Border Crossings: Guatemala to El Salvador | Guatemala by the Books

Volcano climbed, Tikal visited, amazing and relaxing times in Semuc Champey and Lago de Atitlan enjoyed. Highway collisions, pickpockets, and far too many hours in transit. Guatemala, check. We were ready to move on to our next destination: El Salvador.

From Antigua, you can catch a chicken bus to Guatemala City, make your way (probably by taxi) to the bus station, and then catch a bus all of the way from Guatemala City to San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador). Our Lonely Planet guide reckoned that bus tickets from Guatemala City to San Salvador ranged in price from 120 – 740 Q. This is a bit of a range. When we found a company that would transfer us from Antigua all of the to San Salvador for 195 Q each, we decided to go with them. (For future reference, we got on the bus in Guatemala City and saw that our tickets would have cost 120 Q each. Plus the cost of a chicken bus and a taxi to get to the bus station in the city.)

We had several options for times leaving Antigua, and opted for the 9 a.m., figuring that it would be nice to arrive early afternoon. The trip was meant to take five hours. It took a couple of hours to arrive in Guatemala City, drop a number of people off at the airport, and then arrive at the bus station. Our bus was to leave in about an hour. Three hours in, and we figured that the five hour arrival time was a bit ambitious.

We crossed the border with no issues, no payment, and no stamp. This is part of the four-country Central American agreement between Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, whereby a person can travel between the borders of the four without paying any additional entry or exit fees.

When we finally rolled into San Salvador, it was approaching dark. Our five-hour journey had taken closer to nine. I maintain that one only need double the time quoted for a journey in Central America to arrive closer to the actual figure.

Money and time spent in Guatemala looks something like this:

Days: 14
Quetzales: 4,463
US Dollars: 419
Approx. Daily Expenditure (USD): 30

Finally, we were getting to the green – the first country we’d visited where I’d come in under budget – by a whopping $10/day. This was looking positive, and we have three other budget friendly countries coming up.

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Summit. (How to Climb Acatenango Without a Tour, Part 2)

We were back in Antigua, in full force. With the skies clear, we were ready to climb that damn volcano.

To catch us up, we had balked at the prospect of paying upwards of $100 each for a guided overnight tour of Acatenango. We’d checked with the tourist police who had strongly advised a guide for the hike, and had put us in touch with Juan. Juan (cell: 3188 3158), who doesn’t speak English, was nevertheless a cheerful fellow and through a combination of faulty Spanish, Google translate, and our hotel’s assistance, we formulated a plan. Our hotel organised a “taxi” (a man with a van) who would pick us up at 6 a.m. to drive us to the village of La Soledad for 200Q (a heavy chunk of the budget went to this ride). We would meet Juan at (we weren’t entirely sure about this, but were sure that it would work out) “the shop on the corner.” The overnight guided hike was going to cost us a total of 300Q. We were responsible for all of our gear and food. Necessary gear includes warm clothes, proper shoes, a tent, sleeping bags, mats, and at least 3 litres of water. For food, we had intentions to make a big pasta salad to carry up, but ended up stumbling upon a pizza shop for dinner, and wrapped a pie and a half up for takeaway to sustain us through the duration of the hike. It worked amazingly well. We were to begin the hike at 7 a.m. (See “Part 1” for where we worked out a lot of the admin for this trip.)

Just before 6:00 the following morning, we had a knock on the door; the helpful hotel worker from downstairs was there to tell us our car had arrived. We paid him before the journey started, and piled ourselves and our packs into his creaky old van. There are two ways to get to La Soledad. The main road appears much longer, and travels through the town of Parramos. The “short cut” ends up following a pitted, broken, and dusty trail for about an hour over hills, and ended with our driver asking for more money due to the poor condition of the road.  Don’t take this way. I told him we didn’t really have any extra money, which wasn’t far off true. We’d brought only what we needed with a small float for emergencies. Still, as we watched the van rattling apart, we scrounged up 25Q for a tip. Upon arriving in La Soledad, he was instructed by the locals to go back through Parramos.

