Occasionally I do something really out of character like stay sober long enough to write a blog post that’s completely practical and useful.
I call it Tina. This alter ego of mine.
Good ole annoyingly responsible Tina.
Or more affectionately, Mom.
Anyone who has read about my harrowing journey to the top of the Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala knows that I nearly died.
Ok, fine whatever. That’s a slight exaggeration. Or maybe a bold face lie but nevertheless, if Dante had gotten around to creating a 10th layer of hell, the punishment incurred would have resembled the torturous climb up this ash-stricken volcano I’m petitioning to have renamed Volcan Lucifer.
Admittedly, I guess some of the blame lies with me for choosing Caramel Core ice cream and The Vampire Diaries viewing-marathons over making preparations for what I knew would be a physically demanding hike (oh come on like I’m the only one who does this).
Clearly my qualifications to write something entitled How to Prepare and Pack for the Acatenango Volcano Hike are less than desirable.
Ok so they’re completely nonexistent which is why I’ve handed the reigns over to alter ego Tina to write this extensive guide to help you avoid making the same self-inflicted mistakes I did.
If you need me in the meantime, I’ll just be over at the bar preparing for my 3 day trek through a soon-to-be-announced Middle Eastern desert in less than 2 weeks time.
Hey, you can’t teach an old dog and all that.
Antigua de Guatemala’s Volcanoes
The Central American country of Guatemala rests at a high altitude that’s rife with volcanoes – some dormant and others active – that overtime have fashioned a landscape straight from an adventurer’s dream.
Among some of the largest are those hemming in the old colonial capital of Antigua. Three dominant peaks rise above making themselves impossible to miss from any vantage point along the city’s cobblestone streets. These include the Volcan Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango – all three of which present challenging treks for even the seasoned hiker. A brief summary (as well as info on the easier Pacaya climb) can be found below:
- Height: 12,333ft (3,760m)
- Current Status: Dormant
- Claim to Fame: Due to several days of pouring rain in the mid-1500s, the conical summit of Volcan Agua once filled with enough water to cause a catastrophic mudslide after an earthquake was set-off following an eruption from the nearby Volcan Fuego. It devastated the then capital of Central America and forced them to move the capital elsewhere.
- The Climb: 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. More in depth details of the hike can be found here.
- Cost: Free (if not going with an organized tour)
- For Your Safety: At the time of writing this, many tour operators have discontinued organized treks to Volcan Agua due to the increased threat of bandits. Hike at your own risk though it is highly advisable to completely avoid this area. If you insist on going, there are Tourist Police that you can request to accompany you. They can easily be found patrolling any of the main tourist sites in Antigua. There is no charge for this service but a tip is recommended.
- Height: 13,041ft (3,976m)
- Current Status: Dormant
- Claim to Fame: It’s spectacular above-the-cloud views over the city of Antigua. Not to mention its views of the constantly erupting Volcan Fuego.
- The Climb: The difficult trek can be done in one day, but to get the most out of your trip I’d recommend overnighting it for one of two reasons: the nighttime views of the lava-spewing Volcan Fuego and the sunrise views from Acatenango’s summit. Self-guided hiking information can be found here.
- Cost: There is a park entrance fee of Q50 (apprx $7).
- For Your Safety: Crime on Acatenango has gone way down since they started charging an entrance fee and this is now considered a safe climb.
- Height: 12,343ft (3,763m)
- Current Status: Active
- Claim to Fame: Fuego is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America. If you do the overnight Acatenango hike mentioned above, you pitch your tent overlooking Fuego. When I went in February, it erupted with spectacular lava spews about every 20 minutes throughout the night.
- The Climb: The most popular route has you going through Volcan Acatenango and is best broken up into 2 days (though you can do a full day intensive trek). Options include climbing Acatenango the first day and then hiking up Fuego the next morning. Or you can climb on through to Fuego the first day and sleep at Acatenango’s base camp before doing the final Acatenango summit the next morning. Some tour companies offer both climbs in one package. 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 (apprx $7).
- For Your Safety: Crime is now minimal going through the Acatenango Volcano to reach Fuego’s summit.
- Height: 8,371ft (2,552m)
- Current Status: Active
- Claim to Fame: The most climbed volcano in Guatemala where trekkers can roast marshmallows straight over its numerous lava hot spots.
