Antigua.

Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
Sunrise at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.

Guatemala was one of my favorite last minute backpacker-getaway decisions I’ve made. I was happily surprised by my time visiting the country. Guatemalans are reserved but very friendly, they respect their surroundings by being neat and courteous to others, and they have a great deal of pride of their religious beliefs and their Mayan culture and clothing. Although a small country, it holds a richness and diversity in geographical and cultural sites. Although I only had 11 days there before I had to catch my flight to Cuba, I felt I was able to see the highlights of the country, and left feeling energized and renewed as a backpacker from my time there. And best of all, my last two days in Guatemala was spent accomplishing a major physical feat: hiking up Acatenango Volcano.

And so, just as I had begun my travels ice climbing Volcán Villarrica in Chile in December (my post about it can be found clicking here), I neared the end of my journey with an even more challenging hike. It was difficult, but it was an incredible reminder that we can truly achieve whatever we put our minds to. And the physical challenge was just what I needed to keep me motivated as I began to acknowledge that I was indeed going home within a month. Acatenango Volcano peaks at 3,976 meters, and although it’s not the highest climb I’ve done, it was the longest. We began our hike in the morning at 2,400 meters above sea level. The following six hours was a straight uphill climb, finishing the day at basecamp at 3,600 meters. The following morning we awoke at 4am to finish the vertical climb on soft volcanic ash to the summit. The two steps forward, one step backward rule was in full effect as we scrambled to the top with just enough time to watch the sunrise alongside a nearby volcano peaking above the clouds. My knees were like jello, my hands and face were frozen, I had barely slept the night before. It was not only the incredible view but also the exhilarating feeling of making it to the summit that made the entire journey worth it. The volcano is joined by  Volcán de Fuego, a highly active stratovolcano where you can see eruptions of ash and lava on a weekly basis. We were so lucky to camp overnight with a close view of Fuego, and throughout the night we were able to see it erupt, something I had never seen before in my life. I was in awe of our guides who did this hike about three times per week. One of them brought his puppy named Valentino. Having a dog accompany our group was a real treat, as it offered an escape from the discomfort of the grueling hike to the summit. The hike itself was a fascinating experience of three completely distinct biospheres: the dry farmland and oak forest, the wet and humid cloud forest, and the high altitude pine/subalpine forest at the higher levels of the volcano, just beneath the volcanic ash that leads to the summit.

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View of Volcan de Fuego at sunrise.

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Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Volcan de Fuego erupting ash seen at our basecamp site.
Hiking up to basecamp.
Hiking up to basecamp.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The first biosphere, the dry farmland zone.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The second part of the hike, through the cloud forest.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
The third portion of our hike in the pine forest, with a view of Volcan de Fuego.
Ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
Volcanic ash mixed with cloud cover in the evening seen from basecamp.
The puppy accompanying our hike.
The puppy accompanying our hike.

Prior to the hike, I was able to visit the beautiful colonial town of Antigua, only 35 minutes outside of Guatemala City. It’s a colorful, cobble-stoned town in a valley, surrounded by active volcanoes, and generally serves as any tourist’s introduction and farewell to the country. On a shuttle bus from the airport in Guatemala city to Antigua you’ll see for the first time the local busses that Guatemalans use, which are called “chicken busses.” These busses were previously American yellow school busses, only in Guatemala people have made them colorful, often metal plated, and generally pimped out, each with their own signature look and style. Some even carry the old license plates from the state where they were used. For example, I saw a California license plate on a silver and red painted chicken bus, with a painting of Jesus at the top of the backside of the bus. The motorbike taxis are equally adorned with pride and care, reflecting the driver’s individual personality.

Antigua.
Antigua.

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A local chicken bus in Antigua.
A local chicken bus in Antigua.

