The bus to Antigua was interesting and basically took the entire DAY from leaving San Cristobal, or at least the hostel, at 7am, I eventually arrived in Antigua at about 8.30pm that night, phew! From shuttle bus to shuttle bus we got to the Mexican Guatemalan border, with one stop off for ‘desayuno’ which was basically a cup of Nescafe (why?!) at a roadside cafe. The border crossing was relatively easy, there was an office just before we crossed the Mexican border where we had to get our passports stamped and pay the ‘tourist exit fee’, a new fee that’s been introduced since November 2012 where all tourists must pay 295 pesos (i think) upon leaving the country. It used to be included in the price of your flight if you flew into the country but not any more.
From here, we boarded the bus again and stopped further up the road, where we had to walk for about ten minutes or so (up a relatively steep hill) with our bags through the border crossing into Guatemala. Funny thing was, a couple of Belgian guys I met there knew the American guy Louis I had randomly met that night in Ocosingo as they had just come from lake Miramar…small world! Made me wish I had gone there too though, it sounded beautiful!
We had a couple of stop offs including one very strange petrol station, then changed once more for our shuttle direct to Antigua. Once I got there, I was waiting at the side of the street for a colectivo to my hostel, when I bumped into Bec and her friend who I had met in Cancun, crazy! They were staying in the Terrace hostel and so we said hopefully we’d meet eachother again later on that night or the next day before they were off to San Pedro. Later that night, I met a lovely Canadian girl (a bartender/trumpet player in a ska soul band) at the hostel later and we headed across the road to Cafe No Se and had a great night chatting and drinking mezcal with our Guatemalan barman Randy (Randolfo), who was playing Rodrigo y Gabriela, nice!
The next day, I decided to explore the city by foot, it is beautiful and famed for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque influenced architecture as well as number or ruins of colonial churches. It has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a beautiful artisanal craft market right beside the main mercado, while I was wandering around here I bumped into a German girl called Annie who I met at the border and we hung out for the afternoon and that evening went on a bit of a pub crawl from bar to bar in Antigua, fun!
I decided to do a coffee tour the next day with La Azotea Cultural Centre, and took the free shuttle from the central park at 11am. It took about 20 minutes to get to the plantation and there was an English speaking tour guide who brought us through the process from plant to cup – it’s crazy to think that one coffee plant makes just 40 cups of coffee! I wonder how many plants I’ve gone through in my life…doesn’t really bare thinking about! The centre is also a working coffee farm, so you can see the coffee production process from planting through roasting and packaging the finished product. We tasted some raw coffee and cacao beans (pretty tasty but slightly bitter – might have tasted better had I not had a ferocious hangover), and then walked to the plantation where the coffee plants were growing alongside papaya, mango trees and lots of beautiful flowers and other vegetation. At the end of the tour we were able to sample some of the coffee and it was delicious – we tried the medium roast pure high altitude Arabica coffee grown there in Antigua. The medium roast brings out the best qualities of the coffee, known for its velvety structure, bright acidity, smoky aroma and fruitiness reminiscent of cognac. Mmmm!
I had to move hostels that evening, as El Hostal was booked up but thankfully I didn’t have to go too far, as OX basecamp hostel two doors down had space for the night. It wasn’t as nice but it was slightly cheaper and thankfully I got a bottom bunk! They also had night lights in each bunk for reading and little curtains for privacy which was a nice touch. The breakfast in the morning was a basic, typical Guatemalan breakfast of beans, scrambled eggs and tomatoes with bread and coffee or tea.
On Saturday, I decided to do the sunset hike to the nearby Pacaya volcano. I got picked up at about 2pm and met a lovely Dutch couple, Geri and Carl, who have been travelling around the world for 11 months. There was also a Turkish guy, who was travelling the world for two years and for FREE! He said he’s a designer and works around the world for different companies to pay his way, as well as being sponsored by a Turkish drinks company (who send him bottles of their drinks wherever he is for him to take a photo of himself with the drinks and major landmarks etc!) as well as Puma who pay him to wear their clothes…hmmm wtf! I had to look into it and it’s actually true! I can’t for the life of me find the blog now, but it does exist! The hike up the volcano was a moderate climb, not too difficult but steep in parts and the heat coupled with the altitude definitely left me feeling a bit puffed now and then. We stopped off at a few look out points along the way which were beautiful and then the view from the top to the other volcanoes, Agua and Fuego (which was erupting in the distance) was absolutely stunning. If you got tired along the way, there were ‘taxis’ aka horses to bring you up if you felt tired.
We toasted marshmallows near the top of the volcano, as it recently erupted in 2010 you can’t see lava anymore, however it is still pretty hot near the crater and the marshmallows were delicious! We hiked up to the highest point we could for a breathtaking sunset view across the clouds, it was stunning.
On the way down it was pretty dark and torches/headlamps really came in handy. The guide had a torch but it really helped to have your own to help to negotiate the sometimes very uneven path down the volcano. Covered in volcano dust and really happy, we hopped on the bus back to Antigua and went for a few drinks to celebrate our climb later on that evening. Having spent a few days in Antigua and investigated some opportunities for Spanish classes (which there are MANY of here!), I decided to go to San Pedro in Lake Atitlan, as I had my heart set on studying Spanish there so thought I would give it a whirl. Antigua was lovely but it is quite a busy tourist town, with lots of big groups of American tourists coming through regularly, I thought I would prefer somewhere a bit more laid back to base myself for a couple of weeks of studying. The next day I took a shuttle at 2pm and was on my way to San Pedro!