Having survived El Salvador with no obvious issues, we were excited to visit Honduras despite its impressively daunting gun crime and murder rate statistics. It’s also home to San Pedro Sula, which was awarded the title of ‘World’s most dangerous city 2012’. You may try to avoid San Pedro at all costs, but it’s unlikely you’ll manage it as you have to visit its major bus station on almost any route across the country. We ended up there twice but mercifully, not for long on either occasion.
Most of our time was spent free diving on Utila – you can read about that in Freediving part II if you haven’t already. A bus ride across the country also prompted this poetic offering: From the window. Right now though, I’m catching up on the rest of our time.
Coming from El Salvador, we assumed that we’d be able to bus our way straight to our first destination of Copan Ruinas, the home to the famously intricate Mayan ruins of Copan. This turned out to be possibly only via a ‘five bus sequence’ however, which had us going back through Guatemala, so we opted to share a car with Adam and Julie, the couple we met in Santa Ana. This would still follow the same route (meaning we got a third entry stamp into Guatemala, threatening my ever decreasing free space in my passport) but it would be quicker and much less hassle.
And it was. We only had to get out of the car for the two border crossings, three police checkpoints, and about fifteen mountainous speed bumps that the combination of our weight, our luggage and the car’s non-existent rear suspension rendered the route deadly to the integrity of the car’s chassis. Helena and I only endured the gut-wrenching scrape of metal on concrete once, before we were leaping out of the car at the first sight of speed bumps and running to the next clear bit of road.
Arriving in Copan, we quickly found a hostel and set out on the kilometre walk to the ruins outside of town. Sharing a guide with Adam and Julie, we enjoyed an informative tour of the small site that has many carvings and examples of intricate stonework. I’m not quite sure I grasped the full understanding of the legacy of the Mayan kings. The guide spent lots of time talking about a man called 18th Rabbit (at least that’s what I think he was saying), and various other numbered rabbit kings. It was good, but I think I preferred the sheer might of Tikal in Guatemala. One thing Copan does have though, is a resident flock of Macaws that are probably as much of a draw to the site as the ruins themselves.
Feeling happy with our efficient use of time (three countries and an important archaeological site in one day), we headed out for a quick meal and a few drinks, which is when our complacency about our safety suddenly reared its head. The four of us were sitting enjoying a few post-dinner Salva Vidas in an upstairs bar, when Helena pointed out that the police had arrived outside. This is not necessarily an unusual sight, as there is a huge armed police presence right across Central America, and we’d already become quite accustomed to seeing both police and security guards standing in various places nonchalantly bearing massive weapons slung over their shoulders.
These guys, however, were very far from nonchalant in their behaviour.
Moments after Helena first spotted them, five or six officers, armed with large assault style weapons, swiftly came up the stairs into the bar with their guns at the ready; their fingers were literally on the triggers. They rapidly targeted a young looking guy who had been standing drinking and socialising amongst the crowd. He made a couple of steps to escape but immediately relinquished himself to the situation, at which point one of the police officers reached behind the young man and pulled out the shiny silver handgun that he had had tucked into the back of his trousers before escorting him quickly down the stairs.
It all happened so quickly that we almost couldn’t believe what we had seen. I was certainly shocked at the idea that we were sat enjoying drinks in what was a relatively main stream, touristy bar, and at least one of the locals was carrying a gun around with him. We had no idea how the police knew that he had it, or why they came specifically for him. Maybe someone had tipped them off? Who knows. Either way, we quickly had to finish our drinks and leave as we were told that the police were closing the bar. We all agreed that it was probably home time anyway, and walked back to the hostel in a state of mild shock.
Adam and Julie left early the next morning to continue their trip, and Helena and I spent a fabulous day doing what we do best: sampling the local cafes and artisan producers. A quick scout through the guide book formed and itinerary which included cheese and coffee at Cafe San Rafael, followed up by a brewery tour by the fabulously eccentric Tomas at his microbrewery Sol de Copan, finished off with a relaxing visit to the superb Tea and Chocolate Place where we sat on a veranda enjoying the views while drinking noni tea organic hot chocolate. The latter two of these are particularly worth a visit if you are in town. Tomas’ heifer weizen is like no beer I’ve ever tasted and the T&CP is actually a project mainly focused on the reforestation and recultivation of the natural plants on the steep hills above Copan.
