Lessons From a Live Volcano: Hiking Acatenango Volcano

Last Updated on July 23, 2023

As a child I obsessively read about volcanoes. I was mesmerized by the story of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that devastated the town of Pompeii in Italy in 79 AD.

Around age ten, I saw the movie Volcano, which tells the fictional story of a volcano erupting in downtown Los Angeles. “It’s hotter than hell”, the film’s tagline read.

Later, I became fascinated by Katia and Maurice Krafft, who were French volcanologists who died in a pyroclastic flow on Mount Unzen, Japan, on June 3, 1991. Often first to arrive at the scene of an active volcano, the couple was famous for the daring footage they’d obtained of volcanic eruptions.

I was entranced by the footage they filmed. The beauty of the lava amazed me, but what equally amazed me was the Krafft’s relentless love for volcanoes.

My interest in volcanoes carried well into adulthood. Most recently, I fell in love with Werner Herzog’s documentary film Into the Inferno (2016).

Herzog finds that volcanoes are mysterious, violent, and beautiful. He states that, “There is no single [volcano] that is not connected to a belief system.” His film studies not only the volcanoes themselves, but the people (the Kraffts included) who love them. 

On the summit of Acatenango Volcano
On the summit of Acatenango Volcano

Throughout human history volcanoes have inspired myth and cultural memory. Before modern science, humans searched for reasons behind devastating and often unpredictable eruptions.

Many cultures have attributed the wrath of volcanoes to the gods, who were thought to live inside them. Others have attempted to explain them with a pseudo-scientific approach. The ancient Greeks, for example, thought eruptions were a product of compressed air. A volcanic burp.

The word volcano is derived from Vulcano, which comes from Vulcan, the god of fire in Roman mythology. In Hawaii, the mythology around volcanic activity at Kilauea has been passed down through oral history. One myth involves the volcano goddess Pele, who long ago journeyed to Hawaii and settled in the crater of Kilauea.

There are various versions of the story of Pele, but most suggest that she had countless lovers, infidelities, feuds, and a heated temper. It was this temper that caused volcanic destruction. 

In Hawaii, oral histories have affirmed geological findings about eruptions of the past. Haraldur Sigurdsson, a volcanologist at the University of Rhode Island, argues that the creation of myths is essentially the human reaction to witnessing a natural process that cannot be explained. The myths provided meaning, and subsequent rituals provided a sense of security in the face of volcanic violence. 

Although I have hiked a dormant volcano in Costa Rica and peered into the active crater of one in Nicaragua, the curiosity I’d inherited from the Kraffts wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to see the lava, to feel the rumble of the earth, to hear the boom and watch the ash billow up into the sky. I wanted to feel the force that inspired hundreds of years of oral history.

So it must have been fate when I struck up a conversation with two backpackers late one night in a Nicaraguan bar.

I asked them what their most memorable experience in Central America had been, and they responded by showing me photos and videos of, you guessed it, an up-close view of a violently erupting volcano.

Not long afterwards, I had my partner convinced, and we booked flights to Guatemala. We were going to hike Volcan Acatenango, which at the summit gives you an up close and personal view of Volcan Fuego, Guatemala’s most active volcano.

the view of Volcan Fuego erupting from the summit of Acatenango
The view of Volcan Fuego erupting from the summit of Acatenango

In preparation for the trip I began to research the Acatenango hike, and immediately felt worried. Bloggers claimed the hike was excruciating. Hikers wrote that despite their experience, it was incredibly difficult.

Some reported bad visibility, or miserable weather. I thought about my sentient lifestyle: eight hours daily in an office and I didn’t even own hiking boots (you can hike in running shoes, right?).

I wondered, what if we went through the grueling hike and Volcan Fuego wasn’t visible? I have a bad runner’s knee. I carry two inhalers. My anxiety about how hard this hike would be grew, but there was no way I’d back out. The Kraffts hadn’t backed out. I had to try to see this volcano.

My incessant Googling yielded few details about what to expect, and so in preparation all I could do was the obvious. I began going to the gym and invested in good hiking boots.

I made sure to pack warm clothes for the summit, and some rehydration salts in case they were needed. I scanned forums for recommendations about guides and tour companies.

Next thing I knew, we were en route to Antigua, Guatemala. In the spirit of our backpacking approach to travel, my partner and I booked ourselves into a hostel in Antigua and the following morning wandered into town, looking to hire a guide.

It wasn’t long before we’d settled on paying 40 USD to a small, local operation of guides to take us up Acatenango. 

Do you want to hike Acatenango? Read my Ultimate Guide to Hiking Volcano Acatenango, Guatemala and Guatemala Itinerary: Best Things to Do and See

On climb day, we joined a group of 9 people and were driven to the base of Acatenango. The shuttle dropped us off on the side of a road and our guide pointed to a muddy path. That doesn’t look too bad, I thought to myself.

But after about 15 minutes of shuffling up the pathway I collapsed, certain I was going to vomit. The altitude sickness had already struck.

