I travelled to Antigua via Guatemala City and what a gem of a place that was. It's no wonder people warn you not to go there, it's a total s*** hole and that's putting it nicely! Everyone I met who had been to the city had been robbed (some at gunpoint), followed, intimidated or attacked in some way or they knew someone else who had been. The whole place is filthy, run down and the people are living in serious poverty. I was glad not to be stopping and just passing through. I was travelling with a few folks I met in Lanquin and one of the guys was meant to stay overnight in Guatemala City before flying home the next day. When we arrived he took one look around and decided to get back in the van and head to Antigua with us and just pay through the nose for an early morning taxi to Guatemala City Airport. I think he definitely made the right decision!
A few of us stayed together at the same hostel, Yellow House (La Casa Amarillo). Our first night there, we headed out for a fancy meal and a few drinks and then back to the hostel as we were all knackered after our 9 hour journey from Lanquin. The next day everyone else was heading off except for me, so I headed out to discover the town. Antigua is Guatemala's prime tourist destination, where picturesque colonial buildings line cobblestone streets and there are an endless supply of hotels, cafes, bars, museums, shops and restaurants. The city has spectacular views of the three surrounding volcanoes; Volcan Agua at 3,766m; Volcan Fuego at 3,763m or Volcan Acatenango at 3,976m.
For the next 5 days I stayed at Yellow House hostel and did all the touristy things, saw the sights, climbed a volcano, went to the spa blah, blah, blah. The volcano was horrible and I spent the whole climb up wishing it was over. I really didn't expect it to be as difficult as it was, but the heat was unbearable and the altitude made it difficult to breath. Plus, I think the month spent lying on the beaches of Mexico/Belize drinking rum and cocktails had taken their toll. You don't have to climb the volcano, they have horses you can rent for a small fee. However, the horses are gross and scabby looking and I was not for getting on one. The horses and their riders follow you up the volcano, just in case someone decides they can't hike up any further. But they get right up behind you, so that you can actually feel the horse breathing down the back of your neck and they constantly shout taxi, taxi the whole way up. It was super annoying and it only made me more determined to hike the whole way up because I would not give them the satisfaction!
Volcano Pacaya erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. The last eruption occurred in May 2010, causing ash to rain down in nearby Guatemala City, Antigua and Escuintla. Because of that last eruption you can no longer hike to the very top of the volcano. The crater collapsed, so they now only allow you to hike 2/3 of the way up, which is rubbish! When we arrived at the top I was super disappointed, as there was nothing to see. It was too overcast to get a good view of the surrounding volcanos or Guatemala City and there was no flowing lava or anything. I was feeling very ripped off and vowed never to step foot on another volcano as long as I lived. I HATE Volcanos!
On the other hand my spa day was amazing. After being plunged into a variety of hot and cold pools, saunas and steam baths I was rewarded with the best massage I've ever had. It was a full body massage, which started with an Indian head massage and ended with my toes and some reflexology. It was pure bliss! Unfortunately, I went to the spa the day before climbing the volcano and if I had planned it out properly I would have done the volcano first, as I was in desperate need of another massage after climbing Pacaya.
Antigua has a strange climate, its cold in the morning, hot and sunny in the afternoons and then chilly in the evenings. You end up changing your outfit about 3 times a day, but it was nice to have some variety after weeks of scorching hot heat. Who knew you could get tired of constant sunshine? I was really enjoying Antigua and I really liked the modern, European feel to the place, so I decided to stay a bit longer and take some Spanish lessons. There's a real café culture In Antigua and hidden in the colonial architecture is an abundance of beautiful gardens, plazas and communal squares to waste away the hours. Up until now I had mainly seen the very traditional, poor and basic Guatemala, whereas Antigua is an affluent area, where you see nice cars and everyone is walking around in Abercrombie and American Eagle.
I enrolled for lessons at Antiguanea Spanish School and the homestay programme, where you pay a bit extra to live with a Guatemalan family and they supply a room and 3 meals a day. I ended up living right next door to the school with a really lovely family and 2 other female students from the school. Lydia (the mum), Rudolpho (the dad), Johnny (the son) and Jackie (the daughter) were all very nice and Joanna (student) is my age and from New Zealand and Heidi (another student) is 24 and from Canada. We all got on well and it was not nearly as awkward as I thought it would be.
My teacher, Gabby was great. The school was a bit too busy, so Gabby arranged for us to take my lessons in the school gardens (located about a 15 min walk away) as it was quieter there. It was so much nicer than just sitting in a classroom every day. So I had a one on one lesson with Gabby from 8am-12noon, Mon-Fri. I am not a morning person and I don't even get up that early for work, so I don't know what I was thinking signing up for the morning lessons. However, the school arranged free activities for the students every afternoon, so if you had afternoon lessons then you missed out on the activities. We went bike riding to a few neighbouring towns one day. Antigua is not a bike friendly town. The whole place is covered in cobblestones, so by the end of the tour I felt like I had brain damage from the adult version of shaken baby syndrome. Another day we hiked up to the cross on the hill, which is a beautiful spot overlooking the whole of Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes. There were also some salsa lessons and some movie afternoons etc. as well.
