The Mayan Highlands, Guatemala

Km 20 590

After the sultry heat on the coast of El Salvador, we are glad to feel the coolness of the mountains again in Guatemala. For this, however, we first have to go uphill and our thighs and generally tired bodies do not thank us. To adjust to the cool evenings and reward ourselves for the long climb, we treat ourselves to a cheese fondue in a restaurant in Antigua Guatemala.

This little break does us good, as the next day we already set off for one of the highlights of our trip: the ascent of the Acatenango volcano. It is not so much the climb that interests us, but the proximity to the volcano Fuego, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It spews ash at regular intervals of about 20 minutes, which we can already see from Antigua Guatemala while having breakfast on the terrace. We leave our bikes with another cyclist, who also lends us backpacks, and then take the bus to the foot of Acatenango. We start the climb on a steep path between corn fields. After 45 minutes we enter the jungle, where we also have to pay the entrance fee for the national park. We are alone, the guided tours start the ascent much earlier and we only meet some guides and locals who descend again as they have already taken their groups to the campsite. Kati spots a hummingbird near a flowering tree, but when Matthieu turns around, it has already disappeared again. It is impressive how fast it moves its wings! The path is still very steep until we come to a pine forest. We can also feel it in our breathing that we have already come quite far up. It has also become colder, but the first rays of sunlight are coming through the layer of mist. The further we get above the fog, the thinner the forest around us becomes. We walk along the flank of the Acatenango volcano and have a beautiful view of the Agua volcano on the other side of the valley. Then the sea of clouds opens up next to us and we see Antigua Guatemala in the valley below us. We have to go around one last small ridge and suddenly we are standing in front of the volcano Fuego. It spits ash immediately afterwards, so we don’t even have time to get out our cameras. Never mind, we wait for the next eruption. In the meantime, we look for a place to camp. There are several small campsites on the terraces all along the mountain flank, which were built for this purpose. We find an empty terrace a little out of the way, from which we have an unobstructed view of both the volcano Fuego and the beautiful symmetrical cone of the volcano Agua. We are blown away, the view is super beautiful and it is probably one of the best camping spots of the whole trip. But it quickly gets cold, especially as the sun is hiding behind the clouds again. We wrap ourselves up in our sleeping bags, but leave the tent door open so as not to miss any of the natural spectacle. The clouds spoil the party a bit and we don’t see any more eruptions, so we close the tent and rest. Later, when we hear some “Ahs” and “Ohs” above us, we open again and discover a clear view of the volcano Fuego, impressive eruptions and flaming red lava streams slowly flowing down the mountain flank. The view down the valley is no less impressive, with Antigua Guatemala and the surrounding villages all lit up.

But the adventure is not over yet. After a cool but restful night, Kati wakes up early and enjoys the spectacle of the impressive eruptions for a while. The sunrise, however, is at least as beautiful. We can see the sky change from dark blue to light blue, then give way to the warm colours of pink and orange as the sun rises over the Agua Volcano. The lava splashes and flows are less and less visible, instead the ash columns in the sky can be distinguished again. We have breakfast in the sun to warm our fingers, which have suffered from taking photos in the cold, and then stow our things in our backpacks. We are still 400 metres below the summit of Acatenango, which we also want to reach. While the guided groups take the same way back down as we came up, we make our way up to the summit. It is extremely difficult because it is a super steep path of volcanic sand. We feel like we are sliding backwards more than forwards. After an hour and one last climb, we are finally there. And we are all alone! We take the time to enjoy the 360° view and walk around the crater before we start our descent. One last photo and one last eruption of the Fuego volcano, then we go down at a fast pace. It is super steep and really challenges the thighs and knees. We can already feel the sore muscles coming on. On the way down, we catch up with some guided tours and when we see how unathletic people have taken part in them, we are glad about the decision to have organised the hike alone and off the beaten track. The only downer: we have to wait for the public bus back to Antigua Guatemala, and after two hours and three buses in the opposite direction, there is still no bus in our direction. We use the waiting time to talk to a ranger of the national park and exchange ideas about life in Guatemala and Europe, sports, volcanoes, tourism, etc.. These moments of exchange are very enriching! Finally, he stops a car for us and asks if the driver can take us down into the valley. Fortunately, the driver agrees and we climb into the back of the pickup truck. Who knows how long we would have had to wait! We use the rest of the afternoon to visit the colonial centre and the cobbled streets of Antigua Guatemala before picking up our bikes and resting at the hotel.

The next day we cycle the same route we did by bus the day before. In Parramos we have lunch and instead of going up to Acatenango, we take the road to Chimaltenango in the afternoon. We drive quickly through this large town and continue west towards Lake Atitlán. We pass some small villages and beautiful canyons with dizzying rock faces. In one of these canyons we sleep in the middle of a pine forest. The next morning we only have to cross a river and get out of the canyon, then we have our first view of Lake Atitlán. This lake is of volcanic origin and lies between several majestic volcanoes. We drive down to Panajachel on the shores of the lake. The shores are very touristy, but it is easy to see why, because the view is magnificent. We also feel that we are in the middle of Mayan country. Everywhere in the small streets we see women in typical, colourful dresses and in the market and shops there is a lot of handicraft on sale. We don’t stay any longer, but turn north and drive back to the highlands. The gradients in Guatemala are extreme! It is so steep that it is almost impossible to get up, even for the cars. Fortunately, we are well received tonight in the small village of Chicua. The leaders of the evangelical church allow us to camp in the grass under a shelter next to the church. We have a toilet and clean water – a great luxury for us. The church members nevertheless take pity on us and almost don’t want to leave us in the cold of our tent. We have already settled in well and don’t want to move into the church and manage to convince them that we are doing very well out here.

In the morning we visit the famous market of Chichicastenango, the largest market in the country. Here you can find everything: food, beautiful textile goods, electronics, shoes and much more. Everything is colourful and reminds us of the markets in the Andes of South America, but the tortilla stands on every corner are new. In front of St Thomas’ Church, people are praying and several people are placing offerings on the stairs or lighting incense. We would like to linger a little longer, but it is complicated with the bikes in the crowd, so we continue our ride. We leave the tourist routes and find ourselves in the countryside and in villages inhabited by Mayan descendants. This Sunday is market day everywhere. We pass smaller and less touristy markets, but they are all just as colourful and diverse. Carts pulled by oxen or horses are again part of the vehicles on the road. We cross some valleys and finally reach Cobán, where we store the bikes for a day before exploring northern Guatemala.

To see all photos, please click here:
The Mayan Highlands

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