Vale La Pena? Hiking Volcán Acatenango

Hiking Volcán Acatenango in Guatemala was the hardest physical challenge I’ve undertaken. Was it worth the pain? Still wondering that myself, but it was certainly an unforgettable and once in a lifetime experience.


My head was spinning as I panted and gasped for breath, hyperventilating in the thin air.

I was dead last in our group of 14 hikers with Wicho & Charlie’s. I told Brendan, the expedition leader, that I needed to either hire a porter or head back down the mountain.

“Is the pack too heavy, or do you think it’s the altitude?” he asked. “I think you can do it. Just take it slow. You got this.”

“It’s both,” I replied. That was all the speech I could muster.

I tried to train my breathing and focused on the corn fields springing up from the volcanic soil.

This was just phase one of the hike that would summit Volcán Acatenango at 13,045 feet. We’d only been hiking maybe 20 minutes and to say I was struggling would be an understatement. I had a 25 pound pack and six more hours to go!

I don’t consider myself an athlete, but I’ve done some pretty long hikes and intense races in the past. However, the first two-hour phase of this hike was more difficult than when I ran a marathon.

I tried to steel myself from the disappointment welling up inside me as I popped an altitude sickness pill and waited for the porter to arrive. I’d hoped that receiving my body of the extra weight of my pack would allow me to stabilize and adjust to the altitude.

Christian arrived (breezily and wearing jeans, might I add) and took my pack. The pill kicked in and my dizziness got better. I could breathe again. I drank water and restarted my hike, much lighter and faster.

Cloudy, with a Chance of Lava

Ascending was definitely easier now that I held only my poles and water bottle. Still, it took all my focus to put one foot in front of the other. The steep stairs turned into dirt paths. We wound up the mountain and cycled through switchbacks for another hour until we finally arrived at the park’s entrance.

You read that right. There were three more hours to go.

End of Phase I at the Park’s entrance

With each step, I oscillated between asking myself what the @#$% I was doing up here, and re-convincing myself into finishing the hike. All of my focus was on putting one foot in front of the other.

Over time, I finally gained enough energy to make conversation with the other hikers in my group. I pet the dogs that trailed our expedition as we made our way up. We reached base camp just as the rains started pouring down.

Volcán Agua – View From Basecamp

We’d made it! But you couldn’t see a thing through the storm clouds. Did I hike all this way to be stuck in the tent?

I tried to remain in good spirits despite every piece of clothing on me and in my pack being soaked. I stripped and got into the sleeping bag, hoping that in a couple hours I’d have dry(ish) clothes and enough stamina to attempt the second part of the hike to Volcan Fuego.

Two hours later, and the rain cleared to a breathtaking vista. Above the clouds, you could see directly across to two volcanoes – Agua and Fuego. And I was standing near the top of Acatenango. It was unbelievable.

Shame On Me If I Summit Twice

“Who wants to go to Fuego?” the guides asked. It would be another three hours of hiking to reach the next mountain- a steep descent of 1000 meters and then another climb up Fuego for 1000 meters.

I pretended to deliberate, but my choice was already made. When was the next time I’d be able to get this close to an active volcano?

We practically skied down the mountain now – the rains gave the volcanic soil the same consistency as snow. As we got closer, we could hear the explosions and the rumbling of the earth. Huge plumes of grey ash ballooned over the top – it was terrifying and awesome.

The sun set, and as we got to the viewpoint for Fuego a huge layer of clouds rolled in. We couldn’t see a thing, not even a few feet ahead of us. We waited up there. It was freezing, misty and miserable.

I had come all this way; hiked for hours through rain and wind, pushed my body to its absolute limit just to get to the top of a mountain covered in clouds?

Damn. It was sad to think about. That I gave this journey my absolute all physically, mentally and emotionally, and then to reach the top and… well the clouds rolled in. It didn’t feel like the summit: I’d literally reached the peak and there was nothing to show for it.

I had to check my disappointment and remind myself of what I’d done that day.

I’d challenged myself more than I had ever physically done before and I didn’t give up. I’d experienced the way the Earth moves below us, and the amazing and fiery life that sustains it. What a privilege it was to be here!

And sometimes, you can do everything in your power to persevere and reach a goal, and still it remains beyond your reach. The mountain decides.

We waited for thirty minutes in hopes that the clouds would clear, but ultimately the guide told us that we needed to start our journey back to base camp. We were about ten minutes into our descent when our guide’s radio chirped with a message, “Esta claro, quiere regressar?”


YES! We had a shot. I scrambled as fast as I could uphill, and there it was! Fuego.

Red-orange fire and lava spouted up from the volcano and we started to cheer! It was incredible, beautiful and terrifying. The clouds cleared for about two minutes for us to view the explosions, and then Fuego was once again blanketed in the mist.

We started back for base camp, and I’ll spare the details, but it was beyond grueling and rainy. Each step was hard-won. I thought of just staying there, but the choice was to carry on or certain hypothermia. When we finally arrived back, the only thing I wanted was a bed and a hot drink.

Vale la Pena?

I wasn’t so sure that I’d be keen to hike ten hours a volcano ever again.

But fickle Fuego has a sense of humor.

Wouldn’t you believe it? As we sank into our sleeping bags the skies cleared. From midnight onward, the earth shook and clattered so much that it was impossible to sleep, and we witnessed an eruption every twenty minutes.

Similar Posts