Antigua Guatemala – Dance on a Volcano

We travelled from Cahuita to San Jose on a shuttle minibus rather than the local bus. It was considerably more expensive but with a 5 hour journey we decided to opt for comfort rather than economy. And the shuttlebus had the big advantage of delivering us to the Hilton Garden Hotel in Rohrmoser, just a very short walk away from Andy and Ana’s flat. We were soon hugging Ana and being ushered into the flat. 

Andy was still in the UK at this time so we spent a couple of days catching up with Ana, doing laundry and shopping. We were there to greet Andy when he returned on Sunday morning. Though, having spent the last 24 hours travelling with little sleep, I’m sure he could have done without us really.

Still, he had to go without sleep for a little while longer because Ana’s sister, Maria Julia, had invited us to her place for a family get together over a meal. Ricardo, a grandson, picked us up and soon we were thrust into a typical Costa Rican family gathering, greeting some people we knew already and others, especially Julia’s grandchildren and their girl/boyfriends, whom we had never met.

We had a superb meal and a great time laughing and joking, singing a few songs, sinking a few beers and just having a relaxing time. But in the end poor Andy’s eyes started drooping and we knew we had to get him home.

The following morning we were due to fly to Guatemala with Avianca and I had been trying to check in online since just after mid-day but the system wouldn’t let me. By the time we had returned from the party I was beginning to get a little worried because a few weeks previously some of Andy’s colleagues flying to Guatemala for a conference put together by Andy had their flights cancelled without notice and it took him hours of work to sort out the resulting mess.

So, I phoned the call centre and, sure enough, our flight had also been cancelled without notice. At this Ana took over the phone and in rapid Spanish established that we could be booked onto a flight leaving at 5.25 pm the same day. Not ideal as it would mean getting to Antigua in the dark but the only other choice would be to pull the whole trip. So we agreed and asked for, and were promised, compensation of $100, though it later transpired that this compensation was in the form of a voucher usable against future flights with AVianca or a very limited range of other ‘benefits’.

Although we collected the voucher when we checked in at the airport in truth it was not really going to be of much use to us. The taxi voucher which we were also promised would be waiting for us at Guatemala airport when we landed didn’t materialise. We simply couldn’t find an airline rep anywhere in the whole terminal. Still, we made it to Antigua, albeit somewhat late and tired and made more so by the fact that the taxi driver took half an hour finding our hotel! We weren’t off to the best of starts for our little taster of Guatemala.

Our B&B in Antigua – La Villa Serena

Antigua (Antique) Guatemala was the third capital of Guatemala, which at the time stretched from South Mexico all the way down to Costa Rica, and was established in 1543. It was a ‘Real Audencia’, that is, an overseas court of the Spanish Crown. Antigua grew and flourished over the next two centuries with the building of many fine houses, churches, universities, etc. It became known as one of the three most beautiful cities in the Spanish Americas.

Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes and throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were many earthquakes causing considerable damage. In June 1773 the Santa Marta earthquake destroyed much of the city and the capital was once more moved, this time time to the valley where the present day Guatemala City is sited.

Today the city is a world heritage site and has developed a booming tourist trade. Many of the former palaces and public buildings have been restored and turned into hotels, restaurants, shops and more. It’s a place where you can wander the cobbled streets, looking into courtyards and corners, always finding something new.

Many of the old churches are in ruins so you find an intriguing mix of reconstructed and dilapidated buildings.

Santa Catalina Arch

But probably the most arresting sight in Antigua is the Volcan de Agua which dominates the whole town. It is one of those classic volcano shapes and you can only but wonder what made people want to build a city so close to such a threatening giant.

Thankfully, Agua is not active right now but from our B&B room we could hear one that is – Fuego – especially at night when all the traffic and other noise has died down. One of the popular day trips out of town is to trek up a volcano – not Fuego in this case but another one called Pacaya. So, once again, we rose before dawn and found ourselves on a minibus with several other bleary eyed tourists. It took an hour and a half to travel a relatively short distance because, even at this hour, the roads were full of heavily laden trucks crawling up the steep inclines at walking pace.

