Volcan de Fuego, Guatemala

Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Acatenango aren’t necessarily on every traveller’s radar when they visit the country. After all, hiking up to one of the most active volcanoes on earth isn’t exactly your standard bucket list item.

In this post, I’ll share some of my experiences and, of course, some photos and videos to illustrate exactly why this is not an experience to miss out on if you find yourself in this part of the world.

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Guatemala: the volcano capital of Central America

 

Once considered a ‘gateway to hell’, Guatemala is the most volcano-heavy of the six countries that form the Central American Volcanic Arc.

The relatively small Central American nation, which covers a landmass roughly equivalent to one quarter of the state of California, is home to no less than 37 volcanoes, of which some of the most famous are nestled around the historic, cobblestone-laden city of Antigua. One such volcano, Volcán de Agua, is visible from most of Antigua’s colourful streets, offering a majestic backdrop to its historical monuments, including the famous El Arco de Santa Catalina.

Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua Guatemala
Volcan de Agua, Antigua Guatemala

Volcán de Fuego y Volcán de Acatenango

 

About an hour’s drive outside of Antigua, however, lie two even more incredible volcanoes: Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Acatenango.

The former is known for being one of the most active volcanoes on earth, while the latter is known for providing a particularly great view of the former. If you don’t believe me, Google image search ‘Volcán de Acatenango’ – every photo you’ll see is of Acatenango’s overactive little brother.

Volcan de Fuego smoke

Saying that, neither of these volcanoes is actually very “little”. The summit of Acatenango stands at close to 4000m (around 13,100 feet) above sea-level, and much of that altitude is gained during the first day of hiking, meaning that altitude sickness is very much a possibility. I’d highly recommend staying in Antigua, which sits at around 1,530m (or around 5000 feet) for a day or two to acclimate before setting off on this hike.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the hike itself, starting with the big question.

 

Tour or no tour?

 

Generally speaking, I’m much more keen on self-guided hiking than I am on joining a tour group. Now this may be down to a desire to explore for myself, being able to go at the pace I like to go at, or just an acute fear of strangers – I’ll let you decide. On this hike, however, I would strongly recommend going with one of the guided tours that are offered at virtually every hostel, hotel and travel agency in Antigua.

The first of these reasons is reports of lone hikers being robbed. Admittedly, I only read about this on other blogs, which likely learned of this from other blogs, but it’s still not worth risking in my mind, particularly when you take the value of the tours on offer into consideration.

I paid 300 Guatemalan Quetzales (roughly 30 GBP / 38 USD at the time of writing) for the Acatenango tour, plus 200 Quetzales (20 GBP / 25 USD) for the additional hike to Volcán de Fuego. This included a pickup from our accommodation, the one hour drive to the trail head (and back the next day), lunch, dinner, breakfast, some warm clothing, accommodation in a semi-permanent campsite over-looking Volcán de Fuego and two great local guides who were with us the entire way.

Those going self-guided would need to either carry their own camping equipment or go up and down in one day. Going up and down in one day is doable if you’re physically fit and you start early, but to get the full experience I’d strongly recommend staying the night and taking a tour.

 

The photography kit I brought with me

 

If you hike to both Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Acatenango, the total elevation gain (according to my watch) is 1,975m (or 6,480 feet). This means that you should try to pack as light as you can, so lugging 6 hefty zoom lenses up with you is likely to be a choice you’d quickly regret.

For this hike, I, of course, packed my trusty Fujifilm X-T2 along with my XF55-200mm telephoto zoom and the newest addition to my light-weight travel photography set up: the Fujinon XF27mm f/2.8 WR prime.

Fuji X-T2 with XF27mm f/2.8 WR
Fuji X-T2 with XF27mm f/2.8 WR side

If, like us, you decide to travel to Guatemala in the rainy season, which spans roughly from May to October each year, I would recommend bringing a weather resistant camera body and at least one weather resistant lens. The weather can turn very quickly here, so my XF27mm f/2.8 WR was an absolute lifesaver when it started tipping it down on the way to the Volcán de Fuego viewpoint.

Additionally, I brought my Peak Design Capture Clip V3, which is especially handy when you’re scrambling up a steep incline with a hefty telephoto zoom lens. I also brought my Manfrotto Element Traveller tripod, which would’ve been great if I hadn’t forgotten the remote shutter release I needed to take the long exposure images of the erupting Volcán de Fuego.

