The final Central America blog: Antigua, Guatemala

And so my trip was about to come to an end. Looking back, it was perhaps quite ambitious to try and traverse the whole of Central America in just five weeks. Henceforth, I’d only got to Guatemala four days before I was due to fly back, so if I were to jog on over towards Tikal to see ruins or even the cute towns overlooking Lago Atitlan, I’d end up spending more time on buses than actually enjoying myself. Guatemala is bigger than one thinks. That considered, I decided that I’d spend all of my time in Guatemala in the high-up city of Antigua, just an hour or so from the capital, and apparently absolutely riddled with tourists, but highly recommended.

My ire at being conned by a taxi driver in San Salvador and the sprawling nature of the passenger seated next me meant that I didn’t get much sleep on the roughly 7-hour journey from the El Salvadorian capital to Guatemala City, and the only noteworthy incident of the journey was the need to change bus at the border as the bridge was cracked and deemed unsafe for a heavy vehicle to cross. There were money-changers hawking at the border as usual, and unsurprisingly they invented an exchange rate out of nothing via Mexican Pesos with their calculators to try and convince the passers-by to buy Guatemalan Quetzales at double their value. I had no intention of changing dollars with them but asked them anyway just so I could tell them they were lying. I endured their lies about it being impossible to change money on a Saturday and hopped back on the bus, but not before bearing witness to an unfortunate American woman changing some dollars. I’d have intervened, but other traveller’s tales had taught me to butt out when people are trying to do business, however illicit it may be, so despite my disdain towards them, I turned a blind eye and went on over the bridge.

For this leg of the journey, I had taken a direct coach as opposed to local transport, costing 20 USD with TicaBus from San Salvador to Guatemala City, the first occasion on which I’d taken relatively luxury transport. Upon arriving in the capital, I asked how one could get to Antigua but was directed towards the driver of a shuttle bus service costing 10 USD if I remember correctly. Due to the previous nights’ incident I was maybe a little rude and sceptical towards the driver, but seeing as it was the last trip I’d take, I couldn’t be bothered roaming the streets in search of chicken buses, so acquiesced and got aboard.

We arrived in Antigua about two hours later, via tumultuous traffic, and the driver kindly dropped me off at a hostel where he said there’d be free rooms, creatively named El Hostal, which cost 12 USD per night with a decent breakfast included. The place was fine and quiet enough, but the showers were a little strange, as for the first time on the trip the cubicles didn’t have doors, but just a flimsy shower curtain, and were in the same room and directly opposite to the toilets, which could potentially be weird.

Now, the main objective of my stay in Antigua was to get on a tour up to Volcano Acatenango, from where you can admire its active brother, Fuego, groaning and belching out lava all night long. I’d been told by some Austrians I’d come across in El Tunco to shop around for a discount, and I was somewhat determined to cover the loss I’d made in the San Salvador taxi incident, so went to around half a dozen, and eventually got one for 250 Quetzales, approximately 35 USD, while others, even the hostel I was staying at, were charging 400 Q. I was quite content with myself and celebrated by being overcharged for some tortillas in the central square.

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Antigua Cathedral

Walking round the city, it is indeed picturesque and I can understand why it is the babe of many backpackers. It’s tourist friendly, in that it offers many Spanish courses and cooking classes among other things of that ilk, and is very close to many tourist attractions in the area. The city retains its colonial look, what with its marble-white building and narrow cobbled streets, and the green mountains surrounding the city are certainly attractive. There’s a hustle and bustle to the place, a high student population and plenty of places to eat and drink, for less or for more. In other words, everything a visitor requires? Perhaps, but I didn’t real get a feel for Antigua’s charm, maybe because it was swarming with tourists. I find it difficult to gauge what exactly its X-factor is, but then again, I was there for only a brief time, so who knows?

