Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Don't worry Mom...it's really SAFE here, we promise! Love...Carley, Rob, Jennifer, Mark and Kina.

Early on the morning of July 6, we hiked almost all the way to the peak of Pacaya, one of Central America’s most active volcanoes! (click here for more info) This volcano has been erupting constantly since 1965, emitting a plume of ash and smoke, as well as intermittent fountains and occasional rivers of lava. It’s easily visible from the capital, Guatemala City, and from time to time, the eruptions become so severe that local communinities need to be evacuated. In 1998, the eruptions caused forest fires and airport closings as far away as Honduras.

At the top of our climb, we stood no more than 30 meters from the cone, which was tossing lava into the air with a soft “whoomp” every 5 or 10 seconds. Needless to say, standing here was quite an exhilarating experience!

We chose the early morning for the climb, because we wanted to avoid the afternoon rain clouds, and because we wanted to see the fiery red of the molten lava at its brightest, contrasted against the darkness of the pre-dawn sky. With that in mind, we camped out at the base of the volcano the night before the hike, woke up at 3am and hit the trail before 3:30! (Anybody who knows us may find it hard to imagine us getting up at 3am, but the proof is in the photos.)

Lava! (It’s safe, we promise!)

Sunrise from above the clouds, standing near the erupting crater.

Heading back down the volcano.

This part near the top of the cone was so steep, we had to practically "ski" down through the cinders in our shoes.

Joining us on our hike were our friends Mark and Jennifer, who were visiting from the U.S. (Tucson, Arizona) to travel around Guatemala for a month. We suspect this will be one of their more memorable experiences here.

Most tourists who climb Pacaya arrive here on a tour bus from Guatemala City or nearby Antigua, where there are multiple tour companies offering package deals which include transportation and a guide. The tour groups make the climb in broad daylight, since the National Park doesn’t officially open until 7am. From what we’re told, the tour groups are not allowed to get closer than 100 meters from the cone.

However, we decided to take advantage of the fact that we have our car here to do the hike (mostly) on our own terms. We drove up several miles of dirt road to arrive in the quaint village of San Francisco and the National Park Headquarters, right at the base of the volcano and where the hiking trail begins. Here, we made arrangements with one of the guides, Ervin (who works in the Park), for a private tour of the volcano. (We didn’t want to chance going completely solo, both for security reasons and because we weren’t familiar with the trail.)

And what a deal we worked out! Not only did Ervin take us all the way to the top, far past where the large tour groups have to stop, but he also allowed us to set up our camp in the office of the Park Headquarters! (The nearest hotel was a 30-minute drive back down the dirt road, and it was notably over-priced.) In addition, he walked to the local liquor store with us the previous night and got us the “local” price for a bottle of rum, so we wouldn’t have to pay the “tourist” price. Finally, he showed up right on time at exactly 3am, as we’d requested, so we didn’t oversleep and miss the sunrise from the peak.

At the end of our hike, with our guide Ervin (left), our armed guard Benjamin (right) and Mark (far right).

Our guide Ervin (center, with white t-shirt) and his extended family, at his house near the base of the volcano.

A bunch of local kids from the village of San Francisco visit us at our "camp" at the National Park office, all blowing loud whistles. They seem to like gringos here!

On to our rugged climb up one of Guatemala's highest volcanos, Santa María


Chilling under the hammocks to beat the heat at Monterrico.

While the USA was celebrating 4th of July weekend, our friends Mark and Jennifer arrived from Arizona to travel in Guatemala for a month, so we took the opportunity to hit the beach for a few days.

Monterrico is generally considered Guatemala’s “best” and most touristy Pacific beach, though it is really still a sparsely developed village. Pigs and chickens wander the unpaved streets while the smell of burning plastic bottles wafts up from between the thatched roof huts. At least the town does have one Internet café. (as well as a rather sad turtle sanctuary)

And Monterrico does not let you forget that it is still a small rural village. As we walked down the main road on Sunday morning, what do you think we happened to see? How about half a dozen men butchering a cow in a driveway…at 6am, no less. A beautiful site on a Sunday morning, to be sure, with cow legs sticking out of a large bucket and guts piled up off to the side. Is this a normal occurrence here in Monterrico? Apparently if there’s an intra-regional soccer game in town that day.

