Welcome to Antigua. The absolute mecca for tourists not wanting to leave their comfort zones. Actually, considering the amount of massage/beauty parlours here, many tourists fall deeper into their comfort zone. Every second shop is a tour agency, every other one is a bar playing NFL or live blues, a hotel, a cafe or restaurant serving every international cuisine possible, or a accomodation. Such is the scope of services in Antigua that there are little Guatemalans who offer you vouchers for tours or accomodation, say no and they offer you weed, say no to weed and they offer you coke..."Colombian quality." I thought I would test their inventory, so I asked if they could sell me crystal, while looking at him with crazy eyes. He told me, "I can call my friend and ask." I declined, telling him it was a joke. He gave me a forced smile in return.
A trip to Antigua, or for that matter Guatemala, is not complete without a volcano hike. So on my second day in Antigua, I got up at 5:30 to catch a 6 am shuttle to Volcano Pocaya. Volcano Pacaya, at an elevation of 2,552 metres above sea level, has been continually active since 1965. The last eruption spew an ash cloud into the sky fifteen hundred metres into the atmosphere, leaving Antigua and Guatemala city covered in Ash. Keep in mind that the Volcano lies 30 kilometres from Guatemala City. The shuttle journey took about 45 minutes, and we arrived to children trying to sell us sticks to climb the mountain, assuring us that "it's a necessity." The town at the bottom of the volcano was quite poor, a far cry from Antigua. Obviously the tourism brought by the Volcano had not been felt to a significant degree in the surrounding villages. The people looked like they have never had a bath and the children like they had rolled around in dirt the entirety of their lives. I aways feel angry when I see kids not in school, but never know where to direct the anger. It was quite sad.
The climb up the mountain, despite the local kid's assurance that a stick was a necessity, was really quite easy. We stopped at various points along the way, the guide explaining the scenery surrounding the volcano, including two other volcanoes, a volcanic lake, and a few towns. After the while, the almost jungle like vegetation of the mountain made way for post apocolyptic like dusty volcanic rock. It was really fascinating looking at the view from the top of the mountain at an adjacent one, observing the juxtaposition of one black mountain devoid of any life, and the other one, the scenery of greenery.
Unfortunately, we could climb all the way to the top, as the recent activity deemed it unsafe, but something tells me if there was an eruption we would have died anyway. Our guide lead us to two holes in the volcano which radiated heat from the ground below. The smell was sauna like, which I found relaxing. The guide took out some marshmellows from his bag and proceeded to toast them over the hole. It was pretty awesome.
I went straight to a cafe when I got home...the lack of caffeine that day had left me quite dizzy. I stumbled across this groovy Italian style place which served every type of coffee imaginable, even Vietnamese style. I searched the menu, and saw one option, "coffee meets mescal." I looked at the dude behind the counter and asked him if it was I thought it was. After telling me it was indeed Mescal mixed with coffee, I bought one, and it was actually quite good. For those who aren't familiar with Mescal, it's a strong spirit like Tequila, whch also originates from Mexico. It differs from Tequila however, it has a smokiness to it that gives your throat a slight burn. The weirdest combinations are often some of the best, I thought...take avocado and vegemite for example.
Having seen a brouchure at my hostel from the chocolate museum, which advertised workshops, I wandered down to check it out and possibly reserve a space. It sounded cool, so I booked, and it didn't disappoint. Our incredibly flambouyant teacher first took us through a history lesson of coco. The Mayans were the first to discover it, consuming it only as a luke warm drink, filled with spices and blood. Yes, blood. During the last stage of the preparation, they would cut their hands and allow a few drops of blood into the drink, apparently to appease the god of coco. Other highlights of the workshop include a bean crushing competition (which I won...hell yeah), making a surprisingly nice tea out of the skin of toasted beans, and making my own chocolate in seashell moulds.
Despite the supertouristy nature of Antigua, hearing 60 year old Americans talking Spanish far too loudly in thick Californian accents, I'm glad I came here. It's supremely gorgeous, has a great night life, cafes, food and coffee. But an authentic snapshot of the 'real' Guatemala it ain't.
"Oh my god, Semuc Champey is fucking amazing/sick/awesome/titties/insert over adjective." After hearing this from every man, woman, child, dwarf, cat, monkey and dog, I thought it would be foolish to miss it. Sure, I was almost paralysed by the 8 hour journey in a crammed minibus, but it was totally worth it to see what many saw is the most beautiful place in the country. I stayed in a party hostel in the nearby town of Lanquin, surrounded by jungle. The hostel, "Zephyr Lodge," was cool, but set up in every way to make sure you spent the most money as possible through their tab system. Having said this, it was a great time, and they served good food, for the most part, and the views of 360 degrees of amazing.
The following day I took the much anticipated tour to Semuc Champey. Wow...mother nature at its best. We started the tour by waddling through a rive inside a pitch black cave, paddling with one hand and holding candles above our heads in the other. I think the guide was born there, given he knew where every single sharp rock was, and pretty much ran through the river. Our next two activities were a stark reminder that we were not in a developed country, with all the crazy regulations that accompany it. Our guide took us to a massive seated swing that almost scraped the ground on the way down, and opened onto ten metres of rocks below before you could finally let go and plunge into the water. By even suggesting jumping off a 12ish metre high bridge into the water in Australia you may very well end up in jail, but in Guatemala it's no problem. As with most things dangerous, it was wicked fun. One person in our group shot a video of two dare devils in our group doing a synchronised back flip into the river. It was one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen.
Finally we got to Semuc Champey, and it was simply perfect. The water was perfectly clear, fresh, and the perfect temperature. The sun shined through the trees, illuminating the water. A great end to a great day. I connot describe Semuc Champey any better, you will just have to google it. Over and out.