Summiting Volcan de Fuego Should Be On Your Bucket List! | Guatemala

Why would you want to spend almost 24 hours hiking a volcano on absolutely no sleep? Because it’s amazing, that’s why! Summiting Fuego was a beautiful experience.

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Arguably one of the biggest draws for backpackers coming to Guatemala is the opportunity to summit volcanoes! There aren’t just one but two active volcanoes you can choose to conquer during your time in Guatemala. Acatenango and the ever active Fuego from off in the distance at Antigua is hauntingly beautiful. Fuego with its almost routine eruptions sending giant smoke stack like fumes into the sky was my poison. I was here in Guatemala for many reasons and getting a chance to hike these volcanoes were part of them.

Where to base yourself

The easiest point of access for these volcanic hikes has to be Antigua. It’s a no brainer because the town is located relatively close to the bases of Acatenango (inactive volcano) and Pacaya (the other active volcano.) A third active volcano in Guatemala lays at Volcan de Santiaguito. Antigua is also nicely setup for tourists, that includes us backpackers who litter the streets on any given day, with plenty of tour operations. Amenities like a Starbucks (yuck), Little Caesar’s (yes, hot-n-ready are big business here), and enough people that speaks English you won’t feel like a foreigner with your meager Spanish. Plot twist, you’ll still be.

Since I was already basing myself here for two weeks learning Spanish I opted to stay and do the trek.

P.C. Wikipedia

With who, with who to book

This one can be easy or tough depending on how you look at it. Because the business of hiking Acatenango has boomed over the last few years, rightfully so, so has the tour markets running these expeditions. You have so many options at your disposable when wanting to book a tour guide for your nutty adventure. From the cheap (Tropicana Hostel — party hostel/young crowd, Wicho and Charlie’s) to mid tier (OX Expedition) to uber elite (Old Town Outfitters — snow birds) you got choices mi amigo. All has their pros and cons as with everything in life. I went with OX for their track record and cost ($129 was roughly in the middle of it all) for their Double Whammy hike (Fuego sunset hike and Acatenango sunrise summit.)

The cheaper options are there if you are on a super tight budget, they still get the job done at the minimalist level. Same can be said for the elite option if you don’t want to skimp on comfort … but you are hiking an almost 4,000m volcano. Comfort will be slim. OX Expedition was the Goldilocks of the bunch for me.

Also, you could do the trek entirely on your own without a guide. If badass is your middle name make sure you have the cold weather gear, poncho, ample water and food needed. Pay the 100Q for entrances and enjoy mi amigo.

P.C. OX Epeditions

When should you do the hike?

This is SUPER tough to answer as the weather can be unpredictable (weather man aren’t always right? ha.) I’ll save you the trouble of Googling when is Guatemala’s wet and dry season: May-Nov is their wet season and Nov-May is the dry season. Armed with this knowledge I was happy as a clam knowing this birthday present to myself would be a dry hike!

WRONG. So fucking wrong. Ever since touching down in Guatemala my weather apps said it would rain nigh on nearly every day. Did it? Not a single drop but blue skies galore. Already having trust issues this made it more blatant. The week leading up to the hike and inadvertently my last week of Spanish classes the weather was BEAUTIFUL. Two days before we were set to go … ominous gray clouds appeared in the sky. And damn did they never leave.

The biggest risk factor is the weather. Just because you book it in the dry season doesn’t mean it wont be wet and vice versa. Take those dices and roll them baby. Either way you’ll have a blast. No volcanic puns intended.

But … SHOULD you do it?

The answer is always a resounding FUCK YES. When again in your life will you ever be able to summit an ACTIVE volcano. You didn’t trek all the way down here to sit at a cafe, twiddling your thumbs, watching Fuego erupt all day long from a distance, dreaming of what it be like. Right? Sure it will be tough, but summiting 3900m will be something you tell your grandkids about. YOUR GRANDKIDS.

One time this old timer here hiked up an active volcano and boy did she erupt.

— your future self

That line needs work but you get the idea. Live a little, do it, you won’t regret it.

What to expect when expecting to hike a volcano

First things first you’re not going to be hiking from the base of Acatenango, that would be crazy, and take all day. Depending on who you book with they will transport you to about 2400m where the hike will actually start. Also, you can always use the tour’s gear, least in the case of OX, if you don’t have adequate gear of your own. Some important stuff to pack with you:

  • 55l backpack or similar size
  • 4 liters of water
  • Dry fit shirt
  • Cotton sweater
  • Down jacket
  • Rain jacket/poncho
  • Hiking pants
  • Beanie/hat
  • Gloves
  • Headlamp
  • Extra socks (do it, bring an extra pair in case it RAINS)
  • Hiking boots (no brainer here)
  • Snacks (they provide 4 meals but snacks are good to munch on, especially salty ones)
  • Communal food and your prepared lunch from the tour … and wine
Abide by the Golden Rule: Pack In. Pack Out.

