Life in the Clouds! Adventures, altitude and climate in Guatemala is about action-tours, volcanoes, weather and life in Guatemala.
Descending from the clouds into the Aurora International Airport, a bumpy landing signifies high altitude, strong winds, and low air pressure.
Situated at an elevation of 1,500 metres, Guatemala is a mountainous country where volcanoes dominate the skyline. From above, the land of the Republic is endlessly green, and it’s easy to see why its name derives from the ancient Mayan for “place of many trees.”
In Guatemala, the jade gem stone can be found, its emerald tones naturally compliment the landscape. The rich soil, fertilised with volcanic minerals, produces coffee and a mass of tropical fruits, many of which grow freely.
The country is renowned for action adventures and natural attractions, from black-sand beaches to sky-skimming summits. Famous for the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, and the cascades of Semuc Champey, it’s an explorer’s rapture.
Visitors can find a plethora of high-speed activities like ATV tours, paragliding, jet skis, helicopter rides, and canopy zip lines.
The country is positioned on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ that crosses Central America, and is where the majority of the world’s seismic activity, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions take place. There are four active volcanoes in Guatemala alone.
Adventures on the Ring of Fire
Thousands of daring travellers arrive in Guatemala and head to the colonial city of Antigua Guatemala, in hopes of tackling the high-adrenaline, Volcán de Acatenango volcano trek. This is a 3,500-meter ascent above the coastal plain to witness up-close eruptions of the nearby Volcán de Fuego (Fire volcano).
Arriving on the cobbled streets of Antigua, there’s energy in the air. The many mysterious ruins allude to a past tormented by nature. The UNESCO protected city is surrounded by 3 volcanoes; Acatenango, Agua and Fuego, and historically bore witness to life-changing catastrophes like floods, earthquakes and eruptions.
The extinct Volcán de Agua (Water Volcano) towers over Antigua, changing colour with the seasons. Its early lava paths, ripple down green slopes, and it’s often wrapped in lenticular cloud formations.
In contrast, the active Fuego volcano is green at the base but dark-grey and barren at the summit, with plumes of red, rose, and orange ash streaming down the funnel. Fuego’s eruptions throw lava into the air and make window-shaking sonic booms that can be felt for miles.
The volcano treks are unforgettable challenges above the clouds, with breath-taking, panoramic views and top-of-the-world sensations. The best visibility and conditions are from November to April. There are 37 volcanoes in Guatemala, and many can be hiked.
But extreme altitudes are not for the faint of heart. At 2,500 metres altitude sickness can occur, so it’s recommended to acclimatise a night or two before climbing. The temperatures on the volcanoes can change during ascent, and visitors might find themselves continuously adding or removing layers. At the peaks, the volcanoes can be bitterly cold with high winds.
Extreme weather and natural phenomenon, like electrical storms and hurricanes, are patterned around Guatemala, and it’s not uncommon to feel the ground tremble. The largest, most recent temblor was 6.8 magnitude, occurring in the middle of the night and lasting for around 30 seconds. The shake caused significant damage to roads and buildings.
Living at altitude
To put it in perspective, the highest point in the UK, Ben Nevis Mountain in Scotland, is 1,345 metres. Antigua, Guatemala, sits at 1,538 metres. UK and other lowland visitors shouldn’t be surprised if they feel the effects of altitude travelling here.
With the change in altitude and climate, there are also notable differences in day-to-day living: food doesn’t last as long, condiments congeal, and carbonised drinks go flat because of low air pressure. Outdoors, materials disintegrate and clothes wear thin when left in the scorching sun. There’s evident volcanic ash in the air, and allergies, colds, and bugs are common.
Visitors might find their ears regularly ‘pop’ on wild road trips, and it’s ordinary to be more short of breath than usual, especially hiking.
The most extreme scientific discovery of living at height, is that time actually passes faster than at lower ground. Research and experiments have proved the scientific theory of time dilation, which says time moves faster at high altitudes.
The land of eternal spring
Guatemala’s weather is said to be continually comfortable, and it’s deemed “the land of eternal spring.” However, there are many microclimates, that can noticeably vary from cool to tropical, and due to the elevation of the country, strong winds come and go.
Guatemala is home to 14 eco-regions, including an extensive mangrove network and the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén, the second largest forest in Central America.
From November to March, the climate is warm, or hot, but the temperatures drop at night. Then from April through October is the rainy season, when it can still be hot but showers, downpours, and cooler temperatures are regular.
During the rainy season, roads turn to rivers, metal roofs leak, and life grinds to a halt as people shelter from passing downpours. Street goers are drenched in seconds, and buses splash through streams. In these months, home and car owners face a variety of rain-induced repairs.
The walls, terraces and pathways are overrun by creepers, that consume buildings in a matter of weeks. Bright hummingbirds hover around Jade and Trumpet vines, that explode with vibrant turquoise and orange, while Bougainvillea burst red, purple and fuchsia.
Clouds and mists sweep down from the luscious mountains, fireflies light up the trees, and their glow-worm larvae shine like LEDs. But the rainy season is also when mosquitoes get hungry, flying critters emerge from their nests in the walls, and centipedes, scorpions, and spiders come in search of shelter.
The ‘Canicula’ weather phenomenon normally occurs in July and provides a short respite from the rainy season. It’s an annual period of increased temperature, due to excessive heating of the air and low precipitation, usually lasting a couple of weeks. It provides a window of opportunity for clear conditions.
November brings in the milder winter months, when the skies glow with spectacular sunsets.
In the clouds
Life at altitude is full of heady experiences; it’s unpredictable and untamed. From the pines, cloud forests, and thick tropical jungles to cascading waterfalls, sandy beaches, and crater lagoons.
The high and winding roads through untouched terrain, take many on epic discoveries. It’s not that there’s something in the water, but there could be something in the air.
The people of Guatemala embody the essence of their country in lively ceremonies, festivals, and colourful traditions. In Antigua, the sun falls behind the volcanoes, church bells ring, and fireworks accompany nightly fiestas, lit by lava and the galaxy.
Tourists from the lowlands are fine here, and can enjoy incredible scenery and awe-inspiring travel experiences. The extremes of Guatemala are not for everybody, but if embraced, they can lead to unforgettable high-altitude and high-octane moments.
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All text ©J. Thomson, 2022