Antigua is Guatemala’s tourist mecca. Colonial buildings, crumbling churches, and trendy restaurants spill over cobblestone streets, all carrying on in the shadow of towering volcanoes. It’s the most popular (though definitely not the most economical) place in Guatemala to learn Spanish. I suspect it is also not the most effective, due to the huge number of international students and the prevalence of English throughout the town. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see what does charm the people who choose to put down some temporary roots here. It truly is a lovely town.
The Yellow House (Casa Amarilla) is one of the most popular options for accommodation in Antigua, and that is where we had our shuttle drop us off after our eventful ride from Semuc Champey. Unfortunately, it was full (because they are the most popular hostel in Antigua, the rather snobby check-in agent informed me when I inquired about rooms). We wandered a couple of doors down to Posada Don Quijote which charmed us more because of the excellent staff than the average cheap hotel rooms. Nevertheless, it was a reasonable bargain for central Antigua, at 150Q per night.
The volcanoes looming over Antigua basically beg to be climbed, and there’s no shortage of tours allowing you to do just that. Options are plentiful. The three volcanoes closest to Antigua are Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. Many companies also offer trips to Pacaya, about an hour and a half drive away. Pacaya offers an active volcano experience and the easiest hike. It’s a day trip from Antigua, about a 1.5 hour hike up, and offers the added novel perk of marshmallow roasting along the trek. Fuego is still active as well, and trips up that volcano are dependent on the level of activity. Acatenango overlooks Fuego, and this is the volcano we decided to try to conquer.
There are several companies operating tours out of Antigua, the long-established and well-known Old-Town Outfitters and the up-and-coming OX Outdoor Excursions. Both offer a range of adventure activities out of Antigua, including trekking, biking, and kayaking. We wanted to do an overnight hike to Acatenango and camp on the volcano. Both companies offer this, with Ox’s rate coming in at 89 USD, and Old-Town ranging from 110 – 155 USD, depending on the number of people who ended up on the tour. This includes all gear (except a $5 rental charge for a sleeping bag from Ox, only – trust me, you’ll need it), guide, food, and transport. There is also an option of hiring a porter for 20 USD to carry your pack up and down the volcano for you. Acatenango is tough. It’s summit is at 3976 metres, so elevation is definitely a factor in your climb. In addition, the majority of the track is soft and slippery gravel which, when the track is steep enough, makes for a punishing climb. We were definitely keen to summit, but two things were standing in our way: the price and the weather.
It had been far from clear in Antigua since we arrived, and the weather forecast wasn’t calling for much different in the coming days. We rationalised that there would be absolutely no point in struggling up to nearly 4000 metres if we couldn’t see anything when we got there. We bought ourselves some time by first sorting out the other issue: price.
The experience sounds amazing, but it just seemed a bit ridiculous to pay in the neighbourhood of $100 each to go on a hike. There are two main reasons that the guided tour is the most popular option for travellers: logistics and safety. Surely, we figured, there would be a way. Our Lonely Planet informed us of the tourist police service in Antigua, so we stopped by their strange office at 6a Calle Poniente Final to ask about the safety concerns associated with attempting the hike without a guide. Incidentally, they didn’t speak English, and our terrible Spanish wasn’t enough to communicate what we were after. Still extremely helpful, they put us on the phone with an English-speaking liaison and we had a chat with him about climbing Acatenango.
We were informed that it is strongly advised not to do the hike without a guide. Essentially, people from the local communities surrounding the volcano may target tourists and attempt to take their stuff. Okay. He then gave us the number of Juan, a local guide from La Soledad, who we could hire to do the volcano trek with us. Very grateful for the useful information, we thanked the man on the phone, the police, and carried on. We were making progress! After running a few more errands we returned home, and one of the helpful, bilingual (not overly common) staff from our hotel rang Juan for us to inquire about the trip.
Juan (cell number: 3188 3158) said the cost for the overnight, guided tour for the two of us would be 300Q (about 40 USD). This includes only the guide service, and we would be responsible for supplying our own gear and food (fortunately, we already have all of the camping gear we would need). We would also have to make our own way to La Soledad for a 7 a.m. start. This would end up being the tricky part, as chicken buses from Antigua wouldn’t get us there in time, and taxis willing to make the trip are few and far between.
Stoked with what we had found out, we were still a bit iffy on the weather, so we ended up postponing the volcano climb and decided to head out to Lago de Atitlan to wait for the weather to clear. In the meantime, we enjoyed the other pleasures of Antigua: beautiful streets, yummy food, and the free film put on by the Centro de Formacion de la Cooperacion Española on 6a Av Norte every Wednesday. We shall revisit the volcano scheming soon.