Costa Rica – Tamarindo, Monteverde and La Fortuna

Two of my nearest and dearest friends in this world had been scheming for a while about coming down to Central America to join Tim and I are on our travels for a stretch. It just so happened that they both arrived in Costa Rica on the same day. I’ve known Kendra for the better part of my life. I imagine we must have met in preschool, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 years ago. Amanda and I met while studying commerce at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Kendra was also bringing along her boyfriend, Tyler. Suddenly our well-rehearsed travel due was going to expand to a group of five.

Amanda landed around midday in San Jose and caught a bus up to Liberia, where Kendra and Tyler would be flying into that evening. We had booked rooms at the Hotel Liberia, which turned out to be a very nice option. Once Amanda had arrived and Kendra and Tyler’s plane was about to touch down, we headed to the airport to meet them.

Team

Meeting up with everyone after not seeing them for so long (1.5 – 2 years) was amazing. None of us missed a beat, and we quickly fell into a comfy group dynamic. After our night in Liberia, we headed out to Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula by local bus (1500 Colones, 3 hours). Tamagringo, as it’s known, came as a bit of a surprise. We had heard it was a bit of a tourist hub and a party town, but we weren’t prepared for the hugely developed beach town that greeted us. It felt a bit like we were back on the developed beaches of Mexico. Many people spoke English, tourist souvenir shops lined the streets, and tours were offered to destinations around Costa Rica. We spent two nights enjoying the beach, the shameless partying, and the excellent array of international restaurants. We stayed at La Oveja Negra, a popular hostel, for 12 USD per person. We played around on boogie boards, Tyler and Amanda took Tim up on his offer to teach them the basics of surfing, and a blurry night filled with lots of karaoke set our group trip off to a great start.

Tamarindo

Tamarindo

When it was time to carry on, we altered our original plan of further exploring the peninsula and visiting Mal Pais or Montezuma before continuing inland. Kendra and Tyler had only about 10 days in total for their holiday, so we didn’t want to spend too much time travelling. We decided, without doing our research, to head directly to Monteverde. It turns out that this is actually much easier said than done, and to do it by public bus is only possible with an early start. Which we had not gotten. It is a lot easier to make one’s way to Monteverde from the southern end of the peninsula, as there is a ferry connected the peninsula to the rest of Costa Rica and direct buses then go from this town (Puntarenas) to Santa Elena and Monteverde. In our position, still conscious of time, we ended up negotiating a shuttle down to the (still very dear) price of $25/person for the 4-ish hour journey. These shuttles generally run around $50. Our hostel in Monteverde (Monteverde Backpackers) was able to help track down a shuttle that had to do the return trip anyways, so it could well be worth calling your hostel and seeing if they can help you out. About halfway into the journey, we found out why they are able to charge such high prices. Despite being a major tourist destination, the road to Monteverde is truly atrocious. Rough, broken, and steep, it would generally be advisable to only attempt the journey with a four-wheel-drive. Public buses do it, however, as do tourist minivan shuttles. General comfort levels are the same, though fear for broken bits of the vehicle certainly increases.

Monteverde Cloud Forest is one of the main tourists draws of Costa Rica. It’s an outdoor enthusiasts’ dream, with endless opportunities available for hiking, exploring, and wildlife-spotting. The #1 thing we wanted to do while we were there? Ziplining.

Ziplining

Though other Central American countries are slowly getting on the bandwagon, Costa Rica undoubtably offers the most opportunities for eco adventures in the area, and ziplining is one of the best. We ended up booking a trip with Monteverde Extremo, one of the many companies operating out of Monteverde, for the standard rate of $45/trip (3 or so hours). Different companies have their own claims to fame – the longest, highest, or fastest zip lines. Things to look for in the inclusions? A Tarzan swing, superman zip line, and transportation to and from town.

