I’m once again standing on a new world map – this time starting an exciting adventure in Central America. I arrived in the colonial town of Antigua four days ago following a surprisingly flawless flight with infamous Spirit Airlines (my backpack arrived in one piece). I was quick to get out of Guatemala City and hopped on a $10 shuttle for Antigua, a winding one-hour drive away. My cute hostel, Yellow House, welcomed me with open arms, and I was soon settled in my – bed dorm with fellow backpackers Sandra and Katherine (German), Michael (English), Ed (New Zealand), and Sam (Australian).
My roommates, along with all other travelers I met at the Yellow House, were in different nomadic stages; the girls were just arriving from the El Salvadorian border, Ed was heading to San Pedro to study Spanish, and Sam was working his way down through Central America from Mexico.
Like other backpacker hubs, visitors from all nationalities drape this once earthquake-ridden town to indulge in European/American food, clean up from months of grubby traveling, take advantage of hard-to-find hot showers, and enjoy real espressos (instead of instant coffee) before moving onward through Central America.
Beautiful Antigua is nestled in a cobblestone-laded valley between the volcanoes of Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. Parque Central, the city’s main plaza, serves as a meeting place for travelers and tourists alike. Sprawling outward from this focal point are rustic, brightly-painted buildings featuring hostels, restaurants, Spanish schools,and tiendas.
Much of present-day Antigua was constructed in the 16th century, and the city is covered with tumbling, yet stunning, ruins of cathedrals and churches. I spent an entire afternoon wandering around Antigua’s many ruins including: Iglesia de San Francisco, Cathedral de San Jose, and Santo Domingo to name a few.
If sunshine is in your favor, spend a few hours appreciating the city’s windows, doorways, and crumbling facades. These photos may end up on your living room wall one day. In addition to taking a walking tour of Antigua and enjoying the local food and restaurants, people-watching is a enjoyable way to kill a solitary afternoon under a shade tree or a rainy few hours on a rooftop terrace.
I spent another afternoon hiking to Cerro de la Cruz, a hill-top park that provides a sprawling portrait view of the colonial city. Take a friend from the hostel or follow some locals up the path as this area is an apt place for muggings and theft
The sight-seeing continued when one rainy pre-dawn morning, I hiked Volcano Pacaya. When my roommates and I awoke to an angry Mayan sky and pouring heavens, we briefly thought about crawling back in to bed. However, we were unable to reschedule our hike so we hastily grabbed rain jackets and hailed our shuttle. Eight other climbers, a mix of Canadians, British, Israeli, and Dutch tourists greeted us, and we zoomed off to Volcano Pacaya in a cloud of diesel fumes. Ninety minutes later, we arrived under somewhat clear skies at the village of San Vicente to begin the 2550 meter climb to Pacaya’s summit..
Despite the popularity of the Pacaya hike, there are some potential (if not quite serious) dangers when hiking to the top. Pacaya has been continuously active since the mid-1960s, and a journalist was killed during the last major eruption in 2010. Other climbers have been injured by hot lava streams and falling rocks. Luckily, the volcano did not currently have flowing lava, and we were in no danger of an eruption during our hike.
The climb upward was quite easy, and our guide pointed out various scenic lookouts where, if the clouds cooperated, we would see gorgeous views below. As we grew closer to the top, lush vegetation gave way to rough, sharp volcanic rock, the temperature dropped several degrees, and a cold wind claimed territory on the sparse terrain. Finally, all traces of plant life disappeared, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. After walking across the volcanic field for several minutes, we approached some steam vents, and our guide produced a bag of marshmallows for roasting over the hot rocks. Really, we roasted marshmallows on the volcano!
If you would like to do the hike, any hostel or travel agency can help you book the tour. Expect to pay around Q 70 – Q 90(US $9- $12) for the half-day tour. Our guide did not speak any English, but I was able to piece together most of what she as saying during the hike.
When to go to Pacaya Volcano: There are two guided climbs per day. The earliest (and most popular) hike leaves Antigua at 6 a.m, and another leaves around 2 p.m. Which tour you choose depends on what time of year you are traveling in Guatemala. Now that it’s the rainy season, it is best to go on the 6 a.m. hike as rain showers are common in the afternoon, making for a muddy, miserable hike and cloud-covered vistas. However, as our 6 a.m. hike was rainy, it’s never guaranteed that good weather will be your ally.
I’m off to Lake Atitlan tomorrow. More from the Central highlands of Guatemala soon!