- The Climb: This can be done in a half day and is perfect for those looking for an easier challenge than the aforementioned volcanoes. The climb is still vertical but is much more doable for the inexperienced hiker. Many tour operators offer this hike. For those wishing to summit it on their own, click here for more information.
- Cost: There is a park entrance fee of Q50 (apprx $7).
- For Your Safety: There are two different trails for those wishing to go independently. I’d recommend starting in San Francisco de Sales as it’s patrolled by rangers resulting in very few robberies compared to the other trail option. It’s always safest to go with a tour group.
How to Prepare and Pack for the Acatenango Volcano Hike
Volcan Acatenango is the third highest volcano in the country and as I’ve mentioned before, hiking to the summit is not an easy feat. But if you’re in moderately good physical condition then it is one of the most rewarding things you can ever do in Guatemala.
Climbing Acatenango remains one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had in the 10 years I’ve been traveling.
Should I Go With an Organized Tour?
Unless you are an extremely experienced hiker then I’d highly advise you to join a group for the following reasons:
- This hike is HARD. Reputable tour companies have excellent guides with one leading the pack and the other trailing at the end thus ensuring the safety of each and every hiker. This comes in handy considering you’ll most likely experience altitude sickness, the fickleness of Mother Nature, and minor accidents (the majority of injuries occur on the descent where you’re basically just slipping your way down thick ash).
- They provide all your gear. The majority of climbers taking on Acatenango split up the hike into two days. That means you’ll need your own backpack, tent, cookware, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, meals, warm clothing, etc. Most people backpacking through Central America will not be carrying all this with them and those coming for a short vacation won’t want to carry all that onto a plane. Going through security is already enough of a b****.
- They can arrange local porters. For an extra Q200 ($26) guides can arrange to have all your gear carried to base camp for you. This not only helps local Guatemalans make money but it takes 35-40lbs of literal weight off your back. I skipped this option as I’m a glutton for punishment and wanted to say I did it with gear and all. I’m annoyingly competitive and stubborn like that.
- Transport is included. Because nothing is worse than getting behind the wheel after 2 days of strenuous hiking with very little sleep in between thanks to a loudly, constantly erupting Volcan Fuego right next door.
Think you’re up to the challenge without a tour group? Then click here for information on the self-guided trek.
Choosing the Right Tour Company
This is the single-most important decision you’ll make after deciding to climb Acatenango and I cannot stress enough that this is not the time to skimp on money.
Tours can range anywhere from $40 to $150 but do NOT be suckered in by lower prices. Make sure the company you are going with is reputable and check out the reviews if in doubt.
You would not believe how many horror stories I heard while in Guatemala including tales of unwashed sleeping bags, cheap camping gear that couldn’t withstand the wind, broken tents, guides who lied about the difficulty of the hike and then left slower hikers behind to fend for themselves, etc. I even spoke with my medically trained guide who once had to help out a hiker from another tour group because their guide did not have the basic medical know how.
Going with the right company can make or break you trip which is why I recommend going with one of the below:
Ox Expeditions – This is the company I used to do the overnight Volcan Acatenango trip (you can read a detailed account of the full climb here). Why I like OX:
- Their honesty. OX holds an informative pre-hike meeting the night before the climb where they go over everything you should expect as well as all the packing necessities. They hold nothing back and may be a little too honest about what to expect. Seriously, I almost considered backing out of the climb after the meeting!
- They provide and rent out durable gear. For a small, additional price you can rent a backpack or sleeping bag. I had my own pack but did take them up on the sleeping bag from OX. They provide everything else (including warm jackets, windbreakers, hats, gloves, walking sticks, tents, mats, meals etc.). All of which were high quality.
- They own their own hostel. Staying here really came in handy considering we had a 6:30am start. It was also nice using their lockers for the rest of my stuff while on the hike and it was a great relief not having to worry about checking into another place the night I returned, bone-deep exhausted from the climb.
- Their friendly and experienced guides. I’ll be the first to admit I spent most of my time with the guide who was charged with tailing the end of the pack. I felt in safe hands when he explained his medical training background and the fact that he had hiked the entire Appalachian trail. His patience was much appreciated – especially during the times when I slowly lagged behind.
- The option to also hike Volcan Fuego. For an additional fee you can choose the Double Whammy option and hike both Acatenango and Fuego. There were a handful of our group who did this.
- Cost: $89 for the overnight tour or $59 for the one day tour. They also arrange tours to Volcan Pacaya and their shared-bed hostel rooms can be booked for around $8 per night.
