17 Reasons To Visit The Volcanic Region of Catalonia, La Garrotxa

17 Reasons To Visit The Volcanic Region of Catalonia, La Garrotxa

La Garrotxa, the Volcanic Region of Catalonia, is one of the most beautiful, unique yet undiscovered regions of Catalonia. This region is set between the Pyrenees and Costa Brava and it is part of the Girona Pyrenees region, in the province of Girona. It borders with France on the northern parts, and it’s about 120 km from Barcelona, and 45 km from Girona.

Not many people know where La Garrotxa is, but visiting is worth it, for it is packed with interesting sights, untouched nature, and beautiful villages and small cities. If this isn’t enough to convince you to go, let me add that gourmets will find plenty of mouthwatering reasons to visit: food and wine in this part of the country are delicious.

La Garrotxa What?!

There’s probably not a person in the travelers’ community that doesn’t know about Barcelona. The capital of Catalonia is an incredible city; an old time favorite of Europeans and North Americans who go there for the ultimate weekend getaway.

Girona, the biggest city of northern Catalonia, is also becoming increasingly popular. Call it the power of budget airlines, which started flying there en masse to avoid the high landing fees of Barcelona El Prat airport. And Costa Brava is now a favorite summer destination thanks to its lovely beaches and charming villages.

Planning to go to Girona? Read my post “The Best Guide To The Things To Do In Girona.”

La Garrotxa though? Most people outside of Spain have never even heard of it. I was one of them, to be honest. I discovered it thanks to my obsession for volcanoes and volcano hikes, as I was researching for volcanoes in Europe. I was thrilled to find out that a place that was within easy reach from Sardinia was actually packed with extinct volcanoes, and home to some of the most incredible hikes in Europe.

By the way, if you are curious to know more about my experiences hiking active volcanoes, check out my posts Everything You Need To Know To Visit Mount Bromo, Indonesia and Everything You Need To Know When Going On A Hike Of Pacaya Volcano, In Guatemala.”

I visited La Garrotxa in October and spent 10 incredible days there. I foresee it will become a very popular international tourist destinations in the near future, for it has anything a traveler may want to.

In this post, I will highlight some of the reasons that make La Garrotxa a great travel destination, and share some tips to help you organize a trip there and make the most of it.

La Garrotxa

Sant Esteve, one of the nicest villages in La Garrotxa. Not many people outside of Spain know where it is – yet!

17 Excellent Reasons To Visit La Garrotxa

It is still quite undiscovered

One of the things I enjoyed the most about La Garrotxa is that it’s still relatively undiscovered. Don’t get me wrong: there are tourists around, but most of them are local ones, coming for a day trip or for a weekend getaway from Barcelona, or from the neighboring regions of France, on the other side of the Pyrenees. And those that visit come prepared, knowing that restaurants may not open at all on a Sunday, or that there’s no place to have breakfast on a Monday morning, because hotels and coffee shops deserve a rest day as well (and frankly, who am I to say they shouldn’t?).

Only in Besalù, quite possibly the nicest village in La Garrotxa, there were a bit more visitors, and even then it was hardly a crowd.

The overall impression I had in La Garrotxa is that of a place that throughout time has managed to retain all of its local character, all the while being very welcoming to those who want to discover it.

La Garrotxa

Besalu is one of the nicest villages in La Garrotxa

The villages are gorgeous

Scattered around La Garrotxa there are a bunch of small and at times tiny medieval villages. All of them are nicely preserved and worth exploring. They are the kind of places where you are likely to find reminders of the medieval past, such as narrow cobbled alleys, red roofs, old mills, church squares and medieval bridges

Among the villages worth exploring there are Sant Esteve d’en Bas, the most important village of the Vall d’en Bas, which was likely founded before the year 900 (the first mention of the village dates back to 904). The most important building in the village is the 12th century church. The views of the village from a distance, when walking to the nearby tiny (and just as pretty) Els Hostalets d’en Bas, are stunning.

Hostalets d’en Bas main feature are the pretty balconies decorated with geraniums, though I have to say that the sight of the church is also quite impressive. Joanetes, a nearby village, is in a beautiful setting, right on the slopes of the Puigsacalm mountain (where there are some of the nicest hiking trails of La Garrotxa).

Santa Pau is one of the most charming villages of La Garrotxa. Declared of Historical and Artistic importance in 1971, it has retained all its medieval charm, with tiny irregular alleys, walls and access points. The village was built around a Baron’s castle starting in the 13th century. The castle (which unfortunately can’t be visited) remained the residence of the lords, and later on the center of the village. The nicest view of the old historical center of Santa Pau is from a terrace located by a rather old fashioned (but extremely local) coffee shop called Can Pauet.

The most visited village in La Garrotxa is Besalú, and after having been there I can only say that I am not surprised it is: this small medieval village is incredibly charming. Once the commercial center of La Garrotxa, it’s quite simply a pleasant place to explore.

The first sight of Besalú that visitors get is that of the medieval stone bridge, Pont Vell. This was built in the 12th century in Romanesque style. If this is not impressive enough (as if!), the village has plenty else to offer. It is home to the Monastery of Sant Pere; Casa Cornellà, which is a nicely preserved medieval house; the church of Sant Julià and there also are the remains of a synagogue, a reminder of how the Jewish community thrived in Besalú and the rest of Alta Garrotxa, from the end of the 9th to the 15th century.

I also recommend going on a walk along the river – on both sides of it, if possible. The views of Pont Vell are equally gorgeous from both sides of the river; those of the village from the southern side are stunning; whereas on the northern side there are just as many nice viewpoints. The northern side is also where the “humble chair” is located. This is a nice piece of artwork that comes from a collaboration between Besalú inhabitants and local artists who create their version of a chair.

Read my post “11 Fantastic Attractions In Besalu, Spain.”

La Garrotxa

Olot is the main city in La Garrotxa – and it’s lovely

And so are the cities

Olot, capital of La Garrotxa, is one of the nicest places to visit in the region. It’s actually quite a small city, with only 35000 people living there. Set on a plain crossed by the Fluvià and Riudaura rivers, and surrounded my mountains, Olot was an important market center already in the 13th century.

Olot is a fantastic place to get a good feel for the local atmosphere (people are lovely!), to go shopping, and to get a better idea of the history and culture of La Garrotxa.

The city is packed with small yet interesting museums, beautiful buildings such as the Church of Sant Esteve and the Renaissance Claustre del Carme. Adding to this, there are a bunch of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings scattered around town, and the small but lively Mercat d’Olot, an indoor market where it is possible to buy the best meat, fish, vegetables and fruits produced locally, as well as bread, spices and nuts. The city also hosts a couple of weekly markets where locals go to buy foods, crafts and even clothes.

Olot is known as the “City of Volcanoes,” and it is part of La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park – so you can really see why I wanted to visit it! Montsacopa and Montolivet are easily accessible from the city center (more about the hikes and the volcanoes of La Garrotxa in a bit!); but there also are Garrinada and Bisaroques.

The Volcano Museum, in Olot, and the Parc Nou Botanic Garden, outside the city center, are two excellent places to learn more about the volcanoes La Garrotxa.

Last, but definitely not least, Olot has some of the best accommodation and dining options in Garrotxa. There are good places to stay for all budgets, as well as restaurants that go from budget eateries to fine dining.

La Garrotxa

The Museu del Sants in Olot is one of the most unique of La Garrotxa

There are some truly quirky museums

Forget about your typical art gallery or archeology exhibit. Museums in La Garrotxa are truly interesting. Besalu Miniature Museum is a fun place to visit if you are in town, a good place to spend an hour or so.

