36 Hours and 3 Splendid Guatemalan Volcanoes

We enjoy a good hike and especially a challenging one.  Some of you are probably wondering why?

  1. Completing challenging hikes and ascents offer a great sense of accomplishment (and some opportunity for character building).
  2. Hikes can be an interesting way to meet new people and bond. Pain loves company.
  3. Stunning views can be experienced.
  4. Challenging hikes are a great way to cross-train and work a different set of muscles.
  5. Oh and there is usually the serene bliss of an early morning start.

We have done our share of trekking in South and Central America over the last couple months so I needed to remind myself of these benefits when we geared up for a short, acclimation hike up Volcano Pacaya and the longer two day summit attempt of Volcano Acatenango (the third highest point in Central America – we heard this a lot while in Guatemala but are still trying to figure out if that is impressive or not) and in the shadows of the third and active volcano, Fuego.

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Volcano Acatenango and the gorgeous farms at the base

 

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Volcano Fuego. Only smoking and rumbling, but it belches molten lava regularly.
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Volcano Pacaya

Acatenango only has had two recorded eruptions- one in 1920’s and the other in 1970’s. Fuego, on the other hand, is known for pretty regular, low volume eruptions.  The last major eruption for Fuego was in 2007 when it spewed huge amounts of lava, rock and ash. The evening we arrived, from the town of Antigua, you could see small amounts of red lava being jettisoned.

There are two options to hike Acatenango- either a long day hike or overnight.  We chose the overnight as the day hike is a long hike taking upwards of 12 hours and does not provide the best views of Fuego and its eruptions.  Acatenango is a challenging hike up to 13,040 ft, and the trail climbs thru steep scree fields.  It also provides stunning views of its twin volcano to the south, Volcan Fuego, overlooks the historic former capital city of Antigua, Guatemala and the valley in which it is nestled.

The overnight experience on Volcano Acatanengo starts with a roughly 1 hour drive from Antigua.  On our trek,  there were five of us (two women from the States, Ada and Lee, a guy from Finland and Chris and me) plus a guide (which is required) and 3  porters (for which we were thankful).

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Beginning of the trail to Acatenango base camp
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Chatting in Spanish (or maybe listening more) with one of our awesome local guides.  Glad we took those Spanish lessons.

Day 1 of the hike was a solid uphill with some deep, sandy scree.  All up, the hike took us 6 hours including breaks and lunch.  We estimated actual hiking time was about 4 hours and 10 minutes to some great campsites created by the local folks that live around the mountain with awesome views of Volcano Fuego.

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A quick shot between the panting fits

We had a gorgeous day hiking but typical for May in Guatemala at elevation, the clouds and fog rolled in that evening, and it got pretty cold (close to freezing which is cold if you have been in sandals the last few months).  But we had a great pasta dinner and fresh, homemade tortillas over the campfire (and a little bit of rum) before going to bed early.

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The following morning, we were up at 4 am and started hiking at about 4:15 am to the summit.  Mentally, day 2 was probably the most challenging part because of little sleep the night before due to the constant and vigorous flapping of the tent all night, cold and damp morning weather, no breakfast, no coffee!, and a lot of shin-deep scree.  We both considered mutiny and staying in our cozy sleeping bags, but when a quick look out of our tent at the approaching dawn presented a clear night sky and a spectacular lightening storm hundreds of miles away, we knew that it was going to be a spectacular sunrise and morning.  The sunrise and views did not disappoint.

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Exhausted and cold but invigorated.

The hike to the summit only took about 1 hour, but it climbed a grueling 1200 feet through more deep scree over less than a mile. And at 13K feet, we were sucking wind the whole way up, but so were some of the 20 years old making the push or turning back (which, of course, we took as a small victory).  The summit also did not disappoint. We were the first of the groups to summit. The lunar landscape with its large crater, a brisk cold wind, the surrounding volcanoes, the rising sun, and the exiting storm front in the distance, combined to create a surreal scene that many out there that have summited other mountains will appreciate.  However, it was cold so with a few more minutes of the stunning views of Antigua and the Volcano Fuego, we headed back down.

The hike back to camp only took about 40 minutes, and we knew there was food as well as a fire waiting for us.  The hike up was definitely challenging but the hike down was not a piece of cake.  The start of the hike down has some solid uphills followed by a downhill section that was hard to get a solid footing upon.  We were sliding all over and most of the group went down on the ground a few times.

