This is the story of a father-daughter adventure in Central America. I had told the kids that when they turned 10, they could do a trip with just dad if they would like.
Shaylee and I had planned a trip to Central America so we could do a humanitarian aid trek. Unfortunately, the organizers of the treks decided that she was too young, so we had to make alternate plans. We came up with lots of alternate plans including bungee jumping, climbing volcanoes, ziplining, and viewing wildlife. Despite a few bumps and setbacks, we accomplished a lot in our allotted 19 days away from home.
This was my third time to Guatemala (having been there in 1992-1993 and 2008) and Shaylee’s second time. I knew Guatemala had changed when the first store I saw was a Wal-Mart! Although I had been to Guatemala on two previous trips, other than climbing Volcán Tajumulco, we would visit things and areas that we hadn’t seen before. The first trip to Guatemala, I climbed Volcán Tacana and Volcán Tajumulco and the second time we visited Esquipulas and the Copan area.
We had also both visited El Salvador previously (2008), but last time we visited La Palma and El Pital (the highest peak in the country), so this time we’d see all new areas.
I didn't take this photo; someone else (Ben) who was also on the mountain did. This is Volcan Fuego as seen from Volcan Acantango (12 second exposure). Shaylee and I recently returned from climbing nine volcanoes in Guatemala/El Salvador, but this was the most spectacular.
The trip started out with some setbacks right away. First, United Airlines lost one of our bags when we went to Houston (overnight layover). After waiting several hours on Christmas Even night, we got that bag back, but they lost both of our bags on the way to Guatemala the next morning. I wore pajamas on the plane and that is all I had to wear. We didn´t have our camping gear and are supposed to leave on the camping part of our trip the 27th, so we were worried and I didn’t get much sleep.
December 26: Volcán Pacaya (Guatemala)
Today Shaylee and I climbed an active volcano, Volcán Pacaya. It was a pretty easy and popular climb, but it was very scenic. The point we actually reached was Cerro Chino, since the highest summit of the volcano was off limits because of potential activity. There was lots of new lava around, but the volcano was actually quiet, though it was smoking. It hadn’t had a real eruption since November 2013.
We got to roast marshmallows in the vents of on the volcano. We left super early in the morning (dark) and got back early afternoon.
Left to right; Volcán Fuego, Volcán Acatenango, and Volcán Agua as viewed from the slopes of Pacaya.
The highly active Volcán Pacaya.
Shaylee and I having fun on the active Volcán Pacaya.
Obviously climbing an active volcano isn´t enough adventure for the dau, so we went bungee jumping, including doing a sling shot bungee jump where they launch you in the air, which is supposedly more thrilling than simply jumping off a bridge. Shaylee did three jumps, but one was enough for me.
A zoom shot of Shaylee falling after being launched 25 meters/82 feet into the air by an "extreme bungee".
Me about to get launched 25 meters (82 feet) into the air by a highly tensioned bungee cord.
The weather was good and it was a spectacular trip. We were also very relieved when our luggage arrived at the hostel in the evening!
December 27-28: Volcán Acatenango (Guatemala)December 27
For safety reasons, Shaylee and I joined a guided group for the climb of Volcán Acatenango. We went with O.X. expeditions. Since there have been a few robberies in the past, our group was to include two police officers. It was a good group of us and we all headed up the mountain. Since we had to carry so much water most of us (Shaylee and I included) opted to have a horse carry some of our stuff to camp.
Oh no, did we get arrested in Guatemala? Well, not really, but it made for a good photo. We staged this photo to show to our friends back home.
We went at a pretty good pace, but took a lot of breaks, so it wasn’t overly strenuous. It was a nice uphill and then up and down trek to camp. Our camp had an excellent view of the very active Volcán Fuego. Fuego means fire. The volcano has been erupting a few years now. Rather than flow, it explodes a few times an hour. At night everything glows and it is spectacular. We had one spectacular fireworks display at night!
Part of the trail to Acatenango. Most of the trail is steeper than this.
Lunch time on the way to Acatenango.
One of the first eruptions of Fuego that we saw. We rounded a bend in the trail and then BOOM!
Fuego explodes as we watch from camp. Once it gets dark, it will be really spectacular!
It was a pretty long night for me (crowded tent), but the others seem to sleep OK. I got up once at night and it was very foggy outside. In the morning we awoke at 4 am in order to climb the volcano. There was frost on the ground, but the sky had cleared.
The route up the volcano was rather strenuous due to loose ash and cinders on the steep slopes. We still made good progress and found ourselves on the crater rim for sunrise. Shaylee was first to the top.
Once on top and after watching the spectacular sunrise, some of us ran around the crater. If you run all the way without stopping, you get a t-shirt. Shaylee had to stop because of a stomach cramp and was sad.
After enjoying the summit we descended to camp, packed up and walked all the way down via a different route.
With the eruptions of Fuego, Acantenango was the most spectacular climb of the trip. After the climb I had to scramble around since we were supposed to be in Panajachel that night. I finally did find some transport, so we were still on schedule, though we arrived in Panajachel pretty late at night. We hired a taxi to take us to the hotel, but it took him a long time to find it.
The sunrise from the summit of Acatenango.
The summit of Acatenango on December 28 2014. The very active Volcán Feugo is in the background.
Fuego explodes, and quite loudly as well!
Shaylee touching the top of Volcán Fuego.
Shaylee on the descent of Acatenango.
December 29: Reserva Natural Atitlán (Guatemala)
Today we spent much of the day around Panajachel and the east side of Lago Atitlán, which is said by some to be the most beautiful lake in the world (though there are many other beautiful lakes around the world). We woke up early and found a tuk tuk (motorcycle taxi) to the Reserva Natural Atitlán where there were said to be many good hikes and activities on the shore of Lago Atitlán. The hikes were actually quite nice, with lots of high swinging bridges, a waterfall, and some nice forests, as well as viewing platforms for coatis and monkeys. Shaylee really liked teh butterflies as well.
We did all the hikes including down to the beach. We had hiked up to the top of the zipline beginning, but weren’t sure how to arrange it. We walked back down to the visitor center and then did the zipline. It was a lot of fun and quite fast and exciting.
In the afternoon, we took a small ferry over to San Pedro, across the lake. San Pedro is a very pleasant town and was interesting. The lake is rising and several homes and hotels have been flooded over the past few years.
Lago Atitlán from the Reserva Natural Atitlán.
A butterfly at the Reserva Natural Atitlán.
This is the end of the trail at the Reserva Natural Atitlán, which ends at the lake itself.
A coati roots for food at the Reserva Natural Atitlán.
One of the many beautiful flowers in the Reserva Natural Atitlán.
Shaylee ziplining through the forest at the Reserva Natural Atitlán.
A butterfly at the Reserva Natural Atitlán.
Volcán San Pedro as seen from Lago Atitlán. We would climb it the next day.
December 30: Volcán San Pedro (Guatemala)
Today Shaylee and I climbed the San Pedro Volcano. For safety reasons we took a guide, but with all the people on the mountain, it probably wasn’t necessary. We all went very fast up the mountain and made the summit in two hours and ten minutes, which is pretty good considering the elevation gain was around 4000 feet (1200 meters).
Lago Atitlán and the village of San Pedro. Due to seismic activity, the lake has been rising. The entire lake is in one huge volcanic crater which resulted from a gigantic explosion 80,000 years ago.
Volcán San Pedro rises above the mist from the shores of Lago Atitlán.
The hike was actually really interesting and had some nice cloud forest. There were some great views of the lake from the top. We had a nice lunch before heading down in a fast one hour.
Part of the trail to Volcan San Pedro.
The summit of Volcán San Pedro. Lago Atitlán is far below.
We still had time to pack some things in, so Shaylee and I went horseback riding.
The narrow streets of San Pedro. The streets are too narrow for large vehicles, but not for tuk tuks (motorcycle taxis), motorcycles, and foot. We really enjoyed the town.
December 31: Fuentes Georginas (Guatemala)
In the morning we took a shuttle to Quetzaltenango (Xela) and headed to the Fuentes Georginas (hot springs) shortly after arriving. The hot springs were quite nice and there were several pools to visit of varying temperatures. The natural setting in the rain forest was spectacular and some of the hot springs have waterfalls spilling into them.
We did the short hike to the outlier hot spring as well.
Shaylee swimming in the Fuentes Georginas hot springs.
We also enjoyed the parade and festivities and the really impressive nativity display in the town square. It was a really great day.
Part of the really impressive nativity display in Quetzaltenango.
January 1: Volcán Santa María (Guatemala)
Today Shaylee and I climbed Volcán Santa María with Carlos from Monte Verde Tours. There were other people with us as well, and they were a good group, but a bit slower than we were. We started very early and the ground was frozen higher up.
Carlos and Shaylee on the trail to Volcán Santa María.
The climb was a good one and moderately steep. The main reason why many people climb Santa María is to get a good look at the very active Santiaguito volcano. When we were on top Santiaguito was heard exploding, but the explosions were obscured by clouds. Eventually the clouds parted enough so that we could watch some eruptions. There were some interesting trees and birds seen on the way down.
The smoking crater of Santiaguito as viewed from Volcán Santa Maria. Santiaguito did blow a few times when we were there, but it was hard to photograph because of cloud cover.
Shaylee and I on the summit of Volcán Santa María.
January 2-3: Volcán Concepción/Volcán Tajumulco (Guatemala)January 2
Today we (Carlos, his daughter, his cousin, Elena, Shaylee, and I) left for Volcán Tajumulco, the highest mountain in Central America. I had climbed the mountain almost exactly 22 years previously, so I was excited to see how much things had changed and how much they had stayed the same.
The buses were still as crowded as ever and it was a long two bus rides from Quetzaltenango. One thing that had changed is that the steep road had been paved all the way to the trailhead.
I have learned that there are three stages to getting used to riding the chicken buses in Central America. The first stage is that you wonder how you are supposed to fit two people in the tiny seats. The second stage is when you cringe when you realize that the seats are actually meant for at least three or four people. The final stage is when the bus is absolutely packed to about quadruple capacity and you are absolutely horrified to find out that this is only the first of four more stops to pick up more people.
Near the trailhead on Tajumulco.
We set off up the mountain on a cobblestone and then dirt road (which wasn’t there in 1993) and followed it to its end. From there, it was a climb on a good trail through a nice pine forest and to the saddle between Tajumulco and Concepción. It wasn’t a hard climb, but our packs were all heavy since we had to carry lots of water. We set up camp at the saddle, but decided to climb Concepción to watch the sunset. We climbed Concepción to find that we could see the Pacific Ocean. We were above the clouds and there were views of many other volcanoes and mountains as well. It was cold and windy on top, so Shaylee and I headed down the mountain just before sunset. Carlos and Elena headed down shortly after.
Volcán Tacaná as seen from the slopes of Volcán Tajumulco.
Tajumulco as seen from about 1/2 way up the route.
Along the trail near the campsites at the saddle between Tajumulco and Concepción.
Shaylee climbing a tree at our camp on Volcán Tajumulco.
Shaylee on the summit of Concepción.
The summit of Tajumulco as seen from Volcán Concepción.
It was a very windy and chilly night and by morning I was the only one who wanted to make the climb. Unfortunately Shaylee had a big headache and I forgot the medicine back in town. Carlos, his cousin, and I headed up in the dark not long before sunrise. We watched the sunrise from just below the summit. Quite a few other locals were climbing the peak as well.
