Pacaya: Hiking an Active Volcano

Like many people who visit Guatemala, hiking an active volcano was at the top of our list of things to do.  Unfortunately, the one we wanted was a little too active.  We had originally planned, months in advance, to do an overnight hike on Acatenango with Gilmer Soy and Soy Tours, who I had read nothing but good things about (mostly from Bex at The Ordinary Adventurer).  The plan was to hike Acatenango and get a great view of the uber-active volcano Fuego right next to it.  The night before, from our hotel balcony, we were able to watch Fuego spew lava into the air and got more and more excited for our trip.

Fuego, the morning of our original hike

Unfortunately, the next day, Fuego was shooting out a ton of ash.  There was an evacuation order for the towns below as of 5:30 that morning due to Fuego’s recent activity, and as we waited to be picked up for our hike at 7:30 we got an email from Gilmer saying the government had shut him down from the hike that day.  Perfectly poor timing on our part, but what are you going to do? All in all, it’s a pretty bad-ass reason to miss a hike, and Gilmer offered to take us the next day when everything cleared up—we couldn’t go because it would have gotten us back to town after our shuttle was scheduled to leave, so we had to part ways.

A quick visual guide to the leg pain we’ll be experiencing

We scheduled a hike to Pacaya (the easier of the local volcanoes) for the following day (see below for more information on this)—we were determined to do some kind of hiking and not waste the gear we brought—and were picked up at 2:30 to make our way about an hour out of Antigua to the easier of the volcanoes.

Before you get into the park, it should be noted that there are a bunch of kids out front selling walking sticks for 5Q (about $0.75 US)—buy one.  It’s not only a great investment, but it helps the locals.  There are also people with horses that they will rent you to get you through the toughest part of the hike, which is about 1,600m of climbing in less than three kilometers, repeating “Taxi! Taxi!”and following most of the way up in case you change your mind.  And while I’m not in the best shape—once two other girls in our group rented the horses, I was pulling up the rear—I never fell so far behind that I felt I needed to get on a horse.

The view from one of the lookouts on the first part of the hike

The first part of the climb up, while the easiest of the volcanoes, was still a bitch.  It was mostly sand and volcanic ash, so getting any kind of decent grip was a challenge to say the least.  It didn’t help that there was a horse behind me, nudging me to go faster.  Clearly, he didn’t know what people from Philly do to horses.  But I huffed and puffed—glad to have quit smoking a year ago—and made it to the top, sweating my ass off and wondering why I brought along a jacket.  After we got to the highest point we’d reach,we went back down and ran into the Lava Store, a small shack with snacks and souvenirs (and beer).  After that, down more sandy ash-covered paths, we arrived at a field of lava rocks.

This wasn’t just like walking into a different landscape—it was like walking onto a different planet. The lush forest that had been shading us the first part of the hike was now replaced by an endless field of lava rock, black and bleak. Heavy fog was rolling in above us and the sun was beginning to set, giving the area an even more eerie feeling. We hiked up a path through the rocks to a small vent on the side of the volcano where we did the most touristy thing possible and roasted marshmallows over the heat, all while catching a few glimpses of actual lava rolling down the mountain above us.

As the sun dipped farther, we made our way back. Luckily, I had a light and Kaitie had a headlamp, so we were fine on our walk. After the rocks, we descended via a sandy path down to where our van was waiting, by now in pure black darkness. We arrived back in Antigua around 8:30, so a six-hour round-trip, tired, happy, and ready for tacos.

Post Script: The owners where we were staying suggested Alex at A Viajar Guatemala if we wanted to book a different hike, so we went there to do a hike up Pacaya for $30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US. While we were easily able to schedule the Pacaya hike, Alex tried to push a bunch of other stuff on us, and then even though we had already paid him for the service and were using his company, he started to badmouth Gilmer Soy for no reason, even claiming some random guy sitting next to him was Gilmer’s brother and they didn’t get along, as if that had some bearing on Gilmer’s ability to lead a hike. The whole exchange left a bad taste in my mouth, but we were determined to hike.

The cost ($30US each correction: $15US each for a total of $30US) included a guide but not the fee to get into the park (50Q per person), and a lot of people on our trip seemed extremely unprepared not only to pay the fee, but to do the actual hike (no warm clothes, no snacks, no idea where we were going). Once we got in, our guide turned out to not know any English, but we were able to follow along just fine for what we needed.

Cesky Krumlov: A Day in a Fairy Tale

When there’s so much to do in Prague, it may seem like taking a day trip to a small, out-of-the-way town is a waste of time—especially if you’re like most travelers and have limited time to spend in Czechia.  In my travels, though, I’ve almost always found the small towns to be the best times, and the most authentic times.  They haven’t been Americanized and they don’t cater to tourists as much.

