Acatenango volcano (13045 ft / 3976m) is the third highest peak in Guatemala. Sometimes known as La Horqueta, it is one of three volcanoes overlooking Antigua, Guatemala, and is joined to its nearest neighbour – Volcan Fuego (Fire Volcano) by a short saddle. Fuego volcano is known for its frequent volcanic activity (both minor ash clouds and major eruptions) which can be clearly seen from the surrounding area, with a recent eruption in early 2015 which showered surrounding towns in layers of ash.
The Acatenango hike itself is not particularly long or strenuous – rather, it is the altitude which causes the greatest problems. Most people are likely to feel this, being extra tired and finding the hiking harder – and altitude sickness is also a real possibility. Unfortunately, like the other volcanoes around Antigua, Acatenango volcano has been known for serious robberies in the past and it is recommended to go with a tour group and security.
To climb Acatenango volcano we started at 6am from just outside Antigua, and quickly drove around the volcano to start the ascent from the far (Northern) side at a hamlet called Aldea de Soledad. Here there are small tiendas (shops) selling the typical supplies of a small Guatemalan village, but you would be wise to bring all ‘hiking’ food with you from Antigua.
Starting the hike, we climbed quickly through maize plantations. In the cool, clear morning air we could see as far as the volcanoes around Lago Attilan, about 30 miles away.
After a long, steep hike through farm land and then into pine forest and up switchbacks, the path split at a run down campsite where we took a short break. It is possible to break the Acatenango hike into a 2 days / 1 night trip and camp either here or further up at the saddle between the volcano’s two peaks. However, camping so high after so little acclimatization is not a good idea, and we figured that bringing the necessary equipment for a night at this altitude would be more of a hindrance.
From the campsite there is a direct path which proceeds straight up Acatenango’s secondary peak, Yepocapa, also known as Las Tres Hermanas or the Three Sisters (3880m), and down the other side. Alternatively, there is an easier, flatter route with contours around Yepocapa and then joins with the first path in the saddle between the two peaks. Feeling the effects of altitude somewhat, we chose the latter.
Rounding Yepocapa, we were treated to magnificent views over Volcan Agua (Water volcano) across the valley, and down to the towns below – Antigua and Antigua Viejo. As the forest quickly changed to grassland and then dust, we climbed the short section to the saddle, ready to tackle the final summit climb.
Not a crater in the traditional sense, Acantenago’s large summit plateau is a peaceful, barren place. It reminded me of Armstrong’s words on the lunar surface – “It has a stark beauty all of its own”. On the north side of the ‘crater’ is the highest point, complete with a strange metal summit marker. From the plateau there are spectacular views for miles and, of course, a close up view of Volcan Fuego. The altitude (13045 ft / 3976m) really became visible for the first time – above the clouds, with unhindered views and cold air despite a fierce sun.
At that moment, just as we stepped foot on the summit, Volcan Fuego sent us a small reminder that Acatenango isn’t the only volcano in the area….at this distance Fuego’s ash cloud was already well into the air by the time the sound reached us. Fuego – only a few kilometres away – continued to belch ash at regular intervals the whole time we were on the summit (two weeks later it would erupt significantly, causing havoc in Antigua).
It is possible – sometimes – to descend Acatenango and climb Fuego (the path is clearly visible in the photo below). However, the hike takes several more hours and can be very dangerous. Even at this distance we could see huge boulders running down Fuego’s slopes every time it emitted an ash cloud.