We had a wave of relief when, after arriving at the main corner in the tiny village of La Soledad, a short but well-built man waved the van into the yard of his shop. He had clearly been expecting us. Juan was clearly an incredibly fit man, his wide chest accustomed to breathing the thin air in the highlands. I knew he would outstrip me without the slightest bit of effort on the ascent. We were told, however, that our guide would actually be Nadi (sp?), a 17-year-old local with a shy but infectious smile. It sounded good to us, so we loaded our packs, and Nadi flung his bag over his back and held it with a sort of harness that he braced with his forehead.

Tim and Nadi swapping bags.

Tim and Nadi swapping bags.

The climb is gruelling, pretty much right from the beginning. The soft and slippery gravel makes each step more an effort than it should be, the altitude is immediately noticeable, and it’s basically a matter of how steep you are travelling up at any time. Flats are met with the biggest sighs of relief. We asked Nadi how long it takes to reach the top, and he said it would be a minimum of 6 or 7 hours. I recalled the tourist brochures advertising a 4 hour climb, and summoned as much will power as I could.

Feeling breathless and a bit ill after only twenty or minutes or so of trotting up through corn fields, Tim – once again – proved his brilliance as a partner and a hiking buddy. We arranged a bunch of the gear in the packs to lighten my load significantly. It definitely saved me as we continued the climb. With a stroke of genius a little further into the hike, Tim began attacking a fallen branch, breaking and kicking it apart, to fashion a hiking pole (I was sorely missing the not-so-shiny-anymore anti-shock Black Diamond hiking poles I’d trotted around New Zealand with). When Nadi gave me a blank stare and asked, “Que?” (What?) I explained/mimed what Tim was doing. Nadi’s eyes lit up and he grabbed the machete hanging from his belt. He hopped down to a tree, and with a few brisk hacks, had created me a straight and firm hiking pole, which even sported a sharpened end for digging into the earth. With an apologetic look at Tim, I traded in his roughly hewn club for my new, efficient walking stick.

Us on the Volcano

Acatenango is a unique volcano to climb as the ecology changes so much as you rise. In the beginning, it’s corn fields. Before too long, we were entering the cloud forest. The trees have been there for a long time and were a reassurance of the stability of the volcano we had chosen to trod upon. It was amazing and peaceful in the cloud forest, and the cool air helped to keep us going. Once we exited the cloud forest to drier, more scruffy growth, the views also opened up and it began to become apparent what we were doing this for. The view was absolutely amazing, and it was also rewarding to see how far we’d come. As we admired the other volcanoes visible in the distance, we heard a deep and resounding boom. And it felt very close to us. Acatenango’s neighbour, Fuego, is still active. And angry. It routinely shouts and spits out clouds of smoke into the air. The summit was promised to offer unparalleled views of this active volcano. With that incentive, we carried on. We passed a campsite, where we learned that one of the tour companies (Old Town Outfitters) spends the night. It’s still a stretch from the summit, but does offer a view of Fuego. The next hour or so was the toughest bit of the hike for me. The altitude was really starting to affect me, I couldn’t catch my breath, and my legs were dead. I felt as though I needed to rest every 30 seconds. Which I pretty much did. Nadi led the way, trotting along slowly, patiently waiting for me to catch up. Tim, who outstrips me easily in pretty much any physical pursuit, took his time behind me which helped keep me positive.

Eventually, we could see the summit, and the punishing climb it was going to take to get up there. Nadi reckoned it was about another hour away, so we took a break. I actually fell asleep for a few minutes, warm and cozy as I lay propped up on my pack in the sun, and I think it was the best thing for me. We started hiking again, passing the campsite for OX Outdoor Adventures which is between the two summits of the volcano, and carrying on towards the higher of the two. This is the steepest part of the climb, and is over soft, deep, and slippery scree. Each couple of steps up is followed with a completely disheartening slip back down. Nadi scrambled up the long slope frustratingly easily and then, like God descending from the heavens, skidded back down towards me and insisted on taking my pack. I couldn’t argue. Packless, I felt light and free, and, in turn, skidded across the slope towards Tim. The weight of most of our combined gear was taking its toll and I was equal parts guilty and thankful that he had been able to carry it for the majority of the hike. I traded him his heavy camera bag for my walking pole in an attempt to make the last stretch of the ascent more bearable.

