Guatemala Day 1 (Antigua)

Hola de Antigua, Guatemala! We are so excited to share with you our journey, research, and insights as we travel across this beautiful country.

We arrived in Guatemala yesterday, flying into Guatemala City and taking a shuttle bus into Antigua. We arrived at our Hostel--The Yellow House--around 2pm, where we got checked in and settled in our room. The hostel is beautiful. With simple rooms, an open air courtyard, and a lovely rooftop terrace with hammocks and spectacular views of the city and all of the surrounding volcanoes, we immediately felt at home. After walking around for a bit and getting our bearings, we found a recommended restaurant serving one of our favorites, El Salvadorian pupusas, cornmeal patties with filling--mine chicharones (pork) and beans and Katie’s beans and cheese-- and cold horchata. We talked with the owner a bit as she cooked the food on a round-top stove right near us. She was an amazing cook and the food and atmosphere was homey and delicious.

Monday greeted us early with a delicious (and included!) desayuno at the hostel--eggs, black beans, potatoes, bread, tomatoes, fruit, and warm coffee. We packed up for the day and headed out, eager to explore. Already at 9:30 the sun was hot, a breeze present, and very little humidity. Spectacular weather to start a jam-packed day.

Katie ventured off to a local gym while I explored the central park and surrounding streets, snapping pictures of all I could get my eyes on. The central park is home to the Captain General Palace, the City Hall, the Cathedral of Saint James. The beauty here is stunning. The city is a wonderful mix of culture and creation, with colonial architecture (and some ruins) around every turn. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you can imagine Katie and I were both geeking out a bit. Antigua, meaning ancient, is famous for its spectacularly well-preserved (and some ruins) Spanish-Baroque architecture with over 15 churches across the small city and numerous palaces and governmental buildings.

Indigenous latin flavor dots the landscape as well, with women wearing traditional dress (handwoven huipils--tops--and cortes (skirts) again, geeking). Color is everywhere, and the natural flora peaks between the cracks in the buildings and parks.

On the steps of the Cathedral in the central park, I stopped to talk with a woman and her daughter, selling traditional artisan backstrap weavings and small beaded bracelets. I chatted with Candalira, getting to know her and her daughter and their experience in the city. Practicing my rusty spanish was difficult but worth it, as we bonded over her love for Antigua, the mountains, and of course, textiles.

I met Katie under the colonial arch near the Central Park, and we stopped in a small cafe with a garden courtyard for lunch.

Post lunch we explored more, looking for a cafe where we could get our hands on a good cup of coffee (priorities). We stumbled into a shop that sells ceramics, and had a chat with a few local people who owned the ceramic store, an adjacent bookstore, and a small children’s toy store. They recommended us to a place up in the mountains that boasts organic agriculture. As we ventured further, snapping more pictures, we eventually stopped into a local cafe, off the beaten path. Another garden courtyard and delicious coffee. We downed our espresso quickly, and dashed back to the hostel, eager to meet our 2pm tour to hike Volcan Pacaya.

The Yellow House has its own tour-booking agency and we were excited to be able to spend our quetzales with local guides. At around 1:50 a comfortable white passenger van pulled up and we hopped in, gearing up for the hour and a half journey to the beginning of the park where we’d start our hike. We passed through mountains and smaller villages, giving us a passing glimpse at how most Guatemalans live, contrary to the more touristy and “done up” city of Antigua. These inequities will certainly be clearer once we leave Antigua and head toward more rural areas of the country.

After paying the 50 quetzales (about $7) entrance fee to the park, we quickly started our ascent up the mountain. While we’d read that the hike was not difficult, our group of about ten people, comprised of Australians, Germans, Mexicans, and us (the lone Americans), started gasping for breath within minutes. Some Guatemalans with placid horses trailed behind us, hoping that we would get worn out and pay to be led up on a horse. Although the offer was tempting, Rachel and I decided to stick to walking.

The path was pretty clear and there weren’t many obstacles, but the whole hike was uphill on slick, sandy soil. We didn’t do too much talking in between breaks, not wanting to waste precious energy on words. I had already worked out in the morning, so I was probably not at my strongest, but we were rewarded for the effort. Along the way we glimpsed neat views of the surrounding area and other volcanoes, but it was at the end of the hour and a half hike up the mountain that our jaws dropped.

As we emerged on a summit, we could see the looming Volcán Pacaya to the left of us and the other volcanoes and surrounding countryside sprawled out ahead. We alternated between snapping shots of the other-worldly volcano and the black lava rock and the verdant greenness of the valleys, mountains, and volcanoes in the distance. Soon we realized that the rest of our group had walked on ahead of us and we scurried to catch up with them. We paused at a secluded location that was surrounded by volcanic rock and our guide handed out sticks and marshmallows. We roasted our marshmallows in small holes in the rock that emanated heat and pulsing black “goo.” I’m not sure why I’ve even bothered making s’mores over a fire, as the marshmallows were cooked to perfection in the volcanic rock. I’ll never look at the them same way, again.

Soon we started hiking again, picking our way up and down slippery hills of ash and sand, pausing to snap hurried photos along the way. I was carry my phone, DSLR camera, and a GoPro, along with a backpack, so my balance was definitely compromised. I resigned myself to sacrificing my rear if I were to fall, not wanting to damage any of the equipment I was carrying. We were crossing our fingers hoping that at least some of our photos had turned out, as we didn’t have much time to adjust the settings while we climbed and stumbled over our own feet.

Making our way back down the path was quicker, but treacherous. The sun had started to go down, which awarded stunning views and pulsating color, but made it more difficult to see where we were going. Again, we had lagged behind taking photos and had to jog down the mountain to catch up with the rest of the group. Amazingly, we avoided any major wipeouts (though I’ll admit to jumping a particularly large and soft pile of horse droppings…).

The sun had pretty much completely set when we reached the entrance to the park. As we piled into the van, we were worn out but in the energizing and fulfilled way that accompanies physical exertion and beautiