Hi Guys! So as we mentioned in our last post about travelling with a dog, we finally – after 6 weeks – left Lake Atitlán! We had originally planned to spend less time at the lake and travel further south, at least into El Salvador. But we love Lake Atitlán and as a result it is a very sticky place for us. Once we got there, we found it hard to leave so again this year, it became our southernmost destination. Sorry El Salvador… but there’s always next year 😉
When we finally tore ourselves away from the lake, we headed straight up north for a new kind of adventure. A few years ago, we had read a blog post by @desktoglory about a great little dairy farm/hacienda in the village of Acul, nestled in the Cuchumatanes mountain range. These very high highlands looked so majestic in the photos and Acul has since been on our bucket list. When we changed our minds about hiking the Acatenango Volcano in Antigua (long story that relates to travelling with Walter), we decided it was finally time to explore Acul and surrounds.
The drive up to Acul and back presented some of the most challenging road conditions we’ve encountered. Tight, congested little towns, broken and bumpy gravel roads, switchbacks, etc. At one point I think it took 3 hrs of driving to travel 67 kms – crazy! But I have to say, the rough drive was absolutely worth it. This part of the Guatemala highlands was everything we expected and more. I should add that Sally is NOT very off-road capable, which is why some of these drives are so difficult for us. A vehicle with better clearance, better shocks and/or 4WD would find the route much easier.
We loved this part of our trip so much that we’ve come up with 5 reasons we think you should consider visiting Acul and the Cuchumatanes mountain range. Our reasons aren’t in order of priority but instead, in the order in which we experienced them.
Reason #1: Hacienda San Antonio is a Great Home Base
Some destinations are beautiful but without good accommodations – especially for vanlifers and overlanders. If you want to visit Acul and the surrounding highland villages, Hacienda San Antonio is an excellent home base. Vans and rigs can park in the grassy field along the creek or up beside the hacienda. If you’re backpacking, the hacienda has rooms for rent. We woke up every morning to roosters crowing, the mist rising off the mountains and the cows moo-ing and staring annoyedly at Sally. I think they maybe thought she was an intruding cow… she’s about the right shape 😉 . The scenery around the hacienda is truly breathtaking and we had the whole camping area to ourselves for 2 of the 3 nights of our stay.
For us, there was only one downside to staying at Hacienda San Antonio. There are 3 resident dogs. The 2 blue heelers aren’t very interested in visitors and are very sweet. The bull terrier is adorable MOST of the time and if you don’t have a dog in tow, you will love him. BUT, he plays really rough with other dogs and is a huge pest – even to his blue heeler ‘brothers’. He was kept tied during most of our stay, thankfully. Had he not been tied, we would have to have kept Walter in the van the entire time.
Reason #2: Delicious Food & Dairy Products Await at the Hacienda
We knew from other travellers that Hacienda San Antonio is famous for their cheese so upon arriving, we bought a chunk of handmade swiss cheese. I’m a lover of all things cheese related and after eating mostly bland cheese during our stay on Lake Atitlan, this was SUCH a treat and we polished-off the chunk off at a gluttonous pace.
Waking up on our first morning in Acul feeling lazy, I sent Marc up to the hacienda to find out the deal for eating in the dining room. The dining room isn’t dog friendly but guess what – they do take out! So, Marc ordered pancakes and after 15 minutes, he brought down the most delicious looking breakfast tray. Pancakes, fresh cream, blueberry jam, coffee and fruit. Heavenly! It wasn’t a cheap breakfast by Guatemalan standards but we enjoyed it so much we ate it 2 out of our 3 mornings there.
Also – guess what – you can get fresh milk at a dairy farm! Duh, right. We ran out of milk and spent all day scrounging around town trying to find non-powdered milk before realizing… ummm… we’re staying on a dairy farm so… ya. The milk was a fresh as you can get – freshest I’ve ever had in my life. It reminded me of the stories my mom would tell me about her childhood when the milk man would come by with fresh milk and the cream settled on top.
Reason #3: Acul & Surrounds are Off the Beaten Track
“Off the Beaten Track” means something different to everyone but when it comes to traveling, it generally refers to places less known/visited by tourists. This characterization of a place is of course relative and subject to debate. Arguably, just about every destination in Guatemala is off the beaten track compared with resort areas in Mexico and Cuba, for example. But Acul and the surrounding towns are mostly untouched by tourism. Sure, there are the odd travellers like us visiting the area, but as yet tourists have had very little influence on the area.
Although tourism no doubt has it’s benefits, it can also be very hard on the culture, identity and built environment, especially in small, poor towns. The advantage to places that are so off the beaten track are many for travellers:
- You can enjoy observing daily life in small traditional Guatemalan villages;
- Locals are shy but genuinely interested in and happy to meet travellers – many want to know about where you are from and share a little bit of information about their village;
- You don’t need to worry much about scams, tourist traps or petty theft because tourism has not yet progressed sufficiently to create an opportunity for these things;
- You really get to use and test your Spanish because very few people speak English.
The only disadvantages are of course no cafes with lattes and smoothies (you need a lot more tourists for that!) and a lot of curious stares. Nothing unusual for us!
I always wonder though… when travellers like us start discovering these areas, are we just paving the way for more tourists and the impacts that come with increased tourism. Hmmm.
Reason #4: There are Endless Hiking Routes
We love hiking and the routes in the Cuchumatanes mountains are endless. The hosts at the hacienda leant us a hiking guide. After pouring over it for at least an hour, we chose a small route from the village of Acul to the miniature village of Xexocom. This 4-hr round trip hike represented only one tiny part of one trail that forms part of a huge network in the area. You can hire a guide for a very reasonable price but the route looked really straight forward so we decided to hike it alone.
The route was very hilly – there are no “flat parts” to the trails and roads in this area but the scenery was gorgeous. The little villages along the way were SO tiny but each one did have a mini convenience store where we bought chips and ice cream bars to snack on. It seems that no matter how remote you go in Guatemala, you can find chips and pop!
The locals in this area were particularly interested in Walter. Some thought that he was a coyote. When we explained he was a husky mix, they thought he would be great for scaring away coyotes and protecting livestock. It was beyond our Spanish abilities to try and explain that Walter would more likely team up with the coyotes and quickly partner devastate the chicken population.
Reason #5: The Scenery & Climate are Beautiful
The climate is perfect for hiking and vanlife. Warm enough for a t-shirt during the day, cool at night for sleeping and enough rain to keep the dust down (a bit). I think that visuals would be much more telling than words to describe the beauty of this place so here are some photos for you.
Our little crew is slowly making tracks north, but we’ve only managed to get a few hundred kilometres to San Cristobal to de Las Casas, Mexico. We like slow travel and we’ll be talking all about that in the next blog post!