Acatenango Alone: How to Hike Unguided
yuputka n. (Ulwa) A word made for walking in the woods at night; the phantom sensation of something crawling on your skin.
Acatenango: Looming over the city of Antigua, Guatemala to the southwest, it stands at 3,976 meters, or 13,040 ft in elevation. It’s twin peak, Volcan Fuego, is just as intimidating as it spits fire multiple times throughout the night. Acatenango may no longer be active, is last eruption in 1972, but it is still a formidable task.
I say this as if I hiked it. If you read my personal account of my time in Antigua, you will have read that I did not, in fact, get the chance to hike Acatenango due to bad weather up on the mountain. However, because Chris and I were planning on doing the hike unguided, we did a lot of research into the task and decided to post a handy little guide here for anyone else thinking of doing the same thing. I merely add as a disclaimer that this is all theoretical information based on research, meant to act as a guide and not as a failsafe personal testimony.
Is an unguided trek for me?
Hiking a high altitude volcano in a foreign country is nothing to take lightly. If you’re even asking yourself this question, seriously consider the answer. Chris and I are both skilled hikers and climbers, used to high elevations (though admittedly still lower than Acatenango), so our physical capabilities were not in question. If you don’t feel confident in your skills both physically and to navigate the mountain, you might be best to go with a guided group.
Gear is another thing to consider. One thing most guided treks offer is gear to do an overnight hike of the volcano. This includes a tent, sleeping bag, coat, etc. Since Chris and I own all of these things and backpack with them (see some of our gear at the bottom of the page), it seemed like a waste of money to do a guided trek.
If you don’t have gear, however, your options are limited. You can still do an unguided trek, provided you don’t do an overnight one. This might mean doing the hike through the day and missing Volcan Fuego’s eruptions through the night, or starting around 3am to catch them. The latter option is risky in terms of navigation. A tip from an accidental night hiker: as hard as the mountain is to navigate in the day, it’ll be ten times harder at night. Doing this unguided may not be the best idea.
Be warned, I have heard first hand from several hikers that it is frigid at the top, so bring layers and warm clothes no matter what.
Is it safe?
Safe is a relative term. Is it more dangerous than exploring the city of Antigua? Definitely. More dangerous than doing a guided trek? Yep. But is it as dangerous as walking down the street of Guatemala city, flashing hundred of America dollar bills? No way. Unlike Volcan Agua, which is reportedly rampant with local robbers and bandits, Acatenango is well policed and trafficked, so you’ll find little to no crime reported on the mountain. Still, just to be safe, don’t bring a ton of valuables. A camera, sure, but avoid any other expensive things or large amounts of cash, just in case.
But as you should with any outdoor excursion, take precautions. Tell someone where you are going, where this be a hostel in Antigua where you are storing the rest of your stuff or a family member back home. I make this mistake from time to time hiking in my home state, and it can be dangerous. Always tells someone where you are going and be as specific about your route and timeline as possible. If something goes wrong, they then know where to start looking.
One of the biggest dangers of doing Acatenango alone is being underprepared. There are no water sources on the mountain. Let me repeat that, THERE ARE NO WATER SOURCES ON THE MOUNTAIN! Being a strenuous and long hike, you’re going to need to pack a significant amount of water. I recommend at least 3 liters per person. In my experience, running out of water is one of the fastest ways to send a hike into failure.
How long will it take?
The answer to this depends: Do you want to see Volcan Fuego erupt through the night? If so, then you have two options as I mentioned briefly above:
- Do an overnight hike, beginning in the afternoon of one day, hiking up about to about 3,000 meters to camp, spending the night, summiting in the morning, then descending in the afternoon. All in all, such a route would take about 24 hours. This route is also advantageous because it allows you extra time to summit Fuego from the saddle between the two summits if you wish.
- Get an early (and I meant 3am early) start. Again, really consider how smart this option is if you’re planning on doing it alone. If you do, however, here’s how it’s done. From Antigua’s main terminal, take a 2pm chicken bus (named Lavelmo) toward San Pedro Yepocapa. Ask the driver beforehand to stop at La Soledad. If you miss this bus, take a bus to Paramos and change to San Pedro Yepocapa. At the location of the bus drop-off in La Soledad, there is a small store (“tienda”) where you can go inside and ask for a room. There is only one so hopefully it will be free, but its pretty lackluster (no shower or anything) so hopefully not. Sleep early, rise early, around 3am and begin your hike. I recommend scouting out the trailhead the night before. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this on your own, as I probably wouldn’t, you can still go this route and save money but paying around Q100 per person for a local guide, who will act a private tour guide to take you up the mountain. They’ll leave with you early in the morning and you save on some of the unnecessary fees of the travel agency treks. Plus you’re supporting the locals, so this is a good middle ground option.
Most accounts say it takes about 9 hours to summit the volcano. It is not an easy hike, so factor in how good of shape you are in and how into hiking you are. It is said to take 203 to descend from the summit. Round trip, it is a 15.5km hike, depending on what specific route you take. There are also two different summits, Yepocapa, the northern summit at 3830 meters (12,565)and the southern and highest cone, Pico Mayor at 3976 meters (13,054 feet). The latter is what most people climb.
How do I get there?
The easiest way to access the mountain is via the La Soledad Route, through the village of La Soledad. I have heard it is also accessible via the town of Alotenango but I couldn’t find any specifics on this route. All I know is that this route begins at 1,400 meters, where La Soledad begins at 2,400 meters. The ascent is already quite large without adding another 1,000 meters to it.
To begin, follow the directions above to the town of La Soledad and ask locals where the trailhead begins: “Donde esta el camino a Acatenango?” After the trailhead where there is a fee station. It costs Q50 to hike the volcano on your own, which may seem like a lot, but also consider that this is the reason the crime has decreased on the mountain. Front he fee station, follow the trail south until you come to a fork at the sign for “Al Conejo”. Now you need to make a decision depending on where you want to camp. Here are your options:
- Turn left at the fork. This is the route that most guides go, so you’re likely to run into some if you go this way as well. You’ll come to some cornfields, where you need to make another left turn. This is the most confusing part of the hike, but follow the well marked trails through the farmland. There are several to choose from, but they all converge around 2,750 meters where farmland turns to cloud forest. From here through the alpine forest, and finally, the volcanic zone, there is one easy to follow trail leading you right to the campsites. on the east side of the summit. You’ll find camping around 3,125 meters or 3,300 meters.
- Turn right at “Al Conejo” and when you reach another Y fork, take the right fork. This route will take you to the west side of the summit, where the best campsites to view Fuego through the night are.
- Turn right at “Al Conejo” and when you reach the Y fork, take the left fork. This will take you right to the saddle between the mountains. If you plan on camping here, or if you plan on trying to do both Acatenango and Fuego, this is the route to go. Be warned: Local guides call this section “the refrigerator”. I’ll leave what that means up to your imagination.
- Note: You can also camp inside the cone of Acatenango itself! Just be especially careful of lightning storms that may brew in the night here.
*Note: As I did not do this hike, I did not take the photo used for the cover. This is a photo taken from SummitPost.com, a excellent resource for hiking information.
Did the hike? I’d love to hear how it went, either guided or unguided. Was this guide helpful? Have any improvements to add? Sent us a message on the Contact Us page or comment below!