After our cross-country jaunt to Utila, we made a quick stop off at the Rio Cangrejal for a rafting trip, on our way back across the country. It was such a lightning stop that I almost forgot about it entirely. We seemed to be the only ones staying at the jungle lodge we had found, but it didn’t matter. They fed us really well just in time for an extended power cut to kick in that left us playing cards by candlelight before heading to bed.
The next morning, we met our guide (whose name has now escaped us!) and headed upriver. We spent an hour or so wading upstream through the shallower sections, clambering over boulders and jumping off rocks into deep pools before simply floating back downstream through some gentle rapids to our rafting put-in. Here, we were given a short introduction to paddling commands (pretty simply ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’) and safety drills before heading into the white water.
It was an awesome trip downstream with a variety of class of rapids, some of which we ended up going down backwards and sideways but I’m not sure that wasn’t part of the plan! There was the only occasional moment when the regular, ‘forwards … forwards … forwards,’ of the guide became a rather more frantic and rapid ‘forwardforwardforwardforwardforwardforward!!’ whereupon we paddled like mad to avoid whatever impending catastrophe he had seen coming. All in all, a really fun morning that was topped off with some more time spent jumping off rocks into the river.
A quick taxi into La Ceiba, and bus back to San Pedro Sula was followed by a slightly confusing search for transport to our final destination: the Lago de Yojoa (yes, another lake!), where we’d booked to stay at D&D brewery. What’s that you say? A brewery that’s also a hostel? That will do nicely! I must concede though, that although D&D’s beer was good, it was absolutely no match for Tomas’ craft brews. Still, we enjoyed a few days exploring the local area. It is not a fully established travelling hot-spot as yet, and the lake in particular was almost entirely undeveloped along its shoreline. We spent one afternoon walking through a coffee and flowers ‘finca’, where I discovered a fleeting passion for up close flower photography, and had an early morning trip in a rowing boat onto the lake indulging further Helena’s interest in birdwatching. This was a great trip though, because we saw all kinds of interesting birds on the lake’s shores, including a good number of Toucans.
My favourite was the Tiger Heron that appears to have been blessed with an extendable neck that Inspector Gadget would have been proud of.
All of this had brought us to 9th September, so we were already looking nervously at the calendar. We had a flight booked to leave Panama City on the 30th September, and had yet to set foot in either Nicaragua or Costa Rica, two countries with reputations for being excellent travelling destinations. We had to get on the move to make the most of our remaining 21 days in Central America.
We briefly met a girl from El Salvador in Guatemala and were excited to tell her that we were about to travel to her home country. On hearing this, however, she looked rather concerned and muttered a doubtful, ‘Really?’ quickly followed by ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’ Her reasoning being that it is somewhat of a dangerous place.
A quick google search of El Salvador leaves you reading a screen full of phrases like: One of the highest crime rates in Latin America; Has thousands of known gang members; and Exercise a high degree of caution. But now being seasoned travellers, of course, we were not to be deterred. We were determined to see what El Salvador was all about, and really get under the skin of this lesser visited, seemingly hostile Central American country.
Plus, we’d already booked our bus tickets.
A city full of surprises
It was dark and raining when we arrived in the capital San Salvador. We’d scouted out a potential hotel that we knew was very close to the bus station, but in these conditions we weren’t really up for walking, so we approached a taxi driver. Once he learned of our destination, he looked rather confused, gesturing towards the hotel and saying in Spanish, ‘It’s right there!’ We explained that we really didn’t want to walk and so he offered to take us for $4 U.S. Dollars, which we accepted without even the hint of a barter, and climbed in.
30 seconds later, we arrived and climbed out again, paying the bemused driver gratefully and diving into the refuge of the hotel. We hadn’t booked though, but we’re lucky on two counts as a) they had a room and b) it was actually a really nice place and the staff were very friendly. And there we stayed, eating pot noodles, drinking beer, and watching Spanish TV, not daring to venture into the city after dark.
The next morning, however, the sun was shining and we went exploring. What we found was a city full of churches (not unusual for Central America) but also full of people who seemed very happy to see us. We were greeted on the street by numerous complete strangers who happily welcomed us to their country.
Only a few blocks away from our hostel, we stumbled across a fantastic diner that was selling ‘tortas’. We had no idea what they were but we stood and watched in awe as all kinds of meat and other fillings were grilled and stacked into long buns filled with lettuce and smothered in various sauces. ‘I want one,’ I said to Hels, and we grabbed a table. We didn’t really understand much of the menu but somehow managed to order the most expensive one, which was good because it came with absolutely everything they had stuffed inside and was plenty enough for us to share.