Once at the national park entrance for Pacaya we were assigned a local guide, which is obligatory for walking on the volcano, and we had the choice of hiking up the trail or going on horseback. We chose the walking option, as you might expect, and with Jane clutching a walking staff sold for about 50 pence by enterprising local lads, we set off up the trail in pursuit of our guide.

It wasn’t the greatest of walks. The trails are very narrow and very steep and our guide didn’t seem too interested in allowing us to rest or look at the view, so it didn’t really suit our style of trekking, which is to take our time and absorb the terrain we are passing through. It also didn’t help that we were being followed by a group of men leading their horses. Whenever you looked like flagging they would say “Taxi, Sir”, “Taxi, Madam” which didn’t exactly encourage you as you were trying to catch your breath. Because we were trekking quite high. The viewing point, when we eventually reached it, was getting on for 9,000 ft (3,000 mtrs) high, and we definitely noticed the effects of the altitude.

Pacaya

 Being so active you cannot actually climb up to the summit of the volcano and it would be way too strenorous for ordinary tourists and trekkers anyway, but you do get a wonderful view of the steam rising from the crater and can even see magma being thrown into the air. At this point you are walking across the cooled lava field of previous eruptions. I say cooled because whilst the crust is hard, just beneath the surface it’s still hot and to prove it our guide handed out marshmallows on sticks and pointed to a fissure in the surface. A stick’s depth down you could toast your marshmallows for a quick sugar rush!

Perhaps the best views, however, are reserved for when you descend the mountain and you get wonderful views of three volcanoes in a line – from left to right in the following photo, Fuego, Acatenango, and Agua.

Back in the city we were able to find some very good restauarants, cafes and bars. In one restaurant a percusionist and guitarist were playing some excellent cuban music which took us right back to our holiday in Cuba, so many years ago. We even managed a little cha-cha in the very limited space available in the bar. We asked if the duo could play ‘Hasta Siempre, Comandante’ – a favourite of ours from Cuba and one we could sing along to. And, of course, they obliged so we got our dance fix and a singing fix in one evening.

We even managed, against all the odds, this being a noisy, traffic filled city, to get in a little bird watching whilst in Antigua . There’s a very upmarket hotel, Casa Santo Domingo, which has been built on the site of an ancient monastery. They’ve retained quite a lot of the old structures and are continuing to carry out archaeological work. You can wander around at will, though I’m not sure I’d actually want to stay there as it’s too posh for us and they were playing sacred music throughout the hotel. I’ve nothing against sacred music and, indeed, we sing some in our choir, but when you hear it playing at low volume everywhere you walk it starts to become muzak not music.

But the great attraction for us was that the hotel owns an art/conference/restaurant centre in the hills above Antigua and you can jump aboard their free shuttle bus, even if you are not a guest of the hotel. Santo Domingo del Cerro has some wonderful gardens and grounds you can walk around. There are some fantastic herb gardens and pools of water. There’s even a zip-line if you fancy flying over the canopy tied to some thin steel wire. Not for us as we wanted to spend time walking and birdwatching.

We did see quite a few birds, including some new ones, especially two species of Jay; the Bushy Crested Jay and Stellar’s Jay which are both incredibly coloured and patterned.


The beautiful Stellar’s Jay taking a soil bath

Added to this Santo Domingo del Cerro has a wonderful restaurant with great views of the city below. It’s a shame that the haze was so bad that we couldn’t really see the volcanoes surrounding Antigua and on a clear day it would be a fabulous place to eat. As it was we ate a wonderful lunch of ravioli filled with pumpkin and served in a brilliant spinach sauce -all the herbs picked fresh from the gardens. It made me want to do a pasta cookery course when we get back to the UK.

We ended our trip to Guatemala with an evening spent in the Rainbow Cafe, sipping G&T’s whilst sitting around a huge pot containing a wood fire (it gets cool here at night) and  listening to our guitarist friend from the previous evening playing some more songs. We’d recommend a trip to Antigua, and further afield in Guatemala. The people are wonderfully friendly and helpful, the prices reasonable, the food great and Antigua’s location surrounded by volcanoes, some of them smoking and throwing up lava, is quite spectacular.

PS – anyone spot the musical reference in this blog’s title?

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