Hiking Volcano Acatenango

After the road to leave Lake Atitlan, any drive would seem nondescript, but we were happy with something straight forward and simple. The next test would be to our endurance rather than that of the campers. The following morning, we planned to climb Volcano Acatenango. This route is around 5 miles long and is estimated to take the same number of hours, which gives you an indication of the speed that they expect you to be going at. We had booked a tour guide, while it is possible to do it without one, it makes the whole experience considerably easier, one of the main attractions being that you don’t have to also carry a tent up the mountain with you. We planned to stay the night at the guides house, before setting off early in the morning.

We arrived at Elvin’s house mid afternoon and parked up. We were greeted my his very friendly family, who welcomed us inside for a cup of tea. We ate dinner with them that evening and got a substantial history lesson to boot. We also met another European couple who would be completing the hike with us the next day. 

It wasn’t long before we retired to the campers to pack our things for the next day. Elvin provided a comprehensive list of  what we should bring and I attempted to wrestle it into our rucksacks. We would be spending the night at base camp in order to see Volcano Fuego nearby. Particular active at night, it is apparently possible to see lava spewing from the crater in the darkness. The temperatures at base camp were around 0 degrees, it being at around 2600m high. We were grateful that this time we would be properly adjusted to the altitude, but it was still going to be cold. Layers were clearly in order and we broke out our proper walking gear for the first time in a long time. We were also supposed to carry 3L of water each as well as a packed lunch. Elvin came and checked that we had good walking boots and proper clothes, offering to lend us anything that we didn’t have. Fortunately we were well pretty equipped, when we had packed back in England we had envisioned countless hikes in the Canadian mountains rather than months on a beach. With our bags ready, we got an early night. Tomorrow’s breakfast would be at 7.30am with the guide collecting us at 8am to start. 

Elvin’s mum supplied a very hearty breakfast indeed, which was probably good, thing all things considered. There aren’t many times in my life where I’ve eaten roast potatoes for breakfast, but I’m not complaining.

Then we loaded our stuff into the back of a pickup and set off to the start of the hike in light drizzle. We were dropped at the entrance to the park at we set off with our overly full backpacks and our guide. 

We followed an easy trail through some woodland, before coming out into farmland which had a coffee shop. Then the ascent got steeper. We walked up next to fields of corn and onwards.

We knew it was roughly an hour to the official entrance where you are required to pay entry and fill in a form. The way was steps, endless steps. Still we made it in good time to the entrance and enjoyed a well earned breather. I was glad we had been more active recently; kayaking, walking and hiking included. I think attempting this hike after a few sedentary months would have been tough. Even the guide was dripping in sweat but his pace didn’t slow.

There are several routes to different base camps, ours had three marked rest points on the route. Hanno was the official altitude monitor. We knew that we had to climb over 700m to reach base camp. Every time we stopped, we got updated on how many meters we had done. It was surprisingly not too bad, I guess some of our earlier exercise along with being properly acclimatised had paid off. We were out of breath but not to the point where we couldn’t continue. We pushed on through cloud forest and the ever changing vegetation. 

The weather was a bit miserable, and we weren’t rewarded with the views that I felt we should have been as we climbed higher. We did get glimpses of Volcan de Agua, which makes up the third volcano in this triangle. After several hours, we saw Fuego for the first time through the trees ahead. That could only mean one thing, we were nearly at base camp. 

The drop in temperature and lack of oxygen was noticeable. More layers came out of the rucksacks as we kept going. Breathing was getting a harder too, but fortunately the path had levelled a little for the last part and wasn’t quite as tough as the initial ascent. In three and a half hours, we reached base camp. We were pretty chuffed with our pace. It probably helps that we were only a small group of 6. 

Due to an earlyish start and a fairly quick pace we had reached the camp with a lot of time to spare. We retreated to the tents for a quick nap, thinking we wouldn’t get much sleep later anyway as we watched Fuego erupt. The temperatures were pretty cold too, while 0 degrees doesn’t sound like much it is pretty cold when coupled with a mountain wind and some high humidity. 

Around mid-afternoon, we had a rather good hot chocolate. Apparently there was another hike to a view point on Fuego that you could do. The weather didn’t look too promising, but it seemed better than sitting in a tent all day so we got ready to leave. That was until the guide casually mentioned it would be an additional 200q each. This seemed incredibly steep for what is was and we decided to give it a miss, you could hike for another two hours and pay over 50% additional on the cost of what we were already doing for nothing in weather like this. In the end, I’m glad we decided not to go. Rather than shifting, the cloud came down. We were lucky that we got a few glimpses of Fuego erupting before it happened, even in daylight it is an impressive sight.

Late afternoon, we saw another group arrive. They came just before it got dark, around twenty of them. I was glad we had a small group, we had been able to get here much quicker and with the weather being a bit rubbish it would have been a shame to arrive so late.

