A big HOLA to country number 11 on our honeymoon adventure – Guatemala!
After an epic 17 hour bus journey from León, Nicaragua, including 4 countries, 3 border crossings and 2 pretty awful bus drivers, we arrived in Antigua. And it was worth it!
Our main aim from our few days in Antigua was to chill out… and to climb Volcan Acatenango. Yes, yet another volcano. More on this in a bit.
Antigua has probably been one of our highlights of Guatemala. It’s an old colonial city but it feels more like a laid back town. Apart from the colourful buildings, the first thing we noticed was how friendly the locals are. I think everybody we met had a smile on their face and took time to say hello to us.
Everything also seems to go at a much slower pace in Antigua. The cars creep along on the cobbled streets, the locals aren’t in a rush, and even the stray dogs seem to be chilled out. Definitely our kind of town.
On our first morning, we were wandering to the main square when we stopped to check out the ruined remains of the old cathedral. It was like something out of Game of Thrones – lots of columns, arches, and blue sky where the roof should have been. Apparently the cathedral was destroyed… so the locals built a new cathedral just in front of it. If we’re honest, we enjoyed exploring the ruins of the old cathedral a lot more than the inside of the new one.
It turns out that there are quite a few ruins in Antigua, which are quite nice to stumble across. In general everything in Antigua is nice to stumble across! There are so many cute cafés and pretty streets, we easily spent a day just roaming around and taking photos. The artisan market is a nice spot to stock up on souvenirs but there are also other galleries and handicraft shops where you can get more unique bits. We chatted to an artist in the street who specialised in watercolour versions of Antigua’s colourful streets. We also saw lots of pottery and wooden crafts, which were really hard to walk away from. My heart wanted it but my head said that buying a full porcelain dinner set wasn’t a great idea for a backpacker.
There are loads of great food and drink options in Antigua, which apparently has over 300 restaurants, cafés and bars within one square mile. When we heard about the town’s Choco Musuem we definitely wanted to pay it a visit, so we went and treated ourselves to hot chocolate and a bubble waffle. I’d never heard of a bubble waffle before but it is exactly how it sounds – a dessert made out of bubbles of waffle mixture. Ours was topped with ice cream, chocolate sauce and strawberries (you know, to be healthy), and it was so delicious.
My hot chocolate was also quite fun. It came as a glass jug of hot milk and a small bowl of chocolate ganache. I mixed them together and got a really yummy hot chocolate. The Choco Museum is great to visit if you fancy a sweet treat and there’s a really nice courtyard where you can sit and enjoy it.
However our favourite place for food was conveniently right across the road from our hostel (El Hostal). Toku Baru has a menu of mostly Indian, Indonesian, and middle-Eastern food – think curries, falafel, koftas and pittas. We were in our element!
On our first night, I had chicken tikka masala and Joe had chicken balti. It was so good we went back another two times! There was often a decent-sized queue but the restaurant does takeaway, so we got food to take back to our hostel and enjoy with happy hour beers. Between us we also tried falafel, tandoori chicken, chicken madras, chicken korma, and sweet potato fries. All of the food was incredible and a reasonable price! If you’re in Antigua, we highly recommend you check it out, even if it’s just for the sweet potato fries and yummy garlic dip. Mmmm!
Call us crazy, call us nuts, but we’d heard about Acatenango from a guy in our hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to not do it. There’s a really good reason for climbing this volcano – you get to see actual lava eruptions from neighbouring Volcan Fuego! We saw our fair share of magma in Nicaragua (Volcan Masaya in Granada and Volcan Telica in León) but we couldn’t resist the chance to see proper volcano eruptions.
Lots of agencies and hostels offer a guided hike with an overnight stay at Acatenango’s base camp. We had heard really good things about Hostel Tropicana’s tour so we booked with them. Our 430 Quetzales (about $58 USD) included transport to and from Acatenango, two breakfasts, lunch and dinner (with a glass of wine!), all camping equipment, and two guides. Better still, the tents were set up for us when we got there, and all we had to carry was our own clothes and lunch.
And when we started the hike at about 10:30am, we were so glad we didn’t have to carry a tent. The first hour was a killer. Whoever created that trail obviously hadn’t seen wiggles – the path was straight up, very steep, and the ground was like volcanic sand! What made it a little bit worse was that the starting point is at 2400m above sea level, and we did notice that we were a bit more out of breath than normal.
After the first hour the hike wasn’t as steep, more like a steady climb, and the guides made sure we had plenty of stops. It was nice not to feel rushed! By lunchtime we were about half way and celebrated with our yummy burritos that the hostel had provided. The final couple of hours of walking were ok and as we got closer to camp, we started to hear Volcan Fuego doing its thing. Every 20 mins or so it erupted, you could almost set your watch by it.
And when we first saw an eruption, it was incredible! Such huge clouds of smoke and gas! It was like watching fireworks, you see the gas cloud first and then a couple of seconds later you hear the explosion. When we arrived at camp we just sat and watched the volcano for ages. Every eruption made us speechless! And as the sun started to set we started to see the glow of the lava from the volcano, it felt like we were in a movie it was so dramatic. We also got amazing sunset views, it was definitely a good spot for a campsite.
After the sunset, that’s when the trek became even harder for me. The temperature dropped, the wind picked up, and it was SO COLD! We’d been told beforehand that temperates can be below freezing at base camp so we had packed lots of layers and even rented jackets, gloves and hats from Hostel Tropicana. But we were still super cold. The guides did an amazing job making us pasta and hot chocolate, and we all huddled around the campfire to keep warm. I don’t think I’ve ever been as cold before. Ever!
Watching Fuego erupt in the dark made it all worth it though. The lava was so bright and fiery, it was definitely the highlight of the whole trek. We could still hear the explosions during the night when we were all cosy in our tents. One crazy explosion at about 2am had us panicking that we were in the firing line! Joe’s headline: crazy campers die next to an active volcano. Luckily all was fine!
At 4am the guides woke us for the extra hour of hiking to Acatenango’s summit for sunrise. Unfortunately the cloud cover was so thick and the guides said we’d be unlikely to see anything. They also said it would be twice or three times as cold at the top. That was enough to persuade me to stay by the campfire. Joe and a few other brave (crazy?) people went to the top while the rest of us stayed behind.
Turns out we were the lucky ones! We had a decent view of Fuego for sunrise while the others didn’t see anything at the top. Two hours later Joe and the others arrived back wet, freezing and wishing they’d never gone. But at least they made it to the summit!
After a quick noodle breakfast we headed back down the volcano to warmer temperatures. The hike back only took a couple of hours but was very slippery in parts. We practically had to ski down the steep part which was so sandy!
After we made it back to Antigua and had thawed a bit, we started to feel pretty proud that we’d climbed Acatenango and we were so happy we saw Fuego in all its glory. One thing we definitely agreed upon though – no more volcanoes! We’re all volcanoed out here. Next stop – some lazy time at Lake Atitlan. Lush!
Would you like to visit Guatemala? Or have you been already? Leave us a comment and let us know! Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for more of our travel photos.