I may have mentioned before that Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter) is a really big deal in Guatemala. Many businesses are closed and the majority of the population head to the beach or some other recreation area. Many choose to eschew vacation and go to church. For us, the choice was either to hide out from the chaotic revelry or to embrace it.
We decided to seize the opportunity to experience Semana Santa in the city of Antigua. Every day during Semana Santa there are processionals through the streets of the city. Typically, the devout are men wearing purple robes. Even tiny babies in arms wearing little purple robes are part of the procession. Each day prior to the processionals beautiful alfombras are constructed on the streets. Alfombras are ephemeral carpets of colored sawdust, flower petals, pine needles and various other bright items arranged in thematic Christian motifs. The processionals walk over the alfombras. I especially enjoyed them when they featured pine needles. The scent of the needles being crushed underfoot mixed with the thick incense was enchanting.
We stayed at a new campground on the south side of town that has been operating for under a month. The campground, when completed, will feature guestrooms fashioned from buses boasting psychedelic paint jobs, cabs of semi-trucks and even a helicopter perched up in a tree for the guests who are not prone to sleepwalking. We had about a half a mile to walk each day to get to town to see the sights and eat delicious food. Antigua is a beautiful city to walk around and there are plenty of places for the discerning vegan to fill his or her (his) belly. After about four days of stuffing our faces, ogling the ruins of churches and huffing processional incense the magic of Antigua during Semana Santa had begun to wane. We opted to get a little nature time on the shore of Lake Atitlan.
Lake Atitlan is a gorgeous body of fresh water surrounded by tall volcanoes and tiny towns. We opted to stay just outside of the eco-groovy town of San Marcos. Our camp was on a grassy lawn overlooking the lake. The grassy lawn of an elegant luxury vacation home complex. Our parking place was off to the side and up the hill a little bit so that our rooftop tent would not block the view from the infinity pool at one of the rental homes. It is hard to describe the joy of staying where we did. We had perfect weather, a stunning view, bathrooms complete with hot water, toilet paper, and hand soap, electricity, water, a book exchange… the list goes on. Many overlanders who stay there get stuck there, lulled into a traveler’s stupor of bliss. It kept us for a full week.
We made good use of that week by signing up for Spanish classes in town. This time we opted to do a couple’s class. Mostly because it was so much cheaper. Our teacher was really sweet. She called us “chicos” and we played a lot of games. It was time well spent but we definitely learned more in our previous classes in Mexico. Each morning we would walk about a mile to class. After class, we would get a meal and a beer and do our homework. It was fun to institute a bit of routine into our days.
After finishing our week of classes, we had a free weekend to spend on the lake and decided to celebrate by going for a long run. There was another town along the lake we were aiming for called Jaibalito. We ran for most of the way there. At times the road got too steep for running. Guatemala is nothing if not steep. Eventually, the road narrowed until it became a footpath. We ran when we could and hiked with purpose when it was nearly vertical. On one very exposed stretch, we came upon a local family out collecting firewood. It is times like these that I really feel my privilege. I feel it on a basic level daily. We can drop everything and hop into our truck and drive away without fear of threatening our basic survival. Without delving too deep into the cost-benefit analysis of travel and the sacrifices we made to take this trip I can just say that it is mostly due to our great privilege of being lucky enough to have the opportunities that come with being born into the first world. Our lives are such that if we don’t make an intentional decision to exercise we remain sedentary. Here we were with free time and energy to burn. A child who couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7 years old was walking this precarious footpath loaded down with a pile of sticks that would have seriously taxed my adult muscles. This child was followed by an older sibling and mom and dad. Each carrying a heavier load than the one before. In that dance familiar to hikers we both tried to step off the trail for each other to pass. To a person, each one of those family members would not pass when I stepped aside. I feel better if I tell myself that they just welcomed a chance to rest. They let us pass and left us to think about what a life would be like that didn’t allow for time and energy to have a pastime. So many people don’t have the freedom to have spare time or energy and here we were running. Uphill. For fun. Eventually, we ran out of water and ran out of steam so we headed back to camp. We took advantage of the swimming dock on the lake to cool off, got cleaned up and decided to try to catch a boat across the lake to check out the town of San Pedro.
The operative word there was try. We were passed by three different water taxis, each one pointing to the boat behind them. By this time, it was nearing 2 pm and I had only eaten two cups of coffee. I was beyond famished. We gave up on the water taxi idea and decided to go by land into San Marcos to the main docks to get a ride. We grabbed a quick lunch before the pier and had no trouble getting on a boat across the lake. San Pedro is quite a bit bigger than San Marcos and has more of a party vibe especially along the water. We wandered through the tourism sector to the backside of San Pedro to check out the local’s side of town. We passed by a couple of political rallies of competing parties, a couple of churches of competing Christian denominations, and open-air markets selling competing flavors. Pretty typical in our experience of Guatemala. I was feeling fairly much like garbage at this point. I am a bit of a delicate flower and a run in the sun followed by prolonged hunger is a sure recipe for a run-over. For the uninitiated, a run-over feels like a hangover from drinking a bottle of red wine to your head at high elevation but really it is just from exercise. Lame, but I am who I am, so we went out in search of a place to sit and eat some more food. We found a Japanese restaurant that was only delicious because our palates have been deprived of that flavor family for so many months. We sat in their courtyard enjoying a cup of miso soup with unfamiliar herbs adding interest while the hip youth of San Pedro across the street engaged in freestyle rap battles. It was an eclectic night, to say the least.