Being relatively used to harnesses and ropes meant that the excitement level of ziplining was relatively tame. It certainly isn’t an intense extreme sport, though if you were scared of heights I’m sure your heart would be pumping. It was still incredibly fun, probably more so than expected. We had a complete blast climbing up to tree-side platforms and zipping over and through the cloud forest canopy. The lines ranged from short, quick rides to long, relaxed flights to quick and speedy darts through the trees. Twice, we paired up and two people went down the same line at the same time. A definite highlight was the Tarzan swing, where people were harnessed in, jumped (or were pushed) off a platform, and swung out on a rope attached to a tree branch high above. That one definitely got the adrenalin pumping. They end the day with the big guns. For the last zip line, which is the longest and highest of the day, you are strapped in from your back in “superman” position. You sail facedown over the beautiful scenery, and the heart-pounding position offers unparalleled views of the amazing scenery. Amazing!

ZipTarzanSuperman

Our other main objective in Monteverde formed when we learnt of the existence of the Monteverde cheese factory. All lovers of excellent cheese (and, in our case, having been deprived of it for so long) we headed out to the factory for the 9 a.m. daily cheese tour and tasting. The tour included a lot of interesting information on the history of the factory and the processes involved in making cheese, but our favourite part – of course – was the tasting. The cheeses were varied and delicious, and we bought a couple of blocks to take home for lunch.

For Tim and I, that was the extent of our adventuring in Monteverde, and we spent the rest of our time wandering town, slacklining in the backyard, playing with the resident hostel dog, Bob, and taking pictures of sloths. Our time-short and budget-rich travelling companions, however, took advantage of a couple of other neighbourhood offerings, including a chocolate and coffee tour and a highly recommended canyoning trip.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Costa Rica was La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano area. We split up to make our way to La Fortuna. Kendra, Tyler, and Amanda chose to make the most of the morning in Monteverde and take the afternoon “Jeep-Boat-Jeep” transport, which has become a popular backpacker travel option, as it knocks off the better part of a day of travel. The name may be deceiving, though, as it really involves bus-boat-taxi. This option will get you from Monteverde to La Fortuna for $22 in about 3.5 hours. The other, much more time-consuming, option is to go by public bus. This takes a total of about 8 hours and costs about $7. It involves taking the 7 a.m. bus from Monteverde to Tilarán, waiting for around three hours in town, and then taking the 12:30 bus to La Fortuna. Note that there is also a bus at around 10 a.m. that heads to Arenal – this is the town of Arenal, not the volcano or the park, and is not where you want to go. The town of Tilarán is alright, with a large park, several restaurants, a supermarket, and a bakery, so it’s easy enough to while away a few hours there – well worth the cost savings on the trip, if you have the time. On either trip, you will get to see the beautiful Lago Arenal, though photo opportunities from the bus are admittedly limited.

Lago Arenal

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

In La Fortuna, we stayed at a lovely and helpful backackers, Hostel Backpackers La Fortuna. They have great staff and nice facilities. As an added bonus, they are affiliated with one of the “hostel resorts” in town, and we were able to use the sister hostel’s facilities, including pool and swim-up bar.

For years, Arenal Volcano was one of the most active in the world, after it suddenly began erupting in 1968. A substantial tourism industry was built up as a result, as visitors poured in to see the angry mountain spewing lava and ash. When the volcano mysteriously ceased in 2010 the established infrastructure and remaining natural attractions to the place – including hot springs – were enough to keep bringing visitors to the area. What exists now has been described as a “cultural wasteland,” and while not necessarily untrue, I still feel this is a bit harsh. Do not expect, certainly, to find yourself in a hot bed of authentic Costan Rican life. The line of flashy and tacky resorts and hot springs leading in to town certainly gives accurate foreshadowing for what to expect. Tours are touted on every corner, prices are more equal to North American than Central, and public transport is virtually non-existent, which means expensive taxi rides are necessary to go anywhere out-of-town (where most of the highlights lie).