Scree

When I finally made my way over the crest at the top, and saw the sunken volcanic crater of the summit, I was in awe. This was something like which I had never seen, couldn’t have imagined seeing. We scrambled down the scree into the crater (this seemed so easy) and began to set up camp. We were astounded with the experience already. Here we were, by ourselves, about to camp in the crater of a volcano. It was completely surreal. After battling the winds and getting both ours and Nadi’s tents erect, we took off to explore before the clouds took over too much. Over the other crest of the crater was the million-dollar-view: Volcan Fuego, up close and personal, on our doorstep. The volcano was slowly being encompassed by the swirling clouds and the fact that there we were, at 3976 metres, above the clouds, on a volcano and overlooking another, finally came to light. You can skydive from 4000 metres (just over 13,000 feet).

Camping Summit

Fuego Clouds

The wind was unrelenting, and it was bringing the cold with it. It had taken us only five hours to reach the summit, and I think we were all suitably impressed with the time stamp. At times it had seemed as though we were barely moving forward. My body was wasted, and despite it being early afternoon, I crawled into the tent to generate some warmth and rest. Tim busied himself making sure the tent was secure and that nothing was going to blow away on us. After a few hours, we heard another group arrive. At this point, the clouds were so thick we couldn’t even see Nadi’s tent, pitched ten metres away from us. We don’t even know if they knew that we were there, even though they couldn’t have been far away. Leaving the tent during this time was an adventure, as the clouds completely obscured your vision and it would be frighteningly easy to get lost in the crater. We relaxed, dozed, and snacked our way through the afternoon, crawling into bed proper at around 6 p.m. There was no chance of seeing anything that evening, though Fuego still rumbled away beside us, not letting us forget his presence for long.

Tim set his alarm for midnight, hoping to catch some activity in the middle of the night. We braved the freezing night wearing everything that we’d brought and headed off to take a look at Fuego. The sky had cleared. In the darkness, Fuego’s open crater burned angry and red. The remnants of fires along the side of the volcano, that we’d seen that afternoon, were still glowing. We hoped for some activity, a small spit of molten rock and smoke into the air, but nothing. The night was too bitter to stay out for long. At about 1 a.m., we heard a tremendous boom from next door. Fuego was certainly active now. We cursed our timing but the thought of venturing back into the frigid air was not something I could stomach. Others, camping at different points on the volcano, who had gotten up, said that this boom had looked like a proper miniature eruption.

Nighttime Fuego

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We woke up around 5 a.m., keen to catch the sunrise over the beautiful scenery. The clearing clouds, beautiful colours, and incredible, smoking volcano before us made for one of the most amazing sunrises I’d ever seen. Hordes of other people began arriving at this point. Some groups had begun the hike at 1 a.m. to make it to the summit for sunrise. Other groups had been camping further down the volcano and had started early to make it to the top. We watched Fuego smoking away, letting off another epic yell, in the burning orange light of morning. Once the sun had risen properly, and the heat began to warm our frozen hands, we tore down camp, packed up, and began the descent.

Us on the Volcano

Morning Fuego

Nadi and Views

We basically ran. The scree was so slippery and then, further down the path, the earth so soft, that it was impossible to keep your footing without embracing the charge downhill. We travelled a different way down than we did up, and I see why. The path was incredibly steep and slippery for most of our descent, and going down eventually became exhausting. Travelling downhill is not as punishing as up, but the muscles you use to control your descent soon begin to fatigue, to shake, and to ache. With poorer-than-average knees, going down is always a bit of a gamble, and I try to exercise more control to protect them. We made it down in record time, with only a couple minor slips and skids. The village of La Soledad slowly emerged in front of us, through the corn fields, and I couldn’t wait until we arrived at the bottom.

