Saturday, 9th August
We left Lanquin at around 8am, the shuttle bus only turning up about 20 minutes late. We would be travelling with everyone bound for Flores and Antigua as far as Coban where we would part ways and we would travel on to Antigua. The bus was larger than the previous one we rode in so this time we had seats in the back although the roads do leave lot to be desired and you get a bumpy ride all the way. As before the scenery through the Guatemalan countryside was stunning, as we made our way back out of the valley where Lanquin is situated we had sweeping views down across where we just stayed and across to other villages. The further south and west we went the thinner and more arid the vegetation became before it reminded us of the drive through the Oaxaca district in Mexico with agave and cacti dotted through the countryside. We had a brief lunch stop in Coban before the onward drive to Antigua. At this petrol station you could by guns, although you’ll be pleased to know you need to get ‘buzzed in’ to do so.
We drove through Guatemala City, a dirty, dense and traffic heavy city. The pollution was oppressive at times and we were glad just to be passing through. It seems like an interesting place and I’m sure we would find things to do there but we have other priorities in Guatemala. The level of poverty is quite obvious as you see the ramshackle housing built up on the sides of the the hills surrounding the city.
We arrived in Antigua in the pouring rain around 5pm. It is common to have afternoon rain storms here apparently. A bit disgruntled by the wet we loaded up backs with our packs and donned our wet weather gear to try to find a hostel. After sheltering for a bit a ‘tourist information man’ sought us out and took us to a cafe which was also conveniently a hotel. They were asking too much though, around double our budget, so we had a coffee and tea and used the wifi to get our bearings. I then set off in search of a couple of hostels to enquire about rooms. I got drenched in the process but did find somewhere near the market with good reviews. We are careful to stay in places that meet our requirements and not to just stay somewhere because it’s easy. There are too many hostels all over the world run by unscrupulous owners. We are staying in a hostel called ‘A Place To Stay’ and it is near the market although off the main road so should be quiet enough for a good nights sleep.
Antigua was one of the grand colonial capitals of the Spanish Empire in the Americas from the 16th to the 18th centuries, said by some to be the Central American Spanish capital. It was the original ‘Guatemala City’ but an earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of the city, and the Spanish Crown ordered the capital to be moved to a new location, which became the modern Guatemala City. In 1776 the old city was ordered abandoned although not everyone left and it became a provincial town, filled with the ruins of former glory. It became known as ‘Antigua Guatemala’, meaning ‘Old Guatemala’, now known simply as Antigua.
Ravenous after not eating much during the journey we found a place called ‘Tipico Antigueno’ on recommendation of one of the hostel owners. Kirsty had a beef and vegetable broth soup and I had a plate of steak, rice, beans, vegetables and fried plantain. They are both typical Antiguan dishes and were delicious. Having been sharing meals lately though we found ourselves getting full easily and struggled on to finish the meals feeling too guilty to leave food on our plates. Satisfied we went for a wander around the town in the drizzle. It’s a nice town for wandering and was quite lively being a Saturday night. We checked out some ’artisan’ crafts, walked some cobbled streets and found some places for food that we might try tomorrow. Antigua is good for street food apparently. There are also plenty of places in the market for eating so we won’t have to settle for boring or bad food here. With the rain getting heavier we walked back to the hostel and got to know a couple of the hostel guests. Some chap from California that now lives down here, in another town we are thinking of going to, was helpful in giving us tips for our onward travels. Telling us where to avoid and what to check out. I think he is the kind of traveller that is happy with a handkerchief on a stick though and our level of luggage may prevent us from some of the destinations he recommended. He also has lived here for seven years and can speak Spanish, something that we are looking to improve with another course for a week somewhere around here. Tomorrow will be a sorting out day to get ourselves organised. It’s easy to find yourself not really sure of what’s coming next when you are too eager to explore a new place or conversely over-planning and forgetting to see where you are. It’s a fine balance to strike. Perhaps the main thing we are enjoying about Antigua so far is the climate, much cooler and hopefully it won’t require any sweating.
Sunday, 10th August
We woke up thinking we had slept in but it was only 7am. We had some neighbours leaving early so we both got woken earlish but unsure of the time. The thing with hostels is there’s always comings and goings which is to be expected and early starts are common as people try to get somewhere whilst it’s still daylight. We both slept in a single bed as we had two singles in the room but one was seemingly a nest of wires encased in fabric and a tad uncomfortable. I feel like I need ironing out today though, a combination of the nights sleep but mostly all the travelling we have done over the last few days and folding my legs into some of the bus seats. The hostel we are staying at lays on breakfast of cornflakes, bananas and coffee so we got fed then thought about what to do. The other people staying here are nice and up for a chat. It has a definite relaxed feel to this hostel and not at all pretentious which we are finding can be rare as travellers try to compete with each other over their adventures. Another laundry day saw us off to find a ‘lavanderia’ which we did without any fuss. There are places to get your laundry done all over the place.
We then wandered to the ‘Parque Central’ to get a map from the tourist person in her kiosk on whom we tested out some Spanish and then went for a walk up to a lookout over Antigua which is also home to a large crucifix- ‘Cerro de la Cruz’. It’s a fair hike up the hill and it turns out we took the long route missing the turn-off for the steps. Anyhow, we got to the top albeit a little sweaty. The view was great over the town, it is nestled amongst hills and volcanos all covered in green. Quite a beautiful place and I can see why travellers get ‘stuck’ here. There are also loads of cafes and restaurants to keep you occupied with chocolate and coffee. Once we were back down in the town we did just that and went to the ‘Museo Chocolate’ for a hot chocolate and gluten-free brownie, both of which were delicious. The hot chocolate I had to construct myself, adding the chocolate paste, honey and a little chilli before stirring in the warmed and frothed milk.
