Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

5:15 AM wake up to start our trek to Antigua, Guatemala for volcano hiking! Who needs sleep on vacation anyways…right? We had a quick bite to eat and took off to a Burger King about 30 minutes away to meet up with a few more of Cass’s friends who were going to make the climb with us. We went down some very bumpy roads in Cass’s old Jeep and made a few wrong turns while trying to navigate, but eventually made it to the coffee farm below the Acatenango volcano for our ride half-way up the volcano. The farm was beautiful, full of greenhouses and lush coffee forests. Cass’s friends hopped in the front of the truck that was driving us up the mountain and the “core four” of us hopped in the bed of the truck for one of the wildest rides I have ever had up the side of the volcano.

Coffee farm below Acatenango volcano, Antigua, GuatemalaIt started out nice and easy, driving through the dark green, lush coffee forests at the volcano’s base, but quickly turned into a windy dusty trail as we hit the mid section. Hair flying everywhere, skin looking tan with the dust layers, butts getting bruised from bouncing on the truck bed’s uneven floor, we were having the time of our life hanging on for dear life! As we got higher and higher, we entered the jungle level of the volcano which was dense, moist, and covered in moss. It was truly beautiful but we were also driving up at a super steep angle at a very fast pace not to lose traction, so we were all trying to hold each other in the bed of the truck as bump after bump tried to fling us out! Talk about exhilarating! I definitely had a nice round of bruises after that ride.

We finally made it to the drop-off for our hike. At this point, the forest had grown thin and there were lots of ferns and birch trees without leaves. The scenery – I can’t describe it. It was just so… extraordinarily different from Texas! Unfortunately, the elevation got to Janine so she stayed back with one of our guides at the car, and we took off on our hike. The higher we got, the more the ground turned into volcanic sand, making it very hard to climb up the steep side of the volcano. We rested at a plateau covered in delicate yellow flowers about half way up the trail and realized we were above the clouds. It was incredible.

Above the clouds atop of Acatenango in Antigua, Guatemala

From that point on, the trees stopped and it was volcanic sand all the way up. I swear, for every two steps I took, I slid back one step in the sand. There were no hand rails and the fall would have been a deadly one, so we faced upwards and onwards. You could hear the rumblings of the active volcano next store, named Fuego (Fire), echoing off of the boulders near the peak of our climb. It was terrifyingly exhilarating and the view / feeling of reaching the top was something I had never experienced before.

We walked the circumference of the volcano’s mouth, trying to stay erect as the super strong wind attempted to blow us away, and we found some wind cover between some rocks for a lunch stop. We watched the clouds roll over Fuego while it erupted as we ate and soaked in the view. I couldn’t believe this was just day 1 of our trip!

Atop of the Acatenango volcano in Antigua, Guatemala

 

The view of En Fuego Volcano from Acatenango in Antigua, Guatemala

The hike down was just as scary as the way up, but thrilling as we basically slid down the pumice sandy section of the mountain. There was an adorable blonde dog hanging out at the half-way plateau. He decided to join our group and followed us all the way back to our truck. I gave him the second half of my ham sandwich as a reward and we piled in the seat portion of the truck this time on the way down. We learned our lesson for sure! The dog followed our truck all the way down the mountain, and even tried to help us when the truck got stuck in a muddy ditch at a hairpin turn on the volcano trail! We almost had to push the truck out!

Hiking to the top of Acatenango in Antigua, Guatemala

Once we got off the volcano trail and onto an actual road, Cass, her friend Isa, and I stood in the bed of the truck and held onto the bar over the cab, hair flying in the wind singing songs at the top of our lungs, soaking in the experience as much as possible while racing back to the coffee plantation. Upon arrival, we shook out all of the pumice stones from our shoes and walked through the greenhouses full of poinsettias. It was really pretty and a nice end to the crazy morning before saying goodbye to Cass’s friends, hopping in the car, and driving back to Antigua for the rest of the day’s adventures.

