With Semuc Champey wrapped up, I began my journey toward Antigua. In the cab of a big rig I was, going up the winding and gravel road out of Lanquin and onto the road toward Guatemala City. Up a series of twists, turns, and hairbends, it took over a half hour to go about 11 kilometres. The driver was headed to Coban and I was headed to Antigua. Last night the stars were eye candy but today I was watching the sun slowly and quietly drift over the mountains. Perhaps I left a little too late today? I think not! Journey in spirit and see what happens! When I was dropped in Coban I had to see what ride I was going to get next. I didn't want to go or pass through Guatemala City but whatever vehicle would pick me up would likely be heading that way. Eventually I got a lift to San Cristobal Verapaz and the sun was down by then. That meant I'd have to get to Antigua in the dark. Still, I wasn't fazed. Journey! Waiting on the side of the road for about 20 minutes, I was finally picked up by a man named Salvador. He lives in Coban but he's heading to Guatemala City; tomorrow he's flying to Florida to pick up a truck and driver from Florida to Guatemala! Sounds exciting! It was pitch dark out, and when I asked about the road that passes slightly west of Guatemala City he said that very few people drive that route. Salvador said he likes picking up hitchhikers because it gives him an opportunity to practice English. In a few days I'm going back to the U.S. at least for now but I'm amazed at how well this journey has gone. And I've received a lot of great lifts whilst hitchhiking. After stopping for a snack break, we were on our way to Guatemala City in the dark. The city is the perverbial engine room of the country, but it has a reputation; it's said to be the most dangerous city in Central America and most travellers bypass it entirely. Salvador had to drop me off at the northern end of the city because his sister lived there, and I found out there are no buses to Antigua until the morning. Alone and nervous, I stood in a well-lit area whilst trying to catch a lift. Funds are a little short right now and I'm counting every quetzal, so I didn't want to get a taxi unless absolutely necessary. It was past 10 PM and nobody was picking me up, so I finally got a taxi to the western end of town, leading toward Antigua. We searched around for the bus terminal but we just couldn't seem to find it, so the taxi driver dropped me off in front of a Taco Bell where I hung out and went online. There were no accommodations in the area so I figured I'm down to two options: I can either find someplace that's open 24 hours and hang out there and catch the first bus to Antigua or I can try my luck at hitchhiking. After getting some cinnamon sticks and going online at Taco Bell I thought I'd try hitchhiking. There are three security guards with shotguns outside the well-lit Taco Bell, so I felt that my safety was OK. It was well after midnight but I was hoping for the best, and after only about five minutes a petrol tanker stopped! Jose was going about halfway between there and Antigua, but it was my first time riding in a petrol tanker. In Central America I've received lifts in several interesting vehicles (propane tanker, ATV, motorcycle, petrol tanker). The distance between Guatemala City and Antigua is only about 35 kilometres; I didn't realize it was so close! Up the hill a bit there's a fabulous night view of the city. Jose had to drop off the tanker at the truck yard where we got in his jeep and was nice enough to take me a little further. It is against regulations for Jose to take passengers (being a petrol tanker) he was nice enough to pick me up.
Even Guatemalenos speak of how dangerous their capital is, and he even wondered what I was doing out there that late. Jose dropped me only about 5 km from Antigua but I got another lift almost straight away. Antigua's full name is "Antigua Guatemala" but it's often shortened to just "Antigua" for practical purposes. There's a free camping ground at the Asistur (tourist police) station so I headed straight there. Even though it was pitch black I could see how colourful Antigua is. When I asked a police officer where I could pitch my tent, he directed me to a bunkhouse. I was exhausted after a long day of diving into pools, hitchhiking on tankers, being stuck in dangerous cities, and riding in trucks. I was ready to catch some Z's so I can get my fill of A's for Antigua in the morning...
Hola! Meeeeoooowwww! Antigua! Beautiful! In my face as I washed up was an award-winning view of Volcan Agua, one of several magnificent volcanoes that surround this majestic colonial city! Three other volcanoes of note are Volcan Fuego, Volcan Pacaya (the most active), and Volcan Acatenango. Packing up all my gear I left the police station so I can allow my eyes to glow at the pastel-hued colonial buildings. The cobblestone streets are reminescent of Trinidad and the colour is reminiscent of Esteli or Granada.
I always profess how I shun tourist ghettos, but Antigua is an absolute must-see! Let me share a bit about this marvelous city! Founded in 1543, Antigua was the Guatemala's capital until it was relocated after several major earthquakes during the colonial era, including one in 1773 that completely destroyed the city. In terms of survival and resilience I can compare Antigua to London; in addition to earthquakes, it has survived floods, volcanic eruptions, and centuries of neglect. As Guatemala's major tourist centre, it seemingly has everything you'd find in a big city: pubs, Burger King, taxis, Subway, and the whole lot. It's true that many tourists may bypass Antigua but there's a special air to this place, and despite all the tourist gimmicks it remains a defiantly Guatemalan town with many open air markets, colourful dress, women breastfeeding their children on the street, and smiling locals waving from the back of a pickup. This morning I was in the mood for some American food, but when I stopped at Burger King to get something, their credit card reader wasn't working, so I opted to eat at Subway (which has got to be the only place in Guatemala where you'll find Sun Chips). Rice and beans have bored me, so a meatball sandwich tasted great! I'm sure looking forward to some Philly pork roll in a few days! I then went online in search of a CouchSurfing host. Whilst I could stay at the police station again, it wouldn't be fun to stay there the whole time. A Swedish bloke named Love wrote me back and said I could stay. There's another CSer staying there already but that's cool. His name isn't pronounced the way it's spelled; it's like "Loo-vay." He told me to meet him at the Monoloco (crazy monkey) in the afternoon. With my heavy pack, I wandered into a chocolate shop where I opted to make my own cup of Mayan cocoa with cloves. It came out very well and I was chatting with these Aussie girls who signed up for a "chocolate workshop." Classes of all sorts abound here in Antigua: cooking, Spanish, etc. If I were around here long enough I'd be taking a few classes. On this sunny day I strolled beneath the jacaranda trees of Parque Central and admired the graceful Catedral de Santiago.
To top off my journey I want to hike up one of the volcanoes and I'm thinking of Volcan Agua because it looks the most challenging, and I was actually thinking of beginning my ascent at midnight so I can be at the summit at 5 AM for sunrise. I need a real challenge to top off this amazing journey! At around 4 PM I was at the Monoloco where I met Love. He gave me directions to his house so I can put my backpack down. There I met his flatmates, Rochelle, Anamaria, and Grant, and a CSer named Santiago from Tijuana. After having a mojito I was staggering and boisterous! Anamaria thought I had a few before coming to the house but I didn't drink at all before showing up! It was late and I was stumbling over cobblestone as I wanted something good to eat. It's my last two days here and I'm splashing out a bit. Indulging a margherita pizza and throwing back a couple of mojitos, I was actually drunk to the point of belligerence, even though I liked this hot British girl behind the bar! Stuffed and pissed, I stroll over to the Monoloco where I hang for a wee bit and then head back to Love's house. Tomorrow I'm walking up Volcan Agua; walking up overnight would throw off my body clock, and I don't have a torch. Dogs chased me near Love's house but the best way to scare them off is to carry a rock, but even just pretending to throw something will scare most dogs off. By Guatemalan standards, Love lives in a very nice place; vastly different to homes in San Jose (Guatemala) with their dirt floors and rudimentary doors. In roughly 13 hours or so, I shall be at 13,000 feet!