Climbing Acatenango – Part 1

If you would’ve told me I’d be hiking up a volcano over a year ago, I would’ve laughed in your face. Not just because I’m lazy but also because while sitting behind my desk in the Netherlands, going up a volcano wasn’t remotely in my realm of possibilities.

Even when my girlfriend Monika (Momo) and I decided to take a 6 months trip through Central America, and even after we had been there for over six weeks, the thought of going up a volcano never crossed our minds.

In fact it wasn’t until we arrived in Antigua, Guatemala that we heard that it was a possibility to go up a volcano. When we got settled in the amazing Maison Bouganvillae, our home for the next weeks, our host and now friend Irving showed us the rooftop terrace with a perfect view of the three volcanoes surrounding the village: Agua, del Fuego and Acatenango.

A view of Volcanoes 'Agua' (left), 'del Fuego' (middle) and 'Acatenango'(right)

A view of Volcanoes ‘Agua’ (left), ‘del Fuego’ (middle) and ‘Acatenango’ (right) from the rooftop of Maison Bouganvillae in Antigua, Guatemala

Of the three volcanoes, del Fuego is the feisty one. Sometimes it’s inactive for days, other times it erupts about every ten minutes to half an hour. The day we arrived was an active day, and the first time we ever saw a volcano eruption. We were completely awed.

A remote view of volcano del Fuego erupting near Antigua, Guatemala

Volcano del Fuego erupting mid-day in Antigua, Guatemala

Irving told us that people hike up Acatenango and stay there over night. We were intrigued. He also told us that less than a week before we arrived 6 people died on Acatenango in a freak weather change. We were satisfied with watching from afar.

The next couple of evenings were mostly spent on the rooftop of Maison Bouganvillae, drinking beers and watching del Fuego together with Irving and our other new friends, Nathan and Marisol. In fact, Nathan and Marisol wanted to climb up Acatenango a few days earlier but weren’t allowed to because the police closed down the summit. They’d have another go at it in a few days, when we already left Antigua. Momo and I were totally at peace with just enjoying the eruptions from afar.

After a few days we left Antigua for Xela (Quetzaltenango) to study Spanish for a month, we didn’t gave it much thought anymore. That was, until Nathan and Marisol came by and showed us the most insane picture of an erupting del Fuego as captured from near the summit of Acatenango.

Del Fuego erupting as seen from Acatenango by Nathan Robert Englbrecht

Del Fuego erupting as seen from Acatenango by Nathan Robert Englbrecht

Holy fuck. In all honesty I was tempted not to even post this picture as my own photos could be a bit of an anti-climax after this shot. So much kudos to Nathan for this one. In any case, we were completely convinced: We were going up that motherfucking volcano as well.

Now hiking up Acatenango is a walk in the park, in the sense that the volcano and surrounding area are a national park. Other than that it’s supposedly hard as fuck. Hiking upwards over sandy roads with heavy backpacks of equipment, a freezing cold at night, another hard hike in the dark to the summit to catch sunrise and then all the way down again with all the gear. We found blogposts from people saying things like ‘I run ultra-marathons but this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done’…

This didn’t bode well for us. After two months of eating all the street-food and drinking all the booze, we were probably in worse shape than when we left for Central America. We decided to get fit during our month in Xela. As we’d be going to school every day and had some routine, we signed up for a gym and went once. So that didn’t work, but we did climb some mountains and volcanoes when we were there!

A view of Quetzaltenango from 'Cerro el Baul'

A view of Quetzaltenango from ‘Cerro el Baul’

Okay time for some real talk. We planned hiking up ‘El Baul’ but it never happened as an amazing family on their way to their Sunday picnic offered us a ride in their pick-up truck. It would be rude to refuse, wouldn’t it?

Monika and her extended family in Quetzaltenango

Monika and her extended family in Quetzaltenango

But we did actually climb some stuff, with as highlight volcano Santa Maria, just outside of Xela. Santa Maria is 3.770 meters high and we started hiking up there at 5:30 am together with a guide and Raphaela, a Swiss girl who was all about mountains and hiking and already had hiked up Acatenango as well.

After a gruesome, tiring hike that felt as if it went straight upwards at times, we arrived at the summit of Santa Maria and had a perfect view over the volcano corridor, all the way up to our Nemesis, Acatenango.

A view of multiple volcanoes including Acatenango and del Fuego, as seen from the summit of Santa Maria

A view of multiple volcanoes including Acatenango and del Fuego, as seen from the summit of Santa Maria

Within 30 minutes after reaching the summit, Santiaguito, Santa Maria’s active hellspawn started belching smoke which was the cherry on top. While chilling at the summit, watching Maya ceremonies I asked Rafaela which climb was harder, Santa Maria or Acatenango. She didn’t even have to think about it: Acatenango. Well shoot.

Santa Maria's hellspawn Santiaguito, bellowing out smoke as seen from the summit of Santa Maria

Santa Maria’s hellspawn Santiaguito, bellowing out smoke as seen from the summit of Santa Maria

A week after we climbed Santa Maria, our month in beautiful Xela was over and it was time to face up to our fears. We packed up, said goodbye to all our amazing new friends, Spanish teachers and others we came to know and went straight back to Antigua.

Of course I talk about climbing Acatenango like we were boldly going where no man or woman has gone before, but in fact a lot of people go up the volcano every day with a guide or guided tours. As the guide quality varies from a dog to complete specialists, we asked around for the best guide and the replies were and everyone said the same: “Go with Guilmer!”.

We found Guilmer phone number on Tripadvisor and sent him a WhatsApp message that we wanted to go up the volcano with him the day after tomorrow. He instantly called us, told us what we could expect and what we should pack. The day after we totally prepared ourselves for the hike, got the equipment we needed and checked out of our hotel for the day of the climb. The commitment was made, the pact was sealed. We were nervous as hell but at least we couldn’t back out of it anymore.

Until Guilmer sent us a message telling us we might had to postpone…

This is part one of a two part story about climbing Acatenango. What was the Guilmer’s message all about? Will our heroes ever reach the top? Who’s the handsome fella in the picture below? Find out on the next episode of ‘Goddamn volcanoes’. 

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About Arden de Raaij

Front-end developer, Photographer and co-founder of cfye.com, originally from Amsterdam the Netherlands but currently located in Lisbon, Portugal.