After reaching the summit we took many photographs and walked all the way around the crater before heading back down via a different route. After getting back to camp, we packed up everything with the others and headed back down the mountain where a very crowded bus ride awaited us.
This is the summit of Tajumulco; the highest summit in Central America.
January 4: Volcán Chicabal (Guatemala)
Shaylee and I weren’t sure which climb to do today, but we decided on Volcán Chicabal because we heard that it was very beautiful. We got a ride to the trailhead and then after walking a ways, someone offered us a ride up the mountain. We hiked the last part and into the crater, which contains a beautiful lake, which is sacred to the Mayan people. Mayan priest often perform ceremonies around the lake shore.
The local legend is as follows:
"Many years ago Chicabal Lake was located in a different spot, where the Laguna Seca is located now. The women would go there to wash their clothes and the dogs would go to drink water. Because of these abuses to the sacred water, mother earth hid the lake. When the ancestors noticed that it wasn’t there, they were surprised and worried and began to ask the miches [magical beans used by Shamans] where it had gone. When they consulted the miches, they could see that mother earth had taken it away. The Shamans prayed and asked for forgiveness for the people. Finally, they found that the lake had returned, but in a different location. When they found it, the Shamans had a large celebration. They brought up the tambores, tun, and the chirimílla [local instruments]. Everyone was happy because the lake is the ‘place of rain,’ the place where the Shamans go to ask for successful crops and rain. Because of this, to this day it is prohibited for people to wash clothes in the lake, to bathe in it, or for the dogs to drink from it. For us, it is sacred."
The sign at Volcán Chicabal. The crater and lake are considered to be sacred to the Mayan people. The sign is written in Mayan, English, and Spanish.
The trailhead at the village where you begin to climb Volcán Chicabal.
We hiked all the way around the lake and then took a different trail to the rim of the crater. We walked all the way down to San Martin Sacatepéquez, though we did take a break in the visitor center area part way down.
Back in town we went to the market and Shaylee enjoyed feeding the pigeons in the town square.
The crater lake in Volcán Chicabal.
The lake inside the crater of Volcán Chicabal in Guatemala.
January 5: Vuelo Extremo (Guatemala)
Shaylee and I had planned on going to Xocomil (water park) and Xetulul (amusement park), near Retalhuleu, but we were headed for a disappointment. Either the website was wrong, or I misread it because I thought it was open today because of the holidays. Unfortunately, when we got there, it was closed. Disappointed, we headed to Retalhuleu to see if we could get some transport to some of the nearby ruins and natural areas. Unfortunately, we didn’t find and transport and Retalhuleu didn’t seem like a very interesting town.
We then took two buses back towards Quetzaltenango, but had the bus drop us off at Vuelo Extremo, which was said to have some good hiking trails and ziplines.
Once at at Vuelo Extremo, we made arrangements for the hikes and ziplines. The hike itself was a very scenic along a gurgling creek and to some nice little waterfalls and swinging bridges. There were many flowers along the hike as well. We then did the ziplines, which are said to be the highest in Guatemala (114 feet/35 meters above the canopy).
Our Lonely Planet book called the ziplines terrifying, but we didn’t find them so bad (though if you are really afraid of heights, they would be scary) and it was a lot of fun. It was a neat experience and we were glad that we could find something nice to do instead of our original plan.
This is one of the swinging bridges at Vuelo Extremo.
This is the zipline at Vuelo Extremo, said to be the highest zipline in Guatemala. You do have to hike up the mountain in order to take the ride down.
January 6: Guatemala to El Salvador
Today was meant to be a long travel day, but we didn’t know how far that we would make it. We were staying well to the north of Retalhuleu, so we had a long way to go if we wanted to make it to El Salvador that day. We had to cross almost the entire country of Guatemala. We didn’t have a hotel reservation since we didn’t know how far we would make it.
