Antigua and Lago de Atitlan
The boat ride down the coast woke me up in the best possible way. The sea breeze rushing across my face, the sun warming my skin and the view of the coastline stretching out before me.
It was a brief journey. Andreas the Austrian made the same trip and was very helpful in actually getting us on the already full 7.30am boat. His Spanish was excellent and I would never have been able to get the ticket official to let us on with the few phrases in my bank.
We pulled into Puerto Barrios between monolith rusting oil ships and cargo carriers. This was a trade port and our small speedy little launchas felt like a pilot fish among a school of whale shark.
Pulling into the small passenger dock, grabbing our backpacks, we were on the street in minutes, making the haul across the very tired looking and truck laden town to the bus terminal. We arrived just in time and boarded the bus. The bus that would transverse most of the country and pull into the capital, Guatemala City, in about 6 hours.
I spent the ride munching my way through Shantaram, allowing my self to be taken on the emotional roller-coaster spun by Gregory David Roberts.
We stopped for about half an hour due to an accident on the highway and once for lunch.
At the service station there was a very large and daunting sign displaying the picture of a pistol and a large red line through it.
I knew we were nearing Guatemala City.
The rolling green landscapes became hidden by buildings, the road got better and the bus slowed.
On the outskirts, the capital is a series of shanty towns and markets, which finally give way to concrete buildings with rebar jutting out of their roofs like small tufts of hair.
It looked like a usual city at first, the businesses, the skyscrapers towards the centre and the stream of vehicles like platelets in a vein.
Then it hits you. The amount of security in place. Each shop sells it’s wares from behind a metal grill. Each window is caged. Buses have armed security. People are armed. There’s just a general presence of danger.
The bus pulled into the station, we grabbed our things and negotiated a cab ride across town to the location we could get a bus to Antigua.
I don’t know what it was, the fear of present danger or fatigue from the journey, but the cab ride was a blur. As we pulled up, the bus was just pulling away. We had just enough time to stuff some cash in the drivers hand, grab our bags and jump on the chicken bus as it edged away from the station.
A chicken bus in Central America is an old, highly decorated and painted, American school bus. They hurtle around at alarming speeds considering their size and are guaranteed to stop a hell of a lot. As the driver sped alongside crowds of people on the street to the right, negotiating speeding traffic to his left, his friend was hanging out of the door shouting, ‘Tigua, Tigua, Tigua’, until someone responded. At which point we would stop, allow them to board and then head off again.
This happened a lot.
Most of the way there.
Not to mention the driving on the windy roads to Antigua. It takes a great amount of skill to make such a burly beast dart through traffic, past cars, undercutting trucks, all while manoeuvring around a sharp bend. It was edge of the seat stuff but you soon realise that these drivers kind of know what they are doing. Then you can sit back and well, just enjoy the ride. Ignoring all the potential near death crash situations.
As the bends straightened out and the upward hill had flattened and began to descend again, we could see it. A cluster town in the centre of a ring of lush green hills and a quartet of volcanoes. A sight that took my breathe away.
We pulled into a dusty bus lot and stepped out. I turned south and my view was consumed by the huge volcano. A verdigris silhouette that made the setting feel a privilege. It’s constant natural reminder of possible instant death was never far out of sight.
It was time to stop starring, mouth half open, towards the sky. I think some of the locals had begun to start looking at me in a strange way, so we made our way into town to find a place to stay. The joint Andreas had hoped to stay was full, and so were the surrounding hotels and hostels.
We finally found a lady who owned a hotel further into town and followed her down the cobbled street, with it’s high concrete pavements and multi-coloured buildings.
The town, on initial inspection, was beautiful. It was bright, colourful, cheerful, aged, worn, tatty. It had character, it had gravitas.
The pretty young girls walked down the road hand in hand with their mothers but they always manage to exchange a cheeky smile as they walked by. The men strolled along, meandering through parked cars, over cobbles with little hops onto the sidewalk, without a care in the world. The kids played football in the street as their dogs bounded after the ball. The houses and buildings were all painted differently, each with it’s own personality, it’s own purpose. Every glance into an open doorway, invited you into a different world. A dance lesson. A painter at work. A café. A shop. A home. A bakery. A school. And each street was littered with old Spanish architecture or an old worn down Spanish building or monument.
