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On Friday, November 18, 2017, my wife and I came home after work, packed our bags, and left on a late-night flight to Antigua, Guatemala. The purpose of the trip was to leave the rain behind and stay somewhere warm for a week.
We had put some thought into the trip six months previous, booked our flights through Flight Hub, booked a vacation rental place, and picked up some Quesalas (Guatemalan Currency), although USD works in most places in Antiqua. The ulterior motive for this trip was to hike to the top of Volcano Acatenango—at 14,000 feet and over to the active volcano Fuego, which is aptly named, but more on that later. It had been over two years since our last adventure to Nicaragua.
Arriving in Mexico
I will try and provide the highlights and the pitfalls of our trip. The first pitfall was choosing a flight with not enough time to clear customs in Mexico City. We choose Aero Mexico, and we had flown with them before with no issues, but this time, we forgot that for the customs in Mexico City there is no "express" line and no "connections only" line. You must line up with every other passenger from every other flight and wait your turn. Our experience was a wonderful one and a half hours, which was about average from talking to other travelers (anywhere from one to two hours), and then you must find up your bags, go through immigration, and exit into the unsecured area as though you just arrived at the airport, proceed through security again, and find your gate.
(Note: Leave at least two and a half hours in between connecting flights. That is if your flight arrives on time.)
So, we missed our connecting flight to Guatemala City. The first Aero Mexico gate agent gave vague instructions to go to customer service. Once there, the first customer service agent said we must exit the secure area and go outside to get another flight. We thought that was odd, so we asked another customer service agent in a different area and they immediately changed our flight to a later one (eight hours later). We asked if we could standby for an earlier flight as we only had our carry-on bags. We got on a flight two hours later and were on our way.
(Note: Always get a second opinion when there is a language barrier, and if travelling with only carry-on bags, ask for standby.)
Getting to Antigua
We are finally on our way to Guatemala City, and only two hours behind schedule—not bad. We arrive in Guatemala City without any incidents. The next dilemma: How to get to Antigua, as we had reserved a shuttle for $40 for the whole van since we were originally a party of four and ended up being a party of two. If the shuttle waited more than two hours extra, that would be another $40 USD, so I phoned the shuttle company and cancelled the shuttle after we missed our original flight.
Now we had to arrange a new plan to get from the airport to Antigua. There were a few options: Collective shuttles at $10 to $12 per person, private vans at approximately $40 USD, or a taxi at $35 USD. While waiting for our flight, we met some ladies from a volunteer organization that were going to Antigua and had a driver coming to pick them up. Once we landed in Guatemala City, they contacted the driver and he had room for the two of us for $15 each. It was too easy, so we agreed and off we went. The traffic in Guatemala City is horrible, slow, congested, and it took a while to exit the city.
About two hours after we landed, we arrived in Antigua. A typical Central American colonial-style town. Our VRBO hosts greeted us at the courtyard door and showed us to our apartment. It was a fantastic apartment space, one of five openings onto a lush courtyard. “Apartamentos los Nazarones” was one of the best accommodations and hosts that we have ever had in Central America.
Sunday morning, we arose and went looking for out tour expedition office, “Ox Expeditions.” We wanted to make sure we knew how to get there for our tour on Wednesday morning. We explored the city following the map given to us by our VRBO hosts. We found wonderful coffee shops, French bakeries, and a plethora of dining establishments.
(Note: For a fantastic Sunday brunch, try the Casa de Concordia restaurant in Centro Park.)
Exploring the Area
Monday: We wanted to visit Lake Atitlan, which is about a two-hour drive away. We settled on a tour company that provided us with transportation to and from Panajel, and a boat trip to three villages on the edge of the lake where we witnessed a cooperative women’s group that spun yarn in the traditional way, making a scarf in 12 days. They also sold them and were cheaper than at the markets in Antigua. We met with a local artist who teaches children to paint (absolutely amazing). We visited a chocolate factory where they showed us how chocolate was originally made.
Also on this excursion was a Tuk Tuk tour around the highlights of the city and a visit to a local spiritual healer.
Tuesday: We spent wandering around Antigua, checking out jade factories, Centro Park, the Old Original Hotel, and the Silver Museum. From the hotel, there is a free shuttle to a restaurant and park with a viewpoint high above the city. We had our pre-expedition briefing at OX Expeditions and an early bed.
The Hike Up the Volcano
Wednesday: Leave Apartamentos los Nazarones and walk 25 minutes to the OX Expeditions office.
We loaded up sleeping bags, tents, food, etc. in backpacks, which weighed about 45 pounds. Once the group of 11 hikers and one guide are ready, we jumped in the van to head to a restaurant in Centro Park for breakfast. Then we drove about an hour to the start of the trek, the first one and a half hours of which are a long arduous climb up through the agricultural zone until we hit the tropical forest zone with its lush green growth up to the high alpine zone. We hiked for five hours. Once we arrived, we set up our tents. So far, we gained approximately 4,500 feet, and now we have free time to relax and rest and allow time to acclimatize to the altitude.
(Note: Altitude pills and ibuprofen to keep the blood thin to absorb oxygen, and lots of hydration.)
The Fuego Add On
For the crazy people who wanted to stand on an erupting Volcano Fuego, we continued another 1,000 feet down to the valley between the two volcanoes and then another 1,000 feet. (An additional 4,000 feet of elevation loss and gain total.) Only the guide and I went to Fuego. We are standing about a 1,000 feet from the crater opening, waiting for the sunset which never came. Fuego floats in and out of the clouds and then erupts. Through the passing clouds, we see the plume of black smoke and rocks shooting out of the crater. We are far enough away to be safe, but we can hear the rocks falling around us, sounding like heavy rain. That is why we came, to feel the rush of being on an active Volcano, and what a rush it is.
Darkness is approaching fast, and unbeknownst to us, we had one more adventure this day. The clouds around the crater turned into a lightning storm with rain and hail. We made a run for cover, as there is no protection up on the peak from lightning since the two of us are the only objects that the lightning would find to ground. We head back to the base camp on Acatenango. We're cold, wet, and in the dark. Luckily, however, we had headlamps and the guide was well-prepared.
Thursday: We head down the trail back to a waiting van and back to town, unloaded all our gear at OX Expeditions, and take a Tuk Tuk back to the Apartamentos Los Nazarones. We are absolutely knackered, our wonderful VRBO hosts ordered us a pizza, and a few cold brews. We just relaxed and went to bed early. You don’t get a good sleep at 12,000 feet due to the lack of oxygen.
Friday: A day of recovery after the Volcano hike, we walked around town (slowly) and visited the viewpoint on a little hill called Cerro de la Cru.
Saturday: Back to Guatemala City for the flight home.