Lisa Owen

Not everyone has camping on top of a volcano on their bucket list. But in true adventurer style, it was a must do on mine and I knew just the place: Guatemala.

This small Central American country bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador is home to dozens of volcanoes. Many of them are highly active and spew sulphuric smoke or even lava from their peaks on a daily basis.

One of the most active volcanoes in the world is Fuego Volcano (Volcano of Fire). You can see it from the pretty colonial city of Antigua on a clear day.

But you don’t have to just admire this volcano from afar. You can also camp overnight on nearby Acatenango Volcano and get a ringside view to watch its nightly fireworks show.

So what is it like to camp on the slopes of a volcano? It’s cold, it’s windy and it’s noisy!

camping volcano guatemala

Read on to find out what’s involved in camping on a volcano.

My overnight venture up Acatenango Volcano started at 9am from Antigua. Together with 12 hardy souls, I was picked up in a minibus from my Antigua hostel and taken on the hour long drive to the foothills of the Acatenango Volcano.

The home of a Guatemalan family served as our starting point, and we were offered rustic walking poles fashioned by locals for the bargain price of 5 GTQ each ($0.85 cents). Trust me you’ll want a walking pole or two for the steep hike.

The guides handed us our lunch and dinner packs, which consisted of a sandwich, a piece of fried chicken, a banana, and a noodle cup, and we stuffed them in our backpacks.

With walking poles in hand, off we went to start the four hour slog up to our camp for the night. There were two guides accompanying my group – one at the front, and one at the back.

The first section of the hike is a slippery hike up small loose rocks as you wind your way through the foothills. After about an hour long sweaty trudge, the dense jungle was in sight. Then it starts to get cold and wet, mainly from the jungle’s intense humidity.

Progress was slow as we headed upwards, the air getting colder and thinner. The summit of Acatenango stands at 3,976 metres above sea level so you will soon start to feel the effects of the altitude.

I was pretty glad when we stopped for lunch about halfway up (aka a well-earned rest).

Then of course it was more uphill. Our guides encouraged us along as we struggled up.

volcano in guatemala

Thankfully, about 30 minutes from the campsite, the hike starts to level out and is gently undulating rather than straight up.

When you have the tents in your sights, there’s one final push up a steep and slippery slope and then you can rest by a warm campfire.

My group reached the campsite in about four hours – about an hour before the sun started to set.

The tents are set up on an exposed face of the volcano. Many groups make the ascent each day and each has their own area consisting of permanent large North Face tents that sleep six people.

The wind was relentless on the exposed campsite, chilling us all to the bone. You had to sit a few centimetres from the campfire to stay warm.

We heated our fried chicken by the fire, sipped on steaming hot chocolate, roasted marshmallows, watched the sunset over the neighbouring volcanoes, and chatted in between explosions from the Fuego Volcano.

A volcano eruption pretty much sounds like a loud clap of thunder. It is quite disorientating at first as you’re in this peaceful location and then suddenly there’s an explosion right next to you. ‘

The sound of the explosion also comes a few seconds after the explosion. If you don’t have eyes on the volcano you may just miss the best of the fireworks as the volcano spews molten rocks and lava from its core.

When the cold became too much outside, we retreated to our tents and into our sleeping bags – which weren’t much protection against the cold but it was better than nothing.

You get to know your group mates real well as you sleep side by side but it does help with warming you up.

I barely slept a wink mainly owing to the cold and the sound of the tent flapping in the wind, and I remember hearing Fuego explode at least once every hour - the intense sound rippling across the campsite.

volcano hiking group in guatemala

At 4am, we were all up out of our tents – bleary eyed from lack of sleep and wearing all the clothes we had. I was wearing thermals, gloves, a beanie and a down jacket – and I was still freezing.

A few of us were also suffering throbbing headaches owing to the altitude.

The final ascent was upon us – a 400m ascent to the summit of Acatenango for sunrise. With our guide telling us it was even colder at the top and we had a 95% chance of seeing nothing due to cloud cover,  I opted to stay by the campfire and was hopeful to see glimpses of a sunrise from there.

The others went for the 90 minute slog up the slippery slope as a light rain started to fall.

My reward for hanging back was brief views of the sunrise. While a thick, swirling cloud obscured most of the sunrise, with a little patience I caught a few glimpses of the sunrise and the deep red glow of Fuego erupting in between the gaps in the cloud.

The rest of the group returned cold and dirty from the slippery volcanic dust – and didn’t get to see any of the sunrise.

After a delicious hot chocolate to help us warm up, we started the descent.

You would think this is where it got easier – but sorry to tell you, it wasn’t much better than going up. We were tired and cold, and progress was made even slower by that cloud sticking around and light rain causing the dirt paths to become slick with mud.

It was a slippery descent down, and we had to carefully place one foot after the other to avoid taking a slide. Some people ended up with mud all over them as their feet came out from under them.

The descent was a little quicker though – and we were down in about three hours.

Breakfast was waiting for us in the backyard of the Guatemalan family where we started our adventure and we dined on tortillas, refried beans and coffee.

volcano in guatemala

The hike up Acatenango Volcano was definitely a great adventure and worth the effort and the cold. Seeing a volcano erupting up close is one activity every adventurer should add to their bucket list.

Things You Should Know

  • The summit of Acatenango Volcano is 3,976 metres above sea level and you sleep at 3,600 metres. Some people may experience altitude sickness.
  • You’ll need a moderate level of fitness to complete this hike. The hike is very steep and can be slippery going both on the ascent and descent. Proper hiking shoes are recommended.
  • Permanent tents are set up at the volcano’s base camp, however it will depend on your tour operator if sleeping bags and mats are provided. You may have to hire them and walk them up yourself. In my case, sleeping bags and mats was transported by horse up the volcano.
  • If a sleeping bag is provided, be aware that it is very thin. If you’re travelling with a sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner, consider bringing your own.
  • You will need lots of layers for base camp and the summit. Jackets, gloves and beanies can be hired in Antigua through tour operators. It is very cold on the volcano at night as the tents are set up on a slope completely exposed to the wind.
  • Consider bringing small snacks with you such as fruit and nuts on your hike.
  • There’s no toilet facilities on the volcano. Make sure you bring a roll of toilet paper.
  • You will need to bring at least 4 litres of water with you. This includes your water for the hike as well as your water for hot chocolate and noodles. There is no water available on the volcano.
  • Not all tour operators are created equal for this hike. Check with your accommodation to ensure you are going with a reputable agency. You may be able to book directly with your accommodation.
  • Cost of the tour varies depending on how much you carry yourself and the quality of the agency but expect to pay 350 GTQ for the tour, which includes your guides, all meals, transport, tents and sleeping bags. You’ll also need to pay an additional 50 GTQ on the day of the tour for the national park entrance fee.

 

Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 80 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @thelittleadventurer. Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the Policy Documents available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.

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