Antigua, one of the few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Guatemala, appealed to me from the moment our collectivo trundled into town over its cobblestone streets, past the well preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, round the corners with tumbled down spectacular ruins of colonial churches and up to our hostel of choice for a 3 night stint, Yellow House.
We were using Antigua as a base for a few days before heading West a few hours to Guatemala’s second biggest, yet less travelled city, of Quetzaltenango, or Xela (pronounced Shey-la) to all and sundry in the country. We had booked a 2 day volcano hike, before a weeks Spanish lessons and homestay, both in Xela, and Antigua was the perfect jumping off point to break up the journey.
Colonial towns always hold a big appeal to me; the throwback to history, the untouched unspoiled roads, the abundance of care that is given over to all the small, intricate signs and doorways, the apparent lack of smog filled car lined streets, and the ease of travelling and safety of the area. Antigua was no different, yet also had the added attraction and vista of three main volcanoes that surround the city, one still quite evidently active.
We headed out to dinner on our first evening, taking the advice of the local hostel staff, and finding our way to an intriguing hidden restaurant that had a small tienda (local snack shop) as its store front. After being grinned at by a couple of old, wizened individuals, we got escorted round the crisp packet stand, past the cash register and into the hidden, small, cardboard box strewn tabled area.
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The menu consisted of chicken broth, or chicken broth, and after a moments hesitation we plumped for the chicken broth option, and promptly sat down to one of the tastiest chicken broths I’ve experienced. As we peered around the corner into the back kitchen, we saw 3 ladies, all over the age of 70, chopping up carrots with trembling hands and stirring large metal pots of the delicious sauce. No wonder the flavour and richness was amazing, these ladies looked as though they had perfected the recipe over hundreds of years. The result was spellbinding.
The next few days were spent with equal measure of appeal, wanderlust and relaxation. We wandered the streets, I took some time out to do a little bit of work, we cooked for the next couple of nights (in hopeless attempts at recreating the wonderful flavour combinations previously), and we generally wound down and took in the charm and appeal of the city. We had a beautiful run up the local ‘hill’, traversing 5km pure uphill to be presented with outstanding views of the streets of Antigua en-route, overlooking the 3 volcanoes and geography the keep Antigua contained, before hitting a cloud filled village and heading back down.
We also met up with Richard and Bev that we had met previously in Belize, and I spent some time with them sharing a beer and wandering through the maze that is a Central American market. Han had a wonderful and photogenic trip up to the active volcano, toasting marshmallows over the hot earth, lowering herself into natural cave saunas, seeing lava spout out from known vents, and meeting new friends whilst watching a beautiful sunset fill the skies.
However, before long it was time to jump onto our first experience of Guatemalan chicken buses and make our way to Xela.
The local transport system throughout Guatemala is made up of old American school buses that have been vamped up, spruced up and pimped up by the drivers, and are colloquially known as ‘chicken buses’. They cram people onto these buses; one row that would normally hold 4, holds 6 plus a couple of people standing. Bags are thrown on roofs, people are crammed into the spaces near the back of the bus, as the drivers helper plods along the roof arranging the bags whilst the bus careers around another bend at high speed. At one time I saw the attendant traverse the outside of the bus, his feet perched precariously on the small windowsills, his hands holding onto the roof trestles. It was like a scene from some Hollywood movie, only the ending was less dramatic and involved less violence and blood (thankfully).
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After 4 of these buses, and around 6 hours of transport filled, crammed in un-comfortableness (yet only a few dollars out of pocket) we arrived in Xela, none the worse for wear with all luggage and bones intact.
We quickly settled into our hostel before attending the pre-meeting for our two day excursion up to Central America’s highest point – Volcan Tajumulco. The dormant volcano rises up 4220m above sea level in a grandiose showing of mother nature’s slow but perceivable ability to shape and mould the landscape.
