Destination Trail Run: Volcano Acatenango
Trail running is arguably one of the oldest and purest forms of running. Humans have been sprinting around in nature since the beginning of time. Running on a trail versus pavement can help improve your proprioception (your body’s ability to know where it is in space), and even relieve depression. And as every athlete knows, cross-training is a crucial part of any exercise regimen. It both allows the muscles you normally use to have some much needed time off to heal and repair, while also improving your strength, coordination and balance in areas that might not be covered by your regular exercise routine. Destination trail running has the added benefit of passing through some of the most scenic terrain in the world.
As the tallest in a chain of volcanoes looming over the beautiful city of Antigua in Guatemala, you can see why its an epic challenge just to hike Acatenango! The 11 mile round trip trail features 5,050ft elevation gain. That’s 1,000 feet for every mile you ascend – it’s not a hike for the faint hearted, and therefore an even greater challenge for a trail runner.
The Scenery on the Trail
The terrain here is gorgeous and varied. You’ll be running through several different ecosystems on this trail – farmland, tropical cloud forest, high alpine forest, and volcanic (see image below).
The Scenery from Base Camp
Once you reach the high alpine forest, the view gets even better as you near the base camp etched into the mountainside. To the left and in front of you, Volcano Agua (3,760m / 12,340ft) towers over the Pacific coastal plain, along with several other smaller volcanoes. Far in the distance and to the right, the horizon you see is actually the Pacific Ocean. Turning more to your right, you’ll see the very active and aptly named Vulcan Fuego (fuego means “fire” in Spanish) right next door. It’s close enough to almost feel the eruptions, which are happening multiple times every hour – thanks to Volcano Fuego being the world’s most consistently eruption volcano. Some eruptions are small, cute little plumes of smoke, and some are big nuclear mushroom clouds of black smoke. If you’re lucky, you might even see a giant, booming explosion of rock and lava! Don’t worry, you’re completely safe at this viewing distance, but it’s close enough to feel exhilarated by witnessing the mighty power of earth (and of your body, which got you here!).
The trail can be roughly divided into three segments:
1) 2,000m / 6,561ft elevation – Trail entrance. The first segment cuts through a tapestry of agricultural fields, with a steep, loose gravel trail, no shelter from the sun, and by all accounts it’s a rough start. For every two steps forward you take one step back. There is a ‘descanso’ or rest stop with snacks at the end of this segment.
2) 2,772m / 9,094ft elevation – Park entrance. The second segment starts out much the same, but quickly changes to packed dirt as soon you reach the tree line of the tropical cloud forest. As the trail climbs higher in elevation it gets mercifully cooler. There is a ‘descanso’ or rest stop with snacks at the end of this segment. This is also the official park entrance, where you will pay the park entrance fee (50Q each).
3) 3,700m / 12,139ft elevation – Base camp for hikers. The third segment runs through a high alpine forest quite literally in the clouds. The track winds around the top third of Acatenango, with sparse pine trees allowing views of the surrounding valley and volcanoes, until finally Volcano Fuego materializes around the corner. Then you’re only minutes away from one of the most scenic lunch spots/campsites in the world!
Optional 4) 3,976m / 13,044 elevation – Summit. If you’ve made it to base camp, you’re already included in the elite trail running category. But if you want to push it even further, and you’ve brought appropriate cold weather gear, you can set out the extra 300m up to the summit of Acatenango. The trail here is loose, steep gravel again, this time at high elevation – the ascent is grueling after the elevation you’ve already gained, but the views from the summit are spectacular. You’ll have a birds’ eye view of the surrounding valleys and volcanoes above a sea of clouds.
As far as dream adventures go, this is one for the history books!
As this trail is well over the 10,000ft elevation mark, there are a few important things to consider before tackling Acatenango:
- If you do not have a lot of hiking experience, consider hiring a local guide.
- If you’ve never run in high altitude, test yourself by running in an elevation higher than 1,524m / 5,000f before you buy your ticket.
- Introduce high elevation training into your daily exercise routine.
- Bring 3L water minimum per person, extra food, and warm clothes (and if you plan to reach the summit, keep in mind temperatures at the top are often as low as -5C / 23F).
- Always let someone know where you are going, and your estimated return time.