It turns out that the Monterrico team won the soccer game, so the town was at its finest on Sunday night. The distinct sound of gunfire routinely clattered into the sky (and no, this was definitely not the usual firecrackers). When we went to buy some beers at the store, several dozen locals were stumbling around in the center of town, completely wasted and desperately trying to get us to drink aguardiente (firewater) with them. (Aguardiente is similar to rum, but quite unrefined and dirt cheap.)

To top it all off, we woke on Monday morning to learn that one of the hotels in the center of town had caught fire around 2am. Was this the handiwork of inebriated villagers? We can only guess that there might be a connection here. Fortunately, the damage was mostly limited to the roof, since the standard Guatemalan building material is cinder block, which holds up nicely in fire. Still, the thatched palm roof was completely gone, and we’re guessing that it produced some big, hot flames.

All in all, despite a rather common misconception, Guatemala is really not known for its beaches. This is definitely not Mexico or Panama, with their miles of beautiful white sand, perfect waves and trendy resorts. Monterrico’s sand is black, for one thing, due to the nearby presence of lots of volcanoes. The waves are enjoyable, although the water is so warm as to be not really refreshing in the ominous heat of the sun. The town does have about a dozen small hotels (usually sans air-conditioning, however a fan and mosquito net are provided; the lack of hot water is not a problem in the sweltering heat), several clubs and bars (mostly playing loud electronic house-party music, unlike the reggae and meringue that’s more common on the Caribbean coast), and a handful of restaurants (mostly of dubious quality, except for the excellent El Pelicano with it’s creative dishes and excellent vegetarian fare).

Monterrico is completely separated from the mainland of Guatemala, so the only way to get there is by boat, either across a channel or through a mangrove swamp.

One of the highlights of Monterrico was the early morning boat ride we took through the swamp that separates the town from the mainland. The swamp is supposedly inhabited by plenty of turtles and even caymans (small alligators), but all we saw were birds.

From the swamp, we had a nice view of the distant volcanoes of Agua (left) and Pacaya (with smoke). See our Pacaya post for photos of the top of this volcano!

This pelican was the toughest character in town!

After chasing Carley out of her hammock, the pelican tries to see what goodies are in her bag.

Jennifer tempts fate with the feisty pelican.

On to coffee country in the mountains around Cobán


Cobán is a nice large town up in the mountains of central Guatemala. The town has long been a hub of European culture (with a strong German legacy, if you can believe), situated amidst a wealth of coffee plantations. The countryside is incredibly lush and green in this area.

The town is generally a bit pricey by Guatemalan standards, and it is full of odd contrasts. On one hand, there is a wealthy elite here, and on the other, a large contingent of migrant farm workers looking for their next job.

The Parque Central in Cobán demonstrates the odd contrasts that define this town, with its stately old colonial church overlooking a modernisitic gazebo of quasi-space-age architecture.

In Cobán, Rob, Mark and Jennifer enjoyed good coffee, walked in a beautiful national park on one edge of the town, and toured a coffee finca (farm) on the other edge of town. The coffee tour was especially nice, as they showed us the whole process of growing, harvesting, preparing and roasting the coffee.

At the coffee finca that we toured, bananas grow side by side with coffee. They also grow black beans, cardemom, and allspice here.

Coffee beans drying in the sun at the coffee finca.

On to the nearby swimming holes at Semuc Champey


One of the beautiful swimming holes at Semuc Champey.

After visiting Cobán, Rob, Mark and Jennifer ventured off into the nearby jungles of the Alta Verapaz, down 2 hours of dirt roads, to the popular swimming hole of Semuc Champey. At this odd geological formation, the main Río Cahabón pours through an underground cave for about half a mile, while a series of pools form in the riverbed over top of the cave, from some small streams that come in from the sides. At the lower end of the site, these streams join the Río Cahabón at a dramatic waterfall.

At the upper end of Semuc Champey, the Río Cahabón pours into a cave and runs underground for about half a mile. Whitewater rafting through here is not advised!

Jennifer and Mark watch the river pour into the cave.

At the lower end of Semuc Champey, the smaller streams cascade from above, while the main Río Cahabón emerges from a cave under the waterfall.

A popular pastime at Semuc Champey.

On to the beautiul colonial city of Antigua Guatemala