(Weeks 22 to 24) Antigua Guatemala & El Paredon
Guatemala quickly became one of my favourite countries. There’s so much to do and so much to see. Plus, even for a small country, there’s still so much diversity in the landscapes and activities. In just these few weeks in El Paredon and Antigua, I got to see baby turtles being released into the wild, watched a volcano erupt at 3700 metres and visited a hobbit’s paradise in the mountains!
My first impressions of Guatemala weren’t good. But, you know the saying ‘it’s not you, it’s me”? Well, that would certainly be true here. After a busy last few weeks in Mexico and San Francisco, which had involved a lot of plan making, only for a new plan to have to be made, I was burnt out and irritable.
The travel burnout is real. While it might seem like a dreamy lifestyle, there’s still a lot of stress and hassle of finding somewhere to stay, moving cities, booking & boarding transport and packing your life into a 40-litre backpack every few days. It can be exhausting to make plans only for them to go up in smoke a few hours later. Endlessly searching flight or bus ticket sites, scrolling through hotels.com for something in your budget and finding restaurants night after night even when you don’t know what you want to eat.
This isn’t a complaint. I know I’m extremely lucky and privileged to be in this position. But, everything comes with its downsides. I was hating everything about Antigua. The fact there’s no crossings on any road, the cobbled streets that were a slight inconvenience to walk along, how the prices were more expensive than Mexico, how finding information out about places and transport was more difficult than Mexico. I realised I needed to press the reset button.
So, we booked a week on the coast in a small town called El Paredon…
Here, we stayed in the most beautiful Airbnb just a stone’s throw from the beach. The plan was simple, relax and do nothing (something I’m not very good at).
El Paredon is a sleepy town on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. There’s a black sand beach, ferocious waves and even more ferocious mosquitos. I was eaten alive, night and day. There wasn’t even respite in the shower since it was open-air!
Daytime temperatures – at least when I was there – are over 30 degrees every day in El Paredon. So, doing nothing during the day is easy – encouraged, in fact. Then, as the sun starts to set and the temperatures drop (just) below 30 Celsius, the people of the town start to re-emerge. Watching the sunset at the beach is a community activity, the time when you don’t feel like the only tourist in town. And, luckily, El Paredon is home to truly incredible sunsets!
I still haven’t got used to the sun setting at 5pm in Central America. I’ve spent too long associating long days with warm summers and short days with cold winters. There’s nothing I love more than being in a pub garden at 10pm in June and it’s not dark. OK, maybe I do love other things more. But, my point still stands!
The week in El Paredon ended with two turtle-related activities. First, we took a tour through the mangroves to a sea turtle feeding site. We were able to watch their heads pop up above the water as they were breathing. Impressively, they can hold their breath for around 10 minutes – so, less impressively, there wasn’t much turtle sighting.
Secondly, we woke up at 5am to go and watch newly-hatched baby turtles be released into the wild. Given the aforementioned ferocious Pacific waves, it looks brutal for the baby turtles when they get hit by their first wave that throws them into a life in the sea. But, they are so incredibly cute and it’s heart-warming to wish them luck for surviving to adulthood! I think I’m obsessed.
After a week of doing nothing, it was time to go back to my life of adventure. And, I wasn’t holding back. The plan for Antigua was to climb two volcanos, visit a hobbit land and celebrate Adam’s 30th birthday!
And, while originally the plan was to do all of the above in 4 days. In typical Zoe and Adam fashion, we ended up staying in Antigua for about 10 days!
First up, was climbing Pacaya Volcano – famous for being able to roast marshmallows on the hot volcanic rock. As the volcano is still active, we obviously didn’t climb to the top. But, we were able to reach the lava fields from previous explosions. And, although there’s no longer any rivers of lava the rock is still piping hot in places. Perfect for marshmallows!
The climb to the lava fields took around 2 hours. And, for the most part, we were climbing through the clouds. The humidity of that makes it harder than climbing in direct sunlight as sweat doesn’t evaporate from your skin and you just get hotter and hotter! Luckily, by the time we were at the lava fields we were above the clouds. And, from there, we climbed slightly higher to capture the most incredible sunset over the clouds.
This was followed, though, by a slight meltdown. As to get down from the viewpoint we basically had to slide on fine volcanic rock and ash. It is my least favourite type of walking and I wasn’t sure my cruciate ligaments were going to survive. But, with the help of our guide, I – and all my ligaments – made it down in one piece!
Earth Lodge & Hobbitenango
Given Adam was turning the big three-oh, we decided to treat ourselves to something fancier than a hostel, while still on a backpacker budget. So, we booked a treehouse just outside of Antigua!
