Mountains are the sirens of geologic formations — luring in adventurers and enthusiasts with a rugged beauty that draws a veil over the hazards they contain. Soaring altitudes, inclement weather, and unstable terrain… these things and more have wrought tragedy upon countless back-country explorers drawn inexorably towards the mountains. But there is one breed of peak that ups the danger ante to insane levels with pyroclastic flows, lava, and Earth-shattering eruptive force. Volcanoes.
All Nature’s wildness tells the same story: the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort, each and all, are the orderly, beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.John Muir
Guatemala has at least 37 volcanoes — the highest concentration in Central America. While many are dormant or extinct, there are several active ones, of which Volcán de Fuego is perhaps the most infamous. This is especially true in 2018 after a June eruption killed more than 150 people and displaced thousands. While that eruption was Fuego’s most powerful in over 40 years, the volcano is nearly constantly active, belching out smoke and fire day in and day out. Crazily enough, there are companies that lead tours up the adjacent Volcán de Acatenango and even onto the treacherous ‘Knife Ridge’ that is leveled at Fuego’s fiery gullet…
Climbing Acatenango and Fuego
We set out early, meeting at the OX headquarters in Antigua at 7:00 in the morning to pack our bags and eat a quick breakfast. From there, it was just over an hour to the trail-head. The ascent was merciless from the get-go, with an exposed slog through cornfields comprising the entire first leg of the hike. Since the track starts at just under 2,500 meters in elevation, altitude is a factor, so we went slowly and took plenty of breaks to rest and hydrate.
After the sun-baked grind through the fields, entering the cool shade of the cloud forest was a welcome reprieve. Thick tree-cover hung with ferns and vines kept the sky from us, save for the stray beams of sunlight that dappled the forest floor. It was strange to think that we were on a volcano which had erupted as recently as the ’70s; indeed, it felt more akin to a rainforest far removed from any sort of life-purging flame.
The shift from cloud forest to alpine forest is sudden, as if all the lush vegetation mutually decided that none of it would grow higher than this elevation. But the shift in flora didn’t make for a barren landscape. The sweet tang of pine needles filled our nostrils, and alpine flowers blossomed in purples, reds, and yellows along the dusty path.
Solitary Volcán de Agua loomed in the distance, its 3,760-meter bulk dwarfing the surrounding hills. But not our Acatenango. Acatenango reaches a height of 3,976 meters, while Fuego tops out at 3,763 — give or take a few layers of transitory volcanic rock and ash. When climbing Acatenango, you feel every meter!
After a lunch break during which we hoovered some fantastic sandwiches, we carried on as the first clouds of the day gathered around us. The wind picked up as well, and it wasn’t uncommon for a wisp of cloud to be harried past us before disappearing around the shoulder of the volcano.
When we (at last) reached our Base Camp, Fuego lay before us — a titan of smoldering menace intermittently shrouded in cloud.
Every few minutes, a puff of smoke would burst from its cone, roiling black and thick through the cloud cover. Occasionally, the spectacle would be accompanied by a low rumble, followed by the clattering of searingly hot stones cascading down Fuego’s flanks.
After a short break at Base Camp, two of us set out with our guide, Miguel, towards that rumbling, fiery giant across the valley. The descent down Acatenango was frenzied — a literal sprint down a steep slope with thick layers of fine, volcanic stone. After the first few, terrifying steps, the experience became exhilarating, feeling for all the world like cross-country skiing down a volcano. It basically was, sans any skis.
But that descent only meant we had to climb back up to reach the Knife Ridge of Fuego, and we set out from the saddle between the two peaks with weary steps. A sea of clouds broke against the flanks of Acatenango behind us, and the glow of the sinking sun tinged them with gold.
When we crested the ridge-line and saw Fuego smoldering in barely contained fury before us, I could feel a chill go through me — and not just from the cold! The path dropped sharply to either side, and Miguel made a point of showing us which way to fall if we lost our balance. “Don’t fall this way, you’ll die. If you fall this way, you’ll just slide for a very, very long time.”
Other groups trudged behind us, and we all stopped just beyond a scattering of fresh rocks from a recent eruption. Because, you know… safety.
The sun dropped further towards the horizon, and we huddled on the safe side of the ridge to take shelter from the wind. I had a thermal layer, a fleece, and a windbreaker, but I was still freezing. Waiting became a war of attrition, and I alternated which hand I kept exposed to work my camera shutter as I tucked the other as deep into my pocket as I could manage. Miguel stood staring out over the clouds, oblivious to the elements.