Our room was right opposite an old Spanish building, mostly destroyed in an earthquake. The room itself had no windows so we weren’t privy to that view. But it made up for it with a very haphazard roof. A set of concrete stairs that led from the back of the small hotel opened onto a roof. More like a flat bit of concrete with a clothes line and a few chairs.
We made it our home.
The view was incredible. Ivy coated rooftops and the volcanoes that guarded the south of town.
We were waiting outside our hotel to meet Andreas who had decided to stay in a hotel up the road, when a blonde haired and bearded American walks across the road from our hotel, lights up a Marlborough red and introduces himself as Dustin.
He was wearing old worn walking boots, blue denim jeans and an untucked cream safari shirt. He was a modern version of The Big Lebowski’s ‘Dude’ and a dude he certainly was. Our initial meeting was brief. He explained how he too had just got into town and was going to the beach with a couple of local friends. Low and behold one of his local friends turns up. A young lad, about 14, scruffy black hair, a round Mayan face, Barcelona t-shirt and two mobile phones, called Christian.
‘What the f**k are you man?’, he greeted, with a slap and tap of his hand in the Guatemalan street way. We burst out laughing. It was the start of a good friendship.
We walked to the central park and were astounded by the community life. The park was in a square, enclosed by shops, promenades and a large monument, lit up against the darkening evening sky. A live band hummed away as couples sat and watched. Youngsters walked through the park looking for potential partners and the fountain at the centre was an attraction for all sorts of locals. It all felt very European and very inviting.
We looked for somewhere to stop and eat and finally decided on a bit of a change and found a Japanese joint just near our hotel.
We ate and said goodbye to Andreas.
And returned to the roof to sit under the stars before bed.
The next day we woke up and found Dustin on the roof. The day was spent joking around and telling stories with a little stroll around town.
The next day was also spent mainly on the roof. This time joined by two guys from Belgium, Maxim and Paul. Lazing around in the sun, under the volcanoes, eating fried chicken and doing numerous impressions of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyone on the street below would have been bemused by the sudden chorus above of, ‘GET TO THE CHOPPA!’.
The next day began on the roof, again, but we managed to resuscitate our will power and took a tuk-tuk out of town up to the cross. A large cross on a hill overlooking town. The view was amazing and we performed the usual tourist task of snapping away laboriously.
Back into town and we urged ourselves not to return to the roof. We made a break for the market before our tiring legs urged us towards our hotel.
The market seemed like a few streets from the outside. On further inspection, we found a catacomb system that went on for a very long time behind the tourist market. This was all for the locals, with local produce through to finest in counterfeit clothing.
The smells and sights became a cacophony and we were at the centre of it all. Daily negotiations over fruit and heated battles over vegetables. It was all going down. A definite privilege to see the real haggling masters at work. The theatrics and overt gestures.
Intoxicated by it all, we made our way back, bobbing and weaving through the narrow corridors past pumpkins, melons, jeans and toy trucks.
That night was our last and we spent it the only way we knew how.
On the roof.
Christian joined us and we laughed and joked around till well past midnight. We were all moving on. Dustin to Nicaragua, the Belgians off back home from Guatemala City and for us, it was on to Lago Atitlan.
We had booked our bus earlier in the day with Ruudy, the guy Christian worked and lived with. He gave us a good deal, seeing as we had spent a lot of time hanging out in his office with Christian, talking to tourists that came in, as if we were part of the local crew. We would play football in the street, annoy neighbours by bumping into their cars and setting off the alarms. We would roam around town in a pack, just strolling with no real cause. We had again become locals. And I had found a second place I could call home. Caye Caulker seemed a long way away. I hadn’t found it’s replacement but a definite contender in my ongoing search for a perfect home someday, a time from now, when I’ve made my money and had my responsible life.
The bus left at noon, so we had time to have breakfast in one of our favourite cafés. A local organic coffee joint, boasting the best mocha in town and a fluffy grey cat that made me miss my own little scruff.
We went back, packed, said goodbye to the roof and got onto the crowded collectivo, a last goodbye wave to Ruudy and Christian and then it was off to the lake.