Another incredibly quirky museum is the Museu del Sants (aka the Museum of Saints) in Olot. It’s the kind of place where visitors go to peep in, and end up spending a couple of hours learning about what once used to be the most important craft in La Garrotxa. Indeed, Olot used to be famous for its production of religious images, and there used to be dozens of workshops scattered around town where statues of saints were manufactured to then be sold around the world.

Nowadays, the production of religious images has been moved to Olot Museum of Saints, which is housed in a beautiful neo-gothic building in the center of Olot. All visitors are handed a headset, so they can browse the exhibit while learning about the creation of the statues. On the lower level, through a glass wall, they can observe artists at work as they create new statues.

More traditional museums include the Museu Garrotxa, in Olot, which has a nice exhibit with pieces of the School of Olot; and the Volcano Museum, which is located in a 19th century villa in the Parc Nou Botanical Gardens of Olot, and explains a great deal about the formation and activity of volcanoes – it’s a great place to learn more about the Volcanic Region of La Garrotxa.

TIP: Make sure to check the opening times of museums on their website before visiting, as they vary depending on the season and the day.

La Garrotxa

One of the best examples of Art Nouveau in La Garrotxa is this beautiful building, in the historical center of Olot

And wonderful examples of Art Nouveau

There are some incredible examples of Art Nouveau scattered in La Garrotxa – thanks to the work of many Catalan artists who took a liking into the curved lines, decorations that were rich in details, plant motifs and asymmetry. I only got to see some (there are really many!) but those who are interested in this cultural and artistic movement will be pleased to know that there is a La Garrotxa Art Nouveau route which can be explored from the Carrilet cycle lane.

Olot is the best place to visit for anybody who’s interested in this artistic style, with several beautifully preserved buildings in the center of town.

One of the most famous Art Nouveau buildings in Olot is Casa Gassiot, on Carrer Sant Rafael. The Firal (market place) is home to two buildings: the Solà-Morales House, which in 2000 was included in the European Art Nouveau Route; and the Gaietà-Vila House, an eye-catching colorful building. Some more Art Nouveau buildings can be found along the ramblas of Olot. It just takes an observing eye to spot them, as some are shadowed by the trees.

More examples of Art Nouveau in La Garrotxa can be found in La Vall de Bianya – the most famous works here are the Mas La Riba, which is located in L’Hostalnou; Casa de la Coromina and the altar piece and entrance door of the Romanesque church of San Salvador de Bianya.

In San Feliu de Pallerols there is the Can Casas, a building that nowadays hosts a chemist, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century (which marks the final years of the Art Nouveau movement) and decorated with colored glass, painted ceramics and worked wood and iron.

La Garrotxa

Santa Margarida is one of the many Romanesque churches of La Garrotxa

Romanesque churches and hermitages are stunning

La Garrotxa is packed with Romanesque churches and hermitages. These are churches built in a very simple, functional style that started appearing in the 10th century, and they all have in common the thick walls, the curved ceiling, the tiny windows and the layout that follows that of the Latin cross. Romanesque churches are often in the countryside, or in what appears to be the middle of nowhere.

I am a massive fan of Romanesque churches. My parents got married in one in Sardinia – in fact, it’s a family tradition as pretty much all my family members got married in the same church. This is to say, I was truly happy to come across a bunch of Romanesque churches in La Garrotxa – though I couldn’t possibly visit them all.

Most of the Romanesque churches of La Garrotxa are still active and consecrated, but you will usually find them locked as they are only used for special occasions and celebrations.

TIP: If you are particularly interested in visiting one or more Romanesque churches in La Garrotxa, get in touch with the tourism office beforehand and look for the person who has the keys.

If you are particularly keen on Romanesque churches, there is a dedicated route. The good news is that, even if you don’t want to follow the dedicated route, you are bound to see many of them – just as I did.

One that I truly loved discovering is that of Santa Margarida de Sacot. Aside from the fact that the church looks really pretty, it’s the setting that caught me by surprise: the church was built at the center of the crater of Volcano Santa Margarida, and – like many others in La Garrotxa – was destroyed during the earthquakes of 1427-1428, and eventually rebuilt in 1865.

Not far from it, Sant Miquel de Sacot is another example of beautifully preserved Romanesque Church in La Garrotxa, which was however enlarged in the 18th century following a more neoclassical style.

San Miquel de Castellò Hermitage can be reached on a hike from Hostalets d’en Bas – it takes about one hour to get there on a steady uphill trail, and once there you can either go back to Hostalets or continue to Joanetes. The church is pretty, and the view of the valley from there is breathtaking.

Another hermitage that requires quite an effort to be visited is that of Santa Magdalena del Mont. Various hiking trails of medium to high level difficulty lead all the way to the hermitage, from where there are beautiful views of La Garrotxa below.

I stumbled on the Church of Santi Fructuosi de Ursiniano and the Sanctuari dels Arcs while hiking. Both of them are beautifully kept and isolated, but, as many other Romanesque churches in La Garrotxa, closed.

Two churches which are truly lovely and, contrary to the other ones I have mentioned, easy to reach, are those of Santa Margarida de Bianya and Sant Miquel de Pineda. In the first case,right next to the church there is a beautiful boutique hotel from whose rooms there are splendid views of the Pyrenees.In Sant Miquel de Pineda the former rectory (the house where the priest used to live) has been restored and is now a cozy bed and breakfast.

La Garrotxa

Volcano Croscat is one of the many of La Garrotxa – it was once used as a quarry

It is packed with volcanoes

Volcanoes are what drew my attention to La Garrotxa to begin with. La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park is an incredible example of volcanic landscape. The region is packed with lava flows there are 40 inactive volcanoes. The park has a multitude of hiking and biking trails, some going to the craters of inactive volcanoes, others through the thick forest.

TIP: If you want to get a stunning view of the volcanic landscape, go on a hot air balloon ride. It’s costly, but mark it down and one of the most highly recommended experiences in La Garrotxa.

The most accessible volcanoes in La Garrotxa are those in Olot. You can easily walk to the top of Montsacopa from the center of Olot. This is a short hike that takes between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the trail you pick (there is one that starts behind the center of the city, and another that starts next to the cemetery). At the top of the volcano there is the beautiful Sant Francesc church as well as a 19th century watch tower at the top: the views from there are incredible. Montolivet, also in Olot, is an easy hike that goes around the crater (which is now covered in vegetation!) and eventually along the banks of the river Fluvià.

TIP: Montsacopa and Montolivet are easy hikes and you can do both in one day. Plan to have lunch break in Olot to enjoy La Garrotxa volcanic cuisine at La Quinta Justa in between the two hikes.

Another nice volcano in La Garrotxa that can be accessed quite easily is Volcano Croscat, a Strombolian volcano which with its 160 meters is the highest volcanic cone in the Iberian Peninsula. One of its sides used to be a quarry, which can now be seen when hiking in La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park. Nowadays it’s a place where families enjoy spending a day out, and schools take their students on day trips.

If you are curious to know what it’s like to hike an active Strombolian volcano, head over to my post “Why Stromboli is the best volcano hike.”

Volcano Santa Margarida is a freato-magmatic volcano. Here, right inside the crater, there is the Romanesque church of Santa Margarida. Nowadays the crater floor is pasture land, while the slopes are covered in a beautiful oak forest.

TIP: Volcano Croscat and Volcano Santa Margarida can be seen on the same day when visiting La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park. There are several trails in the park that can be combined to see as many places as possible and are all easily accessible.

I recommend adding the Fageda d’en Jordà on the itinerary: this is a beautiful beech forest, at the center of which there is also an organic dairy factory (which children love visiting). Leaving the Fageda, the trail goes by the beautiful Romanesque church of Sant Miquel Sacot.

