Friday, 14 September 2012

Volcanoes, Lakes and a picture-postcard town - arriving in Guatemala

After a very short 10 days, our time in Costa Rica was at an end and we hopped on a plane for the short flight to Guatemala. Our first stop was Antigua, where we planned to base ourselves whilst exploring the surrounding region.

Antigua is everything like photos suggest. A stunning colonial town, cobbled streets meet buildings painted in pastel hues, and everywhere is a blend between traditional and modern. Crumbling ruins of churches sit beside busy restaurants, all encased within the town walls. We spent lots of time just wandering around, getting lost down alleys and discovering real gems. I could have spent weeks there just taking photos, every street was so picturesque.

Our hostel was just as incredible, eager to help plan our trips outside the town and giving us a room with amazing views of the many local volcanoes and the colourful sunsets. Traditional Guatemalan food abounded, with flavourful and aromatic thin broths hiding succulent meat, all served with piles of tortillas, naturally. The only downside to the whole set-up was the less-than-lovely couple staying in the room next to us, who at 3am on our first night, stumbled into their room (the walls in Central America were very thin in general), loudly exclaiming how incredible it was that they’d managed to find someone to sell them cocaine on the streets in Guatemala. Clearly already high, they then proceeded to snort lines for another half an hour (made obvious by the continuous sneezing and odd comments) before passing out. I must admit, when we got up at 5am the following morning we weren’t necessarily as quiet as we could be… I don’t know what frustrated me more, the fact that when we saw them the next evening we realised they were only around 18 years old, or that it was another reminder of why travellers can garner such bad reputations, reflecting badly on everyone. Maybe I just needed more sleep…

Our first excursion (and the reason for the 5am wake-up call), was a hike up one of the nearby volcanoes. Although the way up was extremely steep at times, there were plenty of places to stop for beautiful views, and by the time we’d reached the top  the strong winds had calmed and cleared the sky of cloud, revealing soft blues that framed the peak and the other volcanoes around us.

Our group took turns climbing down into a warm fumarole, humid and strong-smelling, before finding a couple of particularly hot areas and toasting marshmallows brought along by our lovely guide. We scrambled across hardened lava in a multitude of colours, admiring the desolate landscape. Although we were unable to see any flowing lava, the hike was well worth the trip.

Another day we travelled a couple of hours away to Lake Atitlan. Boat tours take you a few spots around the island with plenty of time to explore, some parts guided. Although the first stop, a pretty area dominated by yoga retreats, wasn’t hugely interesting, it vastly improved from then on as we visited markets and workshops, and a fascinating town that had embraced traditional ancestor worship alongside Catholicism. The main church alter had carvings showing the nativity complete with dancing figures in Mayan headdress, and the local figure of worship was a cigarette smoking and rum drinking ‘father’ who served a dual purpose as Judas during the Easter celebrations. Although the thick clouds of smoke prevented me from spending very long at his ‘house’ (a yearly honour bestowed upon a different family each year), it was interesting to watch the queues of locals lining up with offerings of cigarettes to ask for favours or blessings.

The way both religions intertwined in harmony in this traditionally Catholic area of the world was great to see, and would prove to be more of a trend throughout Central America than I had expected.


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