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Antigua – Colonial charm, idyllic scenery and some more mezcal…

Arch of Santa Catalina

Arch of Santa Catalina

It’s dark when we arrive in Antigua from Monterrico, and we emerge from the 3 hour bus ride scratching our selves like flea ridden dogs from the sheer volume of mosquito bites we were sporting (I reckon I had over 50!).  After sorting accommodation for a night we venture out to into the busy streets in search of supplies, food and a cold beer; all of which were readily available at each turn here.

For just the snaps, click here!

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Antigua is a brightly-coloured colonial city complete with cobbled streets, which is nestled in a dark green valley.  Volcán Agua stands visible to you at most points in the town as it sits poking through the clouds to the southern point.  The city itself is a UNESCO world heritage site and strict building regulations mean it stays bloody delightful.  The lack of buildings over two stories high affords you a decent view from pretty much any second floor window or terrace.  1773 saw the city crumble to an earthquake and many of the colonial ruins still lie untouched alongside the rest of the surviving buildings.  The architecture and layout is extremely similar to San Cristobel de las Casas in Mexico, to the point where walking up 4 Ave Norte approaching the handsome Parque Central, I had a mild bout of confusion and thought I was back in the high altitude Chiapas town.

La Merced

La Merced

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust - They love this guy

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust – They love this guy

One of the various church ruins of Antigua

Straight posing

So on our first night here we found our way into the brightly lit-central square of Parque Central and admired the impressive architecture and started to soak up the general laid-back vibe the place has.  Seeking refreshment we headed to ‘The Ocelot Bar’ but when we entered we found that the building opened into a twee courtyard and we were surrounded by a few others establishments as well.  After meeting up with an American we had met in Lake Atitlán at the Spanish school we headed for ‘Café No Se’ with its promise of cold beer and mezcal.  The dark and purposely dingy bar has a smaller bar to the side which sells its own brand of mezcal which they have proudly smuggled out of Oaxaca for a few years and officially produce it now under the name ‘Ilegal Mezcal’.  The Brit behind the bar was happy to tell us the story and pointed out the one lonely bottle of tequila that sits on the back bar in case the cops come looking, having to claim that the mezcal is just decoration.  This was also the first place we came face-to-face with Maximón who is the ‘evil saint’ also known as San Simón as he has a shrine in the back where you give him booze and smokes.  Needless to say that we had a good night and the one thing I can remember clearly is speaking with a Dutch guy and learning about/discussing the finer points of Swaffleing’.

Ilegal Mezcal

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

Handsome back bar

We had two full days in the city and we moved to the much coveted (and deservedly so) Yellow House hostel.   One day was to be used to venture up Volcán Pacaya following my defeat by San Pedro and the other was to just for exploring.  The weather was not great so we decided to abandon the volcano trek for a lighter day of further sightseeing.  We spent the whole first day just walking through the cobbled streets, admiring the colourful buildings and complimentary weathered effect that they have succumbed to.

Antiguan Street

Aspirational

More building posing in Antigua

Colonial ruins and churches are everywhere and we decided to pay to visit the peaceful ‘San Jerónimo’ ruins which were once a church and school before the quake.  This was a top little spot and we had it almost to ourselves apart from some locals who get in for next to nothing and were taking advantage of the peace by having a picnic in the scenic gardens.

Central yard of San Jeronimo

Ollie pulling a Mona Lisa face

San Jeronimo Stairs

Some nooks in San Jeronimo

Success!

The pit of San Jeronimo

A visit to the local market was good fun with all kinds of weird and wonderful things on offer including the fruit called ‘Sapote’ that Ollie has been going on about since she left Cuba and she finally found it here.  One happy traveller!

Finally found the Sapote

Finally found the Sapote

The second day was a late starter and feeling refreshed we hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz, which is a lookout point over Antigua and Volcán Agua.  It was a stunning view.

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cru selfie...getting better at them!

Hike up to Cerro De La Cruz

Antigua is a main tourist draw and many people come here and use it as a base to take trips to the rest of the Gringo trail in the country.  I was slightly apprehensive about this place as we had heard lots of reports of crime against tourists on the way down south, but we saw none of that.  The local life going on around the tourist army is a friendly one with the majority of locals giving the obligatory ‘Hola’ as you walk past them in the street.  We are on a short time frame in Guatemala and it was a shame to leave this spot so soon as I could have easily stayed for at least a week.   It is not kind to a backpacker’s wallet however.  But, if you’re ever in the area it would be foolish not to stop by.