The ride was smooth for a while, I was chatting away with a guy from Brooklyn when there was no longer really any road. From there on in, it was a back breaking hour. The temperature had dropped and I didn’t have my Primaloft jacket on me, stupidly having left it in my large pack on top of the truck. So a combination of slow up and down jolts from potholes, mixed with the onset of a cold, made for a gruelling journey. But the views were gorgeous as we broke out of a high valley and over the lake. It was misty, but we could make out the daunting figures that loomed over the murky calm waters. A ring of volcanoes. A circle of natures killers. With the most serene look plastered across their faces.
We tumbled down a zig-zag dirt track cutting down the side of the valley, plummeting to a cluster of villages below. We made our way through a number as we rounded the lake. Make shift housing, shanty towns, kids running along side the truck, old men sitting on the roadside with straw hats over their faces. The lazy lives of lakeside villagers.
We finally made a descent down a steep road into our destination, San Pedro de Lago Atitlan. A backpackers hub under San Pedro volcano. We stepped out onto a crossroads above the dock, surrounded by laid back travellers and the usual hotel touts. One of them took us to a few places that were way out of our budget. I was beginning to feel dizzy so we decided to go to the cheapest.
It looked like a disused army barracks but the rooms had a view and that was enough.
Not that I could pay any attention to it at the time. I had developed a high fever. I slept it off and felt marginally better in the morning. Determined to see my new surroundings, I went against my better judgement and decided to kayak across the lake. I was feeling better and after some pasta I had enough energy to do it. We were heading for a town across the lake called San Marcos. The problems was, we didn’t really know where it was! It was a good strong hour of paddling across and we found a quiet lakeside restaurant and hotel resort where we stopped for lunch.
The views back at San Pedro, with the volcano and rest of the lake were astounding and well worth the trip.
But as we finished lunch, clouds began to roll into view and the wind picked up. It looked like a storm heading for San Pedro. We left the small private dock in the kayak and were immediately hit by a barrage of large waves, rocking and bobbing the boat. But we were determined not to be on the lake when the storm hit, so we powered back, against the wind and made it back in time. Tired and wet we went home.
And that’s when the diarrhoea started. I won’t horrify you with the details, but it continued for 3 days. I lost a lot of water and managed to get through well over 15 litres of bottled water to replace the constant loss.
Even that was barely enough and I spent each night with a dry mouth and raging fever. I thought it was food poisoning but the American who owned the burrito joint across from us, where I had a small burrito each day just to keep my body functioning, told me that my symptoms showed I definitely had amoebas. He kindly wrote down the name of an antibiotic and gave me directions to the pharmacy.
It was a gruelling walk. My stomach was churning, my legs nearly buckling from exhaustion but I continued up the steep hill away from the dock, up the volcano into town. I weaved left and then right into a small backstreet where I finally found the pharmacy and my saviour drug. I took the 4 tablet dose of Secnidazol immediately and quickly returned to the room.
I passed out.
The next day I woke and it had stopped and I miraculously felt better. Still very weak from the ordeal and no real meal for 3 days, I began to recharge my batteries on bread and pasta.
I felt I had wasted 3 days but obviously it could not be avoided. So in justification, we booked a 4 am trek up the 2800m peak on the other side of the lake called the Indian’s Nose.
Dumb decision? Maybe, but something had to be done in San Pedro! It couldn’t have all been a waste!
4am came and I was feeling better but no where near 100%. I was still weak and that’s never a good thing when you climb a mountain in the dark. Our guide met us outside our place and we walked through town to the bus, which juddered away up to the town from where we would be ascending the Nose for sunrise.
We took a dirt path off the edge of a road and walked for a while through cornfields. Then the ascent hit us and my legs began to burn. It was steep and relentless. I had to stop and catch my breath a number of times, in the dark, on the edge of a mountain, cliff face to my left, rock to my right, mud underneath my boots. My maglite was a great help is ensuring good footing and a reassurance in the climb. We were near the summit when the guide said it was better to see the sunrise from the ridge, so we detoured and found a small clearing where we could sit on rocks and enjoy the illumination of the lake.
The blacks became blue and the silhouette of lakes volcanoes began to take on colour. The view was stunning. I had my eyes locked east and the area above the ridge of hills was beginning to turn a lighter blue and the wisps of cloud took on a light orange.
The sky changed from light blue to a light red and finally a deep orange as the peak of the fireball rose into view. Rays shot out of the point from where it erupted and shot straight past me, turning the rocks where I stood into technicolour. The blacks were now discernible greens and browns and greys.
