17th-24th November 2015
My initial plan is for this not to be too long as it was technically meant to be rest time. We’ll see how that goes. We’ve been doing lots of stuff, and it’s best to focus on the more interesting bits, so I’ll put in some photos and just give a general overview!
Antigua was another long long journey back from Lanquin. Our bus was way more comfortable though, and even had a TV so we watched a couple of films, making the day go by much quicker. Watching Jurassic World was particularly weird as we were driving through landscapes so much like the ones in the movie that it almost seemed like there could be dinosaurs hiding out in the distance. After the films we were treated by the bus drivers to Shaggy’s greatest hits, which they enjoyed so much they turned the inside light on and off to create a party atmosphere (Laura Lovelace if you are reading this, you may remember that this does create a great disco effect).
We booked ourselves 4 nights in Antigua for a bit of a rest after the exhausting last week. On arrival in the hostel I was so tired, I had fallen asleep fully clothed in my bed by about 7pm and very much needed that sleep.
We spent the next couple of days wandering around Antigua, trying to get as much rest as we could given we were once again in a completely new and interesting place. The town is colourful and colonial with a ton of lovely old buildings and ruins. It was Guatemala’s capital until the 1700s when a series of earthquakes prompted the move to Guatemala City, leaving Antigua looking old fashioned and pretty. It also has a great setting surrounded by volcanos, leading to some picturesque views down cobbled streets. Generally a nice place to spend time (if touristy, but you have to expect that sticking to the tourist trail). It brought back memories of the colonial towns of the Yucatan like Merida, and was nice to be back somewhere like that.
There are two big central markets, one selling all sorts and one selling handicrafts. We indulged in a bit of shopping but obviously can’t be carrying about too much, so just went for little trinkets. We also tried out the ‘food court’ in the market, which consisted of lots of kitchen owners standing in front of you quickly listing various foods as you tried to walk through and understand a word they were saying. Eventually we sat down somewhere and heard the word ‘pollo’ which we knew so went for that. It wasn’t a great meal as they go, but definitely an experience.
As a combination of dehydration and exhaustion from the trip to Semuc, I didn’t feel great when we were in Antigua so it was also nice to have somewhere to relax in town. I think our hostel was my favourite so far, and this made a great base. Although rooms were basic and I was at first unsure about the lack of lockers, it was so friendly and like a little family it was a hard place to leave. The owner Raul and his brother Fernando were so friendly and helpful, and the people we met in general were very chatty and easy to get along with. Called A Place to Stay – fab hostel if you’re ever in the area.
A two hour drive from Antigua is the active volcano Pacaya, which we’d decided we wanted to climb (a nice half day climb rather than the nearer volcanos which required overnight camping). So much for ‘resting’. But we booked ourselves on the third day for a sunset tour, meaning we left the hostel at around half 2ish and got to the volcano to climb at dusk for (what we hoped would be) a sunset view at the top.
I was still feeling ill so opted to go up on a horse which cost me an extra £8 or so, but Rav hiked it. It was a steep walk for about an hour and 20 minutes, and sadly the views were nowhere to be seen. As we ascended (to the rumble of a thunderstorm) we found ourselves further and further inside thick cloud which sadly replaced all the views with white. I left my horse (called Amorosa, apparently), with her helpful and interesting guide Bosca, and headed with the others to the lava fields.
Although the volcano is active, it is rare to see flowing lava. We did however get a great landscape of pumice, as well as picking up burning hot rocks from the ground and even toasting marshmallows over holes we dug in the super hot volcanic rocks. It was a bit of a surreal experience, although it was sad that visibility issues meant we couldn’t actually see most of the volcano. Our descent was after the sun had set, so meant slipping down through soft volcanic soil for am hour until we finally reached the point where we started for a rest.
The whole experience was pretty interesting as the volcano had last erupted only in the last 5 years, so all the nature there was brand new. Trees had grown pretty quickly with all the nutrients around for them, and there were a bunch of large moths which flew in our torchlight as we headed down.
Lake Atitlan is a few hours from Antigua, and we had heard it was very beautiful so we decided to head there for a couple of nights. The drive felt so long to get there, partially because we spent an hour driving round Antigua so the bus could pick up more people, but the views when we arrived were incredible. We were joined for this portion of our trip by our new friend Kristelle, a Swiss primary school teacher who we had met in our Antigua hostel. Conveniently her family are Chilean so she speaks Spanish, which is definitely a bonus to us who are still making our way slowly through everyday conversation…
The lake is in an ancient volcanic crater, and is surrounded by three volcanos and many small Mayan villages, each with its own vibe and attracting different types of visitors. We chose to stay in San Pedro, a place which attracts a lot of backpackers for its cheapness (we saw cuba libres in some places for about 40p) and has a good selection of places to stay and eat.
It’s also a bit of a divided place. Walk along the main streets nearest the lake and you’d think only tourists were in the town, but climb the hill back a couple of streets and suddenly there are no tourists to be seen, only locals with a church and nice town square with shops for residents. It was almost like two villages in one.
The best way we got a view of the lake was from on the lake itself. We rented some kayaks and went a little way out into the lake (it’s huge so it didn’t feel like we got too far!) and enjoyed the midday sun, a bonus since the Guatemalan weather was still generally cloudy and rainy.
We took a bus back to Antigua after Lake Atitlan and spent one final night back in A Place to Stay, playing cards and generally trying to squeeze in some relaxing again. It was such a nice place to go back to and we got a nice private room with Kristelle, and started feeling very at home again.
Given that we’ve mainly been travelling just us we’ve not had to do too many goodbyes, but as Kristelle was moving on to Honduras to do some dive training on the islands and our plan was to head into El Salvador for the beach, after our last night we parted ways. It was a weird feeling to be leaving her and the hostel, even though it hadn’t really been long at all, but we were ready to be in a new country and doing new things, so back we got on the bus! Guatemala has been beautiful (if rainy) and I can see why so many travellers love it!