Camoflage dog

Chicken Bus to Guate from Antigua

Volcan Agua to the south of the city


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Monterrico – Black sand beach, bright blue sky and some serious hammock time

A scruffy pair

So you hear nothing for two weeks and then two posts come along at once.  Well, Guatemala has some-what slowed us down.   After our 10 days at Lake Atitlan we decided to head for some sunshine on the Pacific coast.  A 6 hour bus took us via the colonial city of Antigua and then on to the seemingly endless black sand beach of Monterrico.  It’s been a while since we had some beach action and also, some proper sunshine so we had high expectations.  We were not disappointed as the temperature rapidly increased as we neared the coastline.  Accompanied by an American ex-pat Hostel owner from Antigua we cracked a couple of beers in anticipation of days doing nothing ahead.

This wave knocked me over...

Skip to the snaps!

We stayed at the El Delfin, which is one of your two main options there (The other main one being Johnny’s Place).  It’s best described as a budget travelers resort, with reasonably priced rooms, cheap bar, good food and a swimming pool…plus plenty of hammocks.  The latter being something I am becoming quite accustomed to as Ollie has already mentioned.  Four nights for the price of three was a cheeky deal we took up, meaning a price of 150Q per night.

Leave nothing but footprints

Leave nothing but footprints

Kill nothing but time...

Take nothing but pictures

What did we do?  Nothing!  Sweet FA.  We sat in hammocks, drank some cold brews and read many books whilst listening to the ferocious Pacific pound at the boiling black sand with a soothing constancy.  What can you do there?  Well if you want to get up early (5am early), you can take a tour of the mangroves for some bird/animal spotting.  However if you want a later activity, you can go to the turtle refuge in the evening and see them being released…or something like that.  As you can imagine by my previous description of our activities, I was somewhat one track minded and took very little interest in the fella’s persistent sales pitch.  Plus it was in Spanish so Ollie was his main target.

Monterrican road sign

Nothing much else to do here but switch off and enjoy some magnificent sunsets.

The Pacific offers another gorgeos sunset

What it has given us time to do is think about where we’ve been so far and where we want to go next.  And we still don’t know.  The main quandary that seems to be plaguing us right now is where we are going to spend Christmas and NYE.  Does it really matter…probably not?  Let’s not worry about the destination and enjoy the journey.  Or something clichéd like that…

Alocal delicacy

The seemingly never ending black sands

Hostel El Delfin

The main street of monterrico

Either way, I can highly recommend Monterrico for a little R&R if you’re in Guatemala.  Only 2.5 hours from Antigua; it’s worth it.  I am told that the best weather is between November and February.  The town itself is one paved road with a selection of identically priced ‘Comedors’ offering Fried Fish, Fried Chicken or Ceviche.   We ate out a couple of times and it was all good, but the food at El Delfin is just as good (possibly better) for the same price.

Our only complaint is the mosquitos who managed to bite us in places we didn’t know we had.   So, if you do go, make sure you bathe heavily in deet every night.

Ollie finds the hammock...


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San Pedro La Laguna – Days by the lake

The three volcanoes of Lake Atitlan - Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro

The three volcanoes of Lake Atitlan – Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro

After our first night in Panajachel and our first taste of Guatemalan beers (Brahva and Gallo) we awoke early and padded down towards the lake for our first glimpse in daylight. It did not disappoint. The clear morning light that high altitude brings (around 1500m here) shone over the lake and the volcanoes in the distance, one of the most fantastic sights we’ve probably ever seen. The lake itself is 19km long and 10km wide, and over 320m deep. The surrounding volcanoes, many still active, give a clue as to how it was formed – as a result of a huge volcanic explosion some 85,000 years ago.

We didn't eat there...but it's a nice shot!

The lake is rising!

We packed our bags and headed down to the dock to catch a boat (known as a lancha) over to San Pedro la Laguna, one of the many towns that surround the lake. San Pedro has something of a reputation as a ‘party town’, so we weren’t too sure what to expect. We thought we’d maybe stay a day or two then head further round. As it was we ended staying for 10 days…

Boat ride to San Pedro

Boat ride to San Pedro

If you’d just like the visual highlights, click here!

