This post will cover our time in the Guatemalan town of Antigua but it mainly focuses on our 2-day hike up Volcano Acatenango. I really wanted to call it ‘Acate-NO GO’ because it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done and I wanted to prevent other humans from putting themselves through that kind of pain. Problem is, it was Alice and Abbie’s favourite activity of our entire trip so far…. and that’s 2 against 1, so here I am, attempting to be neutral when in reality I’m starting to question if my travel companions are actually psychopaths who enjoy battling EXTREME temperatures and altitudes whilst carrying a 15kg bag on their back. But yeah, no, totally neutral…
First things first, I should probably tell you about how we got here. We caught a public bus from La Ceiba that stopped in San Pedro Sula and Guatemala City briefly before continuing on to Antigua. The bus company was called Hedman Alas and is one of the safest modes of transport in Honduras and 100% the best option for backpackers.
The border crossing was easy and the bus itself was very comfortable – we had no issues. Minus the fact that there was a man who just would NOT stop staring at Alice. We were marginally concerned but, once we actually spoke to him, we realised he was probably just excited to see a white, blonde person. Still funny though – especially cause I tried to take a sneaky photo of him staring by pretending to take a photo of Alice:
We arrived to Antigua at night. It was raining and our hostel was quite far from the bus station so we went in search of a taxi. I remember complaining about carrying my heavy bag in the rain but I also remember seeing 20-odd homeless people snuggled together under an arch and then completely re-assessing my situation…
Our hostel was called ‘El Hostal’. It’s a really quaint place with wonderful staff and cosy rooms – we loved it there and it was the perfect base for us to explore the area.
They also look after your luggage free of charge/provide coats, gloves and jumpers if you choose to do the Acatenango hike which I will talk about in more detail later. But first, let’s talk about the city of Antigua, shall we? It’s actually a UNESCO world heritage site – a beautiful place with an electric atmosphere and so much to see and do. One of the first things that I noticed was the incredible smells: coffee, freshly baked bread, chocolate, onions frying, detergent from the laundrettes. The buildings are all such interesting colours too and the whole city is surrounded by volcanoes and mountain ranges. Definitely a feast for the senses! Antigua is also home to one of the most photographed spots in Central America – the Santa Catalina arch!
As always, we toured the town – visiting churches, cathedrals and convents galore. We ate street lunch on the steps in the main plaza watching the ‘Independence Day’ celebrations. We weren’t there for the actual day but they make it a week-long affair, so we still managed to catch some parades and shows.
I feel like this is one of those cities that is best described in pictures, so I’ll attach some below. I bet you’re wondering if that is a genuine statement or a cop-out to save time on writing? Well, you’ll never know…. (it’s both)
Okay, so that’s the city. Now time to tell you about our excursion – the 2-day volcano death hike. I was super nervous when we booked it because I really, really, really hate vertical climbs and we had heard from other people that it was a serious physical challenge. I also hated the idea of carrying 15kg on my back (you have to pack clothes, food, water and camping gear) so I actually considered paying a local to carry my bag up the volcano for me at one point…. ha ha ha ha. No really, that’s a genuine service that they offer!
In the end, I decided to commit to the challenge wholeheartedly and, in retrospect, I’m glad I did. It felt like more of an achievement that way!
The hike up was super challenging – it takes about half a day but there are pitstops every 30/40 minutes or so. One woman started to struggle just before our second stop and (a very kind) Abbie offered to help her carry something. She gave Abbie some of her camping gear and Alice 2L of water. I was at the front of the group at this point so I missed all of this but I’m secretly glad I wasn’t there because I was struggling with my own bag never mind having to carry someone elses!
We reached our third pitstop and realised that this woman had given up and turned back. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon and a lot of people turn around in the first hour or so. We battled on, though! Alice and Abbie don’t get phased by hikes and they like to take it slow at the back of the group and sing songs. I am the total opposite – I can’t talk much when I’m hiking. Someone made me laugh at one point and it caused me to cough and splutter because I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to even say ‘haha’…. crazy, eh! I also have to stay at the front of the group. As soon as I start to dawdle, I lose motivation and then I’m more likely to give up. So, unfortunately, the 3 empanadas were split up for the journey but we were reunited at every rest stop for cuddles and support.