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If you decide to hike Acatenango, consider hiring a porter.  We did and although we still had packs, our loads were definitely lighter and you are employing locals.  Also, be sure to take plenty of water.  There is no water source on Acatenango.  Between the two of us, we had 10 liters of water and only had about a liter and a half for the way down which worked out fine for us.

Volcano Pacaya is another active volcano located about 1.5 hours from Antigua.  The last activity reported has been the eruption that peaked on March 2, 2014 causing ash to rain down in Guatemala City and Antigua.  But Pacaya was a “walk in the park” compared to Acatenango, and a great hike to get acclimated for bigger hikes in the area.  We took about 2 hours to cover a 4-5 mile loop, stop to discuss the flora and fauna of the area and toast some marshmallows on the lava field (it seems to be a bit of a thing). We had some rain and a lot of cloud but caught some cloud breaks when hiking the lava fields which made the outing worthwhile.

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We bring our rain jackets every where.  This was the one day we did not bring them.  When we left Antigua, the sun was shining.
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Lava field at Pacaya
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Roasting Marshmallows. A Happy Man.

We really enjoyed both hikes and the views of all three volcanoes.  There are many more hikes and volcanoes in the area, and they are all worth checking out. Acatenango is supposedly the hardest but very doable and fantastic. We highly recommend it.  And the next time I want to roll over and hit the snooze alarm (especially at 4 am), I am going to remind myself of the value of hiking and ‘summiting’.

Check out our other activities in Guatemala here.

 

Guatemala’s Amalfi Coast

Blanketed with some clouds and haze when we arrived, Lake Atitlan was still stunning.

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It is the deepest lake in Central America with a maximum depth of about 1,120 ft. and surrounded by three volcanoes- Atitlan, San Pedro and Toliman.  Unfortunately, the haze lasted for most of the two days that we visited the lake, so we can only imagine what it looks like on a clear day.  Regardless, it was still impressive.

Our approach to Lake Atitlan was a fun bike ride.  From Antigua, we biked (mostly downhill) thru some villages for approximately four hours to the dock in Panajachel where a water taxi was waiting to take us to a little gem of a hotel, Casa del Mundo.  While the biking was somewhat easy since it was downhill, there were plenty of potholes on the route to keep it interesting.

Panajachel ,the most common entry to Lake Atitlan, is a blend of tradition and business and its main road harboring colorful textiles, restaurants and a predominately gringo crowd. It is a bit touristy so you may want to be brief if you visit. We stopped for some post biking cervezas and then quickly exited.

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From Panajachel, the six of us (our guide, Joshua, two women from the States, Ada and Lee, and a guy from Switzerland) took a choppy, 20-minute water taxi ride to La Casa del Mundo.

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Perched on a hillside on Lake Atitlan, La Casa del Mundo with its 17 rooms is special spot.  Owned by a gringo and his wife from Guatemala, the family owned hotel was built by hand into the lake’s cliff side over the past 20 years. The rooms are stunning with spectacular lake views from their 100-250 feet high perches and include some Mayan touches.  It is here at La Casa del Mundo Chris and I reminisced about our stay on the Amalfi Coast.  Some of the architecture of the hotel, the way it is built into the hillside, and the trails high above the hillside very much reminded us of the Amalfi Coast.

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Unfortunately, we only spent one night on the lake at Casa del Mundo.  The next day, prior to leaving, we kayaked for roughly one hour to the  village of Tzununa, which is only accessible by boat.  When we docked, one of the guys from the hotel greeted us to take the kayaks back, and from there, we hiked along a well beaten path back to the hotel.  It was a fabulous 1.5 hour hike before returning to Antigua to prepare for the hike to Acatenango. (More on the Acatenango hike and summit in another post.)

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The lake level is a bit of a curiosity as it must be one of the only lakes in the world that has seen its water level rise over the last few years of global warming.  Unfortunately for the locals, the current level has flooded docks, staircases as well as even bars and restaurants.  Below is a shot of the previous bar at the hotel where we will staying.

