Since we are getting ready to leave Guatemala at the end of this week for Colombia, we figured it was time to update the blog.
We arrived in Antigua about 4 weeks ago after 2 pretty horrible days of travel. We took the overnight bus from Oaxaca to Tapachula, Mexico and although we got the primo seats at the front of the bus I was unable to sleep all night because of horrible motion sickness. Arriving in Tapachula with the sticky feeling of being on a bus for 13+ hours, we found the next bus to Guatemala wasn’t for another 4 hours. So we rolled the dice and took a taxi to the Guatemalan border hoping there would be more buses on the other side. We ended up walking across the Guatemalan border and paying a couple unexpected “taxes” to find the Guatemalan border town wasn’t exactly teeming with buses either. The next bus wasn’t due to leave for another 4 hours as well, and didn’t end up leaving for another 6 hours. We were stuck in the “restaurant”/”bus station” in this scary border town and I’ll admit, there were a few tears, but the bus finally came and we were on our way to Guatemala City. We were pleasantly surprised by the lush Guatemalan vegetation and passed by many rivers. Since the bus left so late and traveled at what felt like 45mph the whole way, we were due to arrive after the last shuttle to Antigua had already left. After reading the guidebook about how dangerous Guatemala City is, we arranged for the bus driver’s taxi-driving friend to pick us up at the bus station and take us on the one hour journey to Antigua. It cost alot more, but it was worth it! We finally arrived in Antigua and could breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Antigua is a colorful colonial city in the valley of volcanoes (its also a UNESCO world heritage site). There are so many touristas here, but the locals are famously friendly. People will meet your eye on the street and smile or say hello even if they are not trying to sell you something! This is unique so far on our trip. For our time in Antigua we have been staying in a wonderful hostel call the Yellow House. You might have seen our posts about the breakfast, which has been a highlight. We’ve also attended 3 weeks of Spanish classes, which has really helped us to be more confident. One of our big successes was when we noticed that the bread we had bought in the supermarket was moldy before we had even opened the package, so we took the bread and the receipt back to the store and talked to the store manager entirely in Spanish and got to exchange the bread! Tenemos exito! Through the school we participated in a few after-school activities including visits to a cemetery, a hot spring, and a macadamia farm (where we drank the kool-aid and bought anti-aging macadamia nut face cream).
During one of our weekends here we traveled to Lake Atitlan, about 4 hours from Antigua. The lake is huge and completely surrounded by mountains. We took a full day boat tour to 4 very different towns around the lake. We visited San Marcos, San Juan, San Pedro, and Santiago. It was a beautiful calm morning, that turned into a terrifying afternoon. The wind picked up (a phenomenon known as “Xocomil” according to my Spanish teacher) so the boat was equipped with saran wrap “windows” while the passengers were handed life jackets. The lucky passengers in the “splash zone” (Rachelle and myself included) were handed a tarp and it was our job to protect ourselves and the other passengers from the forceful sprays as we got some serious air over the waves. Once safely back on land, Rachelle and I admitted to each other that we were thinking of every boat accident we knew of and what we were going to do if we capsized. Better to be prepared than taken by surprise! But fortunately, we were fine.
The weekend after that we hiked Volcan Pacaya to see the sunset. We got lucky with a beautiful clear day. The hike itself was difficult only because the trail was entirely black volcanic ash, so it was like hiking up a volcano-sized sand dune. It was a bizarre mix of green mountains and lunar-esque landscape. As we hiked up closer to the peak, you could feel the heat rising from the ground below you and we were concerned our shoes might melt. When you kicked up some of the volcanic rock, steam would rise from the ground. Rachelle was thrilled when we roasted marshmallows over a particularly hot spot. We saw the neighboring Volcan Fuego erupt big plumes of smoke a few times, which was exciting. We hiked up far enough to actually be above the clouds and watched the sun set into the cloud horizon. It was thrilling.
This past weekend after our last day of school, we took a cramped 15 person van for 8 hours to Lanquin. The road to Lanquin is nauseatingly curvy, but it was definitely worth it! Our 3 days in Lanquin was the first time we had an extended amount of time away from diesel fumes yet on our trip. Our first day in Lanquin was plagued by cold “chipi chipi” (a misty rain that falls frequently there) so we relaxed by the river and explored the tiny town. That evening at sunset we went with a group from our hostel to Grutas de Lanquin. When we arrived, the cave was alive with bats streaming out for their nocturnal feeding. The cave was like a huge amphitheater with the biggest stalagtites columns we have ever seen. There were thousands of bats streaming by us and some even got close enough for us to feel their wind. Like many of our adventures in Lanquin, it was a truly unique experience. The sun showed the next day, so we met up with new friends Nicolas and Ni and dared the 45 minute white knuckle ride on the back of a pick-up to Semuc Champey. We hiked up to the look-out to see the crystal clear turquoise pools that sit above a swift moss green river that runs through the valley surrounded by mountains. It was shockingly beautiful. Afterwards we hiked back down to the pools for a refreshing swim. The next day we decided to take an official tour of Semuc that was pretty much the same as what we had done the day before, except that it involved a candle-lit spelunking adventure. Basically, the guide gives you a candle at the mouth of the cave and you walk in. There is clear swift mountain water running through the cave. As you’re walking through the freezing cold water, you notice it keeps getting deeper and deeper until you are holding your candle above your head SWIMMING through the cave. I was scared, but after Rachelle lost her water shoe and replaced it with a men’s size 13 flip-flop I was terrified that something worse would happen. Not only were we swimming with our candles, but also climbing down wobbly wet metal ladders with our candles, squeezing through narrow openings between stalagmites/stalagtites, and climbing up waterfalls using a rope holding our candles in our teeth. And without your candle, the cave is blindingly pitch black. There are no LED emergency exit signs. I’ll admit it, I peed my bathing suit…a few times. But we made it out unscathed and got to enjoy the clear blue pools again.
As we prepare to leave Central America, we are reflecting on all the wonderful people we have met and had to say goodbye to here in Guatemala. Anna and Peter from Minneapolis, Anna from Washington D.C., Brie from Suffolk, Alice and Kris from Melbourne, Gisel from New York City by way of Paris, Peps from Grenoble, Chloe and Robbie from Toronto, Sophie and Matt from London, and of course our first friends who we met in Oaxaca and had one great night together in Antigua, Toby and Georgia from Bristol. We feel so lucky to have spent our time, however short, with such wonderful people.