Guatemala days 1-2: Exploring colorful Antigua + epic hike up Acatenango Volcano

My Guatemala solo trip was a short but very sweet one. The trip was basically divided into two parts: a very active portion and then relaxing and restorative portion. The first two days were on the active side so let’s dive right in to that.

Day 1: Exploring Antigua + reconnecting with Jared

I took a red eye into Guatemala City around 6am. I hopped right into a shuttle to Antigua since I didn’t want to spend time in the capital as I heard there was not that much to do there. One hour later, I was at my hostel all checked in and ready to hit the ground running on 2 hours of sleep!

I got straight to exploring Antigua: a cute, colorful small town in Guatemala filled with picturesque coloniel-looking buildings and cobblestone streets. The entire town was picture-worthy.

Antigua is super tiny so it didn’t take too long to see all the sights – a few churches, the town square, and this gorgeous central park. I remember feeling like this was the happiest town I’d ever seen…locals were out and about on this gorgeous Saturday, relaxing and chatting in the park, listening to live music, birds flying and kids blowing bubbles…it felt straight out of a dream.

On the outskirts of town was a beautiful viewpoint called the Holy Cross. It was a short 15-minute walk up to see an entire view of Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes. I even spotted the one I’d be hiking tomorrow which was pretty surreal.

Apparently I was in town during the flower festival. The streets were lined with tons of pretty flowers which added to the colorful fun.

By mid-afternoon, I felt like I had seen most of Antigua and was at a loss of what to do…but then, I got a very pleasant surprise. A friend from college, Jared, messaged me since he saw that I was in Guatemala. Jared lives in Guatemala City now, little did I know, and so he drove his motorcycle all the way to Antigua to catch up!

We met a little outside of town at Caboa Farm, an organic farm that had a farmer’s market, food, and live music on Saturdays. It was nice to get out of Antigua for a bit and chill on this beautiful property. I got there a little before Jared and strolled around the fields, greenhouses, and small network of trails.

Then, Jared and I reunited! We were RA’s together in college and hadn’t seen each other since then. We grabbed a beer at the farmer’s market and caught up over the past few years (wow, years). Jared was in Guatemala for one year doing research, and I was so fascinated hearing his travel stories and about daily life in Guatemala City.

After the farmer’s market, Jared and I continued the fun back into town as we grabbed another beer while walking around the famous Antigua market. Guatemala is mostly centered around Mayan culture, so there were tons of colorful Mayan-style clothes, accessories, snacks and basically anything you could imagine at this market.

We passed by these chicken buses – famous in Guatemala. Apparently when school buses retire in the U.S., they get driven all the way down to this particular lot in Guatemala, painted like in ridiculous colors (to look like a chicken), and then used as transit between cities. They are the cheapest (and most uncomfortable) way to get around Guatemala – imagine hours sitting on a school bus, eek!

Then, we grabbed some dinner before saying goodbye as I had an early morning and Jared had to get back to Guatemala City. What a highlight of my first day seeing an old friend again, and in a foreign country of all places! I love that social media helps connect one another in these alternative ways. As much as I love meeting other backpackers from around the world, Jared and I both agreed that there was something so nice about hanging out with someone who you already have a rapport with.

Lots of coffee helped me make it through the day. I completely crashed at 8pm given my lack of sleep on the airplane…

Day 2: Acatenango Volcano

The alarm went off at 4:30am the next morning – 8 hours of sleep, woohoo! I was so excited for this day as I was going to climb the Acatenango Volcano. There are several volcanoes surrounding Antigua that are popular for hiking, but by far the hardest and most beautiful is Acatenango. This volcano was actually my inspiration for coming to Guatemala in the first place after I heard some amazing stories from Gideon, my friend from my Colombia solo trip! I was so inspired and knew in my heart that I needed to carve out time to climb this volcano.

I went with Ox Expeditions, a tour company that offered a day trip all the up and down the volcano. During orientation, the guide basically gave this speech while pointing to a map: “Over here is part 1 – it’s very difficult and steep for 2 hours. Part 2 is the cloud forest – also pretty difficult for 2 hours on a dirt trail. Part 3 – again, very difficult as we go up with some loose sand for 2 hours. Lastly part 4 is the most difficult as it is straight up to the top and entirely sand.”

Sooo basically, the whole thing was very difficult, ha. We all braced ourselves for what was about to be the toughest hike of our lives…

We drove up to the base of Acatenango, watching the glowing, red sunrise on the horizon. Some peace and beauty before the intensity began.