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If you plan to visit Guatemala, Lake Atitlan is must, and definitely plan to stay longer than one night. You can take a safe bus or a private car from Antigua, and it will take you a couple hours to Panajachel.  From Panajachel, you can take a water taxi for only a couple bucks to spots along the lake. There are a few hotels and the ride to and from does not need to be scheduled.  It is worth noting that the lake can get very choppy in the afternoon.

¡Eso! Antigua, Guatemala

What a fantastic spot Guatemala is to visit.  Prior to visiting Antigua, Guatemala, we checked out our go-to internet research spots such as the US State Department website (Registering with STEP is a good idea if you are traveling for awhile outside the States), other government websites (Australia’s is helpful as an example or the UK), TripAdvisor, Lonely Plant, New York Times and travel blogs.  Many of the articles lead one to think Guatemala is a very dangerous place due to gang violence and robberies.  During a previous trip to Southern Belize, we noted that people were very vigilant and strongly cautioned us to stay away from the Guatemala border.   We considered skipping Guatemala completely, but we are certainly glad we did not. There is no doubt that parts of the country may be dangerous,  but our visit was quite different.  And we fell in love with the people, the culture, the stunning scenery, Spanish colonial architecture, the food and the weather – especially the weather. After spending a month in Nicaragua and Panama where the heat and humidly was unbearable, the climate and higher elevation of Antigua was wonderful.

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Similar to many countries in cities in Central and South America, people are CRAZY about their futbol. Crowds form everywhere near TVs. Here kids take a break selling balls to check in on the score.

 

We flew into Guatemala City from Nicaragua.  It was hard not enjoy Guatemala from the start.  The weather was wonderful-roughly 80 degrees F and dry- as compared to the 95 degrees F and 95% humidity when we left in Nicaragua.  The infrastructure in Guatemala was also more established which can be good and bad but in this case, it was good.

Antigua is this lovely town that is roughly a 45 minute to 1 hour ride from Guatemala City nestled in a stunning, lush valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes.  Four volcanoes make up this region  that runs the width of Guatemala from the Mexican to Salvadoran borders.  Three of these volcanoes, Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, are directly visible from Antigua.  (Pacaya is the fourth volcano that is not visible from Antigua.)

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There were literally only 3 other people out here with us, and we are still not sure the lone Swiss made it in our photo.

 

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El Fuego was erupting our first night in the city and could be seen from a balcony at our hotel. Of course, we were fast asleep and missed the show.

Our plan was to stay in Antigua for roughly a week.  We booked outings with Old Town Outfitters, one of the outdoor guiding companies in Antigua.  Our week included some great excursions:

  • Valley ride around Antigua (1 day)*
  • Day hike to Pacaya Volcano (1 day)*
  • An overnight biking, kayaking and hiking stunning Lake Atitlan (2 days)*
  • An overnight hike and summit of Acatenango (2 days)*
  • *More on these excursions in separate posts.

Antigua, a UNESCO site, was originally the capital of Guatemala.  After the Santa Marta earthquakes in 1773, authorities decided not to rebuild the city again. Thus, in 1776, the capital was moved to Guatemala City.  In addition to the volcanoes that surround the city, Antigua is beautiful town with well-preserved Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture as well as a number of ruins of colonial churches.

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Antigua’s population (in 2014) was roughly 35K.  We noticed more than a few gringos living in and around Guatemala.  For example, Old Town Outfitters is owned by a guy from North Carolina, and a restaurant we enjoyed twice while in Antigua, Cafe Opera, is owned by Canadians.  A flourishing expat community has evolved over the years likely due to the charm and the great outdoor activities close to Antigua- e.g. mountain biking, hiking, Lake Atitlan (and of course, the relatively low cost of living).

If you plan to visit Antigua, here are a few of our favorite spots:

  1. Rincon Tipico– Where the locals eat great grilled chicken with guacamole and potatoes.
  2. El Porton- Awesome Pepian, a local Guatemalan chicken stew.
  3. Cafe Opera– Great Italian food. Who knew you could find great Italian food and homemade, fresh pasta in Antigua?
  4. Como Como– Good international fare in a lovely setting.
  5. Hector’s Bistro– Fabulous steaks and beef bourguignon.

Expectations were very low going into the week in Guatemala especially after all the articles read about crime.  But we had a fabulous week and really enjoyed Antigua as well as the Guatemalan people and we would highly recommend it to anyone thinking about a visit.  Another place we will need to return as there are many other wonderful places to visit in Guatemala.