After our week in Lake Atitlan, we moved onto the colonial town of Antigua, We stayed in a small, but cozy little guest house near the main part of town, which proved to be an excellent decision as it was close to many cafes and restaurants.
We only had a couple of days in Antigua, and we spent those days exploring on our own. We visited the iconic Santa Catalina Arch ofcourse, and enjoyed strolling around the many shops and street stalls in that area. I even bought myself a pretty necklace from one of the street vendors! 🙂
Another place we loved visiting in Antigua was Casa Santa Domingo, a historic ruined monastery that has been partially turned into a 5 star hotel. There is an entrance fee to see the ruins, but it is well worth it because you also get to visit the museums and the cathedral as well.
The grounds are beautiful and sensational, and there is even a chocolatier on site! Getting to see some real skeletal remains was amazing, and we loved the grounds so much we ended up going back a second time, and even dined at the restaurant there!
Okay, so the real highlight for us in Antigua, was getting to climb Volcano Pacaya. Guatemala is known for its many active volcanoes, and several of them are available for courageous souls to climb and even camp overnight.
During my research phase, I had my heart set on climbing Volcano Acatenango, which is over 13,000 feet high. All the reviews and blog posts that I read from people who have climbed it had one consistent warning: IT IS TOUGH! Even for the most athletic, the fittest of the fit, their feedback on the hike was that it was undoubtedly one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. When I shared this info with my hubby, he looked at me like I was absolutely crazy to even think our family could do it. 😆 We don’t work out regularly, and rarely hike, so what made me think we could suddenly endure such a difficult climb?
After contemplating on this for awhile, I decided my hubby was right, and it would be more realistic for us to start with a less strenuous hike. I decided we’d try tackling Volcano Papaya instead, which still boasts 8372 feet high.
We booked our overnight hike with a reputable company name Ox Expeditions. They were more expensive than most of the other companies I looked into, but I figured it was important to have a guide that was professional and experienced. On the day of our departure, we checked in at the Ox Expedition office, conveniently located a few blocks from our Airbnb. As part of their package, they provided us outdoor jackets, hiking backpacks, gloves, sleeping bags, and other essential items, which was fantastic as it saved us a lot of luggage space! We were even able to keep our luggages in their storage room, so that we didn’t have to pay for an extra night at our Airbnb.
Everyone in our group gathered and packed our essential items, while our guide prepped us a bit on what to expect. Wow, we had no idea how heavy our backpacks would be, after we stuffed the sleeping bags, food, water, and our personal items in there!
Once we were all packed up, we piled into a minivan, which took us to the base of the mountain.
The very bottom of the mountain was where we got to do a final “bathroom run,” and where we were also given the option to ride up the first part on a horse. Local children surrounded us, asking us to rent walking sticks for USD $1 each. Our guide kindly told us that there is absolutely no shame in going up this first part on a horse, and that in fact, we would be supporting the local economy by paying for these horses and guides.
That was all the “encouragement” that I needed. 😜 Bridge and I both decided to spare ourselves the first part of the hike, so that we can conserve all our energy for the final 2+ hour summit up the volcano. It costed USD $10 per horse.
It took several hours to get to the base, and we would stop briefly every now and then to take in the magnificent views of the volcano and the valley. Some of the terrains were steep and rough. Even riding on the horse, I found it hard to balance at times. When we finally got to the base, Alan looked like he was ready to collapse.
We immediately began to unload our heavy backpacks, and everyone pitched in to help set up the tents. We then scarfed down a quick sandwich for our late lunch before we began the second part of our hike– towards the summit of the volcano.
The first hour wasn’t too bad, and we were even rewarded with the most magnificent sunset view!
After we marveled at the sunset, it began to get dark very quickly, so we turned on our headlamps and continued our trek up the steep and rocky terrain. This last part, unbeknownst to me, ended up being one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. It’s hard to describe the terror I felt during the last hour. Hiking to the summit took every ounce of endurance in me. The incline was vigorously steep, the terrain was slippery, and the wind was fearfully strong. It was pitch black, except for the dim light tunnel from my headlamp. As the altitude and exhaustion began taking a toll on my body, I started praying intensely for God to give me strength to persevere, because I really did not think I could do it. What I heard God whispering repeatedly to me was, “It’s going to be okay. Just focus on the next step, nothing further. One step at a time. Trust me.” So, for the final hour of climbing up that summit, that’s what I did. I no longer strained my eyes to assess the distance and difficulty the path ahead appeared to be. I simply kept my head down and focused on making sure my next step would be sturdy and safe. Every time fear overcame me again and I felt the urge to give up, I held onto God’s words in Isaiah 43:2 “When you are in deep waters, I will be with you.”
I finally made it to the summit along with everyone else, and wow. Just WOW! We were only 80′ away from the crater, and we watched in awe-inspired silence at the mesmerizing scene of the volcano’s fierce eruptions in front of us. It was a deeply profound moment that made every painful step to arrive there will worth it.
We had a professional photographer in our group, and the above photos were captured by him (IG handle @keksmajor). The amateur ones below are from my trusty iPhone!
By the time we got back down to the base, it was 10pm and we were completely famished. Our guide prepared some pasta and mulled wine for us, which tasted absolutely heavenly given how cold and hungry we all were!
We finished off the night with some s’mores (because you can’t say you camped without having s’mores!) and then retreated into our tents to sleep. I thought I would sleep really well given how physically exhausted I was, but the chill of the wind, plus the sound of the constant eruptions kept me up for most of the night. I found myself drifting in and out of sleep, and soon, I heard our guide’s alarm go off, signaling that it was 5:30am and time for us to wake up to watch the sunrise.
Our guide did say we had the option to remain in our tent if we wanted to skip the sunrise, but how could we give up the chance to watch sunrise beneath an active volcano? We piled on layers of clothing and braved the morning chill together as we hiked about 30 minutes to the spot where we witnessed the most magical sunrise amongst the clouds!
Our guide even made us breakfast while we watched the sunrise!
From our spot, we could also see Volcano Fuego erupting from a distance, which was super cool.
After breakfast, we made our way back down to the base to pack everything up, and then we all hiked back down where the minivan was waiting to take us back to Antigua.
It felt truly phenomenal to have achieved this hike, and to experience the volcano the way that we did. If you are planning to visit Guatemala, I would definitely recommend you put this on your bucket list there!