Since Xocomil was closed, we left first thing in the morning on an extremely crowded bus to Retalhuleu where we found another bus to Guatemala City. Unfortunately, although I had been very careful with our money thus far, keeping it stashed in a hidden pocket under my clothing, somehow we lost it in our big rush to get from one bus to another. Luckily we were at the end of our Guatemala, so there wasn’t much money in it, but we did lose a few credit cards and had to make some phone calls at the bus station. Luckily we had other cards and some money stashed somewhere else because we knew better than to have all of our eggs stashed in one basket. It still was frustrating though. When people heard that we had lost our wallet, they offered us money, but we assured everyone that we were OK. It was still a kind gesture though.
Once in Guatemala City, we took a cab to the International bus station and found a more or less direct bus to San Salvador, but it would arrive very late at night. We weren’t going to San Salvador though, but wanted to be left off early in Santa Ana.
After we crossed the Guatemala-El Salvador border at night (with a thorough bag search by border control), we were happy to learn that the bus would pass through Ahuachapan, which was closer to our destination than Santa Ana. We had the bus drop us off in Ahuachapan, but it was very late at night. I don’t like walking in the dark in an unfamiliar city, but we walked into town before finding a tuk tuk to take us to a hotel. We arrived at the Hotel Casa Blanca, but it was full and they kindly gave us a ride (free of charge-a very kind gesture) to Hotel Parador.
It had been a very long day and it was very late, but we had covered a lot of ground by bus and were slightly ahead of schedule.
This is the typical scene at the bus stations in rural Guatemala.
January 7: Los Chorros de La Calera (El Salvador)
We were at the beginning of the Ruta de las Flores, a windy highway route lined with flowers almost its entire distance, so we were eager to explore. The highway is also lined with interesting and scenic small towns that are surrounded by beautiful natural areas.
From Ahuachapan, we located a bus to Concepción de Ataco, where we had a hotel booked. After locating the hotel, we set off on another bus to Juayúa, which is a scenic town near some waterfalls and rain forest and also has some very picturesque old churches and a nice market.
After arriving in town, we didn’t know how to get to the waterfalls we wanted to visit (Los Chorros de La Calera), so we asked around the hotels. They called someone that would guide us there for $3.
It was a really nice hike to the waterfalls. The waterfalls were even more spectacular than we expected and several waterfalls gushed right out of caves in the cliff and into beautiful crystal clear pools. Unfortunately, I had misunderstood that swimming was optional, so I left my camera locked in a hotel.
The water was at a perfect temperature for swimming and Shaylee and I spent quite a while swimming in them before walking back and exploring Juayúa and the markets before heading back to Ataco.
This is the picturesque church in Juayúa, El Salvador.
The town square of Juayúa.
January 8: Los Chorros de La Calera (El Salvador)
As mentioned earlier, we were nearly a day ahead of schedule, so we had a choice of activities to choose from. Even though we had visited them the day before, we chose to go back to Los Chorros de La Calera. It was so enjoyable and beautiful to be there, and I hadn’t gotten any photographs. This time we knew how to get there as well, so wouldn’t need a guide.
The walk to the waterfalls was once again very pleasant, but this time there weren’t any people around. We had a very enjoyable time swimming in the pools and looking around for more waterfalls. We found one that we hadn’t seen the previous day.
It was once again a very spectacular day and was certainly worth doing twice! After visiting Los Chorros, we made our way to Santa Ana by way of three bus rides. It was a shock being back in a big city!
Shaylee swimming in the Chorros de la Calera waterfalls in El Salvador. The water is crystal clear and at the water is at perfect temperature.
Shaylee at Los Chorros de La Calera.
January 9: Volcán Santa Ana/Cerro Verde (El Salvador)
Shaylee and I awoke early in order to catch the first bus from Santa Ana to the Parque Natural el Cerro Verde, a national park with three different volcanoes, two of them considered to be active.