The imposing Volcan Arenal looms over the town of La Fortuna, with the paths of lava flows still very visible on its steep slopes. There are no shortage of hiking trails or volcano tours that will take you around Arenal. The nearby Volcan Cerro Chato offers a short and much greener climb, with the added bonus of a crater lake swim at the top. This was the volcano our group chose to summit, though we had the unfortunate timing to do it on a rather cloudy day (as many days here are) so our views of the neighbouring Arenal were rather non-existent. Nonetheless, it was a good hike, and we made it up in about two hours at a slow-to-moderate pace. Climbing down (and back up) to the crater lake was the best part, as it involved steep, technical sections and lots of mud. We met a small terrier at the lake, though, so it couldn’t have been too tough of a climb. We cooled off quickly, as much of the climb was shaded, and it took a good amount of guts to plunge into the frigid water at the top of a volcano. We figured, though, that this would be about the only time we’d get the chance to swim in a lake set into the crater of the volcano, so we sort of had to.

Cerro Chato

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Though Arenal is no longer erupting, the bubbling system of hot springs in the area is definitely still active. Many resorts around the outskirts of the volcano have harnessed the natural springs and charge visitors rather costly entrance fees to enjoy them. For example, a night pass to Tabacon hot springs, including buffet dinner, is $70 per person. The resorts are beautiful, and offer a wide range of pools of different temperatures in a nice, private and exclusive atmosphere. An alternative, which is where we probably saw the most local culture in the area, are the free hot springs across the road from one of the main resorts. It was Kendra and Tyler’s last night, so they treated themselves to an evening at Tabacon hot springs. The rest of us headed for the gratis option. From the entrance of Tabacon, cross the street and head to yellow gate that blocks off a dark drive. Head torches and cold beer are recommended. Following the path, you will come down to a concrete slab below the bridge with hot springs to your right. This is where the crowd will be and you can hang out here if you like, but if you cross the concrete and continue down the path, you will find yourself at nearly deserted springs down the river where you can basically have the place to yourself. This is where we set up shop, and it was fantastic. The hot spring river bubbles past and threatens to pull you down stream if you are not wedged securely amongst the rocks. Lights through the steam cast eerie shadows around, and the water somehow remains at the perfect temperature for hours – steamy but not so hot you feel the need to get out and sit on the rocks. It’s key to keep your gear in good sight here: we put our bag with clothes, shoes, and drinks on our side of the river, off of the path, where it was within reach. I wouldn’t recommend taking anything valuable out to the springs. We had an amazing time, which was unfortunately twisted only at the very end. Some locals made their way down to our perch via the springs and stopped to have a chat. When it became clear that we didn’t share a common language, they chose to hang around, and sat so that they were almost encircling us. Tim picked up on weird vibes from they as they eyed our stuff on the banks; Amanda and I picked up on weird vibes from them in a more creepy fashion. It didn’t take us long before we made the group call to flag the hot springs and hot-footed it out of there. We grabbed our gear, said adios, and scampered along the path towards the exit, without bothering to stop and put on shoes or clothes. When we saw their lights bobbing in the darkness as they trailed along the path behind us, we stepped on it and hurried back up to the main road. They could well have been perfectly harmless; at worst they were likely just opportunists: ready to take our stuff it was lying available, but we didn’t want to take the risk and wait and see what happened.

We scampered across the road and finally stopped at the entrance of Tabacon to change and get ourselves sorted. We popped in to the resort to see how far away Kendra and Tyler were, and whiled away our time waiting while we salivated over the lavish dessert table. With the crew all back together, we jumped in a cab back to town, had a few drinks, and wandered around briefly trying to find some nightlife which, on a Monday, unfortunately failed. The next day, Kendra and Tyler were off to San Jose as they had an early morning flight to catch. Amanda, Tim, and I opted to spend one more night in La Fortuna. Amanda and Tim went off to visit one of the area’s waterfalls, while I spent an afternoon resting in an attempt to ward off an oncoming cold. The next day, it was back down to two; Amanda had decided to further explore Costa Rica, and Tim and I were off to Panama, via San Jose. Adios amigos!

Waterfall

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

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Ometepe & Volcán Maderas

So, we knew we wanted to leave San Juan, but we were running into one little problem. We were halfway into Semana Santa, or Holy Week, a massive holiday in most Latin countries. I’d been living in Sevilla, Spain for Semana Santa a few years ago, and the entire city essentially shut down as it hosts some of the most serious and elaborate events and processions in the world. In San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, Semana Santa means something completely different.