Dragging ourselves away from the tortas place was tough, but we managed it eventually. We continued our exploration of the city down streets thronged with people selling anything and everything they could get their hands on towards the main square. Rumour had it that of all the churches in Central America, the Iglesia El Rosario was one not to be missed, but when we got to the square, it was not immediately apparent where this church was. I was expecting either a structure of gargantuan proportions or fabulous opulence.
What we found, when we actually managed to find it, was something that resembled a bomb shelter. Entirely constructed of grey concrete, the church hunkers down in its semi-circular shape, tucked in amongst various other buildings. It was certainly unusual. I wondered at the architect who decided on the ‘nuclear bunker’ theme, and we almost decided not to go inside, but that would have been a huge mistake.
Once you enter, the rough concrete exterior gives way to a polished interior which despite its coolness fostered a very serene atmosphere. But it was the stained glass that was the real hero of the piece. It was set into sections in the curved roof creating a rainbow effect on the inside that was totally invisible from the square outside. It also has an excellent set of stone and metal sculptures depicting the stations of the cross. Overall, a real surprise gem of a building.
The remainder of our daylight time in San Salvador was spent exploring further before retreating to the safety of the hotel to plan our onward travel.
The Ruta de las Flores is signalled as a highlight in all of the El Salvador literature, so we headed to the large town of Santa Ana from where we hoped to explore the smaller towns along the route. If you’re visiting Santa Ana as a backpacker, it’s more than likely that you’ll stay at Casa Verde – it’s pretty much the only option in town for travellers, and luckily a very good one.
We turned up (once again with no booking) and were welcomed by the owner Carlos who spoke pretty good English. He was very friendly and we were soon settled in a room. It took me all of two minutes to get myself a beer and head to the pool – yes, Casa Verde has a pool! You have to love it!
Chatting with Carlos about options for dinner that evening, we decided to go with his recommendation of Cafe Tejas. Rather than having to try to find it ourselves though, he said he’d give them a call and see if they could sort out some transport for us. We were actually going to be a group of four, as we’d met another couple at the hostel, Adam and Julie, who were also keen to go out for dinner. Soon, the Canadian owner Amira arrived to give us a lift. It was only much later that we realised that they put on the transport at no cost mainly for the safety of their customers. At the time, I just thought they were being friendly!
It turned out to be an excellent dinner, but it was made more fun as Amira introduced us to Basa, her Salvadoran husband. We bonded over beers and chats about reggae and ska. Basa loved the fact that I played in a reggae band at home and we ended up listening to the album of tracks I have on my iPod over the restaurant’s sound system. We ended the evening by making plans to visit a big reggae bar on the outskirts of town the following night.
The next morning, quite a bit later than planned, Helena and I went exploring the flower route but only made it as far as Juayua, one of the small towns along the stretch. It was pretty quiet and could have been good for a relaxing few days stay but we only had the afternoon, and as we’d turned up mid-week we weren’t able to experience the weekend food festivals for which the town is famed. We did manage to get hold of some pupusas though!
Returning to the hostel, Carlos greeted us with a message from Basa and Amira – would we like to go to their house for a few drinks before going out? Always keen to see the real lifestyle wherever we are, we accepted gratefully and were once again collected and taken to their house. From the outside, it looked rather daunting – white walls with solid black metal gates. Once inside, however, the house opened up to a spacious colonial structure with an interior courtyard where we sat on stools made from chopped up tree trunks, shared a few drinks and continued our tour of reggae music through the ages! Later, we headed to the reggae bar (called Trenchtown) and enjoyed a few more drinks, a few pizzas and some decent music. It was an awesome evening and we felt very lucky to have been invited out by some local people. My only regret is that we were having too much fun to take any pictures!!
Our last day in El Salvador was spent recovering from the night before, and then a short afternoon trip to Lago de Coatepeque. This lake has a similar geography to Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala, but it is much less developed around its rim. Consequently, it’s much cleaner and it didn’t take long before Helena and I were down to our swim kit and diving happily into the clear water from a pier, making silly little videos with the GoPro.
