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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Antigua, Pacaya, and the herd of ponderous donkeys

GUATEMALA | Wednesday, 1 April 2009 | Views [2202]

Lava flow, Volcan Pacaya

Lava flow, Volcan Pacaya

Another tourist micro bus, another long journey south to Antigua.  This time the bad road bit was at the start, so we were able to enjoy the fantastic views whilst not minding the banging around.  Our driver was of the ´there´s no speed except top speed´ camp, so we made some rapid, if somewhat hairy, progress down south.  About half way, we descended from the mountains and were immediately struck by the difference in the lowlands – the valleys and hills were already parched brown, with most of the trees having lost, or in the process of shedding their leaves.  The highlands at this stage in the dry season were still verdant and green.  In fact the valley bottom was dominated by large cactuses – the first time we´d seen large numbers on our travels.  It was summed up by a hotel we passed - with the name ´El Paso´.

Further on, our route passed straight through the centre of Guatemala City – the biggest conurbation in Central America (two million people).  We´d been wary of stopping or changing in the city as it has a reputation for being the crime centre of the region (although like most places, if you´re careful, its probably not so bad – lots of people live their lives there, after all).  The city, a bit like Tegucigalpa, is incredibly busy, but also incredibly dirty, as the numerous chicken buses here spew out appalling clouds of noxious fumes and smoke.  MOTs there ain´t.  The only glance we got at the security situation was going past a bank – instead of one guy with a shotgun, they had three…. wearing flack jackets.  Its hard to get an idea of poverty when you´re just passing through a place (we´ve been sponsoring street kids here for years) – but like elsewhere on our travels, obvious slums and poor housing clung to steep hillsides or the banks of rivers - land that no one else wants, and land most vulnerable to floods, landslides and earthquakes.

You´re never far from a volcano in Antigua...

The road then climbed steeply up into the hills again, affording panoramic views over the grey metropolis, and then over into Antigua Guatemala – our destination and the old capital of Central America.  The contrast with the capital is extreme.  The city consists of cobbled streets, lovely old townhouses and crisp, mountain air.  Three volcanoes tower over the city – the reason why the capital was moved to the present location further away.  Throughout its history Antigua has been battered by earthquakes, which is clearly visible from the fact that the majority of the old colonial churches are empty shells in danger of falling into rubble.

Antigua is a veritable expat colony, with loads of foreigners setting up business in the city.  It also gets most of the richer tourists that visit Guatemala, so prices for accommodation and food were at least double of those in the north of the country.  Still, the city is extremely beautiful.  The main square was full of purple-blossomed Jacaranda trees and the square is framed by fantastic Spanish administrative buildings and the old cathedral, partly ruined.  The materials and decoration used in the town houses shouts of the wealth that was once here, and the large majority have now been restored.  We got a walking tour with Elizabeth Bell, an American who´s been living in the city for thirty years, and who has been at the centre of efforts to restore the city´s magnificent architecture.

Beautiful votive, the Cathedral

As we had just started Lent, the cathedral was slowly ramping up to Semana Santa (Easter).  While we were there a member of the Mayan ´Cofradia´ (I guess equivalent of a Parish Council) beat a drum accompanied by a haunting whistle to draw worshipers to the ´valeccion´ inside – a beautiful display of coloured sawdust and candles in front of the altar, behind which was a scene from Christ´s crucifixion, created just for that day.  Later, a party of school kids marched around the square with a statue of Christ.  These parades get far more frequent as Easter approaches – I´m sure we´ll see many more when we arrive in Oaxaca, Mexico for Semana Santa.

Only the front portion of the original cathedral is usable, the rest is ruinous.  It was interesting to find one of the crypts was black with smoke were Mayan people had burned votive candles and made offerings to their saints and ancestors.  Its quite obvious in Guatemalan churches that the Mayan people aren´t catholic in any sense that the church of Rome would recognise.  Instead, it seems to be a melding of Christian imagery with extant traditional beliefs (´cosmovision´).  The catholic priests put up with it because if they didn´t they´d lose most of their congregation.

Jacaranda trees in blossom in the central plaza

Whilst on the tour we also looked round a jade shop, where we took the opportunity to look up our birthdays on the Mayan calendar.  From now on, call me II Rabbit.  Rachel is III Hummingbird.  Rachel had fun looking around the rather expensive jewelry shops in town.  We returned a day after to get a nice necklace she´d seen – it was only $40.  Well, actually the chain was only $40, the actual pendant was $2000.  Funnily, Rachel didn´t buy anything in Antigua.