Garrotxa

Thanks to the Pyrenees, there are some incredible hikes in La Garrotxa

And incredible hikes

La Garrotxa is an incredible hiking destination. People from Costa Brava and even those who live in Barcelona go there on day or weekend trips to hike. Some of the best trails are in La Garrotxa Volcanic Natural Park. As I have already pointed out, the natural setting of the park, with its beech forests, extinct volcanoes and nature reserves is ideal for hiking, and sure enough I made the most of it.

But there is more. La Garrotxa is set between Costa Brava and the Pyrenees and counts with an excellent network of short and medium distance trails of various levels of difficulty, though there also are the longer distance trails that go right in the Pyrenees.

All trails in La Garrotxa are marked. The Vìas Verdes once were railway lines throughout Spain. Nowadays, they are a famous network of trails for hikers and cyclists (and some parts are even wheelchair accessible): these trails are marked in green. In some cases, the Vìas Verdes coincide with the GR trails (some of the toughest hiking trails that can be found across Europe), which also run through La Garrotxa and which in Spain are marked with white and red lines.

I have walked parts of Vìas Verdes, but I have the mostly followed the Itinerannia trails, a network of paths in the counties of El Ripollés, La Garrotxa and L’Alt Empordà. These are marked in yellow and, like the Vìas Verdes, at times coincide with the GR trails.

The good thing about Itinerannia is that there are trails of various lengths and levels of difficulty. At times, I put together various short trails so that I could continue walking; other times, I walked longer and significantly challenging trails, for which you’d be better off hiring a guide or joining a group.

Read my post on why I don’t recommend hiking alone.

TIP: Most trails in the Pyrenees of La Garrotxa are well marked, with either vertical signs or marks painted on rocks and tree trunks. Keep in mind that at times the mud and the leaves cover the signs, and the heavy rain deletes the paint, so you really have to stay alert not to get lost!

The best thing to do is to get a good map of the trail you want to follow, and if possible download an app. Itinerannia has an app with all the trails. Another good one which I have used and found helpful is View Ranger, which once you upload the tracks works offline (so also in areas where there is no network) and tells you exactly where you are and in which direction to go.

Needless to say, if you are planning to hike in La Garrotxa (or anywhere else, actually) I recommend wearing appropriate hiking gear – first and foremost good hiking boots. Stay tuned as I will be writing a detailed packing list for those who plan to hike in La Garrotxa.

If you plan to do some hiking in La Garrotxa, make sure to read my post “The Most Beautiful Hikes In Garrotxa: A One Week Itinerary”. You may also want read my post about the best hikes in the Pyrenees.

The Camino de Santiago goes right through it

One of my biggest dreams, as a hiker and a lover of nature, mountains and anything cultural, is to walk the Camino de Santiago. This is one of the most famous walks in the world. I have walked bits and pieces of it in the North of Spain, starting in the Basque Country and going all the way to Galicia.

One of the things I didn’t know about La Garrotxa and was quite happy to discover is that the Camino Catalan route of the Camino de Santiago goes right through it, starting in Les Planes d’Hostoles and continuing through Sant Feliu de Pallerols and Sant Esteve d’en Bas.

La Garrotxa

There are many beautiful waterfalls in La Garrotxa

Waterfalls add a refreshing touch 

I visited La Garrotxa in October, when the temperatures were incredibly pleasant. Yet, this part of the country does get quite hot in the summer time. The good news is that La Garrotxa is packed with lovely waterfalls and swimming holes, which are easily accessible on foot, by bike and by car.

The name San Joan Les Fonts quite obviously indicates the vicinity to water of this lovely village. There are various natural springs in the area – the Ruta de les Fonts takes to a few of them.

Another route in La Garrotxa that takes to a couple of swimming holes and some lovely small waterfalls is the Ruta dels Gorgs (gorgs actually means bathing pool), which is a circular hiking trail of 12 km that starts and ends in the lovely Santa Pau, and takes to the lovely natural pools of Can Batlle and sanctuary of Els Arcs.

San Feliu de Pallerols is crossed by the river Brugent, a tributary to river Ter. The municipality is dotted with around 50 natural springs – several of them can be easily reached by foot. The nicest ones are the Gorg d’en Duran and the Gorg de la Mola. 

The views are just incredible

If you, like me, enjoy a good view, you’ll be in for a real treat. La Garrotxa is packed with viewpoints from where to catch a breathtaking view. The nicest views of Olot are those from Volcano Montsacopa. It’s an easy hike from the city center, and the views of the medieval town are darling.

The view of Santa Pau from the terrace by Can Pauet, as well as those of the village from various viewpoints, are precious.

The hermitage of Sant Miquel de Castellò, which can be reached on a steady uphill hike from either Joanetes or El Hostalets d’en Bas, is the best place to get stunning views of the Vall d’en Bas. The hike to Santa Magdalena and of Puigsacalm also afford some of the best views in La Garrotxa.

La Garrotxa

The views of La Garrotxa from a hot air balloon are breathtaking

Especially from a hot air balloon

Yet, the best views of La Garrotxa are those from the sky. A hot air balloon ride is a fabulous way to get full appreciation of the volcanic landscape of Alta Garrotxa as it reaches an elevation of up to 1600 meters above sea level. Throughout the flight, the guide provides plenty of information about the area, pointing to various places of natural interest as well as landmarks, and gladly shares a number of anecdotes.

These are the best hot air balloon rides in La Garrotxa:

Flights depart at around sunrise from Vol de Coloms, right outside Santa Pau and last between one and two hours (mine was just short of two hours). Depending on the size of the gondola, there can be up to 13 passengers on the same ride.

A hot air balloon ride is quite costly, but the experience is worth every penny. During the flight, passengers get to enjoy a glass of cava, munch on traditional Catalan sweets, and even celebrate birthdays.

Once down, passengers are taken back to the base camp where they can enjoy a traditional brunch of La Garrotxa, with lots of dishes of what is locally known as volcanic cuisine. This usually involves a lot of cold cuts, traditional sausages (which here are called botifarra), beans which are typical of the region, and lots of bread and tomatoes.

TIP: Hot air balloons don’t fly if it rains, if it is windy or if there is poor visibility. If you are keen on going on a hot air balloon ride, make sure to allow at least some flexibility and plan to spend an extra day or two in La Garrotxa, in case the flight has to cancelled on the day you are booked in for. The weather was quite bad for a few days and the flight was cancelled when I was scheduled to go, but thankfully I was still in the region when it finally cleared and I could enjoy a fabulous flight!

La Garrotxa

Food in La Garrotxa is delicious

The food is delicious

One of the perks of visiting La Garrotxa is that the food is really delicious. There are restaurants for all budgets (I am a fan of local eateries that serve home cooked style food) that serve food for all tastes: fine cuisine, international, indigenous and traditional food.

The soil is incredibly fertile in Garrotxa, with the result that local products are of a very high quality. The region produces onions, potatoes, buckweat, white haricot beans (known locally as fesols), kidney beans and even truffles which are used to accompany pork and other meats. Local goat cheeses are renowned too.

La Garrotxa is known for its “volcanic cuisine,” a network of local chefs and restaurants that have been actively promoting the products and recipes of the area throughout Catalonia and the rest of the country.

One of the nicest dishes to try in La Garrotxa is the “patates de Olot” (Olot potatoes) which are stuffed with a mixture of ground meat, onions and then fried until crispy on the outside, and moist and tasty on the inside. Coca is a sweet bread cake, often served for breakfast but at times even with pork scratchings (in which case it is called coca de llardons)

Adding to the cuisine, there are also the drinks. The local liquor is ratafia, which is made from green walnuts, mixed herbs and spices. 