Map of San Pedro

Map of San Pedro

San Pedro town

San Pedro town

Chicken bus of San Pedro

Chicken bus of San Pedro

After wandering through the winding alleys of San Pedro we found a hostel called Zoola with a very relaxed air about it, including a bar and pool right down by the lake. And a hammock. This was the beginning of Rich’s love affair with hammocks that shows no sign of abating… Agreeing that this really wasn’t a bad spot we decided to stick around in the town and spend a week doing Spanish classes. For me some serious revision was in order after barely speaking a word since leaving university in 2007, and Rich was keen to understand more of what was going on around us and ask for what he wants. Which is usually a beer. So we signed up with one of the many local schools (Orbita) at the bargain rate of US$89 for a week’s one-on-one tuition, for 4 hours per day. This left us with Saturday and Sunday to enjoy before school started on Monday. In a fit of energetic resolve we also signed up to be woken up at 5.30am the following morning to climb up the nearest volcano, Volcán San Pedro. Our final decision of the day was less wise – rather than going to bed after dinner we spent the rest of the night at the bar chatting to a cast of interesting folk and taking advantage of the free shots with each drink. This was a poor choice. The next morning, before the sun was up we were driving up out of the town in a tuk-tuk to the national park, where we met Pedro, our guide for the day. We then began to walk uphill. Uphill is an understatement; this was essentially like climbing the stairs for not-far-off 3 hours. Just over halfway Rich’s digestive system gave up the ghost and he retreated to the woods to do some terrible things while I carried on up to the top with Pedro. Rich is not normally negligent enough to send me off into the woods alone with a man carrying a machete, but Pedro seemed like a good guy… An hour later we were at the top, over 3000m up, and despite the pain it was worth it. The views stretched out forever, into Mexico I’m told, and it really did feel like standing on top of the world. After descending, retrieving Rich on the way, we were back in the town for lunchtime and a big sit down. Being a Saturday, and our final night off before school we were once again drawn back to the Zoola bar after some dinner where we whiled away a few more hours chatting to some new found friends and some boys from Ireland singing all the old songs, eventually following some fire spinners to an ‘after-party’ some walk away through some corn fields. I forget the rest. One thing we have taken from this however, is that Mirinda is not an acceptable mixer for Captain Morgan.

Volcan Toliman from top of San Pedro

Volcan Toliman from top of San Pedro

Ollie and the mighty Pedro!

Ollie and the mighty Pedro!

6am view of the lake

6am view of the lake

Thats a lake...

Thats a lake…

It was time to check out of the Zoola if we were to achieve anything that week, so we negotiated a very good weekly rate (US$10 a night) at a hotel called Pinocchio with a hammock on the terrace that looked out over the lake and a very friendly tabby cat with a penchant for Doritos, who we named Oscar.

Hammock, red wine and Oscar...good times!

The next week was a shock to the system in terms of setting the alarm for 7.30am each day but with a little coaxing and some excellent local coffee from Café Atitlán on the way to school each morning we were on time every day. The school gave classes on two open-air terraces, with each student sat at a table with their teacher with views over the lake. It was a stunning spot but sometimes a little hard to concentrate with views like that! My teacher José was a lovely softly-spoken chap who spoke two Mayan languages, Tz’utujil and Quiché, as well and Spanish and some English. He quickly established that while I could more or less speak Spanish, the effort of finding the vocab in the recesses of my brain meant that I was often filling in the gaps with the wrong pronouns, verbs and tenses. The whole week was a great opportunity for me to chat with him while he gently corrected my errors. We chatted for hours about the history of Lake Atitlan and the local people, politics. I even learnt a few words of Tz’utujil, a fascinating-sounding languages full of letters including a Welsh-style ‘ll’, an Arabic-style ‘q’ and clicking glottal stops. Rich also had a great teacher, another trilingual guy although only 20 years old who introduced him to the joys of conjugating verbs. He learnt a huge amount for just a week though and can go off and order and buy things without my assistance, which may or may not be a good thing…

Oscar helping Ollie with her homework

Oscar helping Ollie with her homework

Our classroom...

Our classroom…

Coffee break at school

Coffee break at school

The rest of that week was fairly low-key, our afternoons spent doing homework and our evenings cooking dinner, chatting to our Dutch neighbours, or eating out at one of the fantastic local gringo places. San Pedro has a big Israeli presence which meant excellent falafel and hummus (especially at  Hummus Ya)! We rewarded ourselves for a week of hard studying with some incredible homemade curries at the ‘Irish’ pub ‘The Clover’ – home-made naans, samosas; the lot. All in including beers for under a tenner. Our final night out there was at the opening of a fantastic lake-side bar called Sublime, listening to live music and watching the fire-spinners again. It would have been VERY easy to stay in San Pedro for some time; it was a beautiful spot to hang our hats for a while and a welcome break from being on the road, but as always with travelling the lure of what the next place might have in store means that you move on.

The view from San Marco...it's defo rising!

The 'Pana Dock' at San Pedro

Fernando the fire obsessed maniac, at Sublime opening night.

Fernando the fire obsessed maniac, at Sublime opening night.