Antigua is full of lovely details

Our only trip out of Antigua was to climb the active volcano Pacaya.  We booked a tour, expecting to be joined by four of five other people.   Turning up on the day, we found we were actually on a full chicken bus with about fifty other tourists.  After messing around waiting for late arrivals we eventually set off and arrived, half way up the volcano ninety minutes later.  Once off the bus we were harangued by small children trying to sell us sticks.  Well, walking sticks to be precise.  Full credit to the local kids for making a stick industry, but we weren´t really in the market for one.  One little urchin girl of about seven asked Rachel if she wanted a stick.  The conversation went something like this:

´No, thankyou´

´But it’s a really good stick´

´It is, but I don´t need a stick, thank you´

Pause…

´Gift me your bag´

´No!´

´Gift me your bag´

´No, I need my bag´

´Gift me your bag´

´Sorry, but I need my bag to carry our things´

Pause.  Little girl has a eureka moment, and slips grubby hand into her dress, pulling out a round, shiny red fruit…

´I´ll give you a tomato for the bag!´

Granted to say we didn´t trade.  As well as the urchins selling sticks, the whole place was filled with boys and men with horses, offering to carry you up the volcano.  ´Taxi, taxi, very good!´  seemed to be the tag line.  No one seemed to be buying a lift either.  We started out up the trail, and snaked, single file up the mountain.  The going wasn´t particularly hard, but it was rather ponderously slow, as we had to go the pace of the slowest person.  Also, the soil here was nothing more than volcanic dust, so the feet of numerous tourists brought it all up in a choking cloud.   For the first half hour we stopped and started, trying not to breath in cancer-inducing quantities of micro-particles, whilst we were harangued by the increasingly irritating ´Taxi, taxi, very goood!´ from the ever-hopeful caballeros.

Horde on a volcano.

In addition to this our party included squalls of Canadian French student girls who ambled slowly up the mountain, talking continuously.  To my uneducated ear they sounded like something approaching a herd of braying donkeys.  This didn´t aid my composure, and I was beginning to wonder what we´d signed up for.

After another half hour we hit the cloud layer and suddenly visibility went down to a couple of metres.  The girls at the back, still talking, got lost.  So we had to wait for them to find the path.  There was some confusion about whether we had them all, of whether there was still one wandering around the mountain, waiting to step into an unfortunately-placed lava flow.  At last it was decided with the guide that we had everyone, as we found out that the ´chica gordita´ (´fat girl´ as the guide subtly described her), had, in fact, got a horse taxi.

Further on, we left the path and stumbled over solid lava flows of razor-sharp rocks until we arrived at our destination.  Rachel and I tried to get a stable spot on the volcanic scree-slope, whilst others made every attempt to bury their companions in flying rocks as they scrabbled up and down trying to get a good view.  Up above and to the left we were confronted by a line of glowing lava, slowly oozing down the mountain side.  Every now and then a chunk would solidify too much and break off the flow, bouncing down the slope leaving a trail of flying lava bits in its wake, a bit like an out of control Catherine Wheel.

On top of the world..

Looking out, we were now well above the cloud layer, with just one mountain, Volcan Agua above Antigua, poking through the cloud layer.  It seemed as if we were on top of the world.  As the light of the day began to dim, we experienced a fantastic sunset and soon, the stars, moon and venus came out.  Looking up, the whole mountainside glowed with the lava.   We sat down to better appreciate the view.  It was getting cold, but your bum was centrally heated by magma, apparently not that far below the surface.  Someone dug into the scree a few inches and shoved their walking stick in.  It immediately caught fire, which made us shift our bums rather uncomfortably….

After half an hour of staring in awe at the magma bouncing down the mountain we started to return.  This was fine for us as we had brought our torches with us, but a lot of the group hadn´t, so had to try and negotiate themselves across the scree slope by the secondary light of other people´s torches.  The treck down was punctuated by intermittent cries as Canadians girls fell over in the dark.   Looking back, the mountainside behind us was outlined in fiery orange.

In the end we really enjoyed our trip up the mountain.   Pacaya wasn´t as plain weird and unearthly as Rincon Viejo or Cerra Punta, but it made up for it with heat, dashings of lava and a rather fantastic view.

To see more pictures of lovely Antigua, click here.

Tags: antigua, bad trades, colonial architechture, volcan pacaya

 

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Argh!  Well, maybe not pirates this time, but dig the colour-coordinated bandanas!

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