By far the best part of this clip / tripod combination is that the Peak Design Capture Clip first perfectly into the quick release mount of the tripod, making it very quick and easy to attach and detach the camera to the tripod using the camera clip without having to unscrew the clip and attach the other screw-in plate that comes with the tripod.

Peak Design Capture Clip 3
Manfrotto element traveller

In addition to the essential photography kit, you should also remember to bring decent hiking or trail shoes or boots, and if you’re going self-guided, some warm clothing, light camping gear, some snacks and enough water. I’d recommend bringing 2 litres per person, though there are a couple of stalls on the hike at which you can buy more if necessary.

 

Day 1

 

The day started at 9am when I was picked up from my Airbnb. I was the first to be picked up, and the minibus drove around Antigua for around 30 mins picking up the other 10 people that formed our group for the weekend.

Once we had been picked up, we stopped at a local high school where we were outfitted with warmer clothes, as well as a hat and pair of gloves each. If you decide to go with a tour, do make sure that they include this – it can get fairly chilly at night and especially at the summit of Volcán de Acatenango since there is no shelter from the wind.

 

Drive to the trailhead

 

We set off on a very scenic drive from Antigua to the trailhead, climbing another 900 metres in the process. It didn’t seem like we had picked the best day weather-wise; the sky was covered with a thick, grey blanket of cloud. Overhearing us mentioning this, however, our driver told us that this wouldn’t worry us too much longer as, soon enough, we’d be hiking above cloud-level.

Our guides then briefed us on the plan for the day as a local tried to rent or sell us walking sticks and hiking poles. I’d say these aren’t necessary on the way up, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t have liked to have a hiking pole on the way down.

 

Start of the hike

 

The trail starts off on a moderately steep path with large drainage ditches on either side. In Guatemala, when it rains, it pours, so these drainage ditches are simply to ensure that the Volcán de Acatenango trail doesn’t regularly turn into a steep, muddy river.

You then pass a café and walk up a short section of steps, before entering the forest. This was one of my personal favourite sections.

Acatenango hike forest

The sounds of the jungle and the animals within it are incredibly relaxing, the trees provide shade if you’re hiking on a sunny day and, most importantly, the ground stays where it is as you’re hiking on it (see day 2 for context).

In the forest, you’ll also briefly stop at a registration office where you’ll have to fill out a short form. This stop has some information boards about the Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Acatenango hike, as well as the first stall at which you can buy water, snacks or a beer. If you’re self-guided, this is where you’ll have to pay the entrance fee / hiking permit of 100 Quetzales (10GBP or 12USD).

 

Our first glimpses of the famous volcanoes

 

After hiking along the forest trails for around another hour and stopping for a quick packed lunch, the forest cleared and the trail got steeper. Our group took more frequent breaks during this section which slowed our progress a bit, but soon enough we were rewarded with a sight we had all been waiting for.

The path cleared up and by peeking above a bush that lined the side of the trail, we saw our first volcanic peak. We were well above the clouds by this point so we could see the top half of the Volcán de Agua, the aforementioned volcano that towers over Antigua from the south.

Volcan de Agua from Acatenango hike

It injected our group with a burst of energy, which also coincided with the trail levelling out and turning to what our guide referred to as the “Guatemalan flats”. This meant we were making faster progress and, soon enough, we were rewarded yet again.

Turning a corner, we heard a low rumble as a mushroom cloud of black smoke erupted into the sky. We all stopped in our tracks and took in our first sight of the famous Volcán de Fuego earning its name.

Volcan de Fuego eruption

Push to camp

 

The entire rest of the way to the camp where we would be staying the night, we had a full view of Volcán de Fuego and its eruptions, which were only around 10 minutes apart. The smoke from one eruption would barely have cleared by the time the next plume of smoke shot into the sky.

We arrived in our camp, which consisted of five sturdy-looking shelters, which each contained five mattresses and five sleeping bags. We rested for a while, watching Volcán de Fuego’s near constant eruptions. We had a bite to eat before heading off on the second part of our day – the hike that took us as close as we could safely get to the mighty Volcán de Fuego.

 

Hike to Volcán de Fuego to witness the ultimate eruption

 

From the camp, we descended around 350 metres to reach the ridge that connected Volcán de Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego. Towards the final parts of the descent, the trail up Volcán de Fuego on the other side becomes visible and one fact becomes abundantly clear – they don’t do switchbacks in Guatemala.

 The hike on the other side is steep and it basically consists of one straight line up hill. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but we got caught in a bit of a storm so the trail got fairly slippery. It turned from a hike into more of a scramble at some points, requiring three points of contact to avoid slipping.

