Volcan Acatenango with Old Town Outfitters
Guatemala City and General || First Antigua Ride with Backshop Bikes || Second Antigua Ride with Backshop Bikes || El Zur with Old Town Outfitters || Lake Atitlan with Old Town Outfitters || Rio Dulce with Old Town Outfitters || Tikal ||
Ever climb a Volcano before? Att 3976m Acatenango is probably one of the easier “tall” ones to tackle, especially if you do it right by doing the following;
- Hiring one of the top touring Companies (such as Old Town Outfitters aka OTO) to help you get the most of out the experience
- Hiring a local cargadore/porter to carry your gear
- Using one of the hiking sticks they offer you
- Bringing lots of water and taking your time on the climb (especially for sea-level dwellers who have to be reminder they are at elevation) so you don’t get dizzy or sick if you exert too much
- Bringing warm clothes, toque, gloves, down jacket, long underwear, windbreaker, headlamp
- Bringing extra food and more warm clothes if you go with a budget guide company who might skimp on sleeping bags and other camp niceties
- Did I mention a headlamp for the climb up to the summit to watch the sunrise?
- Wearing good hiking boots, or light hikers with good tread plus extra footwear and warm socks for hanging out in the evening
As you drive into the city of Antigua in Sacatepéquez department of Guatemala, three Volcanoes dominate the landscape. Volcán de Agua at 3,766m, Acatenango, the third highest in Guatemala, which last erupted in 1972, at 3,976m and Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire”, at 3,763m. The complex of Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego is known as La Horqueta. Volcán de Agua has many trails that can be used for mountain biking, you can see our Ride Reports HERE.
View of Volcan Agua from Antigua
Acatenango is a popular hiking and mountaineering destination. It’s often done in one day but to take it all in we thought it best to do this over two days and with a touring company to take care of logistics. Because the volcano is fairly high it gets cold and we weren’t terribly interested in bringing warm weather clothing to Guatemala for such a small window of time. Having OTO supply good gear certainly simplifies packing.
A permit is required as is a a guide to hike Acatenango. Both of these can be arranged in Antigua or in the base village of La Soledad.
The route for our hike starts in La Soledad (2400m) which is approximately 40 min drive from Antigua. Our first day you climb to 3566m in 6km. The following morning is when you can hike to the summit at 3976m, a 2.8km hike. The rest of the day is spent descending 1675m back to La Soledad.
The village/pueblo of La Soledad is worth a mention. It had a sad story which is now slowly turning around. La Soledad roughly translates to “the Loneliness”. During the long dark times of the Guatemalan civil war the village was at the confluence of many military actions resulting in civilian deaths. Many of the villages’ men left during this period as the war’s effects and aftermath meant that traditional farming and other means of supporting their families was impossible. Many went to the US to work and support those left-behind (the lonely) via remittances. The menfolk have returned as rural Guatemala takes steps to recovery
It’s worth mentioning that Old Town Outfitters takes deliberate steps to support La Soledad and its people. The porters are paid and hired directly by clients with every penny going right to these very able, fit and appreciative cargadores. Old Town Outfitters also pays the cargadores and people of La Soledad for trailwork and cleanups of the interminable garbage sadly left behind by many trekkers and hikers. Speaking for ourselves personally it was an easy choice for us to hire such deserving people not just from the point of view of some more personal comfort but also as a tangible means of giving back.
L: The people of La Soledad are (rightfully) proud Guatemalans and proud of their village. R” Mara was our guide from Old Town Outfitters and is here with Billy who is in training. Alex (not pictured) was our other guide.
We had five people in our group and five Porters from La Soledad
As one of the oldest and most experienced adventure touring companies in the region, Old Town Outfitters has this trip dialed. As mentioned previously a porter can carry your gear or you can carry your own tent, thermarest, sleeping bag, 4l of water and extra warm clothes. If you are not conditioned to hiking (especially the 1675m descent in 7.5km), it is advised to carry a light pack and hire porters to carry your gear. Not only are the La Soledad cargadores/porters are conditioned to this hike, it’s a big financial help to them to be hired. Tipping the porters at the end of the trip is also encouraged.
The hike starts from La Soledad at close to 2400m. We noted that this elevation in Canada is usually glaciated and even in the tropics it can be cool when you start that high. Initially you wind through local corn fields owned by local patron Don Martin. With his kind permission we traverse and climb through his lands then enter first a tropical rain forest then a cloud forest as you continue on the steep direct ascent towards the subalpine.
Alex in the cornfields. The dark lava rich soil is very fertile due to the mineral deposits from previous eruptions
Mara letting the working horses pass
The trail is rooty. Since the cloud and tropical forest portions are almost always humid and wet it can be quite slippery. It bears repeating that shoes with decent tread are a wise choice. There are two main stops where the locals have small tables where you can buy snacks or tea or just take a break. These stops are accessed also by 4WD road and if you get sick or feel the altitude they do serve as bail out points
Getting into the tropical forest section after climbing past the cornfields
Our Porters carrying our stuff! Their technique is to create big well-balanced bundles which are then supported by headbands. The cargadores of La Soledad have a lot of practise climbing these trails and it shows in their sure-footedness
Mara making lunch at the second rest stop
The locals also sold hot chocolate and snacks. This young man is helping his dad make and sell ramen and hot chocolate while on break from school
It is advised to take many breaks and take your time – something the OTO guides constantly reminded us to do. With a two day trip you have lots of time to get to the first camp spot. After about 3.7km at an elevation of 3460m the trail leaves the tropical forest and enters the cloud forest which then transitions to a pine forest. At this point the trail is less steep and traverses Acatenango’s flank. From here it is an easier push to the campsite.