Especially chocolate 

I honestly never thought of La Garrotxa as a place for chocolate. However, rain forced me to change my plans on my second day there, and as I looked for things to do, I enrolled in a chocolate making workshop at Pastisseria Ferrer in Olot. That’s how I ended up spending more than two hours (which really went in a zip!) with Jordi Ferrer, who showed me the secrets to some of his nicest chocolate pralines.

Jordi uses high quality ingredients to prepare some unique pralines. My favorite one is the salted corn (yes, you read that right!) one, for it is crispy, salty yet sweet and bitter at the same time, and it melts in your mouth.

If enrolling in a chocolate workshop isn’t your idea of having a good time, make sure to at least pay a visit to Pastisseria Ferrer to try some of the pralines. The bonus is that it is located in a beautiful historical building.

La Garrotxa

A lovely elderly man I met in Olot, La Garrotxa: every day he goes on a walk with his beloved cat.

It suits any kind of traveler

Whether you are a keen hiker looking to spend your days walking your way up volcanoes and mountains, or you are more into history and culture and like visiting historical sites, churches and museums, La Garrotxa has anything you may want and you will find plenty of things to keep you entertained for days.

La Garrotxa is perfect for any kind of traveler, too. Solo travelers like myself will find it safe and welcoming, and families with children will find that there are plenty of fun activities to keep even the youngest entertained.

Locals are welcoming

One of the things that I enjoyed the most in La Garrotxa is how welcoming, helpful and genuine people are. Whenever they spotted me from their balconies and had the impression I may be lost, they called out and suggested a route to follow to get where I wanted to go. When they noticed that I was full of appreciation for the views I was sharing with them, they engaged in conversation about their lives, their city and even their pets.

Of course, the fact that I speak Spanish (people in La Garrotxa speak Catalan, but they all speak Spanish as well) helped out a lot. But I think that such genuine and kind hearted people would be helpful no matter the language barrier.

Practical Tips To Organize A Trip To La Garrotxa

How to get to and around La Garrotxa

La Garrotxa is easy to get to. These are the various options available. Train travel is not one of them.

By Plane

You can either fly to Barcelona El Prat, which is the second largest airport in Spain, or Girona, which is actually closer to La Garrotxa. Both airports are served by budget airlines. If you arrive by plane, you then have to make your way to La Garrotxa by either public transportation or car. Various companies offer competitive rates for car rental. You can check prices here.

By Car

It takes less than two hours to drive from Barcelona to Olot, the main city in La Garrotxa. Driving time from Girona is even shorter – 45 to 50 minutes to Olot. If you are thinking of renting a car, you can check the rates here.

By Bus

The main cities of La Garrotxa are well connected to the rest of Costa Brava; but it is trickier to get to some of the smaller villages and attractions in the area. Unless you want to call a taxi any time you need to go somewhere far, I recommend that you rent a car – find out the prices of car rental here. Teisa Bus website has updated information on the bus routes, times and fares.

La Garrotxa

Guided tours go to all the nicest places to visit in La Garrotxa, such as Santa Pau

On A Guided Tour

Keep in mind that I recommend spending at least one week in La Garrotxa. If you are tight on time and would still like to explore La Garrotxa on a day trip when visiting Barcelona or Costa Brava, a guided tour is probably your best bet as you will be taken to all the nicest places to visit, and you won’t have to worry about transportation. There are guided tours of La Garrotxa departing from Barcelona and Girona.

These are some of the best guided tours of La Garrotxa departing from Barcelona:

There even is an Alta Garrotxa half day hike from Girona.

There even are multi-day guided tours of La Garrotxa that involve activities such as hiking, biking, exploring various villages and other parts of the Pyrenees and Costa Brava.

When to visit La Garrotxa

All in all, the time you visit La Garrotxa really depends on what you want to do there and what your interests are. If you like hiking, the best time to go is either spring or fall. I visited La Garrotxa in mid October. The temperatures were mild and pleasant, and though it was mostly sunny when I visited, the whole of Southern Europe was hit by a wave of terrible storms, so even La Garrotxa got quite a bit of rain.

TIP: No matter the season you intend to visit La Garrotxa, make sure to be prepared for the rain with rain gear and boots, as the chances of rain are high throughout the year.

La Garrotxa

La Rectoria is among the nicest places to stay in La Garrotxa

The best places to stay in La Garrotxa

La Garrotxa is packed with good hotels for all tastes and budgets. These are scattered around the region, and as I moved from one place to the other, I visited quite a few of them.

These are the nicest places to stay in La Garrotxa:

Where to eat in La Garrotxa

Here’s a secret: no matter where you go in La Garrotxa, food is bound to be good. Having said that, I have had the pleasure to dine at a bunch of excellent places.

Ca l’Esteve, in Els Hostalets d’En Bas, is a nice small local restaurant that, judging by the amount of people who were there on a week day, must be very popular. The good, fresh food and the unbeatable prices (a mere 12 euro for a set menu!) explain why.

La Quinta Justa, in the center of Olot, is one of the restaurants adhering to the Volcanic Cuisine movement. The restaurant is located in a beautiful building, and the food is delicious. It’s so popular that it is better to make reservations, especially during the weekend.

La Deu, right outside Olot, serves delicious local food and impressive portions. One of its specialties if Olot potatoes (you can even order them to take away).

La Cuina del Mercat is located right next to the covered market in Olot. The service is friendly and informal and the food delicious. It’s very popular with the locals.

Other useful information

More information about La Garrotxa can be found on the website of the local tourism board. Most cities and villages also have their own website, although at times the site isn’t completely up to date.

Stay tuned as I will be writing more posts about La Garrotxa!

Have you ever been to La Garrotxa, or do you plan to go? Feel free to leave a comment with your questions!

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Patronat de Turisme Costa Brava Girona during my trip to La Garrotxa for the #InPyrenees #LaGarrotxa #lagarrotxatotlany and #itinerannia campaign, and wish to thank them for helping me out with the organization. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain my own. 

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Everything You Need To Know To Visit Mount Etna

Everything You Need To Know To Visit Mount Etna

Mount Etna is the cherry on the cake of my volcano expedition to Sicily. After hiking the Gran Cratere in Vulcano and Mount Stromboli, I am looking forward to conquering Mount Etna. After all, it has been a dream of mine for a long time. And the regular news reports on its eruptions have been making it all the more fascinating to me.

Traveling to Sicily? Make sure to read my posts andA Fantastic 8 Days Sicily Itinerary.”

Etna is located on the south east of Sicily, not far from Catania. That’s only a one hour flight from Cagliari, Sardinia, where I am based. I really can’t find any more excuses for not visiting: it is time to finally go.

Mount Etna

The mighty peaks and craters of Mount Etna

A Few Facts About Mount Etna

With its 3350 meters, Mount Etna may not be the highest volcano in Europe (that’s Teide, in Tenerife), but it certainly is the largest one with a base circumference of around 150 km.

Mount Etna actually is a series of stratovolcanoes – a number of volcanoes built of layers of lava flows, ash and blocks of unmelted stone. It has four craters at its summit: the central ones, called Bocca Nuova and Voragine; the Northeast crater; and the newest Southeast one (formed by the 1978 eruption).

Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Europe, and one of the most actives in the world, with Strombolian kind of eruptions (producing ash, tephra and lava fountains) that constantly change its shape and elevation.

In 1669, a large eruption destroyed part of the port of Catania. Since then, eruptions have been regular and of a smaller scale, though rather violent. These kind of eruptions are called “paroxysms.” The last recorded one has been in February 2017, when 10 visitors were injured by boiling rocks ejected from a crater on the south-east side.

I am hoping to experience at least one small eruption during my hike of Mount Etna, though my friends call me crazy when I mention that. Either way, I am looking forward to the hike.