It is one of the most popular destinations for domestic travel, but any of the religious and traditional undertones of the week seem entirely absent. As the rum and beer trucks rolled into town and stages were constructed for beachfront concerts, it began to (further) contribute to the party atmosphere in the air. Apparently Semana Santa in San Juan is an excuse for a long weekend (Thursday through Sunday) of complete debauchery, with increased rates of obnoxious drinking, illicit drugs, and crime. The more stories I heard about the beach town over the course of my week there, the more I wanted to leave. It was tricky, as the pumping music in beachside bars and the throngs of people made it seem a bit appealing, but the gist of what we got was it’s basically a mess and we were better off escaping.

Okay, but to where? A national holiday means, of course, that all of the popular holiday destinations tend to be booked up well in advance and/or the prices skyrocket. We decided we’d like to go to the Corn Islands, off of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Little Corn sounds like a slice of Caribbean paradise and, though I’m sure I’ll get my fill on this trip, still made the wish list. Unfortunately, when we went to book the flight we’d inquired about the previous day, it had been entirely booked up (for four days) due, of course, to the holiday weekend.

We returned to our original plan, which we had altered due to the seismic activity. We decided to visit Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua, which happens to be home to two large volcanoes. We asked around, kept an eye on the news, and decided that we should be reasonably secure on the island, despite the earthquakes shaking ground around Managua.

We got an early start in San Juan and hopped on an express minibus that took us to Rivas for 20 cordobas each. In Rivas, we flagged a taxi that took us the remaining distance to the lake edge, the ferry terminal in San Jorge, for 125 C total. There, we had the good luck to arrive shortly before the departure of the 7 a.m. ferry, which cost us 50 C each. There are ferries and lanchas that make the crossing from San Jorge to Ometepe (arriving in either Moyogalpa or San José del Sur). The crossing can be rough, and the lanchas aren’t known for their steady crossings, but they certainly offer a slightly more exciting experience than the ferries. In Moyogalpa, we jumped on a bus headed to Altragracia (16 C), where we then transferred for one that would take us to our destination, Zopilote (17 C). There are buses in Moyogalpa that will take you all of the way to Balgüe and will drop you off anywhere along the way, but they leave much less frequently. This had been one of our most hassle-free travel days to date, as there were little mistakes or long wait times, and we arrived in Zopilote feeling good, if a bit tired from the 5:30 a.m. start.

Ometepe

We hadn’t been able to make a reservation, as Zopilote, as well as many of the other accommodation options on the island, don’t accept them except for long-term stays. As we planned to camp, this luckily didn’t turn out to be an issue. Zopilote is a working finca, or farm, and produces the majority of the food on offer at the restaurant. It’s a beautiful, sprawling, permaculture design that is integrated exceptionally well into the hillside with lush Volcán Maderas rising in the distance. From a vantage point, one can see the vastness of Lake Nicaragua stretching out into the distance, with no shoreline visible. While on the island, it certainly feels more like you are alongside the sea rather than a lake.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Zopilote is a pretty solid budget option, with camping and hammocks running $3 per person, and dorms about $5. Meals cost $2.50 for a basic veggie tipicá option and up to $9 for the (rather miss-able) lasagne. It is chockers full of the hippiest breed of travellers, and it caters to them. A re-purposed school bus at the entrance boasts a wide selection of hippie goodies and exchangeable books, there are free yoga sessions on offer in the mornings, and thrice-weekly pizza nights attract guests from miles around.

Ometepe has a lot on offer, and we only sampled a sprinkling of it in our five days there. Many accommodation options hire out bikes, motorcycles, and horses for reasonable rates ($5/day for a bike, $25 for a motorcycle), which aid in exploration of the island. There are two volcanoes on Ometepe, Conceptión and Maderas. Volcán Conceptión, still active, is the monster of the two and is located on the north side of the island, close to the main docking point of Moyogalpa. We stayed on the south side of the island, close to Volcán Maderas.

