On the morning of July 29, I awoke well-rested but with butterflies in my stomach. It was time for a new adventure! The Welsh girls in my room and I packed up, ate breakfast, and rented some warm clothes and hiking equipment as we met others in the group with whom we would spend the next day and a half.
Weeks before, while researching the top tourist attractions in Guatemala, I made plans to do the Volcano Acatenango trek.
This overnight, mildly difficult hike reaches the peak of Acatenango at 3,976m. It consists of the following:
- Shuttle from Antigua to the base of Acatenango
- Explanation of the hike and tips from local guides
- Approximately 6 hours (with breaks) up Acatenango to base camp
- Optional 3-hour hike up part of Volcano Fuego and back to camp
- Overnight camping with a view of Fuego
- Early morning 1.5-hour sunrise hike up to the peak of Acatenango
- Return to base camp to pack up
- 3-4 hours hiking down Acatenango
- Shuttle back to Antigua
I met plenty of backpackers around Mexico who had already completed the trek. When I asked about their experiences, I was told that it was definitely hard and the first two hours were the absolute worst. I was also told to prepare for some altitude sickness, as well as a possible disappointment if the weather didn’t work out in my favor.
All this being said, I was also told that this is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience if completed.
I’m always up for a challenge, and this was no exception. Let the journey begin!
The bumpy shuttle bus ride from Tropicana Hostel in Antigua to the base of Acatenango made everyone a bit sick to their stomachs, but it was too late to back down now. We rented hiking sticks and headlamps, prayed that the rain would stop, and met with our local guides for an introductory explanation.
As the guide pointed all around the mountainous model in front of him, the energy among the group of 30 or so twenty-something-aged backpackers was apparent. We began up the seemingly never-ending hill in front of us, and I quickly learned that former climbers were telling the truth by saying the first two hours would feel difficult and a bit defeating.
Within the first hour, three people decided the trek was not for them and called taxis back into town. Meanwhile, I lagged toward the back, undoubtedly a bit tempted by the others’ decision, but continued on my way. I experienced shortness of breath and headache due to the unfamiliar altitude, while the five liters of water, food, and clothes in my bag weighed me down, but I refused to quit.
As I continued on the journey that felt strenuous and even a bit miserable at times, I found joy along the way. I bonded with other solo travelers and was fascinated to hear about the other stops on their backpacking journeys. I put in my earbuds and vibed with my music. I even got some Spanish practice as the Guatemalan guides gave me some life advice!
Suddenly, the terrain seemed to experience a change. With gray sand and rocks below my feet and my head literally in the clouds, I finally internalized the big difference between this hike and any others I’ve done around rural Virginia: I was on a freaking volcano!
The six hours to get to base camp felt like an eternity. I was drained and exhausted, yet couldn’t keep a smile off my face when I finally arrived. Our camp consisted of two small cabins, a fire pit, a questionable toilet, and the most insane volcano view that I will likely ever see in my life.
We huddled around the fire, and I can confidently say that instant ramen has never tasted more satisfying than at this moment. The veggie burrito for lunch on the way up had been great, but the saltiness and warmth of the broth hit differently.
When the guides proposed an optional hike back down Acatenango and up the erupting volcano, Fuego, I knew there was absolutely no way I would participate. I wished the brave group of 10 true athletes well on their way and decided to lie down for a rest.
Not long after, I was awoken by energetic AAAAHs and the BOOM of what I knew must be a volcanic eruption. I dashed back outside and marveled at the view.
Golden red lava squirted up and out of the volcano, from which the clouds had finally disappeared and we could now see perfectly. We sat here for hours – drinking wine, roasting marshmallows, comparing travel stories, and experiencing an unforgettable moment in nature together.
The guides warned us about the 3:45 AM wake-up call, so eventually, we peeled our eyes away from the volcano and headed into the cabins. The packed rooms were not ideal for a good night’s sleep, but they did help to keep us warm despite the high altitude and freezing cold temperatures.
Did I even sleep that night? Between my already-sore muscles, the movement from 18 people in one small cabin, and my jitters for day two of the trek, I think the answer is… minimally.
Despite the obvious fatigue, it was time to get going! The two hours up to the peak of Acatenango were not as difficult as the start of the hike in the sense that it wasn’t as steep, but it seemed even worse to me because of the increase in altitude, darkness, and dangerously rocky terrain. I continued up, slow and steady, and didn’t even look back when fellow hikers gave up and headed back to camp. I was determined to reach the end.
Once I did, the reward was evident. Glowing cotton candy skies encircled the tip of Fuego, which peeked through the clouds and let out a puff of smoke every 10 minutes or so. It should be no surprise that my camera was out the whole time!
As I peered over Acatenango’s enormous crater and into the colorful, cloudy sky, I let out a sigh that combined the relief and satisfaction I was feeling at that moment.
The way down the volcano was simply better all around. As we lost altitude, I also lost my headache, nausea, and difficulty breathing. I had an obvious attitude shift and was able to chat and bond with my new friends the whole way down.
Nearly everyone fell asleep on the shuttle ride back to the hostel, and once we made it past the phase of returning gear and re-packing our large backpacks, it was finally time to relax and reminisce.
I’ve never considered myself to be a huge “nature person,” but I think something clicked during the Acatenango trek. Seeing new landscapes and terrains, getting out of your comfort zone, and pushing yourself physically and emotionally – maybe these are the best parts of travel after all.
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