Pine forest section
Alex and I on the Pine Forest section of trail
The porters are ahead of you at this point to ensure your camping area is available and your gear is also available to you. While there are no ‘reserved spots’ in this area, many of the companies have built areas for their clients. Common courtesy and understanding is that if a touring company has built and prepared a spot and is scheduled to be there then that spot is for the company and its clients. It’s yet another reason to go with an organization like Old Town Outfitters who are well established in this area.
Setting up Camp
Camp with view of Fuego
Another view of Fuego from the toilet
A spectacular view of Volcan Agua as setup continues
Once at the camp a chill can be felt in the air. Before being mesmerized by Fuego, take some time to remove sweaty clothes and put on warm layers. Old Town Outfitters at this time had snacks and wine available as replenishment. Before dark a nice dinner of soup, pasta and salad was also prepared. The rest of the evening is spent chatting by the campfire made by the porters, chatting with your hiking mates and enjoying the sunset and Fuego fire show.
The lightshow starts as Fuego belches ash and the skies change colour
Snack with wine!
We then sat back and enjoyed the evening show. Fuego was in fine form. The first time it erupts it sounds like a thunderstorm rolling in. Porters and guides were unfazed but us newbies were looking around for incoming weather.
Fuego isn’t always so spectacularly active but we were fortunate to be in a showroom cycle. Almost every 15 minutes the volcano showed the world who’s boss by blowing its top, sending lava streaming down its face and ash/rock/clouds rocketing 100 of metres into the sky. It has to be seen in person to be believed and is highly recommended as a way to put perspective on one’s place in the universe..
Fuego showing the world who’s boss
Rivers of molten rock and lava run down Fuego’s face. Sometimes off the N face; sometimes off the S face.
Fuego lightshow earlier in the evening
Just as soon as you think it can’t get any better the sun starts getting closer to the horizon. It backlights the ash and volcanic debris and colours become saturated beyond description
It’s not just Fuego but also Agua putting on the lightshow. The south face where this campsite is located is a highly convenient ampitheatre
The Locals, our Porters – Malesio, Alexandre, Jeremios. Alexandre is only 15! He didn’t know it but he carried my beer.
Fuego lightshow continues at night
Then it was time for bed. Old Town Outfitters had ridgerests and heavy 0 degress C sleeping bags and Mountain Hardware three season tents. On this November evening nighttime temperatures were 7 degrees C. The gear provided a restful night with periodic unavoidable reminders that Fuego was active as it continually erupted. Lee woke up early to get night time pictures as the Supermoon set at 2.30am and continued shooting until the rest of the group woke at 4:00am wake up. The porters were already up hustling/bustling and prepping camp for our early morning hike. This 4am start is necessary to give you time to hike the 1.4km and 500m to the summit in the dark and arrive at sunrise; a hike which takes about an hour and a half.
The view at the summit was spectacular and Fuego continued to give a show. The wind was fierce and temperatures cooler, probably just around freezing. A nice walk around the summit reveals Lake Atitilan, and other volcanoes in the distance. We were also shown a pit with warm soil right at summit; a reminder that Acatenengo itself is an active volcano.
Spectacular night skies as Fuego’s cone glows red
Hike up; take your time; you’re at almost 4000m!
Fuego from the summit of Acatenango. Still hogging the glory
Circumnavigating the summit. An amazing ecosystem with tough flowering plants taking root in the pumice and soil
On the summit cone with Atitlan’s volcanoes in the distance
Billy’s first time on the summit with spectacular conditions and light proudly flying Guatemala’s flag
A pit of warm soil! So good to warm the fingers.
Our group at the summit – Billy, Anton, Lee, Sharon, Alex, James, Sarah
Then we summit surfed pumice slopes back to campsite! Hour and half up – 20 minutes or so down
After arriving back at the campsite, a nice breakfast of Banana Bread, fruit and coffee was served. Not just any banana bread but a huge mouth-watering loaf from Dona Luisa Xicoteneatl one of the top bakeries in Antigua. Very civilized – we approve!
This was great fuel for the descent back to Le Soledad. We motored down the 1600m + in two and a half hours. We could have taken our time, but it would not have hurt less. We said good bye to our porters, hopped back into the van for the final drive back to Antigua and got back early to Antigua for a much appreciated opportunity to relax in our next Hotel – Hotel El Carmen.
Lee and Malesio who wore Lee’s Alpine Threadworks pack on the descent. The porters/cargardores also maintain the hiking trails and take a lot of pride in the work they do. Awesome people ; they work hard and their craft is much appreciated
Our Group – Anton, Sexto, Malesio, Jose, Jeremios, , Alex, Sarah, James, Sharon, Alexandre, Lee