From Antigua I made my way to the mystically serene Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake at 1,560 meters above sea level. The area has been a sacred place for Mayans for centuries, and holds a measurable vortex of energy. It’s difficult not to sense the spiritual presence of the area, particularly in the small villages surrounding the lake that can be easily visited by boat. I stayed in the backpacker town called San Pedro, but was able to visit the mind-body conscious village of San Marcos one afternoon. As soon as I had arrived I saw that it was a place filled to the brim with yoga and meditation focused hotels, Vipassana retreat centers, shamanic healing workshops, organic vegan restaurants, and shops selling natural, homeopathic herbs and medicines. The initial shock I felt was how could this exist so far away from where you’d normally find it, such as in Bali or Koh Phagnan in the Southeast Asia. It was a true hippie hideaway, one that I immediately felt a connection to. But as I walked around, and with two friends I had made who were nowhere near this sort of lifestyle back in their hometowns, I felt that the high concentration of these types of establishments only served to lessen the effect of the positive and transformative experiences that are being offered to visitors. Is there such thing as too much of a good thing? I realized that although I consider myself a practitioner of many of the offerings to be found in San Marcos, I am also very much aligned to the New Yorker way of living, which brings in that balance of a practical, day-to-day work life. It did feel as if some of the authenticity was lost. Or, perhaps it was a reminder that these practices, traditionally derived from eastern medicine, are now becoming popular enough for westerners to bring them to the rest of the world. Globalization has it’s positive side effects, and arguably this is one of them. But perhaps the reality of it is that eastern societies actually incorporate these practices into their daily rituals, and not as merely an escape or a retreat. And by doing so, there is no need to go out of their way to travel to, and pay for, a transformative experience. It is in their blood and in their culture. This is something that I hope tourists passing through this sacred lake will realize: that they can make change happen wherever home may be for them and still be true to their authentic selves.

My last night at Lake Atitlán brought me to another place in my memory where I felt as if I was back home; I found myself at a bar in San Pedro playing deep house music and with fire dancers worthy of a Burning Man DJ and performance set. But something was different. Something had quickly brought me back to Guatemala, accompanied by a big-bellied laugh that only I could hear as my laughter was drowned by the music. As backpackers danced and watched the performance, an old Mayan woman walked across the center of the dance floor, a basket on her head filled with muffins. She didn’t seem to notice or care of what was happening around her. It was such an odd image. Here was a woman, born and raised on this land; was she adapting to the changes around her, or forcibly catering to those who have decided to make roots in her village? Was she just trying to sell her food and go about the rest of her night in peace, and not let the new music and strange foreigners influence her? I asked myself this as I watched her pace around the bar, until at last she vanished.

Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan.

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San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.
San Marcos on Lake Atitlan.

Anyhow, a little sidetracked there. My next stop was near a town called Lanquin. It was a long daytime journey on winding, bumpy roads, but by nightfall I had arrived at Semuc Champey. The forest was unlike your typical humid jungle. Rather, it was a dry, pine forest with a mix of trees that blended the native species of central america to some of the trees you’ll find in the mountains of upstate New York. Semuc Champey itself is a series of limestone bridges and caves that runs through central Guatemala and meets the Cabahón River. Combining the limestone and the river creates various tiered pools of turquoise, which were extraordinarily beautiful. From there I made my way to Flores, the jumping off point for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal. In just one day’s drive I left the dry forest of Lanquin and found myself in the country’s northern tropical rainforest, rife with abundant wildlife, namely howler monkeys, toucans, and coatis. Tikal itself dates back to the 4th century BC, but reached its height during the Classic Period, from 200 to 900 AD. We watched the sunset from one of the temples in Tikal and listened to the birds and howler monkeys as they made their way to sleep.

A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.
A view from above of the pools at Semuc Champey.

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Tikal ruins.
Tikal ruins.

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Some practical tips for those looking to backpack in Guatemala. Firstly, most ATMs do not accept MasterCard debit cards. I had a huge problem with this as both my debit cards are MasterCard, and after trying countless machines in Flores and in Antigua, I was not able to withdraw any money. Luckily, I had just enough dollars that I could exchange to last me the remaining four days in the country. Secondly, Guatemala time is very different from the standard concept of time; when a Guatemalan says the journey will last 1.5 hours, it will actually take 3. The most common method of transport within the country for tourists are small shuttle busses, not the local chicken busses. These busses are not the most comfortable and often lack air conditioning, but they are the safest and most reliable means of getting from one place to another. The journey from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin took almost 10.5 hours on a tourist shuttle, even though it was advertised as 8 hours. Don’t be fooled by the small size of Guatemala. Because of the road conditions it does take a long time to cover a short distance, and unfortunately the only overnight bus you can take is from the town of Flores (where you go to visit Tikal) to Guatemala City. I did take this bus and it was decent, similar to an average quality South American coach. So in all, be aware that you may take a day just to travel from one place to another, which makes the amount of days remaining to visit the cities more limited if you’re short on time.

A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
A day hike to the active Pacaya volcano near Antigua.
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Local Guatemalans seen on route from Lake Atitlan to Lanquin.

 

One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.
One last view at the summit of Acatenango Volcano.

Quito.