Then, the volcano disappeared completely and the rain came in. We sat in the shelter at base camp. The guides had a lit a fire out of some very soggy pinewood.  Fuego exploded audibly behind us in the darkness, but all you could see was horizontal rain. The make shift structure was not very windproof, meaning that when all the sides were ‘shut’, the wind gusted from all directions blowing smoke in everyones eyes. We were still glad of the warmth as it was very, very cold and I was wearing every single layer I had.

The rain poured down while our guide, who had been joined by another guide who I guess was responsible for looking after basecamp, cooked. The shelter had a basic gas stove on which they prepared us some spaghetti along with sone kind of tortilla for the veggie folk. I was pleasantly surprised when they whipped out a carton of red wine for us too. While desperately lacking in seasoning, it was the kind of stodgy carbs that were most welcome after a long hike. We stayed around the fire until we both got to the point where our eyes were streaming from the smoke and we decided that an early night was better that being slightly warmer. The guide told us that the hike to the remaining part of Acatenangos summit would begin at 4am, weather permitting. From the top we would be able to look down on Fuego erupt with a sunrise background. 

We cuddle in the sleeping bags for warmth. I had five layers on from earlier and I had no intention of removing any of them. It was just about ok and we drifted in and out of sleep. Every now and again a loud bang signalled Fuego erupting, but lying in bed and listening to the rain pattering on the tent we knew there was no point in poking our heads out into the freezing cold. 4am came around without the weather relenting, it looked like we wouldn’t be able to go to the summit after all. Something that is apparently not too uncommon due to high winds, but nonetheless a shame. 

Our guide woke us at 6am for breakfast. Possible the most disappointing thing of all. Cloud covered base camp as they took from us the cornflakes out of our packed lunches and poured hot water on them. I was handed a cup of coffee through which I could clearly see the bottom of my cup and some warm, wet tasteless mush. I might have thought I was unimpressed, but Kikki without her morning coffee is a whole different thing. We stirred the soggy mush and wished we had just eaten the cornflakes dry. At least we had a pretty great view in the morning, despite quite a lot of clouds in the valley below.

We were pretty much set to go, when they said it was possible to stay another night if we wanted due to the bad weather. The other European couple debated, as did we. We didn’t want to leave the cats for that long completely unattended. We were pretty sure Aimee was a few good scratches away from completely ripping out the mosquito net window anyway. Chico had been bitten by a street dog that morning too, so we really couldn’t leave them. The European couple however wanted to stay and we said we would leave. The price went from 100p/p to 500p/p for just the other couple and then after we started to get rather annoyed 30p/p. The guides clearly just chancing their luck with some ‘rich tourists’. In the end, the other couple stayed and the four of us headed back down. As a chance to reconcile a slightly pissed off tour group, they offered us to hike to the summit anyway. Despite the fact that we were mostly in cloud, we decided to go. You never know, it might clear. 

It’s around an hour or a little more to the summit. Again, it’s straight uphill. We kept hoping for a break in the cloud, but when we hit the ridge an hour later it seemed that wouldn’t be happening.

We sat in a freezing wet cloud for a little while before declaring that was enough. The four of us headed down one way with one guide, while the other couple went back to base camp with the other guide.

So we began our descent. Behind me I heard Kikki loudly declare that that ‘shitty essen’ was not breakfast. She was probably right but at least we were going downhill this time and that required less energy and also less time. Soon we were back in the cloud forest again.

In a couple of hours we were back down. My thigh muscles now screaming at me over ever last step back. Down is much tougher on the legs it seems. We were met by the car in the pouring rain and back at the house shortly. Elvin’s mother gave us lunch and to be fair to him Elvin offered us to come back and do the tour again for free as the weather had been so bad. You couldn’t blame him for the weather, but we were a little annoyed at the lack of transparency with the whole thing. With better planning we could have stayed another night if we knew that it was an option. Still, it transpires that as we heard later, the other couple hadn’t seen anything the second night either. 

With the miserable day and the street dog situation we decided to move on. We all wanted a shower, but this wasn’t much of an option. Kikki tried one which was freezing cold while I tried the other. It had one of those electrically heated shower heads that are common here. It smoked rather ominously while I tried to shower rapidly to turn it off. I was just about to wash off all the soap and shampoo when it caught fire. Rather aware that this was an electrical fire and I was wet, I frantically blew and flapped at the wires from a distance while the room filled with acrid smoke. Grabbing my towel, I headed next door to use finish off with the freezing cold shower. Now clean and cold I reappeared next door to collect my underwear and try to explain what happened while several blokes crowded into the bath, poked at the smouldering wires. Time to beat a hasty retreat and head for Antigua. 

1 Comment

  1. Wow! What a great description and, reading it from my warm chair, there are some funny moments. Clear coffee and a shower that catches on fire! Whoa! I’m glad that was not worse. Nothing worse than bitter cold, and constant rain, and “shitty Essen”! I love reading your travelogues! Wonderful stuff. Too bad the guides were a ripoff.

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