Pointsetta garden below Acatenango volcano, Antigua, Guatemala

Volcano hiking tips:

  • Bring a warm wind jacket – the top of the volcano is very cold and windy
  • Wear hiking boots and sweat wicking, high socks. You can wear sneakers, but your shoes will get filled with sand and you may not get a lot of traction
  • Wear warm leggings for easy movement on the way up
  • Bring snacks & water so you have plenty of fule for the hike. It gets hot under the sun on the lower sections so hydration is key.
  • Use plenty of sunscreen as the altitude and thin air makes the sun extra potent
  • Try and find a good hiking stick for added hiking leverage
  • Wear a backpack for your things (camera etc). You will need your arms for balance so a purse is not recommended
  • The mid-way hike takes about 3 hours. Unless you want to do the whole day hike, find a service that will take you up half-way with a guide. You can also spend the night at the top of the volcano if you want – just make sure to bring very warm equipement and sleeping gear
  • Have extra cash for guide tips
  • Don’t forget your camera and selfie stick
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Journey to Guatemala

Journey to Guatemala

Sometimes your friends meet people and decide to set you up with them because they think you have similar interests and would work well together. Typically, that kind of a situation happens in regards to dating, but in this instance, it was, I guess I could say, a blind friend date!

One of my good friends went on a camping trip and met a Guatemalan girl named Cassandra whom they thought was just like me; very outgoing, active lifestyle loving, wasn’t afraid to dance the night away, and had a quirky sense of humor, etc. Come to find out, this Cassandra and I lived in the same apartment complex just a few buildings down from each other as well and so I ended up going over to her place for a pre-party with our mutual friends and, as fate would have it, we BFF-clicked right away!

Guatemala Besties!

Cass quickly became one of my favorite people of all time, we became roommates, and did absolutely everything you could do in Fort Worth, Texas – i.e. two-stepping with cowboys, biking to brunch, killing it a dodgeball, starting dance floors wherever there was music, playing sand volleyball whenever the sun was out, the list goes on and on – for about two years. After that time, I had met my man and we decided to move to Dallas to explore a new city together. Cass also planned a big change – moving back to Guatemala to live with her family and work on things she was passionate about. Of course, it was tough to see her go, but I vowed I would come visit her soon and try to utilize the bits and pieces of Spanish she had tried to teach me (I was not the best student, jajaja).

Thankfully for Skype and Whatsapp, we were able to keep in touch, and my travel itch got stronger and stronger until I just had to buy that plane ticket. How convenient that a travel blogger such as my self has a bestie who lives in a beautify exotic country that speaks the language?! Two of our other friends decided to come with me to visit Cass and her family and, when mid-October finally arrived, we packed our bags and headed to the airport!

What is the first thing that you do upon airport arrival during a girls trip? Breakout the selfie stick and take a picture of course! What is the first thing you realize is sitting on the counter at home that you forgot to grab on the way out? The very selfie stick you need to take your girls trip pic! Ugh! I was so excited to bring it too – so of course I had to walk to the electronics store in the airport and buy a new one specifically for the trip. I am not going to lie though, it was totally worth buying. We finally took our departure pic and boarded the plane. Kim, Janine and I had all met through Cass and hadn’t seen each other in a while so we had lots of time on the flight to Guatemala City to catch up. One of us had just started a relationship, one just got out of one, and one was going steady, so boys was the top of choice of course… Who needs People magazine when you have real life gossip?!

We arrived around 7:30 PM in Guatemala and basically ran to the pick up line to see Cass! It was so exciting to finally be in the country she had talked so much about! We hopped in her Jeep and noticed that the windows were very darkly tinted so that people couldn’t see in. Almost all of the cars we saw from then on had similar tints for safety reasons. Right off the bat, there were some major differences from the USA. We drove through the City and right up a mountain side to Cass’s parents house. Most of the streets were lined with high concrete walls that you couldn’t see behind, bared windows, and barbed wire fences. Again, very different safety measures than we see in mainstream USA.

Eventually, we got to Cass’s house, passed through the door in the giant concrete wall, and encountered a beautiful outdoor patio garden full of succulents, and a variety of other plants. It was quite enchanting. The overall architecture of the houses in Guatemala is so different. The houses are full of alcoves, atriums, arches, and different decorations to make each place very unique. The view from the house was absolutely breathtaking, spanning almost all of the city with surrounding volcanos. I would not mind waking up to the view every morning!

Guatemala City, Guatemala

We chatted with Cass’s parents, some of the sweetest people I have ever met, and their maids made us a delicious fajita dinner. We enjoyed some wine and chatted the night away before heading downstairs to pack and rest up for the next day’s journey to Antigua for volcano climbing!

Cusco Day 2, Peru

Cusco Day 2, Peru

At 8:30 AM sharp, we were dressed and ready to meet our guide, Lizbeth, for our Cusco city tour! We walked down the street from our hotel to the chapel which used to be the main Inca residence in Cusco. You can see where the Spanish ruins stop and in Incan stones remain. The Incas figured out how to build huge structures out of massive lego-like boulders that are so earthquake-proof they still stand today, despite huge tremors. You can see the amazing architecture throughout Peru thanks to one great emperor who, with the help of his offspring, conquered most of the western coast of South America in just 100 years by using a trail system to create easier transit of resources and communication. A majority of these trails still stand and are used today and the technology was so confounding to the Spaniards that the Spanish conquistadors thought the ruins had to have been built by Gods!