And that was it, our time in El Salvador had raced to an end. We’d found it to be a very welcoming place full of wonderful people and places. I suspect it will become an increasingly popular favourite with travellers, especially since it has some fantastic surfing beaches on its Pacific coast too. Time to tackle the other bad boy in the Cental American hood, Honduras…
1497 km to go. That’s the best part of 900 miles! The sun is shining intermittently through the clouds. Repeated announcements accompanied by videos brief us on safety procedures, but as they’re all in Spanish, I don’t pay attention. It’s not like I’m on a plane. My iPod is filling my brain with Paul Van Dyk’s For an Angel – nothing like a bit of classic trance to help pass the time. I’m going to experiment with writing as we go on this one to see what happens on the other side. I think it has promise, you may disagree!
They’ve just put a movie on. It has been dubbed into Spanish so I return to writing. We appear to be following signs to Puerto Inca, which sounds exciting, especially since our ultimate destination is Machu Picchu. We won’t get there for a few days yet though. My helpful maps app now reads 1422km to go, time to read a bit I think. Helena has given me Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard which has so far enticed the reader with a clandestine sex scene, hints at an affair, an impending court case and potentially a murder. Well done Ms Doughty, good hook.
1330 km – I haven’t read anything yet. I’ve been usefully clearing out space on my iPhone – ooh look, another Apple product! The sun appears to have gone down, but that can’t be the case as it’s only 4:24 pm. Grey skies ahead cast only gloom on the road and surrounding landscape. The film is still playing but I doubt many people are watching it. Helena is sleeping by my side; I might have to try and recline her seat a bit because her head is lolling around. I wonder if I can do it without waking her?
Unfortunately, I failed on the ‘not waking Helena’ front. Dusk has definitely fallen now; our view from the front row of the top deck will soon be limited to lights flashing past in the darkness. The Spanish film finished and then Jurassic World came on, mercifully in English this time. I have only been watching it out of the corner of my eye though as we saw it in our Quito hostel on a lazy evening last week. We’ve been on the bus for four hours already, but still have 1295 km to go – at least now we can say we have less than a day left!
Strangely, we appear to have just left Ecuador and crossed into Peru. I’m sure we have to go through some sort of immigration though – everybody off the bus! Fun times. At least they may provide us with dinner once we all get through, I’m beginning to get a bit hungry.
Toilet paranoia has set in; this is not a good sign. Immediately after getting off the bus I spotted and visited the baño for what turned out to be almost no reason.
Now I’m sat beside the bus, waiting for the remaining passengers to clear immigration and I’m wondering if I should go again. We’re also eyeing up the snack shop as although food should be arriving soon after we re-embark, there is, as ever, no guarantee. I think I may visit the loo to distract myself.
We’re back on the bus and moving. They’ve put the movie back on but turned the lights off. This does not bode well for getting fed.
They’ve backed us into a dodgy looking yard and closed two heavy metal gates in front of us. It’s the kind of set you’d expect to see in one of those Nicholas Cage movies; I would specify but they are all pretty much the same, aren’t they? As it happens, this is where we are to be presented with our dinner that looks like it has come dressed up for a Tupperware party in the eighties. It could be worse though; it is identifiable as beef with rice and vegetables. And the shortbread cookie for dessert was pure delight. 8:45pm – a good time to eat.
1258 km to go; movie number three has started and would you look at that, Nicholas Cage is the lead. I don’t know what it’s about, but he’ll probably steal some cars, speak in a gravelly monotone voice a lot and break out of a maximum security prison at some point.
It’s 10:17 pm – here comes movie number four. Inexplicably however, they’ve decided to screen something that is in neither Spanish not English but is subtitled in both. That’s it for me; Cage’s dubious moral dilemmas have worn me out, I’m tucking in for the night. Curtains ahead have closed out the view, Florence and the Machine’s stupendous Lungs is breezing into my ears to drown out the movie soundtrack. Hopefully when I wake up, we’ll be a lot further down the Panamericana.
10:23 pm – (yes, only six minutes later) we’ve stopped and the lights are back on; a bemusingly huge 1178 km from Lima. The movie is some kind of zombie apocalypse meets Gulliver’s Travels. Who comes up with this stuff? It turns out we have to get off again for a customs spot check – oh joy! It’ll only take a few minutes though and then we’ll all re-board the magical mystery tour. Just enough time for a pee.
Never do long bus ride maths, it’ll only make it worse. We’ve just arrived in Mancora – 368km from our start point in Guayaquil. It’s 11pm. 368/1.6 = 230 miles/9 hours = 25.5mph average speed. I could weep.