My homestay was going well and we had 2 new students join us, a couple from Germany. The house was always busy, all the time. Rudolpho's sister started running a laundrette business out of the house and then when she moved to the US, Rudolpho wanted to shut it down. He said he tried, but no matter what, people kept showing up with bags of laundry, so eventually he gave in and the business is still going strong. Lydia is a nurse and Rudolpho is an architect, so when they are at work they have 3 women working in the house for them every day. Terry cooks breakfast & lunch for the students and she runs a makeshift restaurant from the kitchen for all the teachers in the school and for the hostel down the street. Teresa ran the laundrette for them and another woman did all the cleaning and the dishes from the restaurant. So there was always strangers coming and going or sitting at the dinner table with you. It was actually very funny and you were constantly asking "who's that guy?" or "where did she come from?"
The food they served was basic, but ok. Breakfast was always unique and you never really knew what you were getting. Most of the time I would just skip breakfast unless it was pancake Mondays or fruit salad Thursdays. Every other day was something gross like eggs or porridge. Lunch was always the best meal of the day, as terry was a decent cook. Although, it was always the same, some combination of chicken, rice, beans and a sauce and everything we ate came with corn tortillas. I can no longer even look at corn tortillas and one taste turns my stomach! Dinner on the other hand was always a scary event. Lydia cooked dinner for us and it was always something insane or disgusting. I especially hated tamale Saturdays, it was quite the struggle to get one of those down your neck and keep it down. I swear sometimes I thought they were trying to poison us. Don't get me wrong, you can get great food in Antigua, but in an international restaurant and it won't be cheap. Typical Guatemalan food, eaten by almost everyone is all chicken, all the time and really bland and really boring chicken at that. Nothing had spices or herbs or any sort of flavour to it and I barely ever saw any vegetables besides beans. Guatemala is not renowned for its fine cuisine, so some things can be a struggle.
During my second week I was afraid scurvy was setting in, so I snuck out to McDonalds for a nice big salad. This was not such a good move, as I was sick as a dog for the next week. I still managed to make it to my Spanish classes every morning, but I spent most of the afternoons in bed sleeping or just lying around feeling sick. A few of my housemates got sick as well and at one point 4 out of the 5 of us were ill. I think the family were worried that they had actually poisoned us, but it worked in our favour as we managed to luck out and get soup for dinner two nights in a row (that was actually a welcomed treat, although it was of course chicken soup!).
When you're in a foreign country, but living with other English speaking people it's crazy how fast you make friends. Joanna and I hit it off straight away and we were pretty much joined at the hip for the entire time I was there. It was like we had known each other for ages and I really liked her, but her accent became really grating and after a week I just wanted to punch her in the face every time she opened her mouth! Heidi had been there for months, so she was almost fluent in Spanish, while Joanna and I were terrible and could barely string a sentence together. Heidi was nice enough, but every so often she would say or do something that was so rude and she didn't even seem to notice or realise how offensive she was being. After the initial shock, I got used to it and started finding it hilarious.
The girls and I had a few wine nights in the house and Joanna, the Germans and I had a few nights on the town. Heidi never came out with us, as she was ALWAYS skyping with her boyfriend (she was not much fun), but Antigua actually has some really good nightlife. Some afternoons we would go to the market, which was always chaos. There are a whole assortment of disgusting sights and smells at the market. It's a huge place and one section sells food, another clothes, another flowers etc. You can get anything here, but only if you can manage to find it before you get grossed out by something and have to leave. I had to leave the market on many occasions.
A few days before I was meant to leave Antigua, I was walking through town and went into a café for lunch and who is sitting in the corner, only Albert! This is now the third country we have randomly met each other in. He told me that our friend Alfonso and another guy left on a bus for El Salvador, but the bus was hijacked just before the border and most of Alfonso's stuff was stolen. This only reinforced my decision not to go to El Salvador. Albert was hanging around in Antigua as he was seeing a Guatemalan girl. This meant he had to then call the Mexican girl he had met in Cancun and explain to her that he wasn't coming back to visit her as originally planned. She doesn't speak English and his Spanish is rubbish, so I have no idea how he managed without Alfonso there to translate for him.
I was told the story about the first student the family had living with them. Supposedly, Rudolpho became quite attached and when the guy left Rudolph was so distraught he was actually in tears. He called his sister in the states to tell her about it, but he couldn't stop crying and she didn't know what was wrong and she thought someone had died. She couldn't make out what Rudolpho was saying through the sobbing, so she called Lydia at work and Lydia had to explain that it was only the student who had left and no one had actually died! I thought that was such a good story. I was sad to finally leave Guatemala, but I felt I had been there long enough and it was time to get moving again. So I packed up my stuff, said Adios and headed off for Honduras.