February 11, 2009

Roasting Marshmallows in Guatemala

:: Marshmallows vs the Volcano ::

One surprising element of this capital was sheer North American-ness of Guatemala city. Huge malls, car dealerships, 10,000 square foot fast food chains and secure gated accommodation. One thing is for sure, someone has a lot of money. We were dumped out at the terminus and pointed in the direction of a city bus connecting to the Antigua city service. A short while later we were boarding the Antigua bound bus. This was a new level in school bus comfort; this bus had annoyingly altered the seats to accommodate three people each side of the aisle rather than the usual two one side three the other. The result was an aisle about a foot wide and a nightmare to negotiate with backpacks. Hilariously as the bus filled up it got worse. People squeezed in and someone sat over the gap in the aisle.

:: Volcano looming large over Antigua ::

Just before night fell we pulled in Antigua, city of Spanish students and tourists. It's a far cry from what you expect a Guatemalan city to be like, in fact many of the guidebooks describe it as a theme park. McDonalds is super flash, possibly one of the best in the world complete with McCafe, McInternet, terrace and fountain. Add an equally tasteful Burger King up the street, bagel shops, coffee houses and sushi restaurants and you can imagine the swishness of it all. Pretty streets with lots of guesthouses are overshadowed by a volcano, it really is a picture postcard place. Antigua is a huge spanish school machine and all the services cater to the homesick student, you can't really be homesick when you can get good coffee and bagels can you? Thankfully some real Guatemala is still to be found in the market comedors (restaurants) and street food. Although on saying that we found a lady who whipped up some great tosdadas, we went back to look for her on successive days but she'd disappeared. Nothing more disappointing.

:: Pacaya Volcano - very much active ::

No trip to Antigua is complete without taking a trip to the active Pacaya volcano. This was a real highlight of Central America, the thrill factor of climbing a volcano with river of lava running down it's side is not to be underestimated. We set off with strong shoes to withstand high rock temperatures underfoot and a big bag of marshmallows. Minibus tours run to the entrance where we met with a guide. After an hour and a half walk we turned a corner and saw the volcano and the red and orange river of molten lava pouring down it. There are two tours each day, we chose to do the evening tour to see the lava in the night. As it is to be expected in developing countries that haven't had too much regulation imposed on the tourist industry the guides lead us on and up and we soon found ourselves scrambling across sharp, loose rocks towards the molten lava. We finally got within marshmallow roasting distance i.e. a few feet although the heat was the only things stopping anyone getting any closer. Everything going splendidly until a rock broke loose of the stream a hundred feet above us and a frantic crowd hysterically scrambled across the volcano to get out of its path causing a mini landslide. Altogether not the safest of situations, there's probably not that many places in the world that bus tourist straight up into the unpredictable, insecure banks of a lava river. Anyhow a thrilling sight and unforgettable experience. As darkness fell and the clouds lifted it was spectacular as we hiked back down in the moonlight to the bus.

Our second stop in in Guatemala was at Lake Lago de Altitulan, while we were trying to decide which town to stay in on the lake, a bus came up the road with "San Pedro de Lago" written on it and made the decision for us. We climbed in over the cargo which was about 400 steel rods the length of the bus stacked in the aisle. No problems getting down the narrow aisle this time, the steel rods added plenty of assistance giving good clearance over the seats. A bumpy three and a half hour journey took us to San Pedro where we chilled out on the lake for a couple of days.

We were halfway to the next city, Xela, when we realised it was a massive detour out of our way and we really didn't have a good enough reason to be heading there. It was too late to do anything about it and in fairness it wasn't the worst of stops. We took advantage of high speed, low cost internet and got to sample some good street food. Arriving on a sleepy Sunday to closed windows and shutters once again luckily we managed to find a busy restaurant serving up huge bowls of seafood soup.

After ticking Xela we made the arduous journey north towards Coban. Poor roads and long distances forced us to do the journey over two days. In the final stint of the journey we were packed into a tiny minibus for four hours only to reach a huge landslide. People were frantically crossing over the debris which stretched a hundred feet shouting "rapido rapido". It was unclear how dangerous it was but it was crystal clear that nothing was been done to rectify the situation nor would be done in the coming hours or even days. We followed the crowd and scrambled to safety and the gawking crowd at the other side. We later learnt the landslide was two days old so we made the right decision to cross, otherwise we could have been stuck there for days.

:: Tikal ::

Our final stop in Guatemala was St. Elena, it's probably better known as Flores and jumping off point to explore Tikal. Flores is a claustrophobic tourist trap reached by a bridge from St. Elena, if you have a choice opt for St Elena. The following day we set off in the rain for Tikal ruins. A three hundred percent increase in entrance fees since last year ruined all calculations to have just enough Quetzals left to get us out of the country. Tikal was impressive the sheer size of the structures sets it apart from Copan Ruinas. The start of our day was marred by heavy rain. Some of the structures can be climbed via rickety stairs that take you hundreds of feet up high above the jungle. The Grand Plaza is also an impressive sight, and a great spot for people watching.

Setting off from Flores, we made a run for the Mexican border, seeking some sun....and some real Mexican food.


Julian 7:40 AM  

And you told me you were safe all the time !!
Fascinating , but a bit too exciting for me .

led signs 8:28 AM  

Do you have some video to show ? that's would be better .Nice place i wanna go there .

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