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Being a popular day trip from Prague already, Cesky Krumlov is a little bit of both; it’s not going to attract the volume Prague does, but enough people make the effort that there are plenty of tourist shops and subpar restaurants.  If you stay the night, however, you’ll be rewarded: the day trippers don’t get in until after breakfast, and they leave right after dinner, so the town empties out and quiets down outside of these peak hours.

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It was during these off-peak hours, at the end of the day, sitting in the main square with a beer as dusk settled in, waiting for our later dinner reservation, that the magic of Cesky Krumlov started to engulf us.  Sitting on a bench, watching the small Easter market become less and less busy, a man sat down on a bench across from us and started to play the hang (pronounced hahng), a metal hand pan from Switzerland and looks like a lap-sized UFO.  Both tapping and running your fingers around it (as you would a glass of water) give off a mystical, otherworldy sound.  This was our soundtrack (including an interesting rendition of Blue Monday) as we relaxed in the cool Cesky Krumlov evening.

Wandering

We had arrived that morning, after taking the earliest bus possible from Prague.  We walked a short distance from the bus stop to Hotel Villa Beatika, where we were able to get breakfast.  We’d told them we’d be leaving super early the next day in order to drive to the Prague airport, so we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of breakfast the next morning, so they let us have it when we checked in, which was very generous of them.

After fueling up, we dropped off our bags (it was way too early to check in) and walked down into the sleepy little town—still sleepy, as most of the day-trippers hadn’t made it in yet.  Walking down through the town, and especially once you make it up to the castle that overlooks everything, the view of Cesky Krumlov is damn near magical.  I’m not sure anywhere else I’ve been has so totally encapsulated the fairy tale vibe (cliché though it may be) as this little town, even on a cold, overcast April morning.

We walked around the castle a bit, foregoing a guided tour (the timing of the English tours didn’t really mesh with how we wanted to spend our day).  We spent most of our time wandering the garden—as it was a tad cold out and none of the flowers had really bloomed yet, it was a nice and quiet area above the city, tucked away from everything.  Not many on the tour came to the garden—and those who did didn’t stay long when they saw it hadn’t yet bloomed—but we walked almost every foot of it.

Food & Drink

When we weren’t just wandering the streets of the city and marveling at the views from every corner we turned, we were eating (of course).  After the hotel breakfast, we had two meals, and one was planned and reserved in advance.  And once we found out there was a large brewery in town, our lunch was easily decided.  Set on the outskirts of the town, Eggenberg Brewery dates back to 1336.  The dining room was huge—they clearly get the brunt of tourist meals here—and the food and beer was pretty standard Czech.  Refreshing pilsner, food leaden with dumplings, barely a vegetable in sight—nothing different than what we’d been seeing all over Eastern Europe.

Dinner, though, was something else.  Lew Bryson, beer and whiskey writer extraordinaire, had recommended we check out Krčma v Šatlavské, a small cave-like restaurant specializing in grilled meats. Later, when I was scanning my trusty 125 Places to Have a Beer list (though it is 10 years old now), I happened to see Krčma listed on there—perfect.  When we arrived, we quickly realized having a reservation was key, as the place’s reputation seemed well-known.

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We sat catty-corner to a massive open fire in the middle of the restaurant, where a clearly heat-resistant cook worked various cuts of meat all over the impressive flame.  Being our last meal in Czechia, we made it an impressive one.  We started with a bread bowl of soup—the bread quickly absorbed all of the soup, turning the dish into a mass of deliciously soggy garlic cheese bread. LeeAnne ordered some sausage, and I went with a pork knuckle to devour on my own as we drank a few beers (and then some mead—why not?).

Go Visit

After gorging ourselves on grilled meats and beer, we slowly walked back up the hill to our hotel, which now seemed even worse than it had before.  We took to our Jimi Hendrix room—all the rooms at Villa Beatika are based on classic rock legends (and are quite spacious)—and fell asleep quickly, which was fortuitous, as we had a private car to drive us to the Prague airport departing around 3 am.  As it turns out, the amount of sleep I got in the hotel didn’t really matter, as I slept almost the entire car ride.

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Overall, we had a great day in Cesky Krumlov and, like most short stops, I wish it could have been longer.  The pace of life is a tad slower, everyone is a bit more relaxed, and there is enough to keep you busy even if you do prefer the city life.  The idyllic views of the town and the surrounding hills certainly don’t hurt, either.  If you’re going to be in Prague, make your way to Cesky Krumlov, and make a reservation at Krčma v Šatlavské.