We then walked to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and I was quite surprised at how massive it was inside. It definitely does not look as large as it is from the outside. There were tons of murals inside but, unfortunately, many of them were deteriorating with time. We got to talking to our guide about the locals and apparently most natives in Cusco only may $3K per year!

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After the church tour, we hopped in the tour van and took off to the Inca ruins in the highlands at Sacsayhuaman (or Sexaay woman). We walked up to this beautifully green expanse of land with llamas and alpacas roaming through giant ruins of rocks that weigh up to 40 tons! I could have spent all day there, but we had to move onto the Maze ruins consisting of giant boulders that formed a cave where Incans used to perform burial rituals and mummification. Again, a super cool view and awesome history.

After our tour, we were dropped off in the main square where we found an Italian-ish restaurant for lunch. I had some lasagna to carbo-load for our shopping trip after. We went through the arts district and walked and shopped for two hours or so before some thunder told us to head to our next destination – an under-ground Museo de sitio del Qoricancha! The walk was long and the storm caught up with us about 200 yards from the entrance to the museum and we got soaked as we didn’t have umbrellas! It started to hail right as we closed the door. The museum was a little small but they had some beautiful jewelry and pottery and scary looking mummies which were cool.

By the time we finished at the museum, we were incredibly tired, so we ran through the rain back to our hotel for nap time. With some new energy, we took off to another museum in a small square up the street, but it was closed by the time we got there. We explored the cobbled streets, walked past the local kids playing soccer, back through the main square, up to a little restaurant called Cicciolina in the arts district. We had some amazing drinks, appetizers, a sweet potato gnocchi that would make anyones mouth water to try. The food in Peru can’t be beat and, if you are looking for a place in Cusco, you must try Cicciolina!

After dinner, we walked home to rest up for the next day’s journey to Machu Picchu!

Cusco tips:

  • Pack an umbrella as the weather shifts quickly.
  • While the days are nice and sunny, the temperature at night drops into the 30s, so pack warm.
  • Do all of your market shopping from Cusco and into Machu Picchu. The goods change as you make your way and there are great deals to be haggled!
  • Have dinner at Cicciolina!
  • Drink the tea in your hotels often as it really helps with the acclimatization.
  • Wear a hat, sun glasses, and lots of sunscreen since the higher altitude lets the sun effect your skin much more than usual.

Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru

Day three marked our second flight during the trip from Lima to Cusco. Cusco is in the mountain region of in-land Peru and it takes about an hour by tiny plane to get there. We had a quick breakfast and met our driver around 8 AM to head to the airport. Driving in Peru is an experience in itself as basically all traffic signals, aka stop signs, lights, yield signs, are merely suggestions. We were in 4 near death situations just on the drive to the airport. Eeek! Thankfully, we arrived in one piece, made our flight, and arrived in Cusco around 12:30 PM.

Our next tour guide, Julio, met us at their airport for our bus transport to the hotel in the upper section of Cusco. The ride was really interesting as Julio explained the local housing structure. Since Cusco has become a more popular tour destination, the cost of living has grown substantially. The locals make very little money and cannot afford to buy fully completed houses, thus, most of the houses in Peru are works-in-progress. There is a bottom floor, and sometimes a second or third floor, in each concrete structure, with metal framing wires sticking out of the roofs that were the hight of another floor. The families typically share the buildings with their siblings and add floors when they can afford it. It really made me feel blessed and thankful to have what I have.

Anyways… we were dropped off at the Hotel San Agustin – a beautiful hotel with a huge atrium and very comfortable rooms. The staff gave us some tea to help with the 11K altitude acclamation before we took off to explore the large square up the street known as the Plaza de Armas. The cobble stone square has an amazing fountain in the middle, is surrounded by shops and cathedrals, and has these adorable little old Incan ladies in traditional garb with baby lambs and alpacas. I couldn’t help by take a photo with one of them.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco Peru

We found a great modern burger place with a Peruvian twist called Papacho’s on the border of the square. It not only had a fantastic view, but the best onion rings we have ever had! In addition to the memorable onion rings, I enjoyed a veal sandwich and took a bite of my father’s alpaca burger – yum! Within a non-bug, reasonable scope, I always try to local food as you never know what deliciousness will surprise you.