After a few rounds of Florence and a brief Hotel California moment, I have gone back to the trance album. It’s now past midnight and I can’t sleep so I’m sitting with my reading light on finally getting into that book. Things are hotting up and I’m only on page 94 – I wonder where this will go. 1111 km to go.
8:23 am – I must have slept, although I don’t remember doing it. We’ve just been handed our breakfast. Plastic has been replaced by polystyrene as we are served a ham roll/cookie combo followed up with a lukewarm coffee. I’ll take it though; the reopened curtains reveal a dry and barren landscape, it doesn’t look like there is much water around here. There are also tuk-tuks on the road playing a game of life and death chicken with the buses and trucks lumbering around them. Have we taken the bus all the way back to India? An encouraging 561 km to go, good work Mr Driver, good work indeed!
Eva Cassidy’s Autumn Leaves soothes my brain as we drive ever further into the Peruvian desert. Huge sand dunes are rising up on either side of the road. They’ve put a comedy on now, in English starring Miranda Hart and Jason Statham – weird casting – but I’ve been getting further into my book so I’m basically ignoring it.
The contrast between the dry and irrigated earth is extreme – we even drove past some rice fields a little while back. It’s not the most ideal place to grow rice I’ve ever seen. Thinking of food has made me wonder about lunch, who knows what they have in store for us this time. It’s 12:44, we’re coming up to the 24 hour mark which actually seems to have flown by. Only 362km left.
The Pacific Ocean just appeared out of nowhere to our right. I was too stunned to take a photo – plus I was eating lunch: chicken, rice, veg, and some sort of super sugary rice pudding. Not bad. The sight of the desert descending into the sea though … just fabulous. This is the sort of stuff you don’t get to see from a plane. Drinks have arrived – Coca cola or Inca cola. The Inca cola is yellow and tastes like Irn Bru. It’s an obvious choice surely? The map reads 320 km – 200 miles!
The bus rolls on. The road stretches out ahead, deserted. Hardly any traffic anywhere. 149 km left – you really wouldn’t know we’d been on this bus for almost 26 hours. It sounds horrendous, doesn’t it? But the scenery just drifts past, the movies play on and on, (I’ve lost count now) and the time ticks away quite happily. I’ve even managed to get the wifi working on my iPod so we’ve found a hostel to try when we arrive. Hopefully it’ll have a comfier bed than this seat! Having said there’s no traffic, we’ve just stopped at a set of traffic lights. The absolute definition unnecessary out here!
The shadows are stretching out across the road before us once more. Can it be time for the sun to set again already? We’ve also just descended an incredible section of the Panamericana which has been cut into the side of a giant sand dune. It snakes down, curving left and right, gradually dropping down to the sea below. I can’t believe it actually works; it looks like the entire road should just slide down the side of the dune into the ocean. 39km, not far now. My eyes are feeling heavy.
10k to go, I could run it from here. Might be quicker with the state of Lima’s traffic. Oh, to be back on the open road with the pointless traffic lights! We’re also now running late, 45 minutes late so far. No big deal on a 28 hour ride I suppose – although it’s getting later and we still have to find somewhere to sleep. I feel a taxi ride coming on.
We made it. My toilet paranoia paid off leaving me able to avoid the ‘squeeze into a tiny toilet in a moving vehicle and try not to pee on your own feet’ scenario for the remainder of the trip. My biggest problem is that my lower spine appears to have set in one immovable position that has rendered me almost incapable of walking. If I could just … stand … up … maybe I could get out of here.
So that was it, 29 hours later, we were in a Lima taxi looking for accommodation. Not too bad really. I suppose the only problem is that we go again today at 2pm for another 21 hours. I may need a paramedic to get me out by the time we arrive!
Antigua Guatemala is a beautiful colonial town about an hour or so from Guatemala City that was once the capital of the region. We had chosen to get a shuttle here rather than take the risky chicken bus, and so were dropped off in the pretty central square ringed with cobbled streets and pillared colonnades.
If I was a more accomplished photographer, I’d have had an even better time wandering the streets of Antigua – it’s just incredible shot, after interesting scene, after crumbling ruin – perfectly charming colonial architecture seemingly built purely for the pleasure of taking arty architectural photos. As it was, we happily explored, especially enjoying the novelty of being able to go out after dark!