We only stayed one night, but from start to finish this was a unique stay! With windows on three sides, we had panoramic views of the Antigua skyline – which includes three volcanos! However, when we arrived, it was pouring with rain and we were in the clouds. There was no view. And, the rain only got worse and then by late evening, there was a huge storm raging outside.
Antigua is at 1500 metres elevation and the hills around it climb steeply. At Earth Lodge, we were easily another 600 metres above Antigua. The lightning during this storm was level with us. As indescribable experiences go, this is up there. Normally, when you see lightning, you look up. But, it wasn’t up. It was level, or down. It was bizarre. And some of it was very close!
During the night, the storm cleared. And the clear skies allowed us to see the eruptions of Volcan Fuego for the first time. The bright orange lava being thrown into the area just looked like a ball of fire in the distant sky to us. But, we knew we’d be seeing it a lot closer up in just a couple of days!
We then woke up at sunrise to watch the sky change colour over the skyline of volcanos. It was a calm and magical morning without a cloud in the sky! After a couple more hours of sleep, we were still taking in the view when we started to hear a siren. I insisted to Adam that it must just be the fire service or an ambulance on the roads below.
Yet, as soon as those words came out my mouth I knew I hadn’t seen either the whole time we’d been in Guatemala. And, the tree in front of us was swaying. Or maybe we were swaying. It’s hard to know when you’re in a treehouse suspended several metres off of the hillside floor. It was another bloody earthquake! A birthday earthquake for Adam. Luckily, this one was minute in comparison to the near PTSD-inducing tremor we experienced in Mexico City. If I hadn’t have seen the tree swaying, I wouldn’t have noticed.
After quite the 18 hours since checking in, we were on our way to Hobbitenango – Guatemala’s version of Hobbiton. There’s a handful of activities from a giant rope swing to axe throwing and mini-golf. All surrounded by hobbit huts on the Guatemalan mountainside. The site is at 2600 metres, so the fact that the whole place is on an incline is quite hard work. But, for a fun half-day activity, it’s a great place to visit.
If you meet someone who’s been to Guatemala, the chances are they’ll rave about this trek. So many people had told us about it. And, pretty much everyone describes it as ‘hard but worth it’. In short, the trek involves climbing from 2200 metres to the camp at 3700 metres, staying in a tent overnight watching Fuego erupt all night and then getting up at 4am to watch the sunrise (while Fuego continues to erupt).
I can confirm that the Acatenango trek is, as reported, hard. You’re told that the first two hours are the hardest, but after lunch, it gets flatter. This is in part true. The first two hours are hard and it does get flatter after lunch – but only after you’ve walked another hour straight uphill at ever-increasing altitude after lunch. It’s not just the heat, nor the altitude. But, the mental pain of putting one foot in front of the other over and over again when you’re hot, sweaty, tired and over it. When you look ahead and see that the path carries on uphill. You don’t see the end until you’re there. There’s nothing to aim for and very little change in scenery. It’s a dirt path in the trees for at least 4 hours.
But, once you’re at the camp – boy, oh, boy – it is worth it. Above the clouds with the huge cone of an active volcano right in front of you, blue skies and a chance to sit down.
We climbed Acatenango on a Sunday. A year ago, Sundays were full of reluctance about the 5 working days ahead, wish it was Friday evening already. Dreaming of moments like this. Dreaming of a life like this. And, here I was stood in front of an erupting volcano, 3700 metres above sea level. I felt separated from the world below by distance and by the clouds. But also, in that moment, my life stood still. I was taking it all in. Grateful for this planet, life and everything that had led to this moment. In the towns below, life carried on, it didn’t – and doesn’t – standstill. Travelling has a unique ability to make you feel both like the main character in this world and that you’re no different to anyone else on Earth.
The sunrise was as magical as the night of eruptions had been. From the first hint that the sky was changing from pitch black through the pinks, oranges and yellows to the bright blue sky of the day, everything felt like it was in HD. Then, come 8.30am, it was time to say goodbye to one of the best views of my life – one I’d worked so hard to get to the day before – as we set back off on the 3-hour walk down.
The tranquillity at the top of Acatenango was soon replaced by crying and panic as going down was much more technically challenging than going up. Up, was just one foot in front of the other over and over and over again. Down, was watching every step, planning where to walk, trying not to slip. There were times that I contemplated living on Acatenango forever so I wouldn’t have to walk down any further. But, spoiler alert, I made it down. I wouldn’t need to become a mountain goat after all.
To top it all off, our hostel had a hot tub that was perfect for relaxing my aching muscles. Nevertheless, I could still barely walk the next morning. Was it worth it? Of course!
Next up, I headed to Lake Atitlan – where I planned to do another sunrise hike. Am I mad? Probably.