Agua Volcano (known as Volcan de Agua), should get credit for making Antigua Guatemala as gorgeous a town as it is. There are other Spanish colonial towns in Mexico and Central America, but none have the towering backdrop that Antigua does.
While I’m not much of a hiker, I knew I’d climb Agua one day, if only to enjoy the view of Antigua from above – which I’ve done twice now.
Stunning Agua Volcano
Here’s how to hike Agua Volcano safely.
Agua Volcano’s History
There are three volcanoes within view of Antigua Guatemala: Agua (3,766 meters above sea level – MASL), Fuego (3,830 MASL) and Acatenango (3,976 MASL). Agua is extinct (hasn’t had an eruption in recorded history), Fuego is active, while Acatenango is dormant, having last erupted in 1976.
Agua Volcano is sacred to the Mayas and was called Hunahpu, which is also the name of one of the original deities found in their secret text, the Popol Vuh. The “water” moniker comes from colonial times when a mudslide caused by an earthquake destroyed the original capital, which was located in Ciudad Vieja – or more accurately, San Miguel Escobar, as archeological remains bear out.
The common belief is that there was once a crater lake atop Agua – as you’ll see in the pics below. At the time, there was an earthquake, which loosened a side of the mountain, causing the lake to empty out and destroy the capital, burying it in mud, boulders, and uprooted trees. This theory – often taken as fact – doesn’t match geological studies.
In 1895, archeologists Anne Cary Maudslay and her husband, Alfred Percival Maudslay hiked Agua. Their examination of the soil and break in the crater wall showed that if there was indeed a crater lake at the time (which they determined there wasn’t), the water would not have reached the town or caused the mudslide anyway. Their theory was that one of the gulleys could’ve held enough water during a storm to cause the mudslide. This is consistent with the reports at the time that it had been raining heavily for three days when the mudslide occurred.
This theory was proven correct in 2010, when Tropical Storm Agatha swept through Guatemala, dumping copious amounts of rain. It caused a huge mudslide that killed 9 people and buried houses at the site of the former capital.
Hiking Agua Volcano
Agua has a deserved reputation as being unsafe to climb due to robberies. Last year, a 77-year old German tourist, on a hike with his wife, was shot twice during a robbery attempt (the man survived). In 2014, a group of bikers, on tour with Old Town Outfitters, were robbed at gunpoint and hit with machetes.
Now, these are isolated incidents. People climb Agua every week and, with a bit of preparation, the security risk can be mitigated. If you’ve got the cash, the risk can almost be completely eliminated.
The first step when climbing Agua is to notify INGUAT, the official Tourism Organization in Guatemala – call the Antigua offices at +502 7832-0787. They can, in turn, call the Municipal Office in Santa Maria de Jesus, which is the town closest to Agua’s summit and from where all hikes begin.
Agua Volcano as seen from Santa Maria de Jesus
If your Spanish is up to snuff, you can call the Municipal Office yourself at +502 7832-3543. You need to contact them at least three days ahead of time so they can assign you a Police escort through the first – and sketchiest – part of the ascent. You’ll likely be assigned a couple Police officers, who can also go with you all the way to the summit and back – the going “tip” rate seems to be between Q150-Q200 per officer. Additionally, you’ll have to pay a park entrance fee of Q20 per person at the Municipal Office, located near the Central Plaza.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Agua Volcano is during the dry season, which runs from November to April. Though the temperatures are colder, you’ll have a better shot at climbing during a clear day and catching beautiful views from the summit.
If in Antigua during the wet season (March – October), you may take advantage of the “canicula”, a period of a few weeks between July and August when the rain stops and weather gets hotter. Climbing Agua when it rains isn’t fun, as the trail is muddy and the rocky paths make hiking treacherous.
What to Wear
For most of the year, and depending on your level of activity, you should be fine dressing in a couple layers. A windbreaker or light jacket will suffice. I also recommend wearing hiking boots or something that provides ankle stability. Though I did see somebody attempt to hike it with dress pants and dress shoes. Go figure.
If you’re climbing at the end of the year, be aware of cold fronts coming from North America, especially if you’re thinking of camping at the summit overnight.
Last year, I didn’t bother checking the weather before climbing – a mistake. There was a nasty cold front coming from Canada, which brought freezing rain and a sudden temperature drop that I was not prepared for. It was so cold my lips turned purple, and my daughter and I had run back down after 20 minutes because we couldn’t take withstand the low temperatures.
