After one week of Spanish classes, we were in need of some physical activity! We decided to spend our weekend on an overnight hike to Volcano Acatenango (3976m), a dormant volcano near Antigua, from where you can view active Volcano Fuego erupting.
We would have liked to have climbed the volcano by ourselves (as we had all of the necessary gear, except backpacks), but it’s recommended that you go with a guide, as tourists have been attacked climbing the volcano by themselves. There are a number of tour operators in Antigua that offer overnight hikes to Acatenango, but we chose to go with Ox Expeditions, because they seemed to be the most well organised (with a briefing session the night before), had good equipment and provided a hot dinner (some only provided sandwiches for all 3 meals)!
In total, there were 21 hikers (including us), 1 guide and 2 porters (and one of the porter’s 11 year old son!). Most people were in pretty good shape and only a few people got altitude sickness (unfortunately for us, we were sharing a tent with them :)).
The hike was fantastic! We have been on many overnight hikes and this is definitely one of my favourites of all time. We hiked through a variety of terrain, which kept things interesting, and of course, we had an erupting volcano to look forward to! It was challenging; much more challenging than I imagined, but totally doable for people with reasonable fitness. Most people carried their own pack, although you can pay a porter (actually the porter’s horse) to carry your pack up the volcano if you aren’t fit enough to carry it yourself.
We started hiking in light rain up a seriously steep path made of volcanic sand, through farmland and coffee plantations. Progress was slow on this section, as for every two steps forward, we would slide back one. We stopped frequently to let the slower people catch up.
After the field section, we entered a beautiful, misty rainforest. The climbing was still difficult, but there were some switchbacks, which provided some relief from the relentless climb. When we finally hiked above the tree line, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We found ourselves in a big clearing, where we stopped for a yummy focaccia lunch. The views were fabulous and we caught a glimpse of Volcano Agua for the first time.
After lunch, we threw our backpacks back on and continued towards base camp. The gradient was much kinder from this point onwards and the terrain was more undulating. When we finally arrived at Base Camp (pretty high at 3700m), everyone sat transfixed watching Volcano Fuego, which was erupting every five minutes or so. It was totally mesmerizing and we all let out little cheers whenever it exploded!
There was an option to hike to the crater to watch the sunset. I really wanted to go, but the guide said the path was very steep and slippery and we would have to descend in the dark. I didn’t want to risk falling and hurting my ribs (I was still recovering from my rib fracture in Mexico), so I watched the sunset from camp, along with another girl who had altitude sickness.
Everyone had a ball on the summit (although it sounded incredibly cold!) and those with energy to spare (including David) participated in a “crater run”. The sunset from on top of the summit looked pretty spectacular. Oh well. Next time.
By the time everyone got back down from the summit, the porter had a wonderful fire going (which we had to pay 1 USD each for) and we could see lava spewing out of Volcano Fuego! We all crowded around the fire, watching the volcano explode, drinking red wine and eating a simple, but yummy, pasta dinner.
Sunrise was beautiful and we stood around drinking coffee and snapping photos of the sun making its appearance above the clouds. Only one person hiked up to the crater to watch the sunrise – the rest of us watched it from camp. After breakfast (bagels and jam), we packed up and started the descent.
The descent was MUCH faster than the ascent the day before. It was made even faster by the discovery of a wild fire (no doubt, started by one of the camp fires – hopefully, not ours!). We slipped and slided down the volcano, trying to outrun the fire. I found the descent much harder than the ascent, as I was worried about falling and hurting my ribs. Thankfully, we descended a different way through the rainforest section, as the way we ascended the volcano the day before was incredibly steep and slippery. I only slipped once (like almost everyone else) on a particularly steep and sandy part, but I didn’t hurt anything. I highly recommend bringing shoes with good grip (good hiking boots, if possible), as the people in sneakers really struggled on the way down. By the time we reached the bottom, we were all dirty and in need of a shower, some lunch and a celebratory beverage!
Generally speaking, I was happy with Ox Expeditions. The guide and main porter were great, as was the food and equipment. However, for such a large group, and considering the price we paid (US$89 per person), I think there should have been more guides (it would have been good to break the group up into a fast and slow group). I also didn’t like the fact that the “porters” used underfed horses to carry backpacks up the VERY steep paths.