We passed through Guatamala City to pick up a chicken bus to Antigua. The tour does not stop here as it is considered too dangerous. From my view from the bus I would agree. Every over shop seemed to have a security guard with a semi automatic rifle. Sometimes protecting the most innocuous products. I mean are vegetable really dangerous or would a serious criminal really be likely to rob a few mangoes??? It was a really strange city and had a very hostile vibe to it.
The chicken buses however are something else. I have never seen such a brightly coloured bus in my life. It looks like the greatest graffiti artists of the world have all come together to produce the most stunning pieces of artwork in the form of buses. On the inside they have benches of 3 and 2 with the narrowest aisle ever. "Hard to get by if your arse is the size of a small country" (lyrics from National Express by Divine Comedy) came to mind! The bags go on top and there were a few concerns when one came flying off as we turned the first corner. Apparently they tie them up but he hadn't actually finished when the bus had started on its journey. The journey was like a white knuckle ride as we got thrown around as we went round corners.
Unfortunately 15 minutes outside of Antigua - the heavens opened. Our bags were soaking and so were we as we stood in the continuing torrential rain waiting for them to be handed down. We then had a 25 minute walk to our hostel, where we finally arrived looking like drowned rats making puddles as the rain poured of us. The hotel wasn't great. It was dark and small. I was tired, wet, fed up as all my clothes were wet and had no space. It was not my greatest hour and I would probably go as far to say that I was a little bit grumpy - only a little bit!!! Then our tour leader decided to give us a briefing on the next stage - the home stay. A four hour journey on 4 different buses carrying our bags on crappy roads, no electricity, no hot water, staying with families that have no English, eating what they make at 7pm and then going to bed. Then in your free time paying for yet another expensive optional tour. I inwardly cringed. I had had enough. I want to stay somewhere longer than 2 nights. I want to just chill and soak up a city. I rebelled - I went off tour. I felt like a naughty child. I had to sign a disclaimer accepting responsibility for my actions. It was the best decision I made on that trip. I had an amazing time. Antigua is just the sort of place to hang out and chill.
Me and Alana checked into a great hostel. We had enough room to swing a lion let alone a cat. Note - no animal actually got hurt. The hostel was also a really good deal - free breakfast, water and wifi. The breakfast was plentiful though the curried potatoes though nice were very odd first thing in the morning. The wifi was amazing. I was able to wake up at 6.30 and put in a couple of hours before starting my day. With freedom of choice, we decided to spend the morning just chilling in our room catching up on email and discovering Skype. I cannot believe I have never used Skype before. It is amazing and this was the moment I became a wifi and Skype junky. A serious addiction that I am still battling with.
When we finally left our room we walked around the city. It is beautiful. Lots of old and brightly coloured buildings. Antigua is framed by 3 Volcanos, one of which is active. There is a photo opportunity around almost every corner. There are lots of churches of which many are now ruins due to the number of earthquakes. The back of the catedral is a ruin which you can walk around. The brick work is amazing and would have once been an amazing building. We also stumbled across the local washing area which is actually a stunning yellow façade with symmetrical stone basins for washing clothes. I don't think I have ever seen a prettier laundrette. We came across a beautiful restaurant which actually looked far too expensive for our budgets but we were wrong. I ordered an amazing asparagus risotto and received a complimentary gazpachio soup to start and a ginger truffle to finish. It was like being back in the real world as we sat on the terrace surrounded by a beautifully manicured garden and the sound of the lovely water feature.
Back at the hostel we kitted up for our walk up Volcano Pacaya. This is the most active volcano in Guatemala. At the bottom young boys try to sell you sticks and ponchos. They were in look as it started to rain and many of us sans rain coats bought the ponchos. A couple of the girls even bought the sticks. As they walked up the volcano with their plastic capes they resembled the hobbits from Lord of the Rings. Given the ring was destroyed in a volcano at the end, this gave us endless material all the way up. The walk itself started of with a really steep walk for 45 minutes. It was tough going and guys on horses followed us up and every now and again would ask if we needed a taxi!!! One of our group finally caved in and went the rest of the way by horse back. I managed the steep climb and the views were reward enough. From here you could see the other volcanoes, which are actually larger, poking through the clouds.
From here we then had to walk down volcanic ash to reach the volcanic rock. The volcanic ash is very like sand and at one point I felt like I was virtually sliding down. The volcanic rock was the scary but for me! The rock is very sharp and it is not stable. You can put your foot on it and it all sinks on itself and you are left balancing on thin air. Yet you don't want to fall as the rock would tear your skin open. In addition to that you can feel the searing heat coming through the rocks and if you stand too long your shoes start to melt onto the rocks. All the time the guide is shouting for you to go faster. I was shaking like a leaf by the end of it. Once over this it was much more fun and we were 5ft from a flowing lava river. It was truly beautiful. The heat was immense and it felt like your eyebrows were being burnt off! It was just like being in a documentary. Alana very kindly played camera man and Jackie Fisher reporting from Guatemala made a short documentary on location. The premier is too be announced but won't be long from getting home!
I had to then get back across but I did it. Then I even managed to find a burst of energy and ran up the volcanic ash which though exhausting was an easier way of getting up. It was an amazing experience. I felt exhilarated and exhausted by the time I got down. I felt very strange however when I discovered that 5 days later, the Volcano had erupted killing one person and destroying over 200 homes. You just never know ………
The second stage of the tour finished here and people left and new people joined. It was a sad farewell to Hayden and Oscar who I had shared many laughs, great evenings and several hands of 500.
It was hello to Pete, Rob, Amelie, Tam and Duane. All in their own way added greatly to our group.