Unfortunately, some people did hike Acatenango Volcano that same day for an overnight stay, and most were ill-prepared. The next day we found out that six hikers had died at Acatenango Volcano after their tents flooded and they got lost trying to head down at midnight to avoid temperatures as low as -6F degrees. Dress in layers and you’ll be fine.
How Long Does It Take?
Hiking Agua can be done in one day. Most people take 4-6 hours to climb, less time to climb down. I left with a group at 7 am, Caminata Familiar, and was back at around 6 pm. This was at a very slow pace, with numerous stops, and a half-hour stop at the summit. Oh, and my wife hurt her knee halfway down, which slowed us considerably and delayed us a good two hours.
By the way, the Caminata Familiar (Family Walk) is held yearly, on the first or second Saturday of the year. The cost is only Q40 per person and there’s military and police presence throughout, along with first responders – as safe as you can get climbing Agua. This year, around 500 people made the hike to the summit.
The Actual Hike
We arrived at the main plaza in Santa Maria de Jesus at about 6:30 am. To get here from Antigua, take a Santa Maria-bound microbus (“Santa” they call it) at the bus terminal. The trip costs Q4 per person one-way and takes about 45-55 minutes. The buses will drop you off a block away from the plaza.
Plaza, Santa Maria de Jesus
Agua Volcano at dawn, Santa Maria
Listening to instructions from the guide
Starting the hike
Soldiers accompanied the group throughout the hike
The first part of the hike is pretty straightforward. For the most part, the path is well-worn and easy to follow. There are signs pointing the way – there’s no sign that marks the official entrance.
“To the crater”
There’s small chapel at the foot of the mountain. It’s from here, I was told, that a religious procession is carried out to the summit of Agua, culminating at feet of the Black Christ (Cristo Negro de Esquipulas) statue at the summit (pics below).
Police looking over hikers
There are a few crosses spaced out along the way. From what I understand they are procession markers, used for religious purposes. I counted five, but there may be more.
At the slopes of Agua, the land is very fertile, so it’s used to grow crops. These fields are burned at the end of the harvest, contributing to the hazy air over Antigua in the month of February.
“Come on buddy, you can do it”
During the walk, there were a couple designated rest stops and makeshift stores. The first stop was 2:00 hours away from the plaza.
Hikers resting for a spell
Just a few minutes from the first stop is a lookout point “Mirador”, which has rickety lookout tower. There’s a latrine and a flat camping area.
Mirador (Lookout point)
An hour and a half later we arrived at the second rest stop, or halfway point, known as La Olla (The Pot). Apparently, there’s a family that lives here and that has a small store where you can get instant coffee and cup-o-noodles.
Arriving at La Olla
Tienda at Agua Volcano
A few minutes from the second stop is La Quebrada (The Ravine), a dramatic spot and the most memorable feature of the hike apart from the summit. The path occasionally gets destroyed, making it treacherous and sometimes impossible to reach the summit. For the most part, the path is kept in shape.
La Quebrada (The Ravine)
Treacherous path if raining heavily
Outstanding view from here
On the day we climbed, about a dozen riders in dirt bikes made the trip as well. They also have been victims of robberies, so I don’t blame them for tagging along, even though they did annoy climbers because of all the dust they kicked up as they went by.
Dirt bike mountain climbing
While the climb is shorter at Agua than other volcanoes, it’s often considered tougher. The path is full of rocks, making the hike a bit more technical.
We arrived at the summit after six hours, which was slow, though we definitely were not the last ones to climb.
Hikers taking a break at the summit
Cross and cell phone towers atop the crater walls
Agua’s crater is big enough to accommodate a soccer field. There’s a structure with a chapel at the center and two empty rooms on either side of the chapel. Trash surrounds the structure.
Chapel and crater
Fog makes for a scene out of a horror movie
On a clear day, the views are outstanding. You can see Antigua and surrounding towns, though I couldn’t quite make out specific buildings. Lake Amatitlan is clearly visible from here.
Antigua Guatemala as seen from Agua Volcano
Panoramic view of Agua
I climbed Agua a second time because I couldn’t enjoy the view the first time. Mission accomplished on the second try.
Would I climb it a third time? I highly doubt it – though that’s what I said the first time. Maybe time for a new challenge instead.
Have you climbed Agua Volcano?