Guatemala: Antigua

Sunday 14 February

After breakfast at Hostal Guatifriends we caught the red bus into the city centre. The red bus is one of the roughest I have ever ridden. The mounts are broken on some seats, the back door hasn’t closed properly, and its general state is rough.

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I stroll through one of the local markets revealing an amazing range of food. Meat, fish, fruit, seeds and much more – all displayed to catch the shopper’s eye.

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Further up the hill we found Parque La Concordia, surrounded by large old buildings and full of a colourful array of stalls. This is a busy thriving place. You can buy just about everything here.

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Guatemala has a reputation for being a dangerous city. Yes there is lots of razor wire, bars on windows and police with, in some cases, assault rifles, no different than many other South and Central American cities, but the people we came across were friendly and non-threatening.

After lunch a guy from the hostal drove us to Antigua in a van. He insisted on giving AJ a rundown of the town’s history. The traffic was very thick and slow and at one stage the van started to skid sideways as the driver applied the brakes too hard and too late only just avoiding an impact with the car in front.

We checked into Hostal Casashalon in Antigua. A stroll around a few streets revealed a roof top bar where we got chatting to Derek and Mimi who are working here as missionaries. Derek, originally an ex US Navy submariner, had sold up everything in the US a couple of years ago to come here and do God’s work, as he put it. He met Mimi here, they married and work together at their mission, endeavouring to teach people how to improve their lives.

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As we sat chatting the clouds cleared from two local volcanos: Agua close by and dormant; Fuego still puffing out smoke a little further away. The setting sun lit up the western sky with a bright orange glow.

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We then went to a local restaurant which was huge, resembling in some ways a museum with high ceilings. Walls draped in plants, side rooms set up with different furniture, and great food it made for a very enjoyable evening.

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Monday 15 February

Derek and Mimi picked us up at 10am. We sat on a plank on the back of their ute as we headed east, cruising though farm land with the fields being tended by groups of people with large grubbers. Old US school buses, decoratively painted and now local transport, raced past us.

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We stopped at a gas station where a guy with a pump action shotgun looked on – common site here. One shotgun guy even stands guard at the end of the counter at a local pizza shop.

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After heading up through a few villages we reached an old Mayan ruin. Iximche was built many years prior to the Spanish arrival. Apparently they did a deal with the Spanish who jointly occupied it for some years hence its survival.

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On the way back we stopped at what had been a church built by the Catholics. St Simon church, as it is now known, is a place where the local Mayan people worship some strange looking effigy with alcohol, money and other stuff. They build small fires on the tarmac outside with all sorts of stuff including large cigars which they also smoke while the fire burns.

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Derrick and Mimi dropped us back at our hostal. The evening was spent strolling the streets and looking at the many tourist orientated shops and bars.

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Tuesday 16 February

Just after 6 we were picked up in a van that did a tour around town picking up the rest of our group: a couple from El Salvador; one from Italy; three from France; one from Ireland and one from Japan. Most had good Spanish skills. A two hour drive and we arrived at the base for our three kilometre stroll up Pacaya an active volcano. We all chatted away as we strolled up the hill. Horses, riders and their team of friendly dogs followed us just in case someone needed a lift.

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A couple of view points gave us great views of the valley and surrounding volcanos. When we reached the highest point several hundred meters below the main crater, which we could see smoke coming from, we looked down on a cold lava flow and the surrounding country side. After a few photos we strolled down to the lava flow. Advertised as “roast your marshmallows over red hot lava”, it turned out to be more “heat your marshmallow up with a bit of steam coming from the ground”.

Arriving back at the base we chatted over a beer and fed the dogs who could catch food every time thrown from any angle. On arriving back in Antigua we took a stroll through the local markets; these are like a rabbit warren spread out through a huge old building full of nooks and crannies. In the evening we were joined on the roof top bar by Sophia and Julie who had been on the volcano trip with us, before heading to a nice restaurant for a great meal.

On the way Cam was targeted by a woman selling scarves; he now has a pink scarf to go with his pink shorts.

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Wednesday 17 February

Antigua was the third capital of Guatemala. The first being Iximche the Maya site we visited on Monday. After too many punch ups there it was moved to the Valley of Almolonga, keeping the same name. In 1541 a lahar from the the volcano Agua wiped the place out. In 1543 the Spanish founded Antigua as the capital. The city is well laid out with streets running north south and east west. In 1665 Guatemala’s first university was built here.

In the early 1700’s a number of major earthquakes flattened large parts of the city and its many grand churches. The remains of a llot of the churches are still here today. This also coincided with eruptions of the Volcano de Fuego, which also damaged the city. In 1776 the Spanish ordered the capital be moved again to Guatemala City where it remains today.

We spent the morning roaming the city looking at the ruins, parks and people going about their daily business. One thing of interest was the public laundry in one of the parks. We had driven through towns seeing woman still using these. Dairies here are well stocked and very tidy here. The Mayan woman still wear their traditional costumes.

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Around one we were picked up by a van for our trip to San Pedro. The four hour trip passed quickly as we were with a great bunch of fellow travelers; a couple from Perth; a guy from the US and a two guys from Israel. The road was good, the driver like he was on some playstation game. At one point we watched a guy come out of the back door of one of the colourful buses, climb up a ladder on the back  onto the roof and start untieing the luggage ready for the next stop.Eventually the road headed up into some hilly country before winding steeply down to the lake.

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