Watching lava in the night on Fuego volcano, Guatemala

Antigua is a lovely town with old colonial buildings and derelict churches that were damaged in the earthquake of 1773. Sitting on the foothills of the massive Agua volcano, it is further surrounded by other volcanoes, of which Fuego is the most impressive. On clear days eruptions are visible even from the city, with smoke shooting high in the sky. At night the red, ember glow of lava flowing down the volcano makes for a surreal backdrop to dinner on one of the many rooftops in town. If you want to see the eruptions from up close, it is best to join a hiking group and spend the night on Acatenango.  Please read on to understand which hiking group we recommend and why, information on the ascent and difficulty level and potential dangers of hiking up Acatenango.

Climbing Acatenango with Gilmer Soy

Gilmer Soy is a fairly new trekking agency that organises overnight hikes up Acatenango. The organisation is founded by similarly named Gilmer Soy and employs over 30 local guides and additional staff to help organise the treks and help with logistics. At least some of the profits go back into the local community which is based just outside of Antigua. The money is used to build schools, playgrounds and local infrastructure to help build up and support the village that Gilmer Soy is operating from. Obviously this is great local initiative and we fully support the cause, however there are other reasons why we think hiking with Gilmer Soy is recommended:

  • You do not need to carry your own tent or sleeping bag up the volcano (some trekking agencies in Antigua will ask you to do so). Instead, Gilmer Soy will have tents and sleeping bags already set-up at base camp.
  • Gilmer Soy lends equipment free of charge including backpacks, warm jackets and shoes, which you can pick up from his house. Gloves and hats are available to rent for a small fee and there are even energy drinks and snacks on sale. For those who come unprepared or hike with a smaller bag (like myself) this is an excellent service. Bags can be left overnight at Gilmer Soy whilst you simply transfer the items you need into a larger bag provided by the agency.
  • Depending on the group size you will have a certain number of guides assigned – one guide per five participants, to be exact. The reason why this is mentioned as a recommendation is due to the fact that some organisations in Antigua will try and reduce costs by assigning a fixed number of guides regardless of group size. This is dangerous and does not provide the right level of support for this difficult hike (read below for more detail on the difficulty level of this hike)
  • The total cost of the hike is 350GTQ with an additional 50GTQ to enter the park. We have heard of people paying extortionate amounts (over 1000GTQ) having booked in their home country or through America- owned agencies.

How to book:
Gilmer Soy does not have a site, so to make a booking send an email (in Spanish or English) to: sologui5630@gmail.com or Whatsapp: +502 41692292

What to pack:

  • Warm clothes (preferably multiple layers) and a waterproof jacket. Due to the altitude it gets very cold on Acatenango, especially at night and when you reach the summit. During the hike you will feel quite warm but the moment you stop moving it will become quite cold. Furthermore the weather conditions can change rapidly; in our case we faced freezing winds and fog on top of Acatenango.
  • Flash light or torch, preferably one that can be worn on your head to help illuminate the path.
  • Snacks (trail-mix or chocolate). Gilmer will provide lunch, dinner and breakfast (on the second day), but it’s a good idea to bring snacks to get your energy levels up.
  • Whisky, rum or Quetzaltekkers. Not needed of course but when mixed with hot chocolate provided by Gilmer, it’ll definitely help you sleep a bit better in the cold.
  • Battery pack. Also not necessary, but bear in mind that your phone or camera battery will die quickly in the cold, so this should help you avoid missing any photos or videos of the eruptions.

Hiking Acatenango: what to expect

As written earlier, the best way to witness the eruptions is to do the over-night hike up nearby Acatenango volcano. Acatenango is an inactive volcano that sits on the northern flank of the Fuego volcano and allows for an incredible view from a safe distance. If there is limited to none cloud cover you will have a breath-taking view of the Fuego volcano erupting, which it does almost every 15 minutes. Beside from the sights, the sound of a volcano erupting is not something that you’ll forget in a hurry!

The entire hike comprises of roughly three parts and, depending on the fitness level of your group, takes between 3 ½ – 6 hours going up and around 3 ½ going down (including breaks):

  1. The initial ascent up to the same altitude of base camp (difficult, duration: 3 – 5 hours)
  2. A more or less level path to base camp (easy, duration: ½ – 1 hour)
  3. The final ascent up to the summit to see the sunrise (difficult, duration: ~ 1 ½ hours)

On the first day, the initial ascent will take you over dirt paths and through fields until you reach the forest. The path itself is clearly visible and there is no possibility of getting lost. After around one hour ascending through the forest you will reach the park entrance where, if not done already, you pay the 50GTQ to enter the park (paid beforehand if you’re hiking with Gilmer Soy). After this you will continue the climb until you hit the altitude where base camp resides. From here you have a fairly levelled path, gently undulating towards base camp where your tent will already be pitched and a warm fire will be burning. This initial hike is difficult due to steep ascents and, in case of rain, muddy paths.

On day two you will wake up at 03:45 to start the hike up to the summit. This hike is done in the dark so you will need a flash light to guide you. Guides will help illuminate the paths for those without flash lights. This steep ascent will take you over solidified lava streams and slippery, soft sand as you near the top of Acatenango. I personally loved this part because hiking up a volcano in the dark, with Fuego roaring every so often behind you, creates a really unique atmosphere. Be sure to dress warm as icy winds and rain are common on the volcano summit.

On the summit you will find yourself on the crater edge. Here you can walk around the ring as well as going into the crater where you will find a refuge that was donated this year (photo below).

The views from Acatenango

Below you can find a few pictures of Fuego exploding during our hike. Unfortunately for us we had cloud cover during sunrise so although we did see the sun coming up, we had no visibility of Fuego or the volcanoes around us. The building can be found inside the crater and makes for a fun little walk into the crater of Acatenango.

The dangers of Acatenango

Although the hike is generally safe and the guides provided are excellent, there is the risk of rapidly changing weather conditions on the summit of Acatenango. In January 2017 six tourists from two different groups died in one of the base camps due to sudden flash floods and icy conditions. Always listen to your guides and if safe to do, try and hike down to a warmer altitude if anything as drastic as this happens.

General information / summary

  • Hiking with Gilmer Soy from Antigua. Book beforehand by emailing:sologui5630@gmail.com
  • Price: 350GTQ for the hike and 50GTQ for the park entrance.
  • No need to carry your tent and sleeping bag as these will be set-up at base camp.
  • Difficult hike due to steep ascents, rocky paths and cold weather.

As always let us know if you have any questions or updated information on the above!

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