The sun continued to rise at an alarming rate and slowly the view became a beautiful picture. With deep overt shadows and vivid sunlit greens. The water reflected the glorious colours in the sky and my camera was having a field day.
As the sun continued to rise, we made a final push to summit. It was well worth the higher view and perspective on the lake. It really did feel like being on top of the world.
The walk down was easier but the weakness of my body after the amoebas really began to show. My knees nearly buckled under the strain of being constantly bent and poised to tackle footing on the way down and my head had begun to spin.
But I soldiered through with the solace of the view I had just witnessed and the pain seemed justified.
We returned on a bus with a few other tourists and immediately had a nap. I awoke and realised I had really been out of it for a number of days and not made any enquiries or preparations on how I was going to get into Nicaragua. So I left my bed to find out what our options were.
Each travel agent had a different story, a new bus time or mythical coach service. Nothing was based on fact and I couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone. I decided that if we were going to make any bus from Guatemala City the next day, we would need to be closer. Antigua was the natural choice and I knew that Christian and Ruudy would be able to help.
I booked a bus for 1pm and returned to checkout and pack.
It was all very last minute and a bit of a rush but the adrenaline was a fantastic fuel and I finally felt back on the travellers road, back in the thick of it, returned to active duty.
The collectivo stopped in San Marcos and we finally realised where it was. Our kayaking endeavour had taken us just short of hitting the small town as we had planned. But low and behold, an old friend was joining us on the trip back to Antigua.
It was Andreas, he had been in San Marcos while we had been in San Pedro. It was good to see a familiar face after my 3 day seclusion of illness.
The journey was the same as our trip in, but in the reverse. The bumpy windy dirt roads came first, then followed by the smooth highways.
We pulled into Antigua as the sun perished over the edge of the volcano. It had rained recently and the cobbles glittered with the multicoloured street lights.
I felt like I was returning home.
We arranged to meet Andreas later for one last meal, just as we had done in Livingston. I knew the way to our place. I knew it well. They had the same room as before available. The no frills jail cell like room. But it felt good to be back, even if for one night.
‘What the f**k are you man?!’. It was good to see that crazy little kid again. We followed him to Ruudy’s travel agency and I finally got my answers and a real ticket for the next day. While Ruudy called around to organise our 3am bus from Guatemala City to Managua, we played football in the street with Christian.
Then came the issue of getting to Guatemala City for 3am. Christian and Ruudy kindly offered us private travel at 2am in their friends truck and I obliged. Things all fit into place. And then it was time for the last meal. I took Christian to dinner with us and made sure I paid for him. It would save him having to work the street that evening and keep him out of trouble. Which in hindsight was what Dustin had done all along. Keeping Christian close and occupied and fed. Just to keep him from his usual line of work and the risks involved.
The kid had taken us to this family run place that involved walking behind the cash desk of a small shop to access the tables and chairs.
The food wasn’t anything to write home about but the experience was priceless. The whole interior of this room behind the convenience store was fitted out, wall to wall with posters of Jesus, Mary and the Pope. With even a little shrine to some saint at the very end of the table. It was very surreal and the characters at this large table were fantastic.
First there was an old man who came in, sat next to me and just drank a warm glass of milk.
We were also joined by a conversational local medic lady and the last of the characters, a teacher. He work a red track top and talked on and on about how he knew Japanese and his work with the schools. Nice man but I think he was a little drunk or delusional or both.
We said our goodbyes to the Austrian and returned home to get a good night sleep before our 2am car ride into Guatemala City. We said bye to Ruudy but Christian had decided to come with us in morning to see us off. Very cool.
The morning came and low and behold, Christian was at our door. We got into our own private midnight collectivo, which was odd, seeing as they are usually packed and we hurtled towards the capital.
On the way in to Antigua from the city, the journey had taken close to 2 hours. That morning, we had made it in 45 minutes.
The bus company was King Quality and they had a very plush security guarded station inside of the city. Christian dropped us off made his goodbyes and then left back for Antigua.
I do miss that kid.
And with that, I say goodbye to Guatemala. It has been a blast. I have never experienced a country so diverse and rich in culture, environments and people. From the Garifuna of Livingston to the Maya of Antigua. From the lush jungle of Tikal to the volcanic highlands of Lago Atitlan. It has been a pleasure to have transversed the country and to have enjoyed safe travel.