We made our way to a hostel called Yellow House which we’d spotted and booked online only to be met with a slightly confused look from the lady behind the desk. ‘We don’t work with any online booking websites,’ she explained. I quickly produced my electronic booking confirmation and was mid ‘Now hold on a second, it quite clearly says here that …’ when I realised I’d managed to book a hostel in Columbia, not Guatemala. ‘Oh, erm, well, that’s never happened before,’ I stammered in apology. To be fair, the Columbia hostel had also been called Yellow House, so I’d got the name right, just the small matter of the wrong country. And continent.
Luckily, they had a room available with a volcano view, and so we checked in. And no, before you ask, the ‘volcano view’ was no exaggeration. From our window, we could see the huge Agua, rising up in front of us. But more significantly, from the balcony we could see the dual peaked Acatenango and Fuego; the latter being a particularly aptly named volcano seeing as it erupts every fifteen minutes or so. But more of that later.
For now, we were excited to be in a place where we could walk around and not feel on edge, so we spent a day or two enjoying the bars restaurants and cafés, doing our best to take arty photographs, and generally enjoying the ambience of the town.
On our first evening, we had an excellent meal at a little place called ‘Tienda La Canche’. It’s described in the guidebook as being ‘behind a mom and pop store’ and it was with uncertainty that we entered the tiny shop that corresponded to its location on the map. ‘This can’t be it, surely?’ I whispered to Hels but sure enough, a tiny little old lady appeared out of nowhere and beckoned us round behind the counter. Speaking only Spanish, she described what they had on offer that night. One dish was ‘pepian’, a kind of hearty chicken stew and we had no idea what the other one was. To be honest, we didn’t know what pepian was either but we managed to get across that we’d have one of each of whatever they were selling by saying, ‘Uno pepian y uno *makes hand singnals for ‘the other thing’*. Hey, it worked and it was great food too. Antigua can be an expensive place to stay so we were happy to have found an authentic local option that was also pretty cheap. We got chatting to Carlos, the son of the owner, who told us that his mum had been serving food this way for sixty years. Sixty years!
Apart from soaking up the colonial ambience, we were keen to hike up one of the two active volcanoes close by. There was the option of a short climb up Pacara, but rumour had it that an overnight trek up Acatenango was the way to go, with the main attraction being the chance to view the eruptions of Fuego once the sun had gone down. So after a little research and various chats with other travellers (often the best way to get tips on activities), we booked with a company called Old Town Outfitters. If you’re thinking of climbing Acatenango, I can definitely recommend them!
Time to climb!
On the morning of the hike, we were first in line for breakfast at the hostel, keen to get a bit of fuel on board in preparation for what we’d heard was a pretty strenuous climb. Standing with us was another couple who looked suspiciously like they were geared up for hiking – Tristan and Laura – and sure enough, we were to be in the same group.
‘Have you guys booked a porter?’ Laura asked as we made our way down to the meeting point. ‘Erm, no. Should we have?’ came my tentative reply. ‘See Tristan, I told you we didn’t need a porter – they told us everyone gets one,’ she said, nudging Tristan. We weren’t sure what to make of this – either we’d saved ourselves a few dollars or we’d made a big mistake. There wasn’t much we could do about it at this point, anyway. How bad could it be?
At the office, we met our guides: the experienced and mild-mannered Luiz and the friendly and energetic Pepian. ‘Pepian’s not my real name,’ he told us, ‘it’s just my favourite dish.’ Judging by the size of him, he’d definitely eaten a few, but that didn’t slow him down, as we found out later.
There were twelve of us on the trek in total and we all crammed into minivan for the short ride up to the foothills of the volcano. Waiting for us was a big group of porters – so everyone did have one after all. Everyone except us, that was.
As the porters loaded themselves up with gear, Luiz handed me a tent, two sleeping bags and two roll mats. Adding this to our trekking clothes and the eight litres of water we’d brought (on recommendation from the company) left us with bags significantly larger and heavier than any of the other guys on the trek. But hey, we’ve never been shy of a challenge so we loaded up and were soon heading up the volcano.
And it really was up!