However, things don’t quite go as planned and I end up not hiking Etna at all. But I enjoy it all the same, and I plan to go again to conquer it. Here’s what happened, and why I didn’t hike it but still enjoyed it.

If you do plan on hiking Mount Etna, here are some guided tours I’d recommend:

Mount Etna

Mount Etna as seen from Bosco Ciancio

Mount Etna: Volcano or Mirage?

Mount Etna is the very last stop of my volcano extravaganza tour of Sicily (a region that should always be included to any trip to Italy). Four days, 3 volcanoes: it can’t get better than that. I can’t wait to be there.

The cold I have had the week before seems to be finally gone, and though I have felt a bit chilly while at the top of Mount Stromboli, I conclude that the uneasiness I am feeling is pure exhaustion due to the 7 weeks of uninterrupted travel, from Italy to Sri Lanka, then to the Maldives and Spain before ending up in Sicily; the change of a few time zones and of a number of beds I hardly care to remember.

To read more about my hike of Stromboli, check my post “Why Mount Stromboli Is The Best Volcano Hike.”

It’s really early on Saturday morning, when I board a hydrofoil that is meant to take me from Stromboli to Milazzo. There, I catch a ride to Bosco Ciancio, near Biancavilla, on the southern slopes of Etna. The closer we get there, the clearer I see the mighty volcano. And the stronger the headache and body ache I have been feeling since I woke up get.

By the time I reach my hotel in the early afternoon, all I want to do is crawl in bed after taking a strong dose of paracetamol.

I suppose sleeping and paracetamol work, because a few hours later I wake up feeling better, though definitely not my 100% and not ready for a difficult hike the morning after.

The good news is that I can still visit Mount Etna without having to hike it. I decide to opt for the soft approach, thinking that I can always take advantage of the direct flights to Catania in the future, to go on that much dreamt hike.

Mount Etna

The moon-like landscape at the top of Mount Etna

A Guide To Visiting Mount Etna Without The Hassle

The starting point to visit Mount Etna on the southern slope is the complex where Rifugio Sapienza is located, at little over 1900 meters above sea level. The area is lined by souvenir shops, coffee shops and restaurants.

I wonder if the owners are not afraid that eruptions and lava flows may destroy their businesses. I know that lava flows have destroyed houses and businesses in the past. On my way to Etna, I spot a house whose only visible remain is the roof – the rest covered by solidified lava. I conclude that business may be quite good if the owners are willingly taking the risk to have their shop destroyed.

I walk past the shops and restaurants to jump on a cable car that takes me to an elevation of 2500 meters. The view from the cable car is stunning, but just a prelude to what I will see once at the top. Every now and then I see people walking up, following a rather uneven trail (in the lava flows). I would have done the same, had I not been so sick the day before.

Once at the top, I hop on a 4×4 bus that, driving along the desert slopes of the volcano, takes me to 2950 meters above sea level, by the Torre del Filosofo (Philosopher’s Tower), where I and the rest of the visitors are greeted by Paride, a local guide and vulcanologist.

Paride takes the group around the caldera and shows the solidified lava flows, as well as the results of the latest eruptions and the fumaroles. We stand in awe of the Valle del Bove (Valley of the Ox), a large caldera in the shape of a horseshoe on the eastern slope of Mount Etna.

Mount Etna

The road that goes all the way up to the Torre del Filosofo was destroyed by the latest eruption

I ask if eruptions cause any threat to the local life, and Paride mentions that the lava flows occasionally threaten agriculture, transportation, and at times even the local towns surrounding Mount Etna. He points to the road that the 4×4 buses use to drive visitors up from the cable car and tells me that the park authorities regularly have to re-build it, as it gets destroyed by eruptions.

He mentions that in the winter, people go skiing on Mount Etna. I try to imagine how incredible it must be to ski on an active volcano, snow all around, and at the same time have a view of the Mediterranean sea in the distance.

I can see why the locals call it “Mongibello” (the beautiful mountain): Mount Etna is simply splendid, in a frightening yet charming kind of way. It is a huge resource for local life. Its fertile soil is perfect for the cultivation of olives, grapes and fruit – some of the best Italian olive oil, wines, mandarines and oranges are produced here. And the revenue produced by tourism is thriving, with ski tourism in the winter, and hiking the rest of the year.

As I hop back on the 4×4 bus that takes me to the cable car, I vow to visit again.

Mount Etna

The stunning view from Mount Etna spans all the way to the Mediterranean Sea

Practical Facts

The best access point to Mount Etna is on the southern side, where Rifugio Sapienza is located. That’s also where the cable car is located.

There’s various ways to visit Mount Etna, reflecting the difference in one’s budget. Keep in mind that due to the high activity of the vulcano, it is necessary to hire a guide in order to go all the way to the peak craters. Indeed, the fumaroles close to the craters eject toxic gases whose direction change depending on the wind. It is not uncommon for guides to have to go rescue groups that venture on their own and eventually get stuck because unable to breathe.

The cheapest (and most difficult) way is to walk all the way up via the path that follows the cable car.

A cable car ride costs €33 for the round trip.

A combined ticket that includes a cable car ride, a 4×4 ride to the Torre del Filosofo, and a guided tour around the calderas costs around €63.

Guided treks to the peak craters start from Rifugio Sapienza and cost around €85. The meeting time is normally 9:30 am. The excursion starts with the cable car ride to 2500 meters, and is then followed by a guided hike all the way to the peak craters and back. Please it is not recommended to hike Mount Etna alone. Check out my post on why I don’t go hiking alone.

Mount Etna

At 3000 meters above sea level, the temperatures are rather chilly even in October

Gearing up for the visit

Whichever month one plans to visit Mount Etna, it is important to keep in mind that there’s at least a 10 degrees Celsius difference between the temperature at the base of the volcano and the top. I have visited in mid October, and it was quite cold. I can only imagine that it is really cold during the winter, when Mount Etna is covered in snow.

The following list is applicable to those visiting Mount Etna during the warmest months:

  • Hiking boots: the terrain is rocky and sandy at the same time and that extra ankle support will be needed.
  • Hiking pants, a thermal t-shirt, a sweater, and a warmer wind proof jacket: it does get cold at 3000 meters above sea level! I also recommend taking a scarf and a hat, and gloves to be on the safe side.
  • Sunglasses: the sun can be fierce on the eyes in the summer months, and there’s a lot of dust flying around.
  • A daypack to carry the extra clothes, plenty of water (especially if planning to hike) and food and snacks.
  • A camera to catch the amazing views.
Mount Etna

A gorgeous aerial view of Bosco Ciancio and its surroundings

Where to stay and eat near Mount Etna

There are various places to stay and eat near Mount Etna – either in the villages around it, or even in Catania for those who prefer staying in a big city.

After weeks of non-stop travel, I was in desperate need for a quiet place where I’d hear no noise of traffic and where I’d be sure to get proper sleep.

I opt to stay at Bosco Ciancio, a beautifully refurbished rural house, once the ancient manor of the Dukes of Ciancio. The building, dating back to the 1800s, is located in Etna Park and completely immersed in nature. All rooms have stunning views of the countryside, and there is a lovely internal garden and an outside patio.

Mount Etna

The main hall of Bosco Ciancio is the perfect place to relax.

The reception area, where the bar is located, is stylishly furnished and it’s a cozy place to relax while reading a book or sipping a glass of wine.

The restaurant at Bosco Ciancio offers meals that reflect the local tradition and which are carefully prepared using local and seasonal ingredients. The breakfast buffet includes homemade cakes, jams and local chestnut honey. In fact, as I go for a walk in the forest I spot a number of hives.

The dinner menu changes every day and generally includes a selection of appetizers, pasta dishes and main courses, with also vegetarian and vegan options.