Then we began the hike. It was pretty cold in the morning, in the 40s, but after we started hiking we quickly warmed up and one-by-one stripped off our layers. I loved the beginning of the hike since the air was crisp and there were lots of vegetation and corn fields to stare off at. After part 1, I was feeling great – my heart rate was healthy and muscles still fresh!

What made this hike so hard was that there were no rolling hills or even flat portions, it was just straight up to 13,000 feet! Part 2 had some switchback turns which made it a liiiitle easier, but not by much. We were basically in a forest and eye-level with the clouds which was neat.

Then part 3, which was completely exposed and the vegetation started to die off. We were right under the sun which felt nice and it looked more like what I imagined a volcano to be: with black dried lava and sand. By this portion, I was starting to get really tired. All the uphill was killing my calves, and I felt pretty out of shape strength-wise while my cardio was still alright. Every step felt like huge task.

We were so high up that we were officially OVER the clouds! So, so surreal. It felt like we were in an airplane, but outside of it with all the fresh air! I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder and “ooo” and “ahh” over the clouds.

Some lunch to muster up some more energy. I didn’t really have breakfast which added to the difficulty 😛

Part 4. Oh my god. This last hour felt like the last hour of a marathon. Every muscle in my legs was screaming and I also had some external pains (blisters, toe nails falling off…). So much pain while grinding away on the steepest climb I’ve ever done. The sand made every step up fall halfway down. On top of that, the elevation finally caught up to me, especially from being at sea level only a day ago. I felt like I couldn’t take a full breath. I had to stop literally every 20 steps for a quick break and catch my breath. Truly one of the hardest physical tasks I’ve ever done.

Our guide was incredible. Not only does he do this trek 2-3 times a week, but he also ran a marathon the day before! What a boss.

And for the love of God, never hike a volcano without hiking poles!! Gideon warned me about this, but I thought I could manage without them. Boy was I wrong 😛

After the final push…we made it to the top!!!!

I felt so accomplished and relieved to make it. The beauty at the peak was unparalleled to any picture I had seen. You could see all the volcanos surrounding Antigua while looking down at the clouds like god in heaven…I’ll never forget it.

A really cool thing we witnessed was Fuego Volcano ERRUPTING!!! Fuego is an active volcano and you can usually spot some activity only at night, but we literally saw it spewing lava the size of Volkswagens for an hour! Such an amazing sight…little did I know at the time that that single eruption was actually a very dangerous one and 2,000 people got evacuated…it even made the news the next day, and Jared and some other friends reached out to me to make sure I was okay. Can’t believe I saw that with my own eyes.

After spending time taking everything in, we headed back down the exact same way we came. While going up completely destroyed my calves, going down completely destroyed by quads! I feel like going down is actually harder than up, depending on what your strengths are. I’m writing this post 4 days after hiking Acatenago and I STILL feel super sore…even after marathons I’m usually in better condition by now!

We were all so happy to make it to the base and sit down in the van. Oh that feeling of sitting down after a tough activity…the entire trek took 9 hours total.

I got back to my hostel, took a shower, and then met one of the friends in my tour group for dinner in town.

Then, I spent a few hours running around town on some errands and figuring out my plans for tomorrow. I was planning to head to Lake Atitlan next but had no idea how I was getting there or where I was going to stay. I spent hours figuring things out all to realize the morning buses were full, and I was pretty anxious about what was going to happen tomorrow…as much as I love spontaneity on solo trips, I’m pretty type A at heart and don’t handle stress that well…(which is something I’m working on).

I remember thinking how I just wanted to relax after hiking Acatenango but ended up being stressed about my errands…before I went to sleep, I gave myself a pep talk – I told myself I didn’t want to spend my precious energy and time on this trip stressing out. I was on vacation after all! I needed to put my emotional health first, relax and like always, life would work itself out…

The next morning, I woke up early with the slight urge to resume making plans, but I actually stopped myself and decided to take a few hours to relax. I read a few chapters of my book, ate breakfast in town, caught up on my phone…after a few hours, when I finally felt ready to say goodbye to Antigua, I booked everything I needed and was on a bus to Lake Atitlan.

I’m so glad I took the time to relax and enjoy Antigua one last time, instead of rushing out to there. The past 2 days had been go-go-go and that morning was the first time I got to breath. Something I’m learning on these solo trips is taking things more slowly and finding the healthy balance between activity and relaxation, also something I want to incorporate into my life at home. I felt so much better after this relaxing morning and ready for the next chapter of the trip 🙂

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