I haven’t written since mid-April for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I made my way from Mancora, Peru up through the entire country of Ecuador, and finishing in Quito, in ten days. There wasn’t much time to write. When I did feel called to write, I was reminded of why I couldn’t easily pick up my small Chromebook that I have been using the past five months to write my posts. I am writing to you from a computer at a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica. Unfortunately, my Chromebook is now in the hands of an anonymous Ecuadorian who expertly removed it from my backpack. As I dozed off on a short, 3.5 hour bus ride from Baños to Quito, the man sitting behind me broke the lock to my day-bag that sat by my feet, removed my computer from its case, opened my money pouch to remove just the cash, and then closed my backpack before leaving the bus halfway through the ride, leaving me clueless until realizing what had happened in the middle of the night as I arrived in Ecuador’s capital city. It was the first time on the entire trip that I forgot to wear my cash and passports on my person. I am incredibly grateful that he left my passports in the pouch. I had heard multiple stories of theft on Ecuador’s busses, and of the general dangers of Quito itself, but I didn’t think that someone like me, someone who is so careful with her belongings, would be robbed at my feet. I wasn’t so much upset as I was frustrated with myself. I should have kept the backpack on my lap, hugging it in my sleep. I should have worn my cash and passport on me directly. I became a complacent traveler, forgetting simple safety rules in the context of my surroundings. Have I been traveling too long? I’ve realized now that maybe it’s not entirely a mistake I’ve made: it is merely the reality of traveling, of the types of people who are dexterous professionals who can easily pick out those who seem vulnerable at any given moment.
The other reason I haven’t written much is that I haven’t felt inspired by Ecuador as much as I had hoped. The rushed pace and the loss of my belongings at the back of my mind didn’t offer me the chance to slow down and reflect on the current state of my journey. But I can offer a quick summary of my thoughts in the places I visited.

My first stop was in Cuenca, the lovely colonial town that is known for its handmade Ecuadorian hats, a misconception known by most people as “Panamanian” hats. These Toquilla hats are in fact produced in Ecuador, using a traditional straw weave technique. From Cuenca I took with me memories of delicious coffee, quaint little artisan shops, expat-owned health conscious cafés, street art, and a generally livable and relatively safe city. Although expensive, just as the rest of Ecuador would turn out to be (the country’s currency is the US Dollar, making everything more costly relative to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia), I wholeheartedly found Cuenca to be a nice city to explore for a couple days. A fun fact: one of Ecuador’s biggest exports is cut flowers, of which 75% go to the United States (another 10% goes to the Netherlands). In Cuenca I could see how the cut roses, sunflowers, and lilies were of top quality. I was also lured into one bakery after another in the city, the smell of fresh bread flowing into the streets; I realized how scarce high-quality pastries are in South America (except in Argentina, where the chocolate croissants left me feeling like I was in Paris again.)

Flower market in Cuenca

Ecuadorian hat factory and shop.

Saddles and horseback riding gear for sale at a local market.

Spotting street art on a rainy day.
Next I made my way by bus to Baños, a small adventure town at the base of the volcano Tungurahua complete with thermal baths to be enjoyed in the evenings. We rented an ATV and made our way up to the highly photographed swing at the “Tree House,” where on a clear day you can see the volcano as you’re pushed over the countryside while friends are snapping your next instagram photo. The ride to the Pailon del Diablo, an immensely powerful waterfall, was beautiful. Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa is the main neo-Gothic style church named after the vision of the Virgin Mary seen near the town’s nearest waterfalls. It is a place of pilgrimage, was built with volcanic rocks, and is lined inside with paintings depicting the Virgin’s miracles in Baños, which include saving the church from multiple volcanic eruptions. The Piscinas de la Virgen thermal baths, at the base of the miracle-laden waterfall, were a lovely way to end the evening, where you can move from an extremely hot bath to a freezing cold one in an effort to stimulate the nervous system and help remove any toxins from the body.

Swinging from the “Tree House” in Baños.

On a clear day you can see Tunguharua volcano in the background

Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa.
After I had gotten over the moderately traumatic incident that occurred from Baños to Quito, I found myself in a capital city where I felt unsafe nearly all the time. I hadn’t felt this energetic heaviness before on my trip, and it was a surprise how unease I felt, even during the daytime. Perhaps it was still too soon after the incident, but I actually felt the danger that I had been warned about. Other cities always turned out to be less foreboding than what I had expected, but not Quito. The historic center is the largest, least-altered and best-preserved historic centers in  North and South America, and was the first (along with Krakow) World Cultural Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1978. This historic center of the city was also not the safest neighborhood. Nearby Bellavista, with more restaurants, nightlife, and upscale residential housing along La Carolina Park, was far more enjoyable to walk around.