One of our days involved hiring bicycles and exploring a little ways back the way we had come. Our main destination was El Ojo de Agua, a recommended natural mineral pool. I was envisioning small, natural stone pools hidden away in the trees. When we arrived, paid our $3 entry, and entered the small park, however, we were greeted by the masses. El Ojo de Agua is essentially a large swimming pool that harnesses the flowing mineral waters. Water is constantly streaming in and out, and the natural bottom does make for a rather earthy feel. I don’t know if it is because we were visiting on Semana Santa weekend or whether it always so busy (I’m guessing the former), but the place was packed. Families clearly came and camped out for the day, toting picnic lunches, inflatable water mattresses, and ­– in the kids’ cases – endless energy for cannonballing into the pool. We had a great time playing around for a bit, even when the back of Tim’s head accidentally cracked directly into my nose. After checking several times to make sure that my nose hadn’t actually broken, we tracked down some ice and spent some time just watching it all unfold.

El Ojo de Agua

On the way back, we stopped for lunch along Playa Santa Domingo, Ometepe’s most popular beach. It’s windswept and has a few too many beached fish, but the rising hills and long expanse of sand that plays host to pick-up football games is a lovely place to spend a few hours.

Our other main activity during our time on the island was to scale Volcán Maderas. Guides can be hired for $20-25 total for a couple of people or, for a larger group, $10 per person. We spoke with Tao, a French guy who had basically been making it a mission to scale as many volcanoes as possible down the Pacific line of Central America. He said it was easy enough to climb Maderas without a guide, directly from Zopilote. (Go up to the second Mirador, turn left through the boulders, hop over the fence, turn left, and follow the path. You will reach a house where you need to pay $1 entrance per person. Veer left through banana fields, and then keep going up.)

We left at about 8 a.m., which we thought was a bit late but actually ended up being perfect. As we did it as a day hike, we (ahem, Tim) carried only water (3L each was plenty), a camera, and lunch. This was a welcome break to the overnight camping hikes we’d been doing. I was gloriously pack free! It took us a bit shy of 3.5 hours to reach the top. There is a fair amount of up and down along the track, and we questioned a couple of times if we were going in the right direction; it felt as though we were circling round the crater rather than climbing up to it. Finally, we reached a peak and then started descending (again, questioning, but yes, this is the right way). We reached the base of the crater wall and the slightly murky, greenish lake that now rests in the dormant volcano’s crater greeted us. We stopped for a picnic alongside a couple of other groups, and the heavy cloud cover clearing moments after we arrived. We then set off and explored the opposite side of the crater (there’s a path through the trees there that Tim discovered seems to take you down the opposite side of the volcano along a very sketchy path, though it does happen to be littered with howler monkeys), and finally followed another group up an alternate exit. From the point where you arrive in the crater, take the path slightly to the right that is beside a large wooden bench (looking at the bench, it’s the path to the left). This steep, scrambley path took us up to a vantage point with amazing views of the crater and the lake. The air was a bit hazy beyond the volcano, and there was no definitive horizon. The lake sitting in the crater, with only blue sky visible beyond, gave the impression of sitting at the end of the world, or upon some floating mountain, the ground too far below to see

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

I’d had some apprehensions, as I noted the terrain that we were crossing, on the way up about the ease of coming back down. My knees have always been a bit less than average, and the semi-recent smashing my right knee got in Australia hasn’t helped. Already twinging on the way up, it wasn’t long before my knees had a deep, burning pain shooting through them with every step I took on the way down. Tim tirelessly found and shaped sticks for me to use as walking poles, which I then proceeded to break at least five of. Finally, we had traversed the worst of it, and had only about 45 minutes of gentle decline left before we were home, where my plans included a thorough shower and some ice for my knees. Turns out the ice was not to be had, so I settled for rum instead. We had a nice, final dinner at Zopilote and planned to head out the following day.

Almost home at the end of the gruelling hike down.

Almost home at the end of the gruelling hike down.

