point you start to see Fuego erupting in the distance. One of the best loved features of this hike is watching an active volcano (Fuego) erupt multiple times.
Note: Acatenango is so big with such a high altitude that it has its own weather system.
For much of the trail Fuego could be covered with clouds, it’s usually expected by the Sherpas. However, if you travel on a clear day you might just be lucky enough to see the crater spit out a plume of smoke. It really is an impressive sight.
Around the 3/4 mark of the trail is where the trail starts to flatten out so you’ll be covering more distance without travelling too far upwards. You will eventually come to the area where the horses cannot continue so they are left with some sherpas.
This is the start of a section in the trail where the volcanic sand is soft and thick so you might find yourself sliding down a sandy hill trying to cross a steep section of the cone itself. This is the part of the trail where you can really see that you are actually on a volcano instead of just looking at one in the distance.
Once you get past the sand that overflows into your boots you will eventually have a talk rockface you will need to climb to get past and then you will see small cabins in the distance. These cabins will be your accommodations for the night.
The Acatenango volcano hike Accommodation
Since the Acatenango volcano trek is so long, everyone who does it will stay overnight in their tour companies’ accommodation overnight. The one I did had 3 or 4 small cabins and each one was just big enough for a bottom and a top level.
Each level (pictured above) had around 8 or 9 sleeping bags laid out in a row. This meant that not only were you sharing a small wooden room with 16-18 other people, but you’d all be in very close contact with each other.
Pro tip: If you get cold easily, try to avoid sleeping on the end of a row next to the wall. These are by far the coldest positions.
Even though you will have a camping sleep mat, a sleeping bag and a thick fleece blanket, you will likely still be cold. This is why it is so important to carry extra layers with you.
I’ll be honest, I always feel cold and this night I ended up sleeping in 2 shirts, a jumper and 3 pairs of socks. I also slept inside my sleeping bag with the thick blanket over the top and I was STILL cold. The two girls next to me were also cold so we struggled together.
The campsite had some of the best volcano views I had ever seen. The cabins had been built on the edge of the volcano with a perfect view of Fuego from the campsite.
There are also multiple wooden benches around a campfire which the guides quickly light to warm people up. You’ll notice that much of the camp is built with mostly natural items and resources so as to not damage the natural environment. The main exception is a metal roof on each of the cabins to help protect them from the rain. 90% of everything else is made out of wood.
The guides will cook and feed everyone some pot noodles which is a quick and easy way to warm up. After a few hours of relaxing and getting to know each other, they will separate the group into two:
- Those who wish to now hike Fuego
- Those who want to stay at the campsite
For those hiking Fuego, they would be gone another 4-5 hours roughly. This time includes getting onto the Fuego volcanic cone while watching some eruptions and lava rivers from “up close” as well as returning back to camp.
For those who chose to stay in the camp, there would be a pasta dinner (the Fuego team would get to eat once they return) and some red wine. Oh, and they also made everyone some hot chocolate too!
Accommodation & amenities
There are around 5 official stop locations along the trail. Almost all of these have an eco-toilet in a small wooden shack. Plus, at the campsite, you will find a toilet as well.
Since the whole national park is a “leave no trace” region, there are no rubbish bins along the trail. This means you will need to take any and all rubbish with you for the duration of your hike. The campsite has a large bin for you to dispose of things in.
The guides will then make sure this rubbish bin is taken out of the campsite when you leave the following day.
Not every stop has an official seat to sit on and even then, there are not enough seats for everyone in the group to sit at a time. The campsite has multiple wooden benches to sit on around the fire so you will have no issues resting there.
The Fuego hike & night time eruptions
As I already mentioned, other than just being a really difficult hike, the eruptions of Active Volcan Fuego are the highlight. Although you can see the eruptions happening in the daytime (weather permitting) it’s usually only the cloud of smoke you can see.
That’s why, when it’s dark at night from the campsite, not only do you have minimal restrictions in your view but the lava practically glows. This makes an eruption look so much more intense and powerful since you can actually see everything that the volcano spits out.
Remember, that both volcanoes have their own biodiversity and weather systems so just as quick as the sky can be clear with an unobstructed view, is just as quick as thick cloud coverage can appear again.