Darkness fell, and Fuego’s eruptions turned fiery, lending credence to its name. In Spanish, it literally translates to Volcano of Fire, while the Mayan name of Chi’gag translates to, ‘Where the Fire Is’. Apt.
We descended Fuego and made our way back up Acatenango in total darkness, picking our way gingerly down the steep slope and practically crawling the last several hundred meters up into camp. Dinner and a fire waited for us, followed by a cold, windy night on packed earth as Fuego rumbled and shook in the distance.
Morning came much too soon, as we all got up at 4:00 am for a pre-dawn ascent of the summit of Acatenango. Bleary-eyed and groggy from a restless night at altitude, we trudged up the slope as the sky began to lighten, cresting the rim of the crater just minutes before sunrise.
The sun rose just over the shoulder of Volcán de Agua, painting the clouds below and the neighboring peaks in soft reddish-orange light. Fuego sent up its regular plumes of ash and the occasional belch of lava, prompting cheers of “FUEGOOOOO!!!!” from gathered onlookers.
Lake Atitlán was visible behind us, with its vanguard of smaller volcanoes dwarfed by the shadow of Acatenango.
As we’d learned the night before, sometimes the easiest way to descend a volcano is to run straight down, so that’s what we did. A steep pitch covered in a deep layer of loose stone made for a surprisingly safe ‘ski’ slope. We took giant, leaping steps down, sliding up to a meter per step down the scree.
We took our time eating breakfast while Miguel and Milton broke down camp. When it came time to bid Fuego farewell, we waited for one last eruption before heading back along the trail. Behind us, the Volcano of Fire rumbled on, sending ash and fire into the clear blue expanse of the sky.
Review of Ox Expeditions
Climbing Acatenango and Fuego with Ox Expeditions has undoubtedly been the highlight of my trip. Not only was the experience extremely epic and satisfying, but the guiding expertise and overall organization of the trip by Miguel and Milton were exceptional. They handled our group of 14 with aplomb, easily adapting to the different hiking abilities present in our group. The food was better than I expected and having the crew set-up/tear-down camp AND prepare all the meals was a welcome surprise.
The administrative side of Ox was a little less organized, as my hike was rescheduled at the last minute — forcing me to frantically adjust some travel plans because of the inconvenience. That said, Ox made good on the snafu and organized my transport to Antigua AND comped my pre-trip night’s sleep in their dorm.
I’d definitely recommend them as a tour operator and would highly encourage you to use them for climbing Acatenango and Fuego when you eventually visit Guatemala!
What to Bring
- Good hiking shoes. I use Merrell Moab or Chameleon hiking boots and have always been impressed with them!
- A windbreaker. I use the Arc’teryx Incendo hoody and love how I can just stuff it into my pocket when I’m not using it.
- Thermal layers. Bring these for top AND bottom, as it gets very cold when you’re climbing Acatenango — sometimes the temps are sub-zero!
- Tough, breathable long pants. You’ll be sweating a lot, so jeans are a strict no-no, while the rough volcanic stone can chew up flimsy materials. Get something comfortable, tough, and protective for the hike up — I use Coalatree’s Trailhead pants.
- A fleece jacket. Columbia makes great quality fleeces for affordable prices.
- GLOVES! I forgot these and ended up having to put wool socks over my hands to keep them warm.
- A warm hat.
- Snacks. While lunch, dinner, and breakfast are provided, snacks are not; so bring some chocolate, nuts, berries, or your favorite hiking food to snack on during the many breaks you’ll take on the way to the summit.
- Sunscreen. Needless to say, there’s not a lot of shade on top of the volcanoes, so you’ll be getting some prime exposure to the sun while at altitude — a recipe for a gnarly sunburn if you’re not prepared.
Things Ox Can Loan You
OX has gear to lend or rent for those who don’t have their own for climbing Acatenango, Fuego, and the other peaks they lead expeditions up. Here’s all the stuff I borrowed:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Eating utensils
- More… check with Ox if there’s something you need. They might have it on hand for you to borrow/rent.
Hiking sticks are available to rent for 5 quetzales at the trailhead.
How about you? Have you ever been climbing on Acatenango, or any other volcano? If so, how was your experience? Would you do it again? Let me know in the comments below!