After dinner, I was beyond ready to go home and put my run-over self to bed. When we got back to the pier to catch a boat home we saw that the last boat had left at 7:30 pm. It was now close to 10 pm. Oops. Add to this we were running short on cash. We eventually talked a tuk-tuk driver into driving us home for the mere cost of every last cent in our wallet. It seemed that the tuk-tuks have territories. After about twenty minutes of bumpy roads, we pulled into a side alley and switched to a different tuk-tuk with a different driver. We tried to convince the second driver that the deal was to take us all the way to our camp. No dice. He quoted us a price for that last mile that was as much as we had paid for the half hour ride around the lake. We were penniless at this point so he dropped us off in the middle of town and we trudged back to camp trying not to think about our proprietor’s warning that is best not to walk back from town after dark…
Obviously, we survived the Atitlan odyssey. From there we headed back to Antigua. Why did we go back to Antigua? Because it is a great place from which to base a trip to Volcan Acatenango. We had tried to reserve a trip up the volcano before leaving Antigua the last time but the best weather window happened to also be Easter Sunday so that was not happening. No problem, we liked Antigua the first time. Why not do it again? This time around we went to a hostel in town that allowed overlanders to camp in the street outside and use all of the facilities inside for a very reasonable price. Also, they let us leave our truck parked there while we hiked up the volcano.
Our volcano adventure started far earlier in the morning than we are accustomed. I think we left our truck with all of our overnight gear on our backs at around 7 am. We are usually sitting around drinking coffee at that time but having our collective rear in gear is another thing entirely. We can always rally. So off we went to meet up with our group. The tour company we went with was an all-inclusive kind of thing. They had extra jackets and hats and gloves and scarves and water bottles and headlamps and buffs and, and, and. All of the things. This was nice because volcano hiking is a dusty dirty endeavor and using their gear saved us on a ton of laundry. When we walked into their office that morning we were greeted with complimentary shots of beet ginger juice. They fed us a delightful vegetarian (actually vegan sssshhhh!) breakfast with plenty of coffee. As we waited to load the buses more and more hikers arrived. I think we were a group of almost thirty people. And of that group, Scott and I were the only ones over the age of thirty. What fun! Once everyone was fully kitted out and had eaten their fill we piled into buses and drove about an hour to the trailhead.
At the trailhead, we crossed paths with yesterday’s hikers as we traded places on the bus. They were very, very dirty. We were given one last opportunity (for the next 24 hours!!!!) to use a toilet and then we were off! Our group was not the only one assembling at the trailhead. There were many. Even if we had gone with a company that hosted smaller groups we would have still been in this crowded escalator of a hike up the volcano. This beginning part was our least favorite part of the whole adventure. The trail cut deeply around a couple of farm fields. So deeply that we were essentially in a trench filled with dust rising from each hiker’s boot. Inescapable dust. After about an hour of shuffling through the trenches, we popped out into some genuinely beautiful forested stretches. The group stopped often. The guides never stopped counting heads. I honestly do not know how they were able to tell us apart from the other groups. I wonder if anyone has inadvertently switched groups before. The only way I could tell who was with different groups was that they had different things in their lunch sacks than me. We were baguette sandwiches. Different from the chicken thigh folks. Totally different from the budget BYO folks. Somehow all of us baguette people managed to stick together and found ourselves at days end sitting around a shared campfire on the shoulder of Volcan Acatenango.
The plan was to get to this camp and then either head to the summit to watch the sunset or take the spur trail up to the shoulder of the actively erupting Volcan Fuego for a closer look at molten lava being hurled in your general direction by one of the greatest forces of nature known to man. Weather permitting. When we arrived at camp we had about 30 minutes of watching said volcanic eruption before the clouds rolled in an shut off the light show. This meant that both the summit hike and the Fuego spur were a no go that night. This did not disappoint me at all. I had faith that the clouds would clear before too long and I wasn’t overly excited about the thought of hiking up a scree field for a view of sunset only moderately better than the one I would have at camp. We sat around a ridiculously smoky fire (again thankful for borrowed gear) and had some hot chocolate. Some spaghetti. A dram of wine. Some conversation. We could hear the eruptions obscured by the clouds. There was a lot of grumbling about the less than optimal weather. I was certain we were still in for a treat. Then the clouds began to part showing us hints of lava. Eventually, we had clear skies again. We had a front row seat for the most exciting light show of our lives. We could feel the rumble of the eruptions in our hearts. Bright red lava shooting up in the air and sliding down the side of Volcan Fuego stood out against the dark night sky. Some of the eruptions were small gassy burps and some had us rethinking being so close to the action. Eventually, the literally freezing temperatures drove us to bed. Small A-frame cabins that slept 8 people each were home for the night. When we finally crawled into bed we could still hear the eruptions going on outside. Each time Fuego erupted the walls of our cabin would shake. The eruptions sounded bigger from inside the cabin than outside. It was the first time I truly felt FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). A couple of the eruptions were so big that we jumped back out of bed to look out at the volcano. When the morning was close most of our group assembled to hike to the summit to watch the sunrise. Scott and I abstained. We opted to sit at camp and watch more eruptions. I wanted to catch that special hour when the lava was still visible in the early dawn light. Plus, I still didn’t want to hike up a scree field. I pretty much never want to hike up a scree field. I like hiking on solid ground.