Climbing the Acatenango volcano in Guatemala is 100% worth the effort when you get to see the eruptions are clear as the ones below. It really makes you temporarily forget how hard the hike actually is.
Climbing the peak for sunrise
Other than seeing Fuego erupting from outside the camp, you will also get the chance to hike up to the peak of Acatenango in time for sunrise. This means you will need to be ready to hike by 4 am. This is a struggle when your legs are already hurting from the day before.
When you hike to the peak of the Acatenango volcano, it is advised to use a light of some kind to help you see the way. This part of the climb is quite steep and will take between 1.5 – 2 hours. You will find yourself zig-zagging along the trail for practically the whole journey from the campsite to the peak.
Since it is so dark for the duration of the walk, it’s only when you are near the top that it begins to lighten up. However, if Fuego is erupting you will certainly be able to hear it happening behind you.
In best case scenario, you will see a stunning view overlooking Volcan Fuego from above like below:
Worst case scenario you will climb all the way to the top only to find thick cloudy coverage with no sign of letting up. This happens very often, unfortunately. Just be aware that even if the weather forecast is great on the ground in Guatemala, the Acatenango volcano peak has its own weather system so it could be completely different up there.
This makes it hard to predict using a standard weather forecast. Be aware you might not get the views you’re expecting if the weather goes against you.
Highlights of the trail
- Completing the Acatenango volcano hike in Guatemala – an accomplishment in itself
- Watching a live eruption “up close”
- Watching the sunrise from the Acatenango volcano peak
- Drinking hot chocolate around a campfire with stunning forest views
- Hiking with knowledgeable local guides who are familiar with the area
Luckily, when completing the Acatenango hike you’ll be with experienced guides who are aware of the dangers of hiking this trail. However, you will still need to be aware of your surroundings at all times to help prevent any problems or injuries.
Much of the Acatenango volcano trail is at a high altitude so you run the risk of becoming sick along the way. This is why it is highly advised to bring some anti-nausea medicine with you. If you happen to forget, most of the tour guides will have some but if too many people get sick they may run out.
After rainfall, some of the trails can become very slippery. Use caution, especially on the steep sections as these can become quite dangerous.
What to take with you
As with any type of hike, it is advised to take the appropriate hiking gear. Rather than just list all the items expected on a normal day hike, I will instead just mention the extra items recommended for Acatenango specifically.
- Cash in local currency – 100 GTQ for entrance fees per person is mandatory. Plus any extra cash for additional Fuego hike 200 GTQ, snacks or the toilet at the first break, a horse or walking stick.
- Hiking boots – The terrain is practically all uphill and there are multiple different terrains along the way. Good, sturdy hiking boots will give you the most.
- 4 litres of water per person – Due to how physically demanding this volcano hike is, you will need to stay hydrated for the 2 full days of your journey.
- Clothing Layers – It is hot when you begin the trail, and freezing cold at the top in high altitude. Bringing layers allows you to sensibly adjust your clothing to suit the drastic change in the climate.
- Snacks – You’ll be burning off so much energy that snacks can be helpful to give you an energy boost. Preferably healthy snacks instead of heavy ones.
- Anti-nausea medicine – This will help prevent you from suffering from altitude sickness and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Headlamp or torch – You will arrive at the campsite after dark and will climb to the peak in the dark too. A light will help you stay safe on the journey.
- Gloves, hat & scarf – Due to how cold it can get at the top of the volcano these can really help to keep you warm.
Want some gap year inspiration? Why not climb Acatenango during an extended trip through Central America’s most popular route – the Gringo Trail.
Final thoughts on the Acatenango volcano trek
I’ll be honest, I found this trail really hard to complete, but I did it. And I’m confident that if I can, anyone can. Yes, it’s tiring and you will probably have heavy and tired legs for days afterwards, but the sense of reward you get when you complete this trail is hard to beat.
This volcano trek has it all, hard work, panoramic views and even eruptions. So you should make sure you add it to your bucket list of Guatemala whether you visit independently or as part of the Gringo trail.
Have you climbed Acatenango? What did you think?