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.