Once the sun was shining on us and the rest of the group had returned from their summit bid, we had coffee in our cups and porridge in our bellies. We were all commiserating on the fact that our camp did not have any facilities for our morning ablutions. Maybe that helps get the groups moving back downhill with a quickness. Not everyone holds it till the bottom. Not everyone is familiar with the leave no trace pack it in pack it out philosophy in the wilderness. The forest surrounding our camp was dotted with used toilet tissue from the daily onslaught of urgent tourists. It is pretty gross and a gross oversight of the tour company. They get a big fat F in their stewardship grade from us. Anyhow, we held our collective breath as much as possible to avoid inhaling in the dust as we all trod down through sh*t canyon stirring who-knows-what into the air. The trip down was fast and exciting. There was a lot of sliding going on. We all had black dust ringing our noses and eyes. We were all smiling.
When we returned to the tour office in Antigua we were greeted with tepid baby bottles of Corona. Thank you. We were so very happy to drop off our smoky, dusty, borrowed gear and hoof it back to the truck and, more importantly, the hot showers at the hostel! We took a full day to decompress from the volcano hike. There wasn’t much sleep happening between eruptions so we were pretty exhausted. As we had another border crossing in our near future we discussed Scott’s expired license. We figured it wasn’t a good idea to try to drive through any more foreign countries without a valid driver’s license. My parents were kind enough to ship Scott’s new license which had come in the mail to their house to us in Guatemala. The cost was insane. Guatemala doesn’t have a postal system. Private companies are not afraid to price gouge. Almost $150 later the license was on its way. Crazy. We had about a week to wait for the package to arrive so we decided to sign up for another week of Spanish classes.
The next morning, I woke up early and went into the hostel to relax with the first of my many cups of coffee. While I was sipping coffee and reading my book Scott was lying in bed in our tent catching up on the social media on his phone. He heard me come back up the ladder and open the flap but not crawl in. What he thought was me bringing him a cup of coffee in bed was actually a very drunk would-be thief pawing through Scott’s backpack that happened to be full of computers and hard drives. A fist was cocked and a shout was delivered. The inebriated miscreant looked pretty surprised to see Scott. He mumbled something about just looking for money and crawled back down the ladder emptyhanded. That was a rough way to start the day. But a good lesson on what to keep in the tent while we sleep. If that thief had been sober or Scott had been asleep that situation could have gone very differently. Our proprietor at the hostel caught it on the security camera. It was kind of entertaining to watch the guy sway down the sidewalk, get shocked by discovering an angry Scott and then just calmly walk away. Bizarre.
Antigua is not a bad place to be stuck waiting for a package. We found plenty to keep ourselves busy. Like a soccer game. It was the national finals. Antigua was ranked number two in the nation and they were playing Cobán, the number one team. We went to the stadium with some new friends we had made at the hostel and met up with some other overlanders we knew from back in Mexico. Guatemalans are serious about their soccer. There were police dressed in riot gear guarding the field. Our overlander friends were Cobán fans ever since they had spent three weeks in that town and had been to their games there. They were not allowed into the stadium wearing their Cobán jerseys. They had to surrender them at the gate (luckily to be successfully retrieved after the game). No alcohol was sold at the game and there were no in and out privileges. The crowd was a sea of green and purple. The mascot of Antigua is an avocado. I don’t understand tournament scoring but apparently, Antigua needed to win by two points to become the national champions. Success. Once it was clear that Antigua had it in the bag, the police left and most of the Cobán fans had walked out. Riot averted. We spent the rest of the day hanging out with our new friends. We all went out to dinner together and everyone but me hung out into the night. I often succumb to my party pooper tendencies.
That was about it for excitement in Antigua. Our package arrived sooner than we anticipated but we decided to stick around and finish out the week of Spanish classes anyway. We went for some runs, ate a bunch of delicious food, spent way too much money and enjoyed the luxury that hostel living provided. With our sights set for Honduras, we said goodbye to Antigua. One more night in Guatemala was spent sleeping among the world’s fastest ants in the world’s most productive mango orchard. We helped ourselves to some mangos hoping they wouldn’t get confiscated at the border and the ants helped themselves to our truck hoping we wouldn’t notice if they (spoiler alert) built a nest in one of Scott’s shoes. Feeling grateful to Guatemala for such a rich adventure we readied ourselves for whatever Honduras had in store for us.