The Lonely Planet has some quote along the lines of “in the conversation about which city typifies Guatemala, Antigua is definitely not on the list. Its like the Scandinavians have moved in for a couple of years and cleaned the place up”. And you know what, its not wrong.
Antigua is some bizarre continental construct in the middle of the Guatemalan highlands, with cafes on every corner selling coffee and cake, a beautiful central park with locals sitting and listening to the sound of the fountain, and courtyards full of tourists learning Spanish in the dappled shade. But I didn’t like it.
Now I should be fair to Antigua, its probably not the city’s fault. I arrived late morning, after an early start from Copan Ruinas, the shuttle ride to the city and the border being a fairly simple enough affair. It was my first experience of crossing the border between the countries which had signed the CA4 Pact or something. Its probably the entirely wrong name for it, but effectively it means you can cross between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua without having to pay extra visa fees and getting your passport stamped. (Have a look at those four countries flags and see how similar they are, must be a bugger playing international football).
Both hostels that the book recommended were fully booked, but they did point me in the direction of another hostel, Hostel Kafka. Unfortunately Kafka seemed to be one of those places that everyone stayed in maybe one night or two before they moved out down the road to Black Cat or Jungle Party Hostel. That meant there wasn’t really that much of a vibe to be had, and that’s very important in a hostel, it can make or break one’s stay there.
In either case, I had more pressing issues at the time. A stint in the internet cafe had left me feeling nauseous and dizzy and I decided that getting to the Doctors was something that had to be done straight away. I asked around a bit to see where was the best place to go and a local travel agent pointed me down the road to a private clinic. I was able to walk straight in and see the Doctor for a straight up Q200 (fifteen quid) consultation, but any drugs they prescribed me would cost extra. I fine with that, I just wanted to know whether bleeding from the sinuses was normal.
The consultation was an funny affair, I spoke through a translator to an old bearded serious looking Guatemalan fellow, not knowing quite where to look. Do I speak to the Doctor or the translator? I didn’t want to snub either, so settled flitting my head erratically between the two. I talked of my symptoms and how the injury had come about, and finally in English mentioned barotrauma. The doctor picked up on what I said and confirmed my self diagnosis was correct. We went through to the next room where he gave my ear hole a good looking over. It was a bit difficult for him because the bed I sat on was a bit too high. Set just about the right height for a Guatemalan, for me it meant that I towered above everyone. Further hilarity ensued as the Doctor flushed my ears our with hot water and the assistant nurse tried to hold the kidney bowl to my head – she just couldn’t reach.
I mentioned the fact that I had put a vinegar solution in my ear to clean it after the dive and asked whether that was the right thing to do. The doctor replied in Spanish and held up a bottle. I didn’t need to understand his response since the bottle was labeled Hydrogen Peroxide and he was going to put three drops into my right ear. I inferred that vinegar wasn’t too bad then. In the end the doctor prescribed me some anti-biotics, ear drops, and told me to continue to use the nasal spray a Dutchman had kindly given me back in Utila. He said the blood from my sinuses was normal, the ringing in my ear should recede and that all would be well in five or so days. What a relief.
The following day was a sort out day. I bought myself the LP guide to Guatemala under the reasoning that I’d raced through Belize and Honduras so I’d better give Guatemala a good seeing to (a good three weeks seeing to). Then I spent the rest of the day idly wandering around town looking at the various Spanish schools that were available and seeing if any took my fancy. The heavens subsequently opened after that – this being the highlands and susceptible to the cold and the rain.
I rather unoriginally went with the first school that I saw, although this particular one had been referred to me by Thomas and Susanne, a Dutch couple I first met with Tim and Stu in Tulum but had subsequently bumped into again in a cafe at breakfast time. My first lesson on Thursday was in the afternoon, and mainly comprised of my going over basic vocab like my family, things around the house and typical year 7 French type stuff. I hinted that I needed Spanish for traveling, and we spent the rest of the afternoon on restaurants, public transport and asking for directions!
That evening I stayed with a local family. A pretty daunting affair, I turned up and was shown my own room, and was left to my own devices until 7 when dinner would be served. Dinner was fried plantain, refried beans, and bread. I ate with mum, dad, son, two daughters and four other westerners who were residing with the family as well. At intermittent occasions other family members would come in, give mama a kiss on the cheek, wish us all good evening and then depart again. I was a bit blown over to say the least. Of course, English was forbidden at the table, and I got by by uttering odd words of Spanish (mainly a lot of Yes’s, No’s, Thank you’s and Please’s). However for the most part I just listened, and when the meal time was over uttered bien provecho and made my exit down into town for very much needed beer.
It has occurred to me since that Antigua is for most people one of two things. Either it is a place you come to especially to learn Spanish, having flown here most likely from the States on a prearranged package, doing at least 4 hours a day 5 days a week for a period of up to 6 weeks, and living with a host family. Or, it is a place as a backpacker you probably pass through after only two or three days having drunk in the nice cafes, taken photos of the beautiful buildings, and gone up the volcano but then quickly realised the expensive beer and the real lack of much else to do doesn’t really justify staying any longer.
I’d managed to get myself in between both of those types of people. I wasn’t here specifically to learn Spanish, but thought it’d be a nice idea. However, after contemplating the prospect of a further seven days in Antigua realised that it very definitely wasn’t for me. You can only go so long commiserating your less than pleasing day with a beer at Black Cat’s and with that thought I decided to get out. But not first without going up Volcano Pacaya of course.
Pacaya is one of the most active volcanoes in the region and about an hours drive from Antigua. Now when I say its an active volcano, you’re probably thinking what I was thinking and what the travel agent photos displayed next to details of the tour: large molten rivers of lava flowing down the hillside and spurts of natures own fireworks from the top of something akin to the final scene on Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Well I hate to disappoint but its not quite like that.
What Pacaya lacks in flowing rivers of molten lava it makes up for in fantastic views and stunning scenery. Once you reach as far as the path allows you are on what was flowing rivers of lava – a slightly hollow sounding bead of porous basalt rock. And occasionally, in the gaps between the ankle break crevices, there is a wave of heat that ripples the air like tarmac on a hot day. This is as close as you get to molten lava: very very hot rocks. Hot enough to singe your leg hairs at a distance or melt the soles of your boots with an incorrectly places footing. Its also hot enough to fry a steak and toast marsh mellows if you so desire.
On Saturday (the 26th) I left Antigua for Panajachel and Lago de Aititlan. Some cool mountains and hot water rocks to get me back on the gringo trail. From there it is on to Coban, possibly via Nebaj, depending on whether this rain keeps up – it could make the mountain trails impassable.