The quietness of the location, the charming environment and the cozy room make my stay at Bosco Ciancio simply perfect. I manage to get over 9 solid hours sleep, which is a real treat!

Click here for the latest rates at Bosco Ciancio and here for reviews.

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Bosco Ciancio during my visit of Mount Etna. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

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Everything You Need To Know To Visit Vulcano Island, Sicily

Everything You Need To Know To Visit Vulcano Island, Sicily

I went to Vulcano island to experience yet another volcano hike, and discovered a place that has so much more to offer than I ever expected.

When I finally arrive in Vulcano island, after more than 12 hours of traveling from Spain, the night has fallen already. I have heard the island (one of the seven of the Aeolian Islands archipelago, and the closest one to Milazzo, in Sicily) is beautiful. But I can’t confirm this, right now: it’s so dark that I can’t see a thing.

I have also heard that Vulcano island has a strong smell of sulphur. This, I am immediately able to confirm, on the other hand. The air does smell like rotten eggs. I wonder if I’ll get used to it.

The acrid smell of sulphur is only one of the many things that will remind you there’s a reason why Vulcano island has that name. It’s the same smell I sensed on other volcanoes, such as Masaya in Nicaragua, or Mount Bromo in Indonesia. Volcanic activity here has been going on since 120000 years. There are craters and calderas all over. It’s what prompted me to visit.

In this post, I share a few facts about the island of Volcano and some tips on how to make the most of it.

Vulcano

Vulcanello peninsula can be seen from the Gran Cratere of Vulcano

A Guide To The Things To Do Vulcano Island, Sicily

Take in the incredible views

The first thing you need to do when in Volcano island is taking in the splendid views. If you have a chance, a stay at Therasia Resort is a guarantee of a stunning view. I stayed there and every morning marveled at the sight that spread in front of my eyes. The light is magic at that time of day. You will get to see Lipari, the biggest of the Aeolian Islands. In the distance, you’ll see Alicudi, Filicudi, Salina and Stromboli – one of the most fun islands to visit.

Read about my adventure in Stromboli on my post “Why Mount Stromboli is the best volcano hike.”

If you look at your back from Therasia, you will be able to see the base of a volcano. That is Vulcanello and it is one of the many volcanoes on Vulcano island.

Vulcano

The mud of Vulcano island is said to have beneficial properties

Explore the villages 

I visited Vulcano at the end of October. By then, the buzz of the summer months is gone, and with it the crowds of tourists. Most businesses close at the end of October and only the roughly 500 people that live in Vulcano throughout the year will remain. The small villages are lovely to explore, and with them the surroundings. While tourism remains the first revenue for Vulcano, there are a lot of vineyards and olive groves.

Enjoy the beaches

Whether you visit Vulcano during the spring, summer or early fall, make sure to visit the beaches. There are two beaches on each side of the isthmus that connects the main island to a smaller one known as Vulcanello. Both beaches are characterized by dark, volcanic sand. It’s so different from the white beaches of Sardinia I am used to, or from the incredibly turquoise waters of the Maldives you may be thinking of. Yet the sea is incredibly transparent.

Go to the mud baths

Vulcano is famous for the mud baths and to be fair you don’t want to miss them. They are said to have incredibly beneficial properties – for example they cure asthma, which I suffer from. It is only €3 to get in, but the sulphur smell is overpowering. Be prepared for that.

Climb the faraglioni

Right where the mud baths are located, there are the beautiful “faraglioni,” the rock stacks from which you can get a good view of the bay. Keep in mind that it is not officially permitted to walk up (though there is a trail) as apparently people jump over the fence and fall, which leads to a call for rescue. It took me some convincing to the guard at the entrance. You may give it a try, but don’t say I told you so!

Vulcano

The clear waters and the “acque calde” of Vulcano are inviting for a swim, even in the fall

Swim in the acque calde

One of the unmissable things to do in Vulcano island is swimming in its famous “acque calde” (warm waters). Tens of submarine volcanic fumaroles eject hot steam, giving the water the effect of a natural jacuzzi. If you aren’t a fan of the cold waters of the Mediterranean, this transparent stretch of sea will be the perfect spot for a swim!

Have a granita

Much like the rest of Sicily, Vulcano is a perfect place to have a granita. There are a few coffee shops where you can pop in to get one. I like the one right in front of the harbour because the views are lovely. It’s a nice way to relax and indulge a bit before continuing exploring the island.

Go for a hike

With so many volcanoes, it is only obvious that one of the best things to do in Vulcano island is hiking.

The hike to the Gran Cratere is meant to be a sweet, easy hike, yet rewarding. Most people hike it independently, but if you want to get some facts right about the island and its volcanoes, I recommend hiring a guide (besides, I am not a fan of hiking alone – and here’s why).

A hiking tour of Vulcano typically stops at Vulcanello, located on the north of Vulcano. This used to be a separate island, formed with an eruption in 183 BC, which through a series of eruptions, was eventually joined to Vulcano via a small isthmus by 1550 AC.

Vulcano

The view of Lipari from the caldera of Vulcanello

Vulcanello was the youngest vulcano of the island, and the one with the shortest life too. It’s fairly easy to reach once the guide points the trail, which is well hidden in the vegetation. There’s a very large caldera – a volcanic depression that was formed after a violent volcanic eruption, when the cone of a volcano collapses in the space left after the magma is expelled.

The second stop during the hike is Valle dei Mostri (Monster Valley), located in Vulcanello. This looks almost like a natural amphitheater, with statues all around – which actually are the result of the erosion of the lava rock by the sea and the wind. They look like monsters – hence the name of the place.

Nowadays, only a few remain. With time, many have been completely eroded. Others have been taken away by the owners of local villas to place them in their gardens. I am still baffles as to why the local authorities have allowed this to happen.

Vulcano

The eroded lava stone took the shape of a dinosaur

The final stop will be Gran Cratere. Most people start hiking in the late afternoon, and while during the fall the temperatures will be pleasant (especially if you get a nice marine breeze), this is not a hike you should underestimate on warmer days.

The view during the hike is so beautiful that you’ll often stop for photos. From the top, you can see all of the Aeolian Islands archipelago – Lipari and Salina, really close; Alicudi, Filicudi, Stromboli and Panarea in the distance. On a very clear day it is also possible to see the northern coast of Sicily and Etna.

It takes less than one hour to reach the main crater, known as Caldera de La Fossa. The caldera is huge, with a 500 meters diameter. The last eruption here occurred in 1890, but there are plenty of fumaroles that eject steam. It isn’t possible to get inside the crater, because the concentration of gas that is accumulated in the depression makes the air almost impossible to breathe.

Vulcano

A splendid view of the Aeolian Islands during the Gran Cratere hike

The fumaroles are mostly composed of sulphur, which gives the terrain its red and yellow color, and which fills the air of the typical acre stench. The best way to overcome the smell is to walk through the fumaroles wearing a mask (make sure to carry one). Even with that protection, the smell is nauseating.

Once at the top, the views are even better. You can see the port of Levante, where all boats dock, and Vulcanello and the Aeolian Islands on one side; and Piano, one of the villages of the island, on the other.

Thankfully, the path down isn’t through the stinky fumaroles.

Vulcano

The fumaroles in Vulcano: the yellow of the rocks is due to the sulphur – which also makes the air smell like rotten eggs

Practical facts for visiting Vulcano Island

Vulcanello, the Valle dei Mostri and Gran Cratere can all be accessed for free and without a guide, though having one will obviously make the experience more complete with information and tips.

Valle dei Mostri can be reached on an easy 30 minutes walk from Porto di Levante (the largest village, where the hydrofoils to the other islands and to Sicily depart from) and it is well signaled. The path to the caldera of Vulcanello, on the other hand, isn’t as well marked and it may be necessary to ask directions to the access point.