It was a longer bus ride than expected and took two hours before arriving at the park entrance. There are three volcanoes to climb here, Izalco, Santa Ana, and Cerro Verde. Cerro Verde is really just a short walk, but if you climb either of the two volcanoes, you have to climb it on the way back.
In order to climb either Izalco or Santa Ana, you are required to take a guide (even the locals are). The guides leave at 11 AM, so since it was morning, Shaylee and I walked all the nature trails on and around Cerro Verde, including to the summit before 11 AM.
We didn’t bring much food, but luckily there were some stands to get some food around the visitor center.
It had been decided by the group meeting at the guide house that we would climb Volcán Santa Ana. It didn’t matter to us which volcano we climbed since we hoped to climb the other one tomorrow, so we let the others decide. The guide only cost $1, plus another $2 to cross some private land.
From below, Volcán Santa is the bigger, but perhaps less impressive of the two volcanoes, but was said to have a more impressive crater and to have better views.
Volcán Santa Ana as seen from the saddle north of Cerro Verde.
We made our way down Cerro Verde and up Volcán Santa Ana. The group eventually divided into slow and fast subgroups and we stayed with a faster group. Along the way the weather was perfectly clear and we had some good views of Lago Coatepeque and Izalco. Near the summit, we could even see the Pacific Ocean.
Climbing Volcán Santa Ana.
Volcán Izalco as seen from the slopes of Volcán Santa Ana.
Along the crater rim of Volcán Santa Ana.
It was a great claim and we found ourselves on the crater rim and peering into the really impressive crater. It was quite a site. The crater had vertical walls and a copper colored lake at the bottom. The lake was bubbling and there were steam and sulfur vents around it, attesting that this is an active volcano. Amazingly one of the people climbing the mountain did so with a big cooler in order to sell ice cream to the summitters! We bought several and it was good ice cream.
The impressive and deep crater of Volcán Santa Ana. If you look closely, you can see the lake boiling.
Lago Coatepeque as seen from the summit of Santa Ana.
After enjoying the summit for quite a long time, we all headed back down. Near Cerro Verde Shaylee and I saw an armadillo, but most people walked right by it without noticing. There was also a lot of bird life around too.
An armadillo on the summit of Cerro Verde.
It was a good climb, but we had to wait an hour for the bus that went back down. Luckily though, the army pulled up as we were waiting and let us see and sit in their army equipment, which was entertaining for Shaylee.
Shaylee in an army vehicle at Cerro Verde.
Even though the climb itself was only just over four hours, it made for a long day with the bus schedules and with hiking the other nature trails. We didn’t get back into Santa Ana until pretty late.
January 10: Tazumal (El Salvador)
Today was to be our last full day in El Salvador. Originally Shaylee and I had planned to go back to Cerro Verde and to climb Volcán Izalco from there, but the previous day was so long with the bus schedules and we were supposed to make it all the way to the San Salvador Airport today. We decided to head for some of the archeological sites which were closer to Santa Ana than Cerro Verde was.
We chose Tazumal, a Mayan pyramid since it seemed the easiest to get to. From Santa Ana we walked to the main bus station and located a bus (which took some time!) to Chalchuapa. It was only a fairly short ride to Chalchuapa, but we had to ask for some directions to Tazumal.
The pyramid was interesting and we poked around before hiking the nearby nature trails. It was a nice area with lots of flowers. There were some petroglyphs around too. Outside the pyramid were lots of handicraft shops, which Shaylee liked and she bought presents for her brother and mom. We also visited the nearby museum.
This is the Mayan Pyramid at Tazumal.
The little nature trails around Tazumal.
After visiting Tazumal and Chalchuapa, it was time to head back to Santa Ana where we would start our long journey back to the Airport in order to spend the night before flying home.
The church in Santa Ana.
The theater in Santa Ana.
It was all a really great trip and a nice experience. Both Shaylee and I got to have a lot of fun and to do some bonding as dad and daughter.