Antigua & Pacaya, Guatemala

Flying business class is not the typical backpacker choice of transportation, and I feel slightly fraudulent for arriving into Guatemala in the front seat of a TACA flight from Nicaragua.  However, for some reason a business class fare was cheaper than economy, and saved me two days of sitting on a bus so I jumped at the chance to travel in a bit of luxury.

I had been advised by everybody to avoid Guatemala City as being a big dangerous dirty cesspool of a city so hopped straight onto a shuttle to Antigua.  Described as being the ´Scandinavia´ of Central America it was indeed a charming village with cobbled streets, pastel-toned buildings and not a hint of dirt, poverty or authenticity.  Dare I describe it as slightly boring?

What saved Antigua in my opinion was the incredible people which I met.  I was staying at a hostel called the Black Cat which was a magnet for backpackers in the town.  A rowdy downstairs bar ensured solo travellers squeezed in elbow-to-elbow with others in a similar situation, and conversation came easily over whether we preferred chicken beer or goat beer, and if it was actually possible to finish one of the HUGE burritos or plates of nachos drowned in guacamole and described in the menu as ´big as your head´

The following morning I was keen to embark upon a walking tour of the town but made the schoolgirl error of spending a couple of hours on the internet before checking the tour departure times and missed the tour.  Wandering around wondering what to do, I came upon a Guatemalan cooking school and decided to enrol in an afternoon class.  I learned how to cook a traditional Guatemalan stew made out of chargrilled vegetables, rolled and fried tacos, and a dessert made out of Chayote (kind of like a green squash) with cinnamon and sugar – surprisingly delicious.  I have the recipes and so promise to make them at some point for anybody interested in dinner!

One of the main attractions close to Antigua is the active Pacaya volcano and despite dire warnings to the safety or wisdom of getting so close to an active volcano, pretty much every traveller to Antigua attempts the climb at some point.  I had met a crowd who were doing the climb on the Saturday afternoon and so joined the group for the trip out.

There was a two hour journey out to the volcano in atrocious traffic, with all of the incoming and outgoing traffic from nearby Guatemala City seeming to converging upon one small village, creating a huge snarl-up and necessitating traffic police to direct juggernaut trucks and chicken buses through local traffic including for a Quinceano celebration (a 15th birthday or coming of age party).

When we finally arrived at the base of the volcano we were confronted with hundreds of other gringos waiting to climb and met by our adolescent girl guide who climbs the volcano twice a day, seven days a week.  Our group was called ´the champions´(necessary for our guide to be able to marshal us together amidst the crowds) and consisted of 10 backpackers and two older swiss people who appeared to be in their 60´s.

It became swiftly clear that the older people were not keeping up with us young folk on the two-hour steep hike on loose volcanic rock, and I hate to say it but none of us showed much patience with the constant stopping to let them catch up- when stationary, it grew swiftly chilly.  The hike grew steeper towards the top, and calves started to burn – followed by the burning of feet as a red glow appeared in the air and fiery embers could be glimpsed in the cracks of the rocks below your feet.

The closer you got to the lava flow, the more edgy I felt.  The rock was so newly formed it was literally cracking under the pressure from hundreds of feet, and to get up to the main lava flow it necessitated climbing over precarious gaps, below which magma flowed at a temperature of at least 700 °C.

The other tourists were crowded around the edge of a huge cauldron of magma, poking sticks and toasting marshmallows, the blazing red glow of the lava illuminating their faces and glowing so brightly it almost hurt to look directly at it.  The heat was so intense it was like standing next to a furnace and I was seriously worried about the US$4 pair of shoes I had bought in the local market spontaneously combusting.  I had bought marshmallows to toast but had serious doubts about elbowing my way into the jostling crowd, who regardless of the fact that they were standing on the edge of a pit of fiery doom, wanted to get still closer.

Tiring of the edge-of-the-seat adrenalin jolt threatening to stop my heart, I retreated to a safer distance, just in time to witness a stick-poking thrill-seeker slip and seemingly almost fall in.  I am not sure if there would be another country on earth foolhardy enough to let crowds flock to such an attraction- attempts to research the safety record of this endeavour reveal only the past statistics of armed robbery on the mountain, prevalent before the formation of the armed guardabosces who accompany groups.

Is it ´safe?´possibly not.  Is it a once in a lifetime chance to burst the bubble-wrap other government authorities seek to wrap their citizens in, thus draining some of the colour and splendour from the world? Most definitely yes!

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