Not really knowing what our plans are for the next few days we went back to the hostel which is a nice place to hang out, to do some internetting. We decided on travelling to a town in Lake Atitlan called San Pedro La Laguna in order to do another Spanish course for a week and check out the area known as the Highlands. Kirsty also organised with the hostel owner – Fernando – for us to go on a hike tomorrow up a volcano called Pacaya. We have heard you can toast marshmallows on it. Feeling peckish we ventured out to the market which is only next door to the hostel and searched out the fried chicken stalls we had wind of. You always feel like this kind of food until you have eaten it then you have instant regret or that’s what we find anyway. This was the case today and it was good in the eating but afterwards the grease took hold. We were also fairly tired I guess from all the journeying we have done so we went back to the hostel again for some more reading and general sitting around. We opted for a budget dinner of soups.
Today I released I had left some money in a hotel back in Flores. After wandering where some of my money had gone I remembered that I had left some cash in the room in a drawer when we popped out for dinner one night so as to not have a wedge of cash in my wallet. The thing is I forgot to get it out of the drawer the next day when we checked out so I spent some time hunting down a phone number for the hotel to try to get it back. I don’t fancy my chances but I have to try just to satisfy myself that I have done all I can. It’s not a huge amount but enough to curse myself for what I have done. Lesson learnt and I won’t be doing that again! Also, trust it to happen when we stay in a hotel with no website, email address and generally hard to get hold of. They don’t like answering phones there buy I will persist.
Monday, 11th August
Monday is apparently pancake breakfast day at ‘A Place To Stay’ so I had myself some pancakes with bananas. A good way to start the day. We then set off for a walk about town to get out some cash and pick up a bag cover we had put in for repair. When we went to pick it up the lovely lady didn’t want any money! Guatemalans on the whole are lovely people. With the rain we were caught in the other day I also wanted to buy another rain cover for the smaller backpack so as to not get everything soaked, this was achieved with ease in Antigua. It is a place where people do lots of hiking from and base themselves for a while I think which explains all the outdoor stores. I resisted the urge to buy more gadgets and just settled on a basic rain cover. We had ourselves booked on a tour of the Pacaya Volacno which left at 2pm so we wanted to get lunch in before we left. We tried to find a recommended soup place but after walking down several streets and using maps we could not find any sign of it. We would later find it as the bus we were in for the tour made a stop right next to it. Anyway, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise I think as instead of a sensible soup lunch we had roasted chicken and potatoes, Guatemalan style. This means chickens, spatchcocked, held in a spit system and roasted over a wood fire with potatoes roasting in the chicken juices that fall beneath with spring onions strewn around. It was quite simply delicious. I had seen this setup in Mexico and wanted to try it but never got the chance so pleased that I have ticked this off the ‘list’. The place was called ‘Rincon Tipico’ which means ‘typical corner’ or something like that and serves up Antiguan food, limited in dishes but what they do they obviously do well.
Pacaya is an active complex volcano deemed he most active in the country, which first erupted they reckon 23,000 years ago and has erupted at least 23 times since the Spanish arrived. It rises to an elevation of 2,552 metres and after being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. We were told that the last activity was back in March which led to a lava flow on one of the sides. We left for the volcano at 2pm and drove for around and hour, most of which was uphill to reach around 1,500m from where we started the trek. We had a guide with us to tell us snippets of information on the way but mainly to ensure that no-one got lost up there I think. The path leading up the volcano was fairly steep and it took around one and a half hours to reach the top. We didn’t climb to the crater for obvious reasons but close enough to get good views. The views were spectacular, you could see down onto Guatemala city, a lake in a crater below us and two other volcano peaks in the area. After reaching an awesome vantage point from where we could see the peak of the volcano steaming away behind us, and peaks of two others in front of us, we walked further and across the volcanic rock and recent lava flow to where our guide pulled out a bag of marshmallows which we roasted over some vents in the rock. Having not been to a volcano before I can honestly say it was quite bizarre to be doing such a thing. The vents were so hot that the marshmallows only took seconds to brown and of course tasted sublime. After checking out the sunset we began out descent down to where we met up with our driver again to take us back to Antigua. We were so pleased to have done this, one of the easier volcano climbs you can do in the region. There were locals with horses following us all the way however with calls of ‘taxi’ to give you a ride if you wanted one, for a fee of course.
We got dropped back at a random spot in Antigua, which is the norm here, from where we walked back to the hostel, luckily knowing the route as we happened to get dropped outside a cafe we had eaten at the day before. We arrived back at the hostel with a barbecue on the go and were told we could join. It was a hostel-wide affair and we had meat (beef and sausage) bought from the local market next door and vegetables with plantain. We have really enjoyed this hostel for it’s homeliness and the people that stay there. We have booked ourselves on a bus to San Pedro La Laguna, leaving at 9am tomorrow. This is a small village on the shore of Lake Atitlan where we intend to do another Spanish course for a week. So far having a great time in Guatemala. Still no luck in making meaningful contact with the hotel I left some cash in. Somebody answered the number I called but my limited Spanish only served to confuse them and I don’t even know if it’s the hotel we stayed in! Undeterred, I will keep trying for another few days before saying goodbye to it.