Unlike the other treks we’ve done in Borneo and Indonesia which were fairly steady gradients all the way to the summit, most of the altitude gain on this trek happens in the first half. Antigua itself is at 1500m above sea level, and the trek starts somewhere above 2000m. We’d be reaching 3500 in a worryingly short amount of distance. So it’s safe to say that the path was steep. An added complication, however, was that it was in terrible condition. Being a volcano rather than a mountain, the ground is a lot looser. Add to that some regular heavy rainfall and you’re essentially walking up a rutted bed of a storm run off. The water slices its way down the path creating deep crevices that are ripe for breaking ankles.
Despite the extra baggage, we were making steady progress and the unfolding views of the volcanic landscape were incredible. We trekked our way from corn fields, into the forest and onwards towards our lunch stop where we were treated to fresh wraps and nachos.
From there on, we were traversing the side of the volcano heading for the campsite which was at 3550m. By this time though, the cloud was rolling in and the prospect of rain was inevitable. We also kept hearing thunder, at least that’s what I thought it was…
My other problem was that now I was genuinely beginning to struggle, in contrast to Helena who just seemed to get stronger as the air got thinner! I was surprised and frustrated in equal measure – I hadn’t had a problem on Kinabalu at 4095m, why was I struggling now? – but put it down to the combination of rapid ascent and heavy pack. Even so, the trek to the campsite was tough, going gradually up but interspersed with short steep ascents and descents that broke your rhythm. Plus, it was raining. Luiz had sent the porters ahead to set up the tents before any heavy rain kicked in and we were pleased to reach the site eventually and find a tent waiting for us to crash out in for a bit.
But we didn’t nap for long – soon we were hearing the shouts of ‘FUEGO!’ and scrambling out of the tent to find the guides and porters standing, pointing excitedly at the erupting volcano right in front of us. It was a superb spectacle. We sat and watched, amazed while the porters got to work collecting wood to make a camp fire – it was pretty cold up there. Luiz was in the cooking tent and we were soon tucking into a hearty dinner washed down with the surprise addition of red wine (in a carton). I’d brought a small bottle of rum with me which went down well amongst the group and as the sun went down, we were sat, porters, guides and trekkers, all together toasting marshmallows and generally having a good laugh together.
And so began our night of watching, gradually descending ever further into darkness. The clouds were shifting so rapidly that one moment the volcano was in plain sight and the next it was entirely shrouded from view. You knew when the eruptions were happening though, even when there was cloud cover, because you could hear them – it hadn’t been thunder rumbling as we climbed!
The sounds were different depending on the type of eruption though. The smaller activity sort of fizzes out of the top of the volcano, an extended release of pressure from deep below the surface of the Earth. Then you have the more dynamic eruptions, that you see before you hear and feel them, like a bomb going off on top of the mountain, showering glowing rocks down its sloping sides. As the sun went down, these eruptions produced spectacular light shows.
And then you had the big explosions. You could almost tell when they were going to happen. When everything had been quiet for a while, when you’d got distracted by the fire, or the chat, or the wine and rum cocktails, a niggling thought entered into the back of your mind: It’s awfully quiet out here.
Then …. boom! (There is no other word!)
A huge spray of rocks and lava erupts from the cone of the volcano into the night sky. You’re mesmerised by the raw power of it, the sheer magnificence of the natural world, completely unstoppable and ambivalent to our presence as spectators. The sight was awe-inspiring, but the sound … I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the sound for the last few months but have drawn a blank. Words don’t come close and any similes I try to concoct fall short too. A bomb? Not really, not that violent. A thud? An oomph? A whoosh? A big hit on an orchestral bass drum? Ten bass drums? Fifty maybe? That’s about as close as I can get – it’s not a bang, that’s for sure. It’s kind of a heavy sound that you feel as much as you hear, a very short crescendo into an sfz (for all you musicians out there)! Like some of Stravinsky’s bass drum score in the last part of The Rite of Spring.
We stayed up late, but eventually succumbed to fatigue and fell into bed; well, more accurately, onto roll mat. The plan was to wake up at 4am and scale the last 400m to watch the sunrise from the summit at 3976m. We could have done with a decent sleep but the combination of discomfort, cold and repeated scramblings to watch eruptions left us bleary eyed when the clock ticked over to 4am.
The last part of the climb was the toughest of the lot. Unlike Kinabalu, which was solid granite for the last few hundred metres, here we were effectively climbing on sand. Every step saw your foot slide back down the trail, so the effort required was three-fold on what we may have expected. Guided by headlamps and with the aid of a few sticks, we slowly inched our way to the summit – it took almost two hours. At the top, the views were just incredible. You could see the volcano strewn landscape stretching out in every direction, the smoke from the active Pacaya drifting in a perfectly straight line in the breeze, Fuego erupting on cue and the shadows stretching out behind us as the sun broke the horizon.