Every time we reached a rest stop, I couldn’t help but wonder how long we had left. I think it’s best not to know because if you’re exhausted and someone says ‘only 4 hours left!’, you’ll feel even more exhausted all of a sudden. Eventually, it became pretty obvious that we were nearing the top and I was so relieved when I caught a glimpse of base camp.
The volcano you hike up is called Acatenango and the volcano that you can see from base camp is called Fuego. Fuego is still active and people regularly see eruptions, lava and smoke on this trip. You can also see Antigua AND Guatemala City from up there!! It’s crazy beautiful – we all agreed that the views were the best part.
We set up our tent and then began to layer up. At first, it didn’t feel that cold. In fact, I remember thinking ‘this isn’t that bad, I can definitely manage a night here’. It didn’t take long for that to change though – by 7pm it was minus 4 degrees and freezing! We ate dinner and sat around a fire that had been made by our guides before going to sleep at about 9pm. We were told to meet back outside at 3am for our final hike up to the very top to watch the sunrise.
During the night, we heard the sound of the volcano erupting. We should probably have opened our tent to have a look but all 3 of us were too cold to move so we just stayed curled up in our sleeping bags. It was even more difficult to open our tent up at 3am and accept that we were about to start hiking… It was pitch black – time to get the flashlights out. It took about 2 hours to reach the top and it was a vertical incline – I would actually go as far as to say that these 2 hours from 3am-5am are the hardest 2 hours of the whole trip. It’s mental as well as physical – just pushing yourself to keep going, to ignore the cold, to ignore your aching muscles, to ignore the fact that you haven’t had enough sleep and just push for the end result.
Unfortunately, it was really cloudy so we didn’t see the sunrise but it was quite amazing to stand on the very tip of a volcano, 4000m high. I can also officially say that I have never been as cold in my life as I was on top of that volcano and this is coming from someone who lived in Russia during winter… Mark my words – the wind will literally take your breath away.
Afterwards, we returned to base camp, packed up our tents and collected all of our rubbish before beginning the descent down the volcano. I am incapable of walking downhill, I don’t know why, I just am and I fell over at least 70 times. At first the guide would run to help me up, but after fall 27 he started to just laugh and leave me to it.
We passed a few tour groups on our way who were heading up the volcano. Everyone kept shouting ‘YOU CAN DO IT! C’MON! NOT LONG NOW!’ whilst I couldn’t help but think ‘So glad I’m not you right now, you actually still have 6 hours left.’ I didn’t say that out loud though, obviously…
After about 4 hours (it’s much quicker on the way down), we saw the bottom of the volcano and the main road. It was such an overwhelming feeling – I think I almost cried and started frantically running to our van. I couldn’t wait to take my backpack off, get back to the hostel, take a hot shower and eat warm food.
It was honestly harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life, including Machu Picchu! It’s a combination of the steep incline, the unstable/gravelly terrain, the heavy backpacks and the changes in temperature that make this a seriously tough task. Was it worth it? I’m not sure. Abbie and Alice will say ‘YES YES YES’ but I will say ‘It depends’. I think it was worth it for the sense of achievement but I think the views depend on luck – it was too cloudy for us to see a sunrise and we never saw any lava coming out of the volcano, so that was slightly gutting. It was still really cool to camp on top of a volcano though and if you love hiking then it’s a no brainer but it’s definitely FREEZING cold and extremely physical, so I can understand when people are less enthusiastic about these things. I’ll admit though – slowly but surely, Alice and Abbie are transforming me into a ‘hiker’. I definitely feel like I’m enjoying myself more and more every time we do a hike. I think they’re getting a bit easier too! So, there… did you hear that girls?! You win. Hiking is kind of cool. Fine. I don’t hate it anymore. Just dislike. Maybe even like. Oh, whatever.
So, that’s the story of Antigua and Acatenango…
The adventures of the 3 empanadas continue! More blogs coming soon ✌️