 

Basilica del Voto Nacional.
 
View of Quito from the Basílica del Voto Nacional
Otavalo, known for its famous Saturday market two hours away from Quito, was a disappointment. Outwardly a tourist shopping destination, it didn’t have the feel of an authentic marketplace I had seen in so many other cities in South America. Another well visited site taken as a day trip from Quito, the Mitad Del Mundo, was worth seeing for the photo opportunity, but if in a rush it’s easily skippable. The “Center of the World” is at 0’0″ Latitude, at the equatorial line. There are two sites: one that is supposedly the true equatorial line according to exact GPS coordinates, and another that houses a large monument and Disney-esque park activities.

The old town in Quito.

The Mitad Del Mundo.
However, Quito had some redeemable qualities. First and foremost was the Guayasamín Museum and Foundation, where we visited the late artist’s house and studio, as well as his Capilla Del Hombre, which housed some of his well most well known large scale paintings, of which I find absolutely incredible.

The artist Guayasamín’s home, now a museum in Quito.

Capilla Del Hombre
The capital is also the launch point to the hiker’s hideaway 50 km south of Quito called Cotopaxi National Park. I stayed for two days at a lovely hostel looking out to Cotopaxi Volcano, the second highest summit in the country at 5,897 meters above sea level. Unfortunately the volcano was closed for climbing due to recent volcanic activity, but the nearby inactive volcanoes were open. It was a beautiful area with lush countryside, and I was thankful for the brief but tranquil escape from Quito .

Cotopaxi Volcano

Hiking in Cotopaxi National Park.

Our lodge overlooking Cotopaxi Volcano.    
Ecuadorians are some of the nicest people I have met in South America. They were so friendly and helpful, and even the tourism police were extremely quick and compassionate when I had to fill out a police report my first night in the city. Overall, it was a country where I had felt only the extremes: at times I was terribly frustrated, unable to understand how on earth their country made it through the day, and other times I was just so happy to be there.

Night view of Quito.
Unfortunately, my time in Quito ended on a low note; at the airport, ready to take my flight to Panama City and then San Jose, I was almost made to miss my flight due to two completely absurd reasons not worth talking about here. It didn’t make my farewell to the country all that difficult. However, I am thankful that things could have turned out far, far worse than they had, and I am also grateful that I had traveled relatively painlessly throughout the whole of South America until that point.

And so, after arriving to Cartagena, Colombia on December 1st 2015, I left South America, exactly five months and six days later. I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, though. My original plan was to visit Costa Rica at the end of February, when I first imagined my backpacking trip to last only about two and a half months. I was a little behind schedule, but I would finally head to Central America to explore what Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” is all about.

Uyuni.

I recently spent four days exploring the desolate corner of southwestern Bolivia, traveling in a 4×4 truck from Tupiza to Uyuni. In just over 200 kilometers I was able to witness this area’s bizarre landscape: volcanoes, geysers and remnants of volcanic rocks, mineral and salt lagoons peppered with pink flamingoes and llamas, wild vicunyas running across the plains, and long stretches of desert followed by the famous salt flats of Uyuni. This post is just some photos of my time traveling through this incredibly diverse environment.

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Natural Rock formations in “Dali’s Desert”

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Uyuni’s old train tracks.
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Volcanic geysers
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Pink Flamingoes at Laguna Colorada, a salt lake in Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, at 4278 meters above sea level.
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Baby llama at Laguna Colorada.
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Sunrise at the Salar de Uyuni
Inca Huasi (Fish Island) in the middle of the salt flats
Inca Huasi, home to enormous groups of cacti, in the middle of the salt flats.
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The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers and is at an elevation of 3,656 meters above sea level.
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The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by up to 6 meters of salt crust, and is exceptionally rich in lithium, containing 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves.

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Pucón


This past Saturday was by far the most memorable part of my journey thus far. I am proud to say that I attempted and succeeded in something that I have never done before – I climbed a volcano. And not just any volcano – Volcán Villarrica is the most active volcano in Chile. I was pushed mentally, physically, and emotionally in a way that I haven’t felt in a really long time.

I am not a seasoned hiker – I’ve hiked only a handful of times in my entire life. The most challenging hike I had done prior was climb the steep mountain of Huayna Picchu, which offers an incredible view of Machu Picchu down below. Typical of how I do things, I decided to jump right in; not only would this be the longest hike I’ve ever done, but it would also be in entirely different conditions. It would be a proper ice and snow climb, complete with ice picks, waterproof gear, cramp-ons, and sturdy waterproof hiking boots fit for a climb of Mount Everest.