The entry point to the path to Gran Cratere is located at around 10 minutes walk from Porto di Levante. The walk to the crater and back takes no more than 2 hours, though the path is steep and sandy in some points and the length of the walk depends on one’s level of fitness.

Vulcano

The Gran Cratere of Vulcano

Gearing up for the hike

The hike to Gran Cratere is short and not too demanding, but wearing and carrying the proper gear is always recommended. Here’s a useful list of what to wear and take:

  • Hiking boots: some people wear plain running shoes, others even attempt to hike with walking shoes or flip flops. But keep in mind that the terrain is sandy, rocky and slippery in some points; not to mention the ground near the fumaroles is very hot. Hiking boots provide the much needed ankle support and protect from the heat.
  • T-shirt and either shorts (in the summer months) or hiking pants: also add a sweater and a wind proof jacket. The wind is quite chilly at the top.
Vulcano

A scarf or, even better, a mask is needed if wanting to walk through the fumaroles

  • A scarf, or a bandana: the sulphur at the crater makes the air stink so much that wearing a scarf around the nose and mouth is a must! If possible, wear a mask.
  • A hat: especially if walking in the summer months and in the hottest hours.
  • Sunglasses: it is so dusty that they are necessary to protect the eyes.
  • A daypack: use it to carry the extra layers and a lots of water.
  • A camera: the view is so breathtaking that taking pictures is a must!
Vulcano

A splendid view of the Aeolian Islands from the top of Gran Cratere in Vulcano

Where to stay and eat in Vulcano

As with the rest of the Aeolian Islands, there are plenty of sleeping and eating options in Vulcano island. I arrived there at the end of 6 weeks of hectic travels, so I felt the need to pamper myself and opted to stay at the marvelous Therasia Resort. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Aside from a gorgeous, spacious room with views of the sea and the rest of the Aeolian Islands, I enjoyed eating at the two delicious on site restaurants (the breakfast buffet is one the best I have ever seen!); I jumped into the beautiful infinity pool; and I treated myself to the spa where I could pick from a great variety of treatments.

How to get to Vulcano Island

Vulcano can be reached via hydrofoil in a little over one hour from Milazzo, near Messina. You can book your high speed ferry here. From Vulcano, there are regular hydrofoils to the rest of the Aeolian Islands and to Milazzo.

Traveling to Sicily? Make sure to read my posts A Great Guide To The Things To Do In Catania, Italy” and “A Fantastic 8 Days Sicily Itinerary.”

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Imperatore Travel during my time in Vulcano. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

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Everything You Need To Know When Going On A Hike Of Pacaya Volcano, In Guatemala

Everything You Need To Know When Going On A Hike Of Pacaya Volcano, In Guatemala

Who knew that hiking an active volcano would be possible? Hiking Pacaya Volcano is a fun, rewarding experience!

I can’t really say where my obsession with volcanoes comes from – all I knew when I visited Guatemala was that I wanted to hike up Pacaya Volcano. I grew up in Sardinia, pretty much the only region in Italy that is not subject to earthquakes. We have plenty of gorgeous beaches here in Sardinia, but there’s no volcanoes – though there must have been at some point, proof being the many churches built using volcanic stone. Come to think of it, there’s even a couple of beaches with really dark sand.

However, there’s plenty of volcanoes in Southern Italy. Everyone knows about Vesuvio in Naples, famous for the eruption that made time stop forever in cities like Pompei and Herculaneum. And the news regularly report about the eruption of other volcanoes such as Etna and Stromboli, in Sicily.

I have always marveled at the sight (though only through a tv screen: that’s when I first caught sight of Pacaya volcano) but never thought of getting close to one. It didn’t even occur to me that it would actually be possible to hike a volcano, let alone get close to the crater. I thought they were off limits, or at least only suitable for real adventure junkies and not for the average girl that enjoys traveling and hiking (though to be fair, I hike way more than the average person!).

To read more about one of my hiking trip, head over to my post “What to expect when hiking Poon Hill, Nepal.”

volcanoes

Hiking up Pacaya volcano, in Guatemala – photo courtesy of Martina Santamaria (Pimp My Trip)

Guatemala And Its Volcanoes

Then I traveled to Central America, and realized that volcanoes were everywhere. Guatemala was the first country I visited in my 5 months backpacking trip. I arrived thinking of the Maya and of archeological sites like Tikal and Yaxa. I left completely charmed by its natural beauty – the lush tropical forest, the incredible Lake Atitlan, and all the volcanoes. That’s when I learned that hiking Pacaya volcano is actually possible.

A 4:00 am earthquake that woke me up was a polite reminder that Central America is one of the most seismic areas of the world.  It was the first (and only) earthquake I have ever experienced (despite being from Italy). But at least I realized that I was in a country with a whopping 29 volcanoes, a good bunch of them active and constantly erupting.

In Antigua Guatemala, I found myself literally surrounded by volcanoes: 4 are incredibly close to the city. Every day I could see Fuego (one of the 4 volcanoes surrounding Antigua) throwing smoke. Other travelers I met kept talking about hiking them. In proper unsuccessful backpacker style, having no idea of my whereabouts, I didn’t even know this would be possible, but I decided to investigate further. A quick visit to a local travel agent, and I was booked for a Pacaya volcano hike – this is one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala.

The following is a recollection of what a hike on Pacaya volcano is like, with a few tips to fully enjoy it.

volcano Pacaya

The incredible view of Pacaya volcano – photo courtesy of Martina Santamaria

What You Need To Know Before Going On A Hike Of Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

Pacaya volcano is one of the many (active) located around Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, and perhaps the most accessible. The last big eruption of Pacaya volcano was in 2010. Until 2016, it was actually possible to see lava from up close during the hike – different tour companies took different routes. During sunset hikes, as soon as it got a bit dark, the volcano could be seen throwing smoke and lava.

I went on a sunset Pacaya volcano hike precisely with this in mind – though I surely understood that this may be dangerous. And I must say, it was quite a show.

Nowadays, it is no longer possible to climb towards the crater. Hikes to Pacaya volcano go up till a certain point and then down, following an area where the floor is made of solidified lava. The landscape is incredible: the vegetation is very thick to begin with, almost lush. Going up, the floor becomes sandy and vegetation more sparse, and eventually, closer to the crater, it is completely bare.

volcanoes

Steam coming out of the terrain of Pacaya volcano – hikers roast marshmallows on it!

At some point, the hike goes next to a bunch of fumaroles. That’s when guides hand over to the group of hikers marshmallows and a stick, so that they can be melted. Sure enough, one thing I would have not expected was that I’d be roasting marshmallows on Pacaya volcano, one day! But it was fun, and though I am hardly a marshmallow kind of girl, I enjoyed eating mine.

Needless to say, the view of Pacaya volcano hiking up was incredible. On a clear day, when the volcano is not surrounded by clouds, it is possible to see it fuming. Once at the highest point, the view of the surroundings (and of other volcanoes) is simply spectacular, especially at sunset.

The hike isn’t long at all, nor difficult – though I have heard of people who, for whatever reasons, found it incredibly hard. I guess it really depends on one’s level of fitness. All in all, it is better to never underestimate the level of difficulty of a hike.

Practical facts

Pacaya volcano is at about one hour drive from Antigua, and it is part of a national park, whose entrance fee is about 50 Quetzales (less than $7 USD).

Hiking Pacaya volcano is only possible with a guide (in any case, I never recommend hiking solo – read here why), which can be hired directly at the visitors’ center at the entrance of the national park. However, if one adds up the costs of transportation from Antigua, the entrance fee to the national park, and that of a guide, joining a guided group hike that departs from Antigua may actually be cheaper.