I haven’t been home in Canada for about a year and a half, and have not seen any of my close friends from home since then, or even earlier. Grand hopes of Central American reunions are happily coming true, and three friends are coming down to meet Tim and I in Costa Rica. With their dates confirmed for the 28th of April, we decided we had just enough time to squeeze in a trip to the Corn Islands off of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. The Corn Islands are somewhere we’d been tossing up going, the major debateable factor the $165 cost of the round trip airline ticket to get there. (Or, alternatively, about two days and $40 each way to do it overland.) Finally, we decided that as we’d want to visit someday, it only made sense to do it now, as we’re a lot closer than we’ll be again for a long time. With that decided, we made some last minute phone calls to La Costeña to book flights for the following day, and to Nicaragua Guest House hostel in Managua to confirm a room and the ability to store luggage, and began to the trek back north to Managua.

We caught buses back to Moyogalpa on Ometepe, and proceeded to wait about two and a half hours for a ferry. We’d just missed the 12:30 one, and both of the schedules we had consulted with ferry times appeared to be incorrect, as the next lancha didn’t leave until 3 p.m. (despite promises of 1 and 2 p.m. ferries). Once we got on the lancha, it was about 75 minutes to the mainland, with a fair amount of slightly unsettling rocking. From the port at San Jorge, we got on the waiting express bus to Managua (80 C each), took a taxi to our nearby accommodation (125 C total) and were greeted by the friendly proprietor of Nicaragua Guest House, who welcomed us with cold bottled water, showed us where to keep our bags, and called us a taxi for the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the morning. Next stop, the Corn Islands!

Photo Credit: Tim Binks Where your blog posts are coming from (and why they're late). Trying to get close to the wifi at the top of a tower in Zopilote.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks
Where your blog posts are coming from (and why they’re late). Trying to get close to the wifi at the top of a tower in Zopilote.

 

León and a Line of Volcanoes

Leon is instantly charming, and becomes even more so the longer you wander its uneven sidewalks, eat its outstanding food, partake in its many neighbouring activities, and melt in its almost oppressive heat. We had vague notions of things to do in and around Leon. We’d heard something about seeing lava, and Tim was dead-set on volcano boarding. We began the process of scouting out things amongst a beat of cold beer and ridiculously good BBQ.

Churches

Leon Calle

More Churches

Let’s start with the barbecue. There are a number of restaurants on the fringe of the centre that offer a basic, large, filling plate of tasty meat, rice, and salad for around 60 Cordoba (around 25 C to the USD, so about $2.50). There are options to add sides of delicious fried potato fritter things, plantains, etc. Despite being at a marginally higher price-point, with slightly less delicious chicken, my favourite location for such tasty awesomeness was a barbecue stand set up behind the main cathedral in the centre of town.

Leon Cathedral

Every evening, a couple of ladies and their crew of helpers set up epic barbeques directly behind the cathedral. You pick your meat of choice, from chicken to chorizo to beef, add whatever sides you like, and sit and devour your glorious meal on the plastic picnic furniture situated behind the barbecues. You can get these meals to stay or to go, with the “to go” option getting wrapped up in banana leaves and put in a plastic bag. Sides are plentiful here, and you’re able to choose any or all of rice, cabbage salad, fried potato fritter thing, fried spinach ball thing, fried zucchini pancake thing, fried banana, fried corn fritter with cheese thing, and more. (See a pattern? Who could not love so many delicious fried goodies?) Depending on how big you make your meal, it will probably run you somewhere between 80 and 100 Cordoba ($3-$4). The first day we ate there, after our long and poorly nourished bus ride, we went big. The subsequent evenings we ate there (almost every one) we refined our ordering strategy to get the best of all worlds. It’s really impossible to go wrong. We did venture out to established eateries offering a similar thing, and the chicken was, indeed, better, but I personally preferred the smoky, loud, interesting ambience of the street side barbecue.

Barbecue

Well-fed on barbecued meats and far too much fried stuff, we were, over the next couple of days, well-equipped to begin shopping around for things to do. Things to do around Leon primarily revolve around volcanoes, and a quick glance at the horizon tells you why. Nicaragua is a key piece in the Pacific Ring of Fire, and has an arc of – depending who you speak to – between 18 and 50 volcanoes illustrating that point. (Only a handful of these are considered active today). Many of these are a short hop from Leon.

