Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley, New Zealand

Rotorua to Tongariro

5:45 AM and I was awake. After a great night at the Mari village, I thought I would at least sleep until 7 but, nope! I needed to catch up on blogging so I typed away while Ryan made coffee and toast for breakfast. We tried to watch the sunrise over lake Taupo but it was in the wrong direction – ooops!

Before we knew it, we were packed up and ready to head to the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley for our volcanic activity experience! There are two other famous and big volcanic areas you can go in Rotorua, but all of the reviews I read said they were super packed and touristy. We passed both of the other places on our way to Waimangu and they looked more like amusement parks than nature reserves. We were the only car in the parking lot for our Valley walk! Waimangu is a national park with trails through the volcanic valley with no lines or tourist expectations!

We checked in, grabbed a map that outlined the various points of interest along the trail, and took off on our two-hour walk. The trail was hilly but not hard by any means, and we were full of anticipation that kept growing as we saw more and more steam coming out of the forest!

We came across the first big site within minutes. A massive lake with bubbling water and steam everywhere! Frying Pan Lake’s temperature averages 131 degrees fahrenheit! Wouldn’t want to go for a swim in there…

The sulfur smell was almost non-existent, but you could feel the heat from the steam. There was even steam coming out of small holes in the rock formations along the path.

We were totally in awe of the natural formations, spouts, and water colors from the volcanic activity and were loving every second of the unique area.

Apparently, none of this existed before 1886. That year, Mount Tarawera erupted and created huge craters in the ground that, over time, filled with water and became the volcanic lakes we see today. We ended up taking the “extended” trail that led up, up, and away to some awesome views of the lake.

We only ran into one other group the entire time we were on the trail. The secluded nature of our hike made it that much more special.

Eventually, we got to the end of the trail and had to wait 30 minutes for the shuttle to arrive. We snacked on Quest Bars and apples to refuel and watched the black swans dive to get food in the lake. They were so funny because they only dove with their heads, so their butts and legs flailed above the water while they were submerged. So funny to watch!

The bus finally came and we were back to the reception area and into the car in no time. We had about 40 minutes of driving to do before we hit our next stop, Huka Falls. After Marokopa Falls in the day prior and our experience at Krkra Falls in Croatia, we were anticipating a great sight since Huka Falls is so much more well-known. We were slightly disappointed. Huka Falls were really more like really blue rapids. The force of the rapids was pretty astonishing, but it was crowded and we like Marokopa much more.

Huka Falls, New Zealand

It took about 10 minutes to see Huka Falls, so we jumped back in the car and sought out a lake-side lunch spot on Lake Topau. We found a cute little place with a great patio and enjoyed some fish and chips and a lamb salad. Little did we know that we were actually visiting over Anzac Day so all of the patios were packed on the national holiday. Anzac day is Australia and New Zealand’s version of Veteran’s Day in the States. We saw a ton of people in their military / service uniforms.

Lunch by Lake Taupo in New Zealand

After we filled up on lunch, we had another hour and a bit drive to the Tongariro Suites @ The Rocks. The drive was beautiful and went by quickly. I even made friends with some sheep!

Sheep in New Zealand

We were in the middle of no where and almost missed the hotel since it’s street was so off the beaten path. Once we pulled up, we knew we made the right choice! The Suites used to be a cow paddock and a fantastically nice couple turned it into a luxury resort with about 5 suites. It is all solar power operated and totally luxurious down to the tiniest detail! Because the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing hike starts so early, The Suites already had the breakfast buffet set up in our room!

The beds had heating pads, the bathroom was super luxurious with heat lamps for extra warmth and the owner even made a Canadian hot tub from cedar wood for the guests to recover in. The list of amenities and thought put into this place goes on and on and we couldn’t get over our view of the moon rising over the mountain peaks….

The owner recommended a restaurant called The Cyprus Tree for a tasty dinner within a quick drive. You would think, in such a remote area, the food would be average, but you would also be thinking wrong! We split a delicious beet, balsamic, and goat cheese ball salad, lamb sliders (that were to-die for), and cranberry walnut stuffed chicken with risotto. YUM!

After we got over our shock at how good the food was and scarfed it all down, we walked across the road to get a bottle of wine and extra water for our hike the next day. We went back to the hotel, grabbed the warm, fuzzy blankets provided in our room, poured two glasses of wine, turned all of the lights out, and sat on our patio to watch shooting stars and look at the amazing array of constellations visible. It was incredible.

Continue on this adventure…

 

Atop of the Acatenango volcano in 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