Coming Down

We were told there was a chicken bus coming through at about 11 a.m. that would first take us through to Parramos and then from there to Antigua. Exhausted, hungry, and incredibly dirty, we ended up jumping on a bus with a tour group that arrived at the bottom about an hour after us. They would take us directly to Antigua, where a shower and food awaited. Deal.

Climbing Acatenango was one of the most amazing and cool experiences I’ve ever had, even more so because we were not part of a large tour group. It was cheaper, more unique, and more special. We could have done it on even more of a budget, if we’d gone cheap on the transport, but here’s what our overnight tour to Acatenango ran us (in Quetzales):

Guide: 300 + 20 Tip
Transport to La Soledad: 200 + 25 Tip
Food: 120
Transport to Antigua: 80
Grand Total: 745 Q
(Approximately 96 USD, the cost it would have been for one of us with a tour company.)

It is also possible to take chicken buses to and from La Soledad, which would be around a maximum of 50 Q total for two people, both ways. It would then be necessary to stay in La Soledad for a night, which is apparently possible for about 100 Q for a plain and basic room. (Or convince Juan that you are a fast hiker and can turn up later in the morning to start the hike – but if the weather patterns are the same as when we did it, you might arrive at the summit into clouds.) This would make your grand total closer to 490 Q, or 76 USD.

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Antigua and Volcano Planning (How to Climb Acatenango Without a Tour, Part 1)

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.

Antigua Antigua Pretty

That Time We Had a Run-in With a Semi

So, I sort of ruined the story with the title of this post, but that’s pretty much all there is to it. We were en shuttle route from Semuc Champey to Antigua when I heard a woman from near the front of the van yell, “Holy sh*t!!!” I looked up, and immediately saw what had caused this reaction.

We had been travelling along an undivided highway through twisty and hilly Guatemalan countryside. We were currently travelling up a hill, and our side of the road had widened to include a passing lane. Our driver was taking advantage of the opportunity to overtake the large truck in front of us. At the same time, foolishly, a semi trailer on the other side of the road (travelling downhill) decided on the same moment to cross the double yellow line on his side of the road in an attempt to overtake the vehicle in front of him (a couple hundred metres before a corner, as well). Luckily, there was enough time for our driver to slam on the breaks (moving over was impossible, due to the fact that we were passing). The oncoming truck had more trouble slowing down, as it was a semi barrelling downhill. We must have been nearly stopped by the time the truck, still travelling at maybe 30 k.m./hour collided with us.

It was jolting. Tim, who had been dozing next to me, was thrown forward. Luckily neither of us received an injury more serious than a scraped toe and a bruised leg. The driver of our shuttle caught the worst of it, as it was where he was sitting that had suffered the most direct hit. Still, he seemed overall fine, just a bit bumped and bruised.

After a frantic chorus of, “Is everyone okay?” and receiving the appropriate assurances, someone made the logical suggestion that we all should get out of the van. We were now stopped in the centre of two lanes, not an ideal position to be in when traffic was flying two-deep around the corner from a couple hundred metres away. We all clambered out and took up positions at the side of the road.

Crash 20140225-IMG_9288

At this point, it was basically up to us. A couple of people jumped on the first public bus that came along, not wanting to waste any time in getting to their next destination. A few more jumped in with a van that came along, after negotiating a ride to Antigua for 100Q each. With no hurry and even less of a desire to spend much more money, the rest of us opted for the option to wait. We were promised by the driver that a new shuttle would be coming from Coban, and would take 2-3 hours to arrive. In the meantime, we would be transported (by ambience, nonetheless) to a nearby rest stop. The rest stop sold alcohol. Win.

Ambulance

We had a few drinks, had a good laugh, and made it the remainder of the way to Antigua (in the dark, of course) without incident.