In rural Guatemala, on the foot of the stunning Acatenango volcano, lies a small community called San Jose Calderas. The town has found a way to use its beautiful location for good. It started a project where men are trained as guides to take tourists on a hike up the volcano. Here, great experiences of erupting nearby volcanoes, cloud forests, camping and sunrises above the clouds await at a spectacular height of 3976 meters. So, what does the work of the guides look like? How did these changes affect the lives of people in the community? And what is it like to do the two-day hike? We stayed a few nights in the community, hiked the volcano, and found out.

APRODE and the community

The work of the guides of San Jose Calderas is overseen by Aprode, an association for the development of the community. In 2011, Elvin Soy Lopez, now coordinator of the association, proposed for it to take a new turn. With a background in tourism studies, Elvin had the idea to arrange tours to climb the volcano. Local men were trained to serve as guides. Since then, Aprode has certified 30 guides. Guides now take tourists up the volcano nearly every day, varying from private tours to big groups of over 20 people. Aprode offers a number of tours to volcanoes and nature sites in the area and all over Guatemala. But its most popular tour is the two-day Acatenango hike.

Little boy in front of volcano Agua.
Little boy in front of the Agua volcano

Aprode provides an extra source of income for local families, but also has a wonderful impact on the community. A percentage of the money that is made is put directly back into the community through projects, such as the renovation of schools and churches. Moreover, Aprode has grown to be a point of contact for national and international development organisations. For example, it works with ConstruCasa, a Dutch organisation which looks to improve housing in Guatemala.

The lives of guides

Being a guide is not a full-time job for the guides of San Jose Calderas. They typically have jobs and a piece of land that is used to grow crops. Their work as guides is just a parttime job, but it brings in some hard needed cash. “Earning some extra money as a guide makes it easier to take care of my family,” says Juan Jose Gonzalez, a 27-year old guide whose recently became a father. “I only went to school until sixth grade. If I weren’t a guide, I would probably earn only 50 Quetzales (approx. $6.75) a day. That would be very tough because a pair of jeans is 200 Quetzales. The money I earn as a guide really makes a big difference in my life”.

Juan (right) at the top of the Acatenango volcano
Juan (right) at the top of the Acatenango volcano

Compared to the other guides, Juan has a significant advantage, as he spent five years in the USA and is fluent in English. “People feel better when the guide speaks English because they know they can ask questions. If you speak English, you also get more work because you are recommended by other tourists who did a tour with you in the past.” Juan explains that the people in Guatemala do not learn English in school and that most guides only speak Spanish. “Because most tourists only speak English, it is essential that we have volunteers that come here and practice English with the guides.”

Volunteering in the community

Aprode receives volunteers on a regular basis. They stay a week or longer and contribute to the community in various ways. For example, former volunteers have taught English to guides and children, maintained the association’s website or helped out with the promotion of tours. Volunteers usually stay with Elvin’s family. Here they are expected to help with the work in and around the house and on the land. This includes making tortillas, cooking, picking peaches, helping with the tourist groups, and all little chores around. In return for the help, volunteers get free accommodation, free meals, and an unforgettable and authentic experience. A pretty good bargain if you ask us!

Yes, it is hard, but you will forget all about the sweat, blood and tears it took climbing up once you reach the summit and watch the sun rise above the clouds and volcanoes.

Hiking Acatenango, what is all the fuss about?

When in Guatemala, hiking the Acatenango volcano is an absolute must-do. Yes, it is hard, but you will forget all about the sweat, blood and tears it took climbing up once you reach the summit and watch the sun rise above the clouds and volcanoes.

The hike starts in the morning when, after meeting your guide and maybe renting some equipment, you are brought to the foot of the volcano at 2200 meters. Since you are spending the night on the volcano, you need to bring warm clothes and three litres of water. So, expect your backpack to be pretty heavy. Do not worry, you can pay for a porter or a horse to help you carry it. On the first day, you hike up to the base camp at 3600 meters, taking six breaks along the way. You hike through four micro-climates until you reach base camp, after which you will be utterly exhausted. Just remember, your guide probably hikes volcano Acatenango one to two times a week, while carrying a 25-kilo backpack. What a hero!

You will be able to rest while the guide prepares your tent with a sleeping bag and mattress. Then, he will cook a delicious dinner for you. From the base camp you have a clear view of the nearby active volcano Fuego, spectacularly erupting every 15 to 20 minutes. As you will undoubtedly notice, the climate is very different at 3600 meters high. Warm clothing, jackets, hats and gloves are no luxury. Make sure you bring some!

Volcano Fuego erupting
Volcano Fuego erupting (and I didn’t even photoshop this picture!!)

The next morning you wake up very, very, VERY early to hike the last 400 meters to the summit in the dark. This is the hardest part, and you will think about going back to base camp a million times. DON’T!! The views on the summit are breathtaking, and you do not want to miss it! After spending some (freezing) time on the summit, you hike back to base camp. Here you have breakfast before walking back to the foot of the volcano. You will reach the starting point of the hike around noon, after which you are brought back to your hotel. What’s left is the worst muscle ache of our life, simultaneously bringing a grimace of pain and a smile of happiness to your face as it reminds you of your heroic achievement. Good job!!!

Interested in hiking or volunteering?

If you are interested in hiking one of the volcanoes or spending time in San Jose Calderas as a volunteer, be sure to contact Elvin via +502 47082809, find Aprode on TripAdvisor and Facebook, or visit Aprode’s website for more info.

Want to know more about sustainable traveling and volunteering abroad? Check out this article about the corrupting effect of voluntourism.