Tours of Pacaya volcano can be booked online, but watch out because some do include the entrance fee to the park, others don’t. The same goes for the tours advertised by the many tour companies around Antigua: it’s important to get a clear understanding of what to expect, not only in terms of what’s included, but also in terms of how the hike is structured.

These are some of the best tours of Pacaya volcano:

volcanoes

The incredible view of Pacaya Volcano – photo courtesy of Martina Santamaria

Having said so, tours of Pacaya Volcano are pretty much all the same: they last anything between 4 to 6 hours, which include the 2 hours driving to Pacaya and back. Horses can be rented at the beginning of the hike for less than $15 USD, but keep in mind that they don’t go on the lava fields.

Some may argue that since it is no longer possible to see the lava explosions, there’s little point in doing a sunset hike (the tour leaves from Antigua at 2:00 pm), and it is better to go early in the morning to avoid the hottest hours of the day. I would disagree with that: even without lava, the sunset views from Pacaya volcano are splendid and truly worth it.

Finally, it is possible to go on two days hiking expeditions of Pacaya volcano, where it is also possible to camp near the top and (after a 4:00 am wake up call) see the sunrise.

volcano Pacaya

A fiery sunset view from volcano Pacaya

Gearing up for the hike

  • Wear a good pair of hiking boots, as the floor is quite sandy and slippery.
  • Carry a wind jacket: once at the top, it gets incredibly windy and as the sun goes down, the temperatures fall as well.
  • If going on a sunset hike, carry a torch or a head lamp because the descent will be almost completely in the dark.
  • Pack a small daypack with plenty of water for the duration of the hike.
  • Carry small change.

Where to stay when hiking Pacaya volcano

Though it is possible to visit Pacaya volcano from Guatemala City, the best starting point for a hike is Antigua Guatemala – not to much in terms of distance (which is more or less the same), but quite simply because Antigua is a lovely city, pleasant to visit, packed with things to do and interesting attractions and with food and accommodation options for any taste, need and budget.

Having said so, here is a list of the best places to stay in Antigua:

Have you ever hiked Pacaya volcano? What are your tips to make the most of it?

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My Perfect Tenerife Itinerary

My Perfect Tenerife Itinerary

It’s been two years since I published a post about the 11 places I’d want to visit in the following year. It was November 2015 and I was making plans for 2016. I said I’d visit Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, and Sapa Valley, in Vietnam. And I did – I went with my sister in March 2016. I promised I’d go to Bergamo, in the North of Italy. And kept that promise.

I wrote that I intended to go to the Maldives and to Etna. And I went – a year later than I had intended, but I did go. In fact, I so wanted to go to Maldives that I decided to pay a visit even though I’m still single (and learned there are many things to do in Maldives that aren’t just for couples). And I didn’t just hike Etna, but also Vulcano and Stromboli.

Tenerife

Volcanoes and gorgeous beaches – that’s Tenerife

But of those 11 places, there’s some I still have to visit. The thing is, at time life gets in between me and my travel plans. And other times, I simply don’t have any plans, because I am too tired to plan anything, and because I like the idea of having at least some level of flexibility.

Tenerife though… I still have to go. And seriously, I won’t be able to stare at my own reflection if I don’t go in 2018. I’ve read about it, I have been drooling over pictures, I have been dreaming of myself conquering Teide, and I have even thought of a rough itinerary that I’d love to follow there, something that puts together my thirst for adventure, my love for small villages, and my desperate need to relax and just do nothing.

Here’s what my perfect Tenerife itinerary looks like.

Teide

It’s the hiking I am after, in Tenerife

My Perfect Tenerife Itinerary

Enjoy lots of hiking

Most people go to the Canary Islands, including Tenerife, to enjoy the beautiful beaches. But it’s the hiking and adventures I am after.

Check out what the best Canary Islands are in my latest post. 

Tenerife is where the highest volcano in Europe, Mount Teide, is located, and Teide National Park has a series of incredible trails that I am keen to hike. Montaña Blanca, the path to Teide summit, is meant to be hard, but I am eager to challenge myself. Other trails there are the Roques de García and the Dogollada de Guajara. The latter one starts in Teide National Park and ends in Vilaflor.

But there’s more. Teno Rural Park has various trails, of varying difficulty. One goes from Los Silos and terminates in El Palmar. A tougher one starts in Garachico and ends in Chinyero mountain.

These are all volcanic trails – which would quench my thirst for volcano hikes. But there also are forest trails, such as those of Anaga Rural Park, and coastal trails such as Malpaís de Güímar.

Tenerife

Coastal villages in Tenerife

Discover the beautiful villages

Whenever I travel, anywhere in the world, I like having a mixture of adventure and hiking with culture and sightseeing. Ideally, I alternate hiking days with days during which I visit a city or, even better, a bunch of villages. The best is actually hiking to a village.

Tenerife is packed with coastal and rural villages – some of them connected by beautiful hiking trails. In my time there I plan to visit as many as possible. Here’s just a few of them.

Among the unmissable villages to visit in Tenerife there is Masca, which is perched on a rock needle and characterized by narrow cobbled alleys and bougainvillea gardens.

Tenerife

There’s more than just beaches in Tenerife

Garachico is another village I am keen to visit. It is a tiny port that has been threatened by the forces of nature throughout time, but has somehow managed to survive (and shine).

Tegueste is meant to be one of the prettiest villages in Tenerife: set in the gorgeous countryside, it has a lovely square and a farmer’s market buzzing with life.

Vilaflor is Spain’s highest village and that’s enough for making me want to visit. It is backed by mountains, surrounded by a forest of pine trees, and it is said there’s flowers all over.

Last, but definitely not least, Granadilla, home of an 18th century baroque church and a Franciscan convent.

Tenerife

La Caleta is one of the best beaches in Tenerife

Relax at the beach

I did say that to me a good trip has a good combination of adventure and culture. I should however add that the ultimate trip would end with some relaxing time and some pampering, possibly at a lovely beach.

I feel incredibly attracted by the possibility of sitting in the sun and swimming in the sea even in April (Sardinia is still too cold at that time of year). Add to this the fact that Tenerife is packed with beautiful beaches – and it is easy to see why I am keen to go.

Among the best beaches of Tenerife there’s La Caleta, which is thought to be the hidden jewel of the island for its idyllic setting and quiet environment. There’s even a few traditional fish restaurants there.

Similarly to La Caleta, Playa del Bollullo is one of the most remote beaches of Tenerife, though there is a footpath which makes it quite easy to reach. It is a black volcanic sand beach (typical of Tenerife), of plain, wild beauty and surrounded by gorgeous cliffs. The beach is very popular with surfers as it is often swept by winds that bring in good waves.

Playa Jardin is an urban beach, and as the name says it is completely surrounded by palm trees and cacti, a bit like a garden. As many other beaches in Tenerife, it often gets big waves.

Tenerife

Tenerife has great waves

Los Gigantes beach is located in western Tenerife, in a secluded place where nature rules. It is a resort, but the beach is meant to be gorgeous, with golden sand and clear waters, and surrounded by cliffs that reach 800 meters.

Another resort beach is Playa del Duque. It is characterized by golden sand and the water is clear and warm. The beach is completely serviced: sunbeds, restaurants, and it is so clean that it’s been awarded the blue flag.

Located in Playa del Duque there’s the Iberostar Grand Hotel el Mirador, which sounds like the perfect place to end a trip packed with adventure. It has a spa, it boasts view of the beach, there’s restaurants that serve only the best local cuisine and it’s motto is tranquility, which is just what I like.

Have you ever been to Tenerife? What did you like the most about it? Do you have any insider’s tip about places I should add to my itinerary?