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Guatemalan ruins

When in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, I’d bumped into a bunch of very friendly Guatemalan girls and guys who insisted that I hook up with them for a night out when I was in Antigua, so I got in contact and arranged to meet at a particular bar later that evening. As it happened, only one of the bunch I’d seen in Tegus was around and out with other mates, which wasn’t a problem. I chatted along fine with the girl I kind of knew already, but her mates, all male, seemed a little bothered by my presence, and to be honest, were quite tanked up and probably not just on beer. I had a couple of lagers with them, expensive at around 4 USD each as we were in a fancy bar, but the whole situation was a little awkward and hostile, so I made my excuses to go to the bathroom, and instead of re-joining them, walked straight out of the exit and back to the hostel. I’m old enough to decide when I don’t like the feel of things, so didn’t hang about for courtesy’s sake.

The night hadn’t been so kind to me in Guatemala and El Salvador as it had in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Sometimes better to stick with the tourists than try mixing it with the locals, I suppose.

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La Cruz in Antigua

On the Sunday morning I walked up to the big cross on the hill, a short hike, to be fair, and then partook in an event called Sunday Barbecue, hosted by a bunch of hostels in Antigua. For 20 Q, or about 3 USD, a remarkable tenth of the price of Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, they take you in minibuses to a field where there’s a minibar, tent with seats and a bungee ride. The whole point of the afternoon is to drink, for a very reasonable price, and play sports, as they organise a volleyball tournament, and have football, Frisbees and badminton equipment lying around. It was the first time I’d touched a football in about a month, which was refreshing, and I also took part in a volleyball tournament and found myself surprisingly decent at it. Unfortunately, my team were cheated out of the first round by creative scoring from the opposition team, who seemed to be regulars at the event, but I nevertheless enjoyed it.

At the start it was a little surreal, as it was just an Austrian guy, myself and a massive bunch of Israelis talking Hebrew. I must admit it was the first time I’d been surrounded by such a number of Israelis, as I’d never really met any before, and it was quite strange hearing a rather Arabic-sounding language from a group of people who could easily pass for North Americans, Germans or Italians.

I’d arrived with the first group, and when the others came, we welcomed them by pelting them with water balloons while they were still in their minivan, and a mass water fight ensued, which was rather entertaining. Other incidents of note involved one of the organisers of the event being rather bitchy about me peeing in the bushes even though I’d seen other people doing it and there was no signage for bathrooms. Some sarcastic mention of paying a woman to clean the bathroom so people didn’t pee in his field was made. Added to that, as the bungee was free for those that did it naked, a rather portly American girl repeatedly took them up on their offer and unashamedly flashed everyone while getting strapped into and out of the apparatus. Not an image I’ve tried to retain, to be frank.

I went on to drunkenly play football and badminton, before transport took us back into town as the sun was coming down. I opted to stay in that evening, making myself the classic spaghetti, tomato and sausage combo. The next morning I had to be up early and at the agency for the volcano tour, so hit the hay while the night was still young.

There were only three of us on the tour; ironically two Israelis I’d seen the previous day were to accompany me, and after driving along windy roads for an hour or so we were greeted by locals thrusting planks of wood at us and saying estick, willing us to rent it walking sticks from them. I politely declined. The walk to the top took about 5 hours in total, and I was lucky to find an estick in the bushes, as parts of the climb were tricky due to the verticality and slippiness of the terrain. Added to that, we were laden with a tent, sleeping bags and food and drink supplies, so it was pretty tough-going, but not excessively so. Nevertheless, the Israeli girl had a local carry her backpack up, which was really testing for him.

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Smoky or misty?

Our guide, Leo, was extremely informative and I was glad that I’d chanced upon a small group. Having said that, we bumped into other tour groups during the ascent, and I bumped into to people I’d seen before in Honduras and El Salvador, as well as a girl from Rochdale, wow. Whereas many of the Hispanic people I meet think I’m Mexican, most of the foreigners believe I’m Irish, so I’ve clearly got some kind of identity crisis. We made camp about an hour from the summit of Acatenango and pitched our tents on a ledge that jutted out from the rock face.

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Fuego at night

The hike had been long and a little tiring, but the amazing views afforded of Fuego volcano spitting lava and rumbling in the darkness were certainly worth it, and the whole spectacle is quite mesmerising, and reminds you of nature’s capabilities. We ate our snacks and tried some liquor that Leo had stashed in nearby bushes to keep us warm along with our camp fire, as temperatures were certainly rather chilly.

