As a warning this post contains the highlight of our trip so far. Thank you Guatemala!
Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala, and now stands testament to the beautiful colonial architecture which once thrived here. It’s unfortunate to say but a lot of the cities we’ve passed through – not least Guatemala city – are frankly ugly. They all appear to be rushed and buildings are just sprawled up in any open space with little apparant thought or planning. The cobbled streets of Antigua represent a different kind of town, and you can see the attention to detail. We’ve even seen workers with metal rods arduously scraping between the cobblestones to remove weeds – now there’s commitment to the job!
There are a lot of factors which play into this being one of our favourite places so far. One of those is definitely the ease of camping. We were able to park in a tourist police car park which is guarded 24/7 completely free of charge! Granted, there are no showers or toilets however with a McDonalds around the corner we could use the toilets there and there was a water tap so we could fill our portable shower up. Also the place effectively turned into an overlander campground, as when we were there 4 other overlanders were visiting too!
We thought we’d stay for only a few days however as we write this we have been in Antigua for around a week! Other than just wondering around the gorgeous streets, we visited the famous landmarks such as the arch and walked up to get a view over the whole city. We also have treated ourselves to meals out and the occasional drink as we aren’t spending all our money on fuel! For our first night we visited a fun hostel for a few drinks which unfortunately turned into a few more… turns out we don’t have the tolerance we used to and we lost the following day due to feeling a little ‘poorly’! The following evening it was date night and we both enjoyed local Mayan cuisine of stew like meals and even some fondu to start (not sure how local that one is). We followed with an early bed though, and only had half a bottle of wine as we’d booked onto a big hike for the Saturday.
Antigua is surrounded by a number of Volcanos, the most famous of which is Volcan Fuego (meaning volcano of fire). The volcano erupts sporadically but typically 2-4 times per hour and you can see the small eruptions from the town. We wanted to get a closer look though… so we booked on to climb it’s neighbouring Volcan Acatenango. Having been dormant for 100 years it felt like a safer bet! None the less the beast of a climb would certainly challenge us.
We started our trip in the hostel with a breakfast which was fittingly full of carbs. Then it was an hour drive out of Antigua to the base of our hike which was at around 8,000ft. Luckily we had acclimatised to the altitude but nonetheless there was a clear thinness to the air. We all bought our £1 walking sticks to help us and then started the ascent. There was no other way of putting it except the climb up was brutal. We climbed for 5 hours, stopping periodically every 30 minutes to catch our breath, and climbed up to around 1,200ft where we finally arrived at base camp.
Whilst hiking we were all boiling hot but very quickly it became cooler and cooler. Pretty much as soon as we got to base camp two things happened. Firstly people started to layer up – it was about 4:30pm and the sun wasn’t far from setting. Secondly the main event happened – the Volcano Fuego erupted. This was a mind-blowing moment for everyone on the trip. It’s something you read about and definitely don’t think will so reliably happen to you. Billows of thick black smoke followed by a loud thud – we suddently felt particularly vulnurable being so close to the erupting beast.
As night descended around us it continued to get colder and colder and the volcano continued to erupt. What was noticeable as the sun set however was gradually we could see more and more of the lava. Had this been coming the whole time? Our theory as a group was almost certainly it had but it took nightfall for us to see it. This was one of the most incredible things either of us have seen, and an easy highlight for our trip so far. We all sat and waited, chatting in anticipation of the next eruption while our guides fed us spaghetti, noodles and empanadas – a true carb feast!
Around 8pm we retired to our ‘beds’ – the military style camping beds which were surprisingly comfortable. This turned out to be pretty irrelevant anyway, as during the night the temperature fell to below 0 and we probably weren’t equipped with the right sleeping bags to handle this. We all went to bed fully clothed and I think collectively as a group got less than 10 hours of sleep! We all woke at 4am the next morning and marched as complete icicles to the peak of Acatenango – 13,000ft. To put it into perspective the base camp of Everest is 17,500ft. This was seriously high – seriously cold and the air was seriously thin.
We were treated to an absolutely stunning sunrise however – and all the while Fuego was going off. This was an incredible experience. Unfortunately what goes up must come down, and so began the hike down to base camp. It took a number of hours and was particularly hard on the knees! Still though it was easier than the way up.
When we made it back to town, we enjoyed a nice shower in the hostel then went for a celebratory roast with Maja and Tom – people we’d met on the hike from New Zealand and South London respectively. A well deserved pint and an early bed was in order – but what an absolutely incredible experience we’d had.