View of Volcan Villarrica from Huerquehue National Park

Volcán Villarrica is 2,847 meters (9,340 feet) high. It is active, having recently erupted in March of this year. The volcano has recently been deemed safe
to hike only 3 weeks ago, so we arrived at the perfect time. We were so fortunate to have had a beautiful, clear day on the day of the hike. It was warm, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky. Often these hikes are cancelled due to even the slightest chance of poor weather, but for the day of my hike we were quite lucky to have had a perfect day.

We began our climb without a chairlift, which would have brought us quarter of the way up. Instead we climbed from the very ground up.

We started hiking at 8:15am, and 1,447 meters (4,747 feet) and 6 hours later, I reached the summit. On my way up I felt a roller coaster of emotions. From the very start the nerves in my gut were acting out, and on the drive to the base of the volcano I could feel anxiety take hold of me. But I vowed to reach the top and to not give up, no matter what it took. At one point on the way up I felt scared, unable to look down as I feared the steep slopes on the way back. We were told we would be sliding down the mountain with a little makeshift plastic sled that we carried in our backpacks. This sounded fun in theory, and we were told it is the best part of the hike to slide all the way down. But, looking below as I climbed, the downward slopes looked terrifying. One minute I was afraid of heights, the next I was giddy with excitement about sledding downwards. I kept thinking I wasn’t going to reach the top, that I would give up on the first ridge where so many people turned around and descended, but then when I got to the ridge all I wanted to do was keep going. We had about six breaks before reaching the top, and there were times where I wanted to skip the breaks and keep going. I would tell myself that I was going to slip and fall any second as we created fresh steps in the wet snow. Five minutes later, I felt a sudden sense of ease and with each step I felt more energy and strength. I thought, how easy is this! This hike will be over in no time, and it’s not half as bad as some of the other things I’ve done. One of the thoughts that came to mind was my PADI scuba diving training in Koh Tao, Thailand, where I had to learn how to take off my mask in the water at 17 meters deep. I remembered how mentally challenging it was to be able to work through that, and I realized this climb was perfectly do-able. During this climb I wasn’t as physically challenged as I thought I would be – my legs never gave way and although my heart was pumping at an extraordinary rate, I wasn’t breathless. The hike was tiring in that it was very long (the way down took 2 hours, making our way off the mountain by 3:50pm) and required a lot of mental strength.

The climb was a test in my ability to support other hikers. It is not a solo trek – there was a group of 12 of us, with 4 guides. Three people went back down with one guide after reaching the ridge, so most of the journey was with 9 of us and three guides. It’s an incredible challenge to make sure everyone is able to keep the pace of the guide, and to be sure that if someone falls behind that they can be motivated to keep going. Hiking can be individual sport, but in the case of a challenging ice climb of an active volcano, working as a group is as motivating as it is essential. One of the girls in our group had a bad knee, and she told me she didn’t think she would make it to the top from the very beginning. But one of our guides was with her the entire time at the end of the line, gently pushing her to keep going. We all made an effort to make sure she was okay and motivated. She reached the top, and I felt so much in awe in the strength of the human body.

At first I thought only crazy people climbed a volcano and actually paid money to do it, but after having done it I realized that we as humans crave pushing our bodies. Our mind is so powerful in controlling our bodies and our perceptions of what is “difficult” and “crazy” and what is “safe” and “easy.” World-class climbers and adventure seekers are not off the deep end, they are merely testing the limits of their bodies. Which, after having hiked for 5 hours the day before at a Huerquehue National Park, only proved to me that despite the enormous physical challenge, our bodies can indeed keep up and keep moving. If I, a city girl who grew up soaking up the sun on the beach as my only outdoor pastime, can find a way to push myself in this way, then so can anyone. It’s truly amazing how we can push through; with a shot of adrenaline and a clear and purposeful intention in your mind, we can do anything.

Over the ridge and halfway up to the summit.


View from the volcano during a mid-climb water break.

Any bad day at work, any challenges with friends and family relationships, any small hitches in health – none of these seem as big of a deal to me now. I came out of the hike stronger, and just a little bit addicted – I never thought that a beach bum would even consider hiking as a pleasurable activity, but now I have a glimpse of why people hike around the world for their entire life. This is definitely not the end of hiking for me – if anything it has just begun, and I can’t wait to take on more challenging treks.

The center of the volcano makes gurgling noises and emits sulfur into the atmosphere.
Our group that made it to the top of the volcano.

View of Volcan Villarrica from the center of Pucon.