It was almost unbearably windy and freezing cold up there though so once we’d done a full loop of Acatenango’s crater we began our descent – this is where the terrain suddenly played into our favour. We no longer had to take it steady. Following Luiz’s lead, we began sand surfing our way to the bottom, taking huge leaps and sinking our feet into the loose surface as we descended at speed. Reaching the camp site we were treated to a fabulous thick hot chocolate made on the fire, before packing up and heading back down the trail. It had been an awesome trek!
All aboard the chicken bus!
After a night of rest back at Yellow House, we woke early to catch a bus to Lago de Atitlan – Guatemala’s famous poster child lake. We knew we could get a chicken bus there but were still not keen on the idea so we had booked a ticket with what looked like a slightly more reputable company. On arrival at their office however, we were quickly shepherded two blocks down the road where we waited in anticipation on the side of the road with various other backpackers. Despite my last glimmering hope that a swanky coach would round the corner to pick us up, the inevitable happened: a gaudily painted chicken bus came bouncing down the street with the young ‘conductor’ waving frantically from the door.
‘Quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly…’ came the repeated shout as the bus clattered to a halt in front of us. Our bags were hauled onto the roof and we were barrelled into the stuffy interior, faced with the challenge of locating a seat of sorts.
Seconds later, we were off. The driver showed a healthy disregard for the state of the bus’ suspension as he floored it out of the town, launching passengers every which way as the cobbled streets did their best to unleash fury on the integrity of our spinal cords.
The characteristics of chicken buses are really quite surreal. Firstly, although there is a designated route, there are no specified stops – the driver and conductor work in tandem to try to collect as many passengers as possible from anywhere on the road. Hanging out of the door, the conductor beckons and shouts at anybody who looks remotely like they may be waiting for a bus on the side of the road. When they find someone who wants to get on, the driver will slow down just enough to make it possible for the passenger to get one foot aboard before whisking them off the ground with a firm boot on the accelerator. Disembarking is similar fashion but in reverse, with the driver gunning the engine the instant that a passenger’s foot has left the step. We even saw one conductor climb out of the bus window and onto the roof to retrieve luggage for an alighting passenger while the bus was hammering it arounds the bends of a mountainside road on the way to Atitlan. He then just reappeared and resumed his position as if he hadn’t just risked life and limb to save half a second on their schedule.
The thing is – speed means money. If you get overtaken by another bus on the same route, you lose potential passengers ahead of you. So the chicken buses are the fastest things on the road, overtaking around blind corners, beeping furiously at trucks and cars who get in their way, forging gaps through oncoming traffic where no vehicle should conceivably be able to pass. Scary and exhilarating in equal measure, our first unintended journey on the chicken bus was an eye-opener, but essentially a harmless (and cheap) method of transport.
Lago de Atitlan
The only shame about the entire experience is that Lake Atitlan wasn’t half as good as we’d hoped. From a distance, the lake is beautiful, but up close, it’s full of algae – apparently as a result of increased development around the shores of the lake and insufficient investment in the sewerage and drainage infrastructure. My images of launching myself from the end of a postcard pier into a pristine freshwater lake were dashed. We did have a fabulous coffee in Panajachel before getting a boat to San Marcos but other than that, we didn’t find much to excite us and effectively started figuring out the best way to move on almost straightaway.
And that brought our time in Guatemala to a close – Acatenango had been a huge highlight for us, and we were beginning to feel more settled in the Spanish speaking culture. Our resolve would soon be put to the test though as it was time to head to El Salvador.
Travelling offers you a lot of time to think and so from time to time I have been contemplating the existence of the Earth and everything on it. In Fiji, I re-read Jostein Gaardner’s philosophical children’s novel, Sophie’s World, which inevitably posed many more questions than it did offer answers.
Burdened, then, with thoughts bubbling ever more intensely in my mind and faced with the prospect of writing an extended post discussing the ins and outs of existence, this poem suddenly arose; which at least tempers the need to tackle the topic, if not placating it entirely.
I think therefore I am.
Well isn’t that just great!
René’s cleared it up for us,
Solved the great debate.
Helped us all a lot.
Only, I’m still left wondering,
He thinks therefore he is…what?