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Lago de Atitlan, Volcan Pacaya and Antigua

GUATEMALA | Tuesday, 7 July 2009 | Views [3500]

Anna 'on the rocks' at our favourite swimming spot on the lake, near San Marcos

Anna 'on the rocks' at our favourite swimming spot on the lake, near San Marcos

Xela to Lago de Atitlan, our overland trekking adventure. Rina and Lior our fearless guides from Quetzaltrekkers, led us over the mountains, past a highland town called 'Alaska', through cloud forests, past highland villages, past treacherous landslides, over swollen rivers and finally got us to Lago de Atitlan after 2 days of hiking in terrential rain. Quetzaltrekkers ( www.quetzaltrekkers.com ) is a grass roots non-profit trekking agency in Xela with volunteer guides that raises money and supports the Escuala de la Calle, a school for street children.

Rina 'carried' the trekking party through the highland storm, Lior was happy to be at the lago, 'increible!'

Despite the weather we saw some amazing things on the trek. One thing rain and cloud does is make you focus on the people we encounter and the things close to the trail. Something that will stick in my memory forever is a small girl in a traditional dress carrying a large bundle of wood on her back supported by a strap across her forehead, climbing up a slippery mountain pass in the pouring rain. She looks down as she passes. I initially thought she was a young woman, but then I see she is a young girl, only waist height, with no rain jacket, no hiking boots, freezing in the rain. Her father follows by soon pushing her sister along, both also carrying huge loads of firewood that they rely on for warmth and cooking. It's amazing but also confronting at the same time...we should never complain of hardships in our lives compared to what these young beautiful children endure from such an early age.

Wake up and smell the coffee....

We are well and truly in coffee country now. We hike down the final kilometres of the trek through coffee plantations on the lush green slopes of Lago de Atitlan down to the lakeside village of San Juan Laguna. Thanks to Rina, Lior, Wilson and the whole Quetzaltrekkers crew for an adventurous highland trek.

We stay in the quiet poblado of San Marcos on the northern shore of the lake, one of the more tranquil villages where there is somewhat of a 'new age' tourist community thriving where you can practice yoga, go on retreat for a cycle of the moon, have a reiki session or just hang out on the cliffs above the lake worshipping the volcanoes. We get in the vibe and opt for a whole lot of 'nothing' with some swimming and cliff diving, some 'volcano worshipping', Anna working on her 'tejido' (weaving), enjoying a mayan sauna and watching the rain fall heavily in the lush forest surroundings. 

Local art San Juan Laguna depicting backstrap weaver

Morning swim on the lake, traditional wooden boat and Volcan Fuego letting off some steam in the distance

Being so close to Antigua and after hearing Dirk (our German motorcycle friend) rave on about hiking Volcan Pacaya we are inspired to make the extra detour by shuttle bus to Antigua.... After all, what's another 3 days in the scheme of things? We are now well and truly on the 'gringo backpacker route' as we catch a shuttle bus, this is how the other half travel... 

Volcan Pacaya is one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala, and after seeing Volcan Santiaguito (from atop Volcan Santa Maria) and Volcan Fuego erupting...this was the final in the 'Volcan trilogy of Guatemala'...the real 'fuego project'. At the end of the road we are greeted by dozens of little entrepreneurs "Mister, need stick...need stick???" and "mucha lluvia aqui...need poncho?", hilarious considering i am standing there in my rain jacket with a stick i have already rented for 3 Quetzales!

We join the 'gringo train' of 40 to 50 other intrepid volcano trekkers up the volcanic slopes in the misty rain. The corn fields and cloud forest gives way to low scrub, which in turn gives way to black volcanic scree slopes, which in the mist resembles a desolate moonscape of jagged black boulders. Then the clouds part to reveal the steaming cone at the top of the Volcan Pacaya and the first glimpses of the lava fields, as well as the long chain of fellow trekkers on a pilgrimage to the lava.

The clouds part to reveal the smoking cone of Volcan Pacaya

The final few hundred metres are up a steep gully of loose scree to where the lava can be seen a short distance up the hill. A short distance from this path and the rocks heat up dramatically. A large group of people huddle around glowing rocks toasting marshmallows and hotdogs.... We don't really see the point, people being more focussed on how to toast a marshmallow than appreciating the awesome force of nature of the lava field above us!

This is what we are here for...the lava!

It is not bubbling streams of lava but more like glowing rocks being pushed from the mountain and occasionally breaking loose rolling down hill. A Large chunk of glowing rock breaks off and rolls down the steep slope towards unsuspecting stray dogs, and a few less than inteligent gringos... A close call on the mountain and Anna is thankful she is not called into medical duties. The cruel irony is that the dogs are only there because of the tourists, otherwise it's no place for a dog!

That's more excitement than I had bargained for and I quickly retreat with Anna to a safer distance down the hill. Just at that point the high cloud that had been blocking any views on the way up disappears and reveals the peaks of Volcan Agua and Volcan Fuego rising high above a sea of cloud in the orange light of the setting sun...truly spectacular, a sight that will remain with us for a long long time.

Volcan Agua high above the sea of clouds as the sun sets

Antigua, you can't deny it's charm, a colonial masterpiece founded in 1543 by the spanish, it sits under the watchful eyes of three volcanoes and was the centre of power in all of Central America in the 17th and 18th centuries with a lot of wealth invested. At its peak no less than 38 churches graced this city. But it's location next to the active volcanoes also meant it had a tendency to be shaken to the ground on a regular basis by a series of earthquakes. This can be seen in the thick columns of stone in the churches and the ruined remains at many of the old churches and monasteries. After being destroyed in the earthquake of 1773, the capital was finally moved to nearby Guatemala City.

Antigua with Volcan Agua looming in the backdrop

The crumbling ruins of ancient churches and monasteries at every corner, the cobblestone streets and colourful streetscapes make it an interesting place to wander for a day, some interesting textile markets and the museum 'Casa de Tejido' a standout. but it seems to lack the dirtiness, noise and real Guatemalan culture of a place like Xela. Like where are the stray wandering dogs ripping bags of rubbish apart in the street and where is the drunk guy sleeping slumped over the footpath? But it is beautiful, colourful, clean and alive and an opportunity to see traditional Mayan ways of life alongside the hordes of American tourists and language students.

Streetscene in Antigua, a Mayan woman balances a heavy load of vegetables

Little drummer boy with some help from the pied piper under the watchful eyes of a Saint, La Merced Antigua

After having a taste for the backpacker life we are ready to get back on the bikes and off the beaten tourist path. It was nice for a change but things happen so quickly: take bus, find hostel, book tour, take tour, return from tour, eat, sleep, take another bus...it's hard to appreciate everything at that pace. It's also tiring but not in an enjoyable way like biking is. People often say to us "I don't know how you do it, riding your bikes that far, don't you get tired?", but I wouldn't swap the bike traveller for the backpacker any time soon.

We promise there will be bikes in the next post...some more downtime in Xela with our English and Welsh cycling friends Martin and Susy before heading north through the highlands of Guatemala.

Hasta pronto 

Tags: colonial towns, guatemala, trekking, volcanoes

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