Our excursion, one that we had booked previously with a tour company called Quetzaltrekkers, was to start at 5am Saturday morning where we would group and make our way to the bus station, A couple of hours and 2 buses later, travelling through some more of Guatemala’s chicken bus spider web network, would find us at about 3000m. From there where we would hike with around 15kg of equipment for 5-6 hours to around 4000m. We would camp the night, wake up at 3am and hike up another hour to the peak to catch the sunrise, before breaking camp and slowly traversing back down.
Volcan Tajumulco, literally meaning ‘walking into the clouds’, was living up to its Mayan name as we started climbing up the steep earthen paths and tracks. As the clouds slowly enveloped our vision and our group, the air became thinner and the going got slower. However, by lunch we had made camp and were dining on some of the great food that we had lugged up the volcano with us. With visibility diminished to around 20ft, nerves were taught and tensions high, as people we left wondering if we would have a vista at all the next morning.
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As the sun slowly set temperatures at 4000m plummeted, and by 7pm, if you cared to look, you would find us all wrapped up in our sleeping bags, fully clothed with 5 or 6 layers at poor attempts to keep body warmth contained within touching distance of our goose bumped flesh. Bin liners were thrown round the bottom of sleeping bags, and multiple hat combinations were tried out in an everlasting game of substituting heat conversion with pillow comfort. It was cold!
However as tiredness, shallow breathing due to the oxygen levels and the peaceful sound of nothingness slowly relaxed our bodies and minds, our tent slowly drifted off to sleep.
Our guides woke us up to the melancholy sounds of soft pattering of rain, and as we all started to swap sleeping bag warmth for cool fresh 3am air, the worry and trepiditious nature of our tent was palpable. As we slowly drank some warming tea around the makeshift tarpaulin strewn dinner shelter however, the light rain passed and our night vision eyes slowly became accustomed to the clouds visually moving away from the summit – it was looking as though we were in for a visual feast.
A slow line of bobbing headlamps were scattered out in the distance, as our group and others slowly meandered our way to the top of the volcano like an array of illuminating ants. As we all entered our own little worlds in the near pitch black darkness, taking large oxygen searching breaths and slowly but perceptively ascending the final 200m in around 45 minutes trekking, the glowing meandering dots bought visions to me of ancient civilizations holding aloft torches to ascend a religious under toned edifice. My over zealous fantasy driven mind enjoyed the stories and myths that I was making and awakening to pass the time.
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We reached the summit with a thin light haze battling against the night times all encompassing nature, the street lights of nearby and far away cities still glowing upwards and outwards, forming street maps and hazy grids of illuminating light. North Easterly we could make out a far away city across the border into Mexico, to the North West a thin line of the Pacific Ocean could be seen, and as our eyes moved anti clockwise round the compass the Sierra Madre mountain range created a silhouette of peaks and troughs before giving way to closer hills and fields.
The sun slowly rose, and as the silhouettes slowly turned into their respective named volcanoes and mountains, and the towns turned from Christmas tree lights to dull grey hazes, the scene in-front of us became photogenically unforgettable. Each moment seemingly more impressive and colourful than the last; we stood atop the roof of Central America and looked down and around its children, marvelling at their new born beauty. Reds turned to oranges, oranges to yellows and yellows to whites. A loud echoing boom was heard and smoke was seen rising from an active volcano in the distance as it slowly spewed forth an ash cloud over its closest neighbours.
We may have ascended into the clouds, but we had come out the other side to a display of mother natures devising. It was breath-taking in both physical and mental meanings of the word, yet as the show slowly came to a close to be replaced by a sun bleached vista we slowly moved down and away from the scenes and back to camp.
We slowly traversed back down the volcano, back through a cloud forest and over, around and through a host of different fauna and flora, slowly making our way back to Xela. A chocolate covered banana to finish the trip awakened another of the 5 senses, and we collapsed into our bed back at our hostel, appreciative, thankful and inspired by the trip.
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