Old Town Outfitters – this tour company also has a stellar reputation. Some pros:
- Qualified guides. The guides are locals (at OX we had American guides) and all are first-aide certified as well as bilingual.
- Camping gear included. This includes top-of-the-line camping equipment as well as sleeping bags and mats. However backpacks and warm clothing are not included.
- Park entrance fee included. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are also provided.
- Cost: $125 per person for 4+ people. Prices go up if less than 4 people.
What to Pack for the Acatenango Volcano Hike
I’m one of those rare breeds scientists call the under-packer. I seriously NEVER pack enough stuff. It’s basically because I’m lazy and out of shape so I truly hate carrying anything. I mean I don’t even own a purse large enough to fit more than my cellphone and id. And if my outfit comes fully equipped with pockets – I don’t bother with a purse at all.
So imagine my surprise when I laid everything out on the grimy hostel floor the morning of the hike and had trouble fitting it all into my pack. Clearly there was something I could do without. I removed a shirt here and a jacket there but then remembered our guides insisting that no one had ever complained about packing too much stuff. So I re-jammed the clothing back in with the help of a new friend.
Turned out they were right. I wound up wearing and using every single item I had packed.
- Hiking Boots – I highly advise against wearing regular sneakers. The ash is very thick and slippery. I love my Scarpa hiking boots and have had them for over 3 years now. They’re still durable despite the fact that they’ve hiked glaciers in Iceland, mountains in Scotland, and now volcanoes in Guatemala – plus many more trails! The best part is that there’s no need to break them in. I’ve never gotten so much as a single blister from them and they’re as comfortable as can be.
- Adjustable Backpack – Some tour companies offer the option to rent a pack. I prefer having my own as it’s fitted correctly to my stature. I personally use the Marmot brand packs (the model I used for the hike is now discontinued – its pre-2007!). Backpacks are always something I recommend you buy in person so you can test the weight and have a professional fit it for you. It makes a world of difference and your back will thank you. Mine has around a 35L capacity though the guides recommend a 65L for the Acatenango hike. A bigger one would have been preferable as I had to store 2 water bottles in the outside pockets along with my sleeping mat.
- Tent, Sleeping Bag, and Mat – if you go with a tour, these are typically provided by the company. I personally don’t own a tent or sleeping bag so can’t recommend a brand. Please keep in mind you do still have to carry these during the hike whether they’re yours or not. OX tours had 5-person tents so each of us carried a part of it up the trail. For example, I had to load the tent poles in my backpack while someone else carried the tarp.
- Walking Stick – most tour companies provide these and yes YOU NEED A WALKING STICK. The ash gets very deep and slippery – especially on the descent. If you’re hiking on your own, Guatemalan women and children can be found ‘renting’ sticks at the entrance to the trail. You then return them upon your return.
- eBags Packing Cubes – I received these cubes for Christmas last year and OMG THEY’RE A GAME CHANGER. Seriously, the best invention ever. They make packing so much more organized and are a better alternative to just stuffing all your clothes in your main backpack compartment. I used 3 cubes for this hike – 1 for my warm sleeping clothes, 1 for my Day 2 hiking clothes, and 1 for my electronics/accessories.
- 1 x Pair of Track Shorts – it may seem too cold at first but the exertion will make you hot. An hour in, I was rejoicing in the fact that I had not worn pants. (Day 1)
- 2 x Dry Fit Short Sleeve Shirts – I wore these as my base layer (Day 1 and Day 2)
- 1 x Zip-up Fleece Jacket – I used a lightweight one and preferred the zip-up so I could take it on and off easily. (Day 1)
- 2 x Sport Bras – (Day 1 and 2)
- 3 x Pairs of Quick Drying Underwear – unattractive but the best performance wear underwear ever (Day 1, Night 1, and Day 2)
- 1 x Down Jacket – again, I love my Marmot brand. I used the shorter one that stops at your hip. (Night 1 – I only wore this at base camp by the fire. It’s very cold at night).