Quetzaltrekkers is a well-regarded tour operator in Guatemala and Nicaragua. It’s staffed by competent and knowledgeable volunteers, and all of its proceeds go to local charities. We popped into their office to see what was on offer out of Leon. They offered volcano boarding for $30 per person, including park fees, to Cerro Negro. They also answered our question, basically before we’d asked, about our other desired activity in Leon – their activities board had “See Lava!” scrawled above a picture of a volcano and we learned that this opportunity existed at Volcan Telica. They offered an overnight guided trip to the volcano for 55 USD per person.

Similar to our experience in Guatemala with Acatenango, it sounded like something we wanted to do, but we just didn’t want to pay that much for it. Their overnight trip was leaving the next morning, and their office closed in about two hours, so we had some quick decision-making to do. A quick bout of research yielded less results than I would have liked, but it seemed like enough, so we decided we’d attempt to do the volcano excursion sans the tour.

The other decision was less of one: We didn’t own volcano boards, so we were sort of obliged to book onto a tour for that one. Quetzal didn’t have the numbers for a confirmed trip yet, so we ended up jumping on with Bigfoot Hostel, the pioneer of volcano boarding in Leon. The trip cost $27 to the hostel, plus $6 for park entry fees. You get transport, boards, guides, a beer after boarding down, and a mojito back at the hostel. One of the trump cards for Bigfoot is that they also are the only operator that has a speed cam, so they are able to clock your speed and let everyone know how fast they went. Obviously this makes for a bit of fun competition, with the winners each day getting their names on the board. The fastest-ever times have been there for months, with the top speed being 93 km/hour. Mental.

Volcano boarding works like this. They give you a sort of plywood board with a chunk of formica glued to the base. This is what makes you slide. The (Aussie, of course) guy who came up with this in the first place tried all sorts of items before coming up with the simple board design – a snowboard, a fridge door, a mattress. You also get a little backpack thing with an orange jumpsuit and safety goggles. You then walk up the scree-and-rock slope of Cerro Negro. The wind can pick up and grab your board a bit, throwing you off-balance, but in general it’s not a hard walk. Bring water, as the heat is a big punishing – Leon is reportedly the hottest city in Central America. Once you get to the top, there are peeks into the crater, some playing with steam, and a brief lesson on technique. It’s then time to start sending people down the slope of the volcano.

Volcano Boarding

Crater

It can look a bit loose, but you can essentially go as fast or as slow as you want. The further you lean back and lift the front of the board, the faster you go. You then use your feet, just touching heels down on either side, to steer. I saw a few people get stuck because they were going too slow, so I attempted to go for it right from the start. About halfway down, I felt like the speed was getting a bit hectic, so I sat up a bit to ease the board off. The last ¼ or so of the track is where you really pick up, as the slope is about 40 degrees. At this point, I leaned back again and tried my hardest not to crash directly into the man pointing the speed cam at me. (Luckily, he moved.) They aren’t the most responsive vehicles in the world. I felt like I’d gone at a pretty good clip down the volcano, and when I got my time reported, I was right – 72 km/hr, just enough to scrape me into top position for the day. Tim had clocked in at a very quick 69 km/hr, though he had the disadvantage of going first, and also down the other trail. It had come with a couple of turns at the beginning and a few extra bumps, which I think slowed him down off the start.

Volcano Boarding

I wasn’t prepared for how much fun it was going to be. Volcano boarding has been put on a number of adrenalin-junky-things-to-do-before-you-die-bucket-lists, but I don’t know if it’s really intense enough to warrant that. It is entirely unique, and a hell of a lot of fun. I highly, highly recommend it for anyone who finds themselves in Leon!

Champions

We enjoyed our (cold) beers as we piled back into the truck for the drive home. You really start to appreciate anything cold in this part of the world. Once we got back to the hostel, covered in volcanic dirt, we got into the mojitos, took the required celebratory photos, and were slowly convinced to scrap our plans of hiking Telica in the morning. Instead, we jumped on a truck that was headed out to Bigfoot’s other hostel, located right on the beach. Here we had more mojitos, played a couple of games of rather poorly executed beach volleyball, played in the pool, and then made our way back to Leon for the night. Ah, the best laid plans.

 

 

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