I lay there, dreading what was to come. What had we gotten ourselves into? I peered ahead at my partner, who had also collapsed. As I lay on the ground trying to recuperate from what was only a 40 minute hike at that stage, I contemplated quitting.

I could see in my partners face that he was thinking the same thing. But I couldn’t give up. I was so close to that volcano.

Views of the trail while hiking Volcan Acatenango
The trail up Acatenango Volcano

After some rest, our bodies did acclimatize, and the feeling of faintness and nausea subsided. We went slowly and often stopped. As we climbed the landscape changed quickly, from lush farmland to humid jungle, eventually evolving into a barren landscape scattered with few trees.

Our group was silent while climbing. It felt meditative to stare at the boots in front of me. I fixed my eyes on them and focused on keeping a rhythmic pace. The steep terrain was never-ending, and I constantly dreamed of when it would flatten.

After five hours, our guide announced that we were almost there. Those last kilometers were painful, and our spirits were low. 

People say I’m the life of the party
‘Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. My partner and I’s favourite song. We played it on repeat as we trudged along, somehow mustering up the energy to sing the verses we know so well.

Focusing on music, humming along to the same tune over and over, gave us strength. The higher we hiked, the less trees. I snapped a quick picture and sent it to my family. 

We reached base camp in the early evening. At an elevation of 12,303 feet. Leaving the summit (740 feet higher) for the following morning. As our fire got going, night fell, and the magic began.

The clouds slowly parted, and not too far off in the distance we saw a magnificent scene. The perfectly cone-shaped summit of Volcan Fuego. It was so close.

The summit of Acatenango Volcano in Guatemala

As we ate our dinner, we felt the earth begin to rumble and looked towards Fuego. Suddenly, lava exploded into the sky like orange fireworks, followed by a huge bang as the lava flowed down the sides of the mountain and the earth shook.

I felt a synthesis of fear and wonder. I felt safe – the distance and height created that security – but I also felt an immense sense of vulnerability.

This monstrous, powerful mountain could go into overdrive and rip that security away from me at any moment. We stayed awake late into the night watching the volcano work its magic.

I eventually tucked myself into my sleeping bag, but sleep was impossible with the ongoing interruptions of the mountain. The shaking earth woke me several times, and so instead of sleep I poked my head out of our tent and stared at the lava explosions that lit up the sky. 

Our guide had explained that at 3:45am we should get up for the final portion of the hike: the summit. We would hike in complete darkness to reach the highest point of Volcan Acatenango, and from there we would have a clear view of Volcan Fuego. The summit hike is somewhat dangerous, and so it is only done if the weather permits.

Our guide explained that he would assess the weather in the morning. We awoke with good news. We could summit. This final push was straight upwards and excruciating.

The volcanic sand and dirt made every step more challenging, and it was difficult to maintain balance. We stopped often to rest as people felt lightheaded from the altitude.

The sky began to lighten as we climbed, and slowly the incredible view revealed itself. In the distance we could see Antigua, Guatemala City, and a string of other volcanoes.

After 1.5 hours, we reached the top of Volcan Acatenango. A closed crater, the terrain was rocky, sandy and barren. I collapsed in the volcanic sand at that summit in silence with a view stretching for miles.

Volcanic terrain in the distance, the sun rising, a speckle of lights that was the city of Antigua, and right in front of me Volcan Fuego, magnificently erupting.

Summiting Volcan Acatenango to see a live volcano

I felt an immense sense of accomplishment and wonder. Amazement that my body and my mind, despite the pain, got me to that summit. Amazed that I was finally seeing in real life the feat of nature that had fascinated me since childhood.

Although science, for the most part, can explain this phenomenon of the earth’s innards violently bubbling up to the surface of the planet, the mythology around volcanoes resonated deeper within me.

Fuego reminded me of the magnitude of this earth, the power of nature, and in a way, my own insignificance. In that moment, Volcan Fuego was a portal to all of the unknown on this earth.

The countries, cultures, landscapes, and people I will never know. A portal to ancient beliefs and ancient fear. A reminder of the vulnerability humanity has experienced since the beginning.

At the same time, it was a lesson in my own potential. To push my body harder and further than I ever had before, in pursuit of a dream. Warner Herzog must be right. All volcanoes are connected to belief systems, whether they are myths or simply our belief in dreams.  

Do you want to hike Acatenango or visit Guatemala? Read more:

7 thoughts on “Lessons From a Live Volcano: Hiking Acatenango Volcano”

  1. Wow incredible photos and story! That’s such a great thing to tick off your bucketlist and experience. Really enjoyed reading this post 🙂

  2. This place looks amazing! Adding it to my bucket list. I find volcano landscapes to be absolutely stunning <3 And your pictures are just EPIC!

  3. This is incredible! I’ve only ever hiked Vesuvius so I can appreciate the exhilaration! I love that you did this – I am an office worker with a bad knee too haha. That made me giggle. This is so awesome. Great photos!

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