- 1 x Pullover Fleece – you get incredibly filthy on this hike so I’m glad I brought an extra fleece. I did not want to re-wear the zip-up fleece jacket from the previous day. (Day 2)
- 1 x Pair Hiking Pants – you really just need this for the final 2 hour hike to the summit in the morning. Or if you do the Fuego hike add-on. (Day 2)
- 1 x Fleece Pajama Set – don’t laugh – I wore a silly head to toe (long sleeve and pants) fleece pajamas to sleep in. It’s freezing on that volcano and I was so warm #noregrets. (Night 1)
- 3 x Pair Thick Wool Socks – will keep you warm and prevent blisters. (Day 1, Night 1, Day 2)
- 1 x Winter Hat – most people had beanies but I was fine with a wool wrap around one that just went around my ears. (Night 1 and Day 2)
- 1 x Pair Gloves – mine were cashmere-lined leather gloves. (Night 1 and Day 2)
- 1 x Windbreaker – I did not bring one but really wish I had. The wind whips icy cold at the summit. You definitely need your heaviest jacket for the summit with a windbreaker worn over it. (Day 2)
- Headlamp – day 2’s departure is at 4am so you can make it to the summit in time for sunrise. The add-on hike to Fuego has you returning in the dark as well. This is a must have.
- Portable Cell Phone Battery – I was using my iPhone in airplane mode to take photos so I didn’t have to lug my camera around. This portable charger kept my phone alive for the entirety of the hike.
- Extra Pair of Contacts – the ash bothered my eyes so much that I had to replace my contacts with a new pair.
- Ear Plugs – I was with 3 guys in my tent so the snoring was out of control. Not to mention the volcano made noise as it erupted every 20 minutes throughout the night.
- Aspirin or Ibuprofen – helps with altitude sickness.
- Toilet Paper – my new friends and I just bought one roll to split between the 3 of us.
- Extra Cash – just in case you really need that porter. Also, on some tours the entrance fee to the park is not included.
- Toothpaste and toothbrush
- SPF Face Moisturizer
- 3L of Water – this should be plenty. I didn’t even finish half of my last bottle.
- Bananas, Nuts, Dried Bananas, and Chocolate – yes chocolate is actually very good for strenuous hiking. Something about antioxidants.
Words of Wisdom About the Hike
It is very much a mental game. Yes the physical challenges are tough but if you go in with the right mindset then you’ll make it to the summit. As someone who was totally out of shape and didn’t physically prepare at all, I still made it. Everyone is struggling with you and you’ll find yourself quickly becoming part of an encouraging team made up entirely of strangers.
You will experience altitude sickness. Each person reacts to altitude differently but the majority don’t become crippled by it. The first day I only experienced a little quickness of breath and a slight headache. The morning trip to the summit was the only time I felt a little light-headed but not so much that I ever thought I had to turn around. Altitude sickness did not keep anyone in our 20 person group from making it to the top. If it does get bad, just tell a guide and they’ll escort you back down and you’ll find that lower you get, the better you’ll feel. Aspirin and Ibuprofen also help.
Know your limitations – if you’re really struggling to keep up and need a break, then take a break. This is a difficult climb and no one will judge you. There are many rest stops along the way and as one guide will be in front and the other behind, you won’t be holding anyone up. I found myself the very last person on some legs of the journey and on others I was in the middle. Trust me – you will NOT be the only one struggling!
Ash will lodge itself in places you didn’t realize existed. You’re constantly kicking up and breathing in thick ash the entire climb and during the descent. Ashes from the constantly erupting Fuego were carried over from the wind as it rained down on us. I was not expecting this and found myself wishing I had brought Visine and sunglasses as my eyes became increasingly irritated. Also, take this into account if you suffer from asthma or have any other sort of breathing struggles. Oh and after the hike – clean the inside of your nostrils. Seriously. It was like a gooey alien predator was hiding up in there.
Be cautious during the descent – this is where most injuries occur. One girl in our group was injured and I fell twice so be careful. Use your walking stick and take it slow if you need too.
Clip your toenails – trust me on this one. Just. Do. It.
Have fun – take in the moment. There is no greater feeling in the world than watching the sunrise from above the clouds atop the icy summit. All of the pain and effort will be forgotten at 13,000ft!!
For a more fun, light-hearted story on the actual hike from beginning to end read Climbing the Acatenango Volcano: A Lesson in Adventure and Friendship.
Do you have any packing essentials for your adventurous activities? Let me know in the comments below!
*this post contains some affiliate links to items/brands that I currently own and used during the hike. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at NO EXTRA COST TO YOU. These commissions help reduce the cost of running this site. I NEVER write about anything I haven’t experienced myself and this mentality extends to all brands and products I mention.
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