After around 45 minutes of being told we were “nearly there” by returning hikers we passed, we reached the top of the mound that we were told offered the best view of Volcán de Fuego. Initially, this was in no way the case as it we could barely see anything. The light of our headtorches illuminated nothing but the mist it was shining through

Then, however, the lightning started, and we got a full view of how close we actually were. With every bolt, our surroundings were illuminated, and we realised we weren’t alone up there – there was around a dozen other hikers from another group standing just 10-15 metres away from us. Given the conditions, we hadn’t been able to see or hear them before this. 

The volcano then proceeded to give us exactly what we were all up there to see – it erupted more ferociously that we had seen it erupt all day, and with this eruption came the bright light of the lava flying out and rolling down the side of the volcano, growing dimmer the further it slipped. On one of these eruptions, we witnessed lightning striking directly into the erupting volcano – an experience that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.

We stayed for a few more eruptions until our guide reminded us of the fact that we had dinner waiting for us at camp, and also that we’d have a 3am start to push to the summit of Volcán de Acatenango in the morning. Still high on excitement from the spectacle we’d just witnessed, the way back seemed to take a lot less energy than the hike to Volcán de Fuego had

We hiked back to our camp, quickly shovelled down some pasta our guides had prepared for us and turned in for the night.

 

Day 2

 

What was supposed to be a 3am start ended up being more of a 4am start in truth, and had we known what the way up would be like, I don’t think as many of us would’ve willingly crawled out of our sleeping bags. However, we didn’t know this yet, so I packed my telephoto zoom lens, clipped into my Capture clip and joined the group to set off.

 

Final push to the summit

 

The first 45 minutes of the push to the summit of Volcán de Acatenango was a straight line directly up a steep slope of volcanic sand. Every two steps you’d slide down one step, making this section of the hike feel as though we were walking the wrong way up a very slippery escalator.

The only redeeming factor of this part of the hike was the sunrise that was taking place behind our backs. It was a relatively clear morning (considering we were hiking in the rainy season) so we could see Antigua and Guatemala City, along with various volcanic peaks and mountains spread across the landscape.

Antigua from Acatenango hike

The summit of Volcán de Acatenango

 

The views only improved once we got to the top. We were far from the only ones at the summit – in fact, it seems some self-guided hikers even set up camp right on top of the volcano.

Camp on Volcan de Acatenango hike

Having so many people on the top of the Volcano was great from my perspective. It means I had an abundance of subjects for my beloved silhouette shots. And you better believe I took an obscene number of silhouette shots.

Acatenango summit
Acatenango silhouette
Volcan de Acatenango hikers

The view from the summit also provided an even better view of Volcán de Fuego from a more elevated position. We didn’t see any of the explosive, lava-heavy eruptions we had seem the night before, but it was incredible nonetheless.

 

Hike back to camp

 

After spending some time at the summit, asking strangers to take photos of us before promptly returning the favour, we decided to head back down to camp.

The way back down was infinitely more enjoyable than the way up had been. What resembled a frustrating stair-master on the way up, was more of an enjoyable sandy ski slope on the way down. With every step, we slid down an extra metre or two, making the downhike back to camp a breeze.

We then re-joined the rest of the group whose decision to sleep in I had envied earlier in the morning. We each had a scrambled egg sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate, before packing up our things and heading back towards the trailhead.

 

Hike to the trailhead and drive back to Antigua

 

We then hiked all the way back to the trailhead in one go. This was, of course, less tiresome given gravity’s helping hand, but significantly more taxing on the knees. If you have issues with your knees, particularly when hiking, I’d recommend renting a stick or hiking pole from the guy at the trailhead at the beginning of the hike

We then sat down, regrouped and a couple of us enjoyed a cold Guatemalan beer from the stall at the side of the road. We then got in a minibus and I’m pretty sure we all fell asleep on the drive home, being woken up as soon as we hit the bumpy cobblestones of Antigua.

 

Wrap up

Volcan de Fuego, Guatemala

This concluded a memorable and exciting trip to Volcán de Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego. It’s one that’s sure to live in my memory for a very long time, aided of course by the photos I captured along the way.

If you find yourself in this part of the world and you have a reasonable level of fitness, I strongly recommend that you opt for this tour. You don’t even need to be extremely fit – if you take a tour, they will go at your pace and if you’re really struggling, you can do what one of the members of our group did and pay one of the guides to carry your bags for around 200 Quetzales (20 GBP, 25 USD). 

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