With so much food in our stomaches, we took off walking to an alleyway off from the square where most of the local markets were. It was actually quite cold in Cusco, more in the 50’s rather than the 70 degree weather in Lima, so, in addition to gifts for friends and family, we stocked up on scarves, jackets, and gloves. You will probably notice my warm, new, knitted, and somewhat alpaca fashion moving forward in my future Peru posts. I say “somewhat alpaca” because the market sellers claimed their products were 100% alpaca wool but, considering the price and the fact the some of the labels read “30% alpaca”, I was skeptical. All of the items we bought were very haggle-able and we bought most things for $5-$10 USD – some great deals!

After an hour or two of shopping, we walked back to the hotel for a quick nap before our evening plans. The altitude and 7 AM wake-ups really take it out of you! We had reservations at Tunupa, a buffet restaurant in the main square with a traditional Cusco dance show. The buffet was full of ceviche and other traditional Peruvian dishes that were all quite tasty. On top of that, we had some Pisco Sours to lighten the mood and get us ready for the craziness to come.

The band was made up of a singer and two instrumentalists and there were two female and two male dancers. The dancers would dance a traditional piece for a song, run back and change, and then dance in a different style. They did this 6 or 7 times and got the crowd up and about to dance as well. It was a roaringly fun time, especially since they played a catchy song called “Pacha Mama” or “Mother Earth”, which we thought said “Punch your mama”, that we kept singing all night long. My mama loved it so much she bought the CD…

With warnings of the sun’s face-scorching capabilities in the thin Cusco air, we stopped to get some colorful hats for the next day’s ruin tours. My sister and boyfriend came to the conclusion that I look funny in hats, a fact I’ve come to accept over many years of trying, so naturally I bought the brightest hat I could find just for fun! With hats in tow, we walked around the square and admired the city lights before heading to the hotel for much-needed sleep.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco Peru

 

 

Lima, Peru – Day 1

Lima, Peru – Day 1

I am not typically an early morning person, but on trips, the excitement and need to experience as much as possible gets me up bright and early. By 8 am, we were up and getting our needed nourishment for the day at the breakfast buffet. The hotel had these bright pink sausages that looked very strange but tasted delicious – I am never shy about trying something new and potentially tasty!

As our city tour did not start until after lunch, we decided to walk down to cliffs overlooking the beach. It was quite the journey getting down the stairs from the cliffs to the rocky coastline, but totally worth it. My mom wanted to “test the water temp” and needed my dad’s help traversing the rocks to get to the ocean. Unfortunately for my philanthropic father, my mom accidentally pulled him in the wrong direction and straight into an on coming wave that completely soaked through his sneakers! His sloshing sneakers marked the way back up the stairway to the coast trail lined with sculptures, amazing views, and gorgeous foliage.

The 70 degree, sunny day seemed to prompt everyone with the same “lets walk the coast” idea as us. It was packed! There were slack liners, dog walkers, hang gliders, work-outers, and all other types on the trails with us. We people-watched our way to this great outdoor shopping plaza overlooking the coast that housed our lunch destination – a resultant called Mangos. Not only is the patio view from Mangos out of this world, but the ceviche … the ceviche!! I felt like we were in food heaven “cheers”-ing with our pisco sours. If you visit Miraflores, you have to go to Mangos!

After one of the best meals I have ever had, we met our tour guide, and hopped on the van for our downtown adventure. The buildings in downtown Lima are heavily influenced by the French and Italian and are extremely ornate. Our van dropped us off at the Church of St. Francis for a walk-through. The church is packed with gorgeous, old murals that have both Spanish and Peruvian influence. It was fascinating to learn how the styles of the various cultures merged into the art hanging before us. We were also escorted below the church to the maze of a crypts that held over 25K bodies! Slightly creepy but still amazing to see.

A few blocks down from the church is the main square and Government Palace of Peru. We walked around the square, taking in all of the sights, until the sun set and our van picked us up.

We freshened up at the hotel and headed back to the Cat Park to look at the local art and find a spot for dinner. We ended up at a place called Alfresco based on the hotel’s recommendation – another winner! I had a fabulous sea bass in a shrimp and coconut sauce, while Ryan and my sister had delicious curries. We did have some food envy though when the table next to ours got their branzino… until our apple crumble ice-cream desert arrived! So yummy!

Thankfully, we were able to walk off our big dinner on the way home. In fact, based on my FitBit, we walked over 8.83 miles touring Lima. What a fabulous first full day to the trip!