From Belize, it took us about half a day to cross the border and get to Flores, which is a pretty little town on a tiny island in the middle of a lake. It’s very relaxed and super cute. The day after arriving we got up a stupid o’clock (4am) to catch a bus out to Tikal, an ancient Mayan site. It was a pretty amazing trip and our guide “Ceasar” was some sort of Mayan genius and told us masses about the history of the Mayan’s, and Tikal itself.
Jas and I left Flores on the night bus and had a fairly uneventful trip to Guatemala City. The bus was comfy enough and we managed to get a bit of sleep, and when we arrived at the Guatemala City bus station, we were quickly shoved on to our Antigua connection minibus. Although we only briefly saw Guatemala City, we weren’t really interested in seeing anymore. It was pretty dingy and has a reputation for being kind of dangerous. The drive to Antigua was cool, as we were coming into the town the volcano, Fuego, started erupting!
Antigua is the most gorgeous town – all cobbled street and low colourful houses. It is also surrounded by 3 volcanos, one of which – Fuego – erupted several times daily for the whole time we were there. Very cool.
Our main reason for visiting Antigua was to learn Spanish, so we headed out looking for schools (there are around 70 Spanish schools in Antigua). We quickly got accosted on the street and we were ushered into someone’s house where we were told we could live while having Spanish lessons. The family seemed nice, the house was pretty and it was all relatively cheap ($100 each for 20 hours of Spanish lessons, plus $20 for both of us to have our own room and 3 meals a day), so we decided to go for it and arranged to move in and start our lessons the following morning. The house was great and had a roof terrace with views of Fuego. The craziest part of the stay was that the family had 7 bedrooms – 6 of which they used for tourists learning Spanish! The mother, father and two young kids lived in one room, and the older son (who was 20) lived in a room tacked onto the roof of the toilet in their courtyard – which he got in to by climbing up a ladder! The number of rooms was good and bad – at the busiest point of our stay, there were 10 of us living there, so very little Spanish was actually spoken. The plus was that we had lots of cool people to spend Christmas with. Guatemalans celebrate Christmas more on Christmas Eve rather than the day itself. They spend all evening cooking and then have a big meal at midnight. So at about 7pm on Christmas Eve, it was all hands on deck, as we started chopping tomatoes, chilis, potatoes etc for dinner – all while drinking the local rum of course. At midnight we all headed outside to celebrate Christmas by letting off masses of crazy fireworks that I’m sure are illegal in most western countries! For about half an hour, the noise on the streets was deafening as families all over the city let off hundreds of fireworks. Afterwards, we went inside to watch the kids open their presents, than had our huge meal. It was a fun night and after dinner everyone was so tired and full that we passed out quickly!
Half of the homestay tourists left on Boxing Day, so for the last couple of days of our stay, there were only 5 of us, which meant that Olivia, the mother, was able to sit with us at mealtimes and force us to speak Spanish to her. This made a huge difference for us and was really helpful. Because the teachers didn’t work Christmas day and boxing day, we split our lessons up over 4 days – with 6 hours Wednesday, 4 hours Christmas eve, then 6 hours and 4 hours again on Monday and Tuesday. My teacher wasn’t the best; she didn’t speak a word of English and mostly just smiled and nodded at me, occasionally rabbiting on in hyper-speed Spanish! But she did teach me some verbs, which helped. Jas’ teacher was an older guy called Mario, who used to play football for Guatemala, so was a bit of a local celebrity! He was hilarious, with quite a dirty mind, so him and Jas got on like a house on fire.
For our last day in Antigua, Jas and I moved out of the homestay and back in to the hostel we had found on our first day. It was a real friendly, family run place with the cutest 9 month old hyperactive golden retriever. Through here we booked a volcano hike and then a bus ticket out of Antigua. The morning of the volcano hike we woke up fairly hungover as we had (not sensibly!) spent our last night in the homestay drinking with our new friends and had stayed up until 3am. But we pulled ourselves together and made it onto the minibus heading for volcan Pacaya. Pacaya is still an active volcano, so we took along marshmallows to roast as a snack. The hike was pretty challenging, mostly because it was over volcanic sand and gravel – so the ascent was 2 steps forward, 1 step sliding back! But we made it without giving into the “volcano taxis” – horses which followed us up the whole way, their owners taunting us with “mi cabella es muy bonita” (my horse is very pretty) every time we looked tired! As it was an active volcano, we couldn’t go right to the top and had to stop 300 m from the summit. Along the way we passed steaming red hot rocks and at one point, we stopped and toasted our marshmallows over some lava – delish! At the highest point, our guides took us into a little cave of sorts – as soon as we climbed down to the entrance we were hit by a wall of intense heat and actually standing in the thing was like standing too close to a huge fire – so we didn’t hang about long! We stayed at the top for a while chatting and waiting for the sun to go down. As it did, we got an amazing view of the sun setting behind volcan Agua. It was particularly impressive as we were above the clouds. As we started to walk down, Pacaya started puffing out smoke in a mini eruption. Awesome! The trip down was eventful as it was in the pitch black and very few people had thought to bring torches – Jas and I had been warned in advance and had ours! By the time we got back to Antigua it was after 8 and we were starving and exhausted, so we headed for our fave taco man and then passed out.
The next morning we got up and jumped on the bus to San Pedro la Laguna, a tiny little town at Lake Atilan – a huge volcanic lake surrounded by volcanos. The bus drive was quite scary as we went flying down narrow windy roads with sheer drops on one side, narrowly avoiding chicken buses flying in the opposite direction! We pretty much fell in love as soon as we got off the bus. San Pedro is very cute and mega laid-back. We found a cheap, but cool hostel pretty quickly and headed off to explore. It’s much cheaper here than Antigua, which was more touristy. It also has a few restaurants claiming to serve “the best hamburgers in Guatemala”, so Jas’ is in heaven and we’re working our way around them! On New Years Eve we spent most of the afternoon hanging out at a bar with a swimming pool, then sat on the hostels roof terrace drinking beer and playing cards. In the evening, after dinner, we headed to “the buddha bar” which is a pretty cool spot we had checked out the night before. It has 3 levels; a normal bar in the ground floor, with a pool table and usually someone singing and playing the guitar; the second floor is a chill out area with big cushions and also serves food; the 3rd floor is a roof terrace, which had a reggae band playing for new year. We had a brilliant night wandering all 3 floors, drinking rum, making new friends and bumping into people we had met previously. For the bells, we headed up to the roof terrace which was absolutely jam packed, with people climbing all over other parts of the roof to fit on – no health and safety standards here! Just before new year, they started letting off tons of fireworks – again, so safe in a confined space!!! It was great fun and at one point the fireworks were going so crazy that Jas had to put his hood up and lean over me because we were getting showered in ash and bits of fireworks! Luckily, neither my hair or his jumper caught fire – although we ended up drinking ash with our rum!
Brilliant night and an excellent end to an excellent year. Bring on the next one!!