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Keeping warm by the fire

The following morning entailed rising at 4am so as to watch the sunrise from atop the volcano, and was indeed the most difficult part of the trek. I was extremely grateful for my estick, such was the verticality of the climb, and in order to save the battery on my camera, I turned off my flashlight and made sure I stayed close to those who had torches. After about an hour we reached the peak, and once again, the views were spectacular, as you are literally above the clouds and can see the sun rising in the distance out of them, casting those rays which are so often associated with heaven in cartoons. My hands were frozen within a few minutes, despite my improvised sock-gloves, but I was still able to take some memorable pictures.

On the way back down, Leo asked if we could ski, and suggested we use the technique to glide down the side of the ashen mountain. Great at the start, but perhaps not in adherence to health and safety regulations, as I built up a little too much speed and had to abandon my descent by throwing myself to the ground so as not to fall off the edge of the volcano. It would have been a romantic way to go, but in the end I only suffered a very grazed forearm and a scratched cheek. Nothing some liquor couldn’t sanitise along with some plasters garnered from some of my helpful fellow hikers.

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Trees up high

We took absolutely ages to get back down as the girl in our small group couldn’t quite hack it, and she ended up being carried down on horseback, petrified throughout, despite Leo’s assurances that the horse had the adeptness of a ballerina and knew the terrain well. Upon getting back to base, the conundrum of to tip or not to tip crossed my mind, but I had sadly been made cynical by taxi drivers, so I instead decided to pay for Leo’s lunch. Upon seeing I was with him, they didn’t crowd me for my custom and I actually had a decent chat with the boys who made the chorizo, though the food was a pretty poor effort.

I got back to El Hostal very dirty and dusty, and I had no clean underwear left, yet seeing as it was my last full day, I didn’t see any harm in recycling my gruds for the fourth consecutive day. The hostel worker gave me a towel which he hadn’t done on the previous days I’d stayed, perhaps a bit of a hint. I had an amazing shower and then went to a recommended restaurant, where the food was awful; I had a stew which had loads of tiny chicken bones in it. Not good.

I had literally gotten down to my last 3 USD, having paid for the hostel and airport shuttle for the next day in advance, so splurged it on a smoothie. In the end, I had budgeted well, as I was just about down to zero, though I was lucky enough to check my online banking to see that my account had been hacked and money withdrawn in Los Angeles, where I had certainly not been. The warnings about not using ATMs in Central America were maybe justified.

With that, I packed my stuff away and went to bed, needing to get up at 4am the next day to catch the shuttle bus to the airport.

My trip through Central America had come to an end.

The whole thing has been fantastic from start to finish and has really revived my desire to travel. I’ve met loads of interesting people, done plenty of activities for the first time, and doing it all was so much easier and safer than I could have imagined. Despite primarily being on the gringo trail so as to check out the main sights, I did my best to interact with locals too, and discovered that combining both isn’t a problem as you’ll find people you get on with regardless of their background. I realised that my Spanish is as good as it’s ever been, and maybe the break from Colombia and a few months without being immersed has allowed it all to settle and organise itself in my head. Yet some locals are still overwhelmed when someone speaks their language well, due to the fact that the majority of travellers struggle a little with it. I find it impressive how some people can trek an entire continent while barely speaking a word of Spanish, but credit to them for getting by. There was of course the ongoing theme of being ripped off and treated as a dumb tourist, but at the same time it was more than balanced out by the kindness, intrigue and sincerity of many locals I met along the way.

Hot weather, tropical fruit, golden sands, black beaches, luscious green trees, monkeys howling, birds chirping. Zip-lining through rainforests, cycling down the Caribbean coast, white-water rafting through untouched mountains, kayaking, zooming round ashen dirt tracks on a scooter, seeing active volcanoes, skateboarding down them, snorkelling, swimming in open seas, seeing dolphins, waterfalls, volcanic spas, Mayan ruins, Pacific sunsets. Partying in capital cities, getting lost in the jungle, bartering with locals, taxiing a taxi driver, taking seven buses in a day. Baleadas, tortillas, gallo pinto, semilla de jicaro, quesillos, pupusas, caballo bayo, ceviche de pescado, mojito, chilled beers on a warm night?

Or live to work?

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