With all the gear you’re ready to start hiking! No matter how fit anyone is hiking to an elevation of 3900m will destroy even the best of us. The altitude alone catches a lot of people off guard. The air is so thin your heart will constantly be in overtime trying to pump oxygen to the rest your body. My only advice is to reallllly take your time. This is neither a marathon nor a sprint, it’s hiking a fucking volcano at altitude. In the event that cannot make it, and there is no shame in it, you can always hire a porter for 200Q. These dudes are rugged and do this almost every other day. A good, sometime only, source of income for them in the area as well. Win win in my books.

During the hike you’ll trekking through four different zones:

  • Farmland Area: 2390-2750m
  • Cloud Forest Area: 2750-3000m
  • Alpine Area: 3000-3600m
  • Volcanic Area: 3600-3976m
Many facets of nature during the ascent

The trek up is filled with copious amounts of switchbacks which I loathed, but this is how you get up there. It’s grueling and I was out of breathe about 10 minutes into the damn thing. My fellow crazies made the trek up better with sharing stories of their travels, what they do, their work, yadda yadda, you know the spiel by now. With each section we passed through was one tick in the checkbox that we are nearing base camp. So close yet it still seemed miles away, totally eating my words when I said this would be my fourth and fifth ascent on volcanoes. Totally.

Once you reach base camp you can relax, albeit for a moment. Here you can have amazing views of Volcan de Fuego, but unfortunately for us the clouds rolled in and a sprinkle set the ambiance for our arrival. Nothing to see here except doomed and gloomed faces filling our campsite, but at least we’ll have a pasta hot dinner and kumbaya singalong around the campfire to look forward to.

With OX and a few other tour companies you’ll be sleeping in makeshift cabins. The other options would be a tent. Choose your adventure wisely.

Moments later an earth shattering crack filled the air, the clouds parted, Fuego came into sight with a large billow of smoke erupting from its crater. Renewed excitement filled the camp and everyone jumped for glee as if witnessing the messiah’s return. We finally had views to the grand show.

When you book your adventure you have the option to summit Fuego and get ever so close to an erupting volcano. However, this part of the trek is entirely up to your tour guides, in this case it was Chino deciding our fate. They have good authority on how safe it is to make the trek down, across and up to Fuego, considering the sprinkling was now full on lighting storm. The last thing you want is another 1.5 hour trek and not being able to see anything.

I looked around at my gambling trekkers, we bit our teeth and took the gamble! We soldiered on, those willing to undertake the rain, myself included, and summited Fuego some two hours later in a lightning/thunderstorm.

First and foremost: wow. No words compared to seeing an actual volcano erupt right in front of you. The power, the sounds, lava, magma, rocks, smoke. Visceral. This is nature at her best, we are just lucky enough to live in it.

Secondly: how fucking cool was it to do this on your actual birthday? Damn cool. Hell, even had a traditional German Happy Birthday song sang to me while drinking vino rojo watching Fuego erupt. One for the memories.

To the rain soaked, fatigued ridden few individuals who summited Fuego that evening the show did not disappoint.

Post Fuego was a quick dinner, drying up and getting in some shut eye before a 3AM role call in which we will ascend Acatenango for sunrise. The sleep was the worse of it all. With the high altitude it made it difficult to even breathe properly let alone get some shut eye. Throw in all night eruptions and you have a party that just didn’t want to quit. Zain, my cabin mate, actually almost didn’t make it outside to puke because he was experiencing altitude sickness. Remember to pace yourself, it’s no joke up here.

Headlamps, gloves, beanie comes into play as the temperatures in the morning hover at just above freezing. An ant trail of lights flicker the mountainside as you and a few hundred others make way to the top of Acatenango. Eerily beautiful as you look downwards, seeing lights of the cities coming on one by one, people waking up to another beautiful day. We shut off all the headlamps for a few minutes, let our eyes adjust to the night sky. Immaculate. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn … all with the naked eye. The gang was all here.

We trudged on in the cold, the wind whipping us back and forth, sometimes being unbearable, other times knocking us over. We carried on. Huddling like penguins on the summit in the dark is a perfect way to stay warm, but if you don’t pay attention you might just miss the sun coming up over the horizon. Once it does the all familiar light casts its morning rays onto everything your headlamp couldn’t illuminate in the darkness.

You damn did it. You trekked almost 2500m, summited two volcanoes, watched one erupt in total darkness. You earned this sunrise today. Relish it, take it all in. Life, during these moments, is simply amazing.

There you have it ladies and gentlemen, how to hike your first active volcano. Hopefully you find yourself in this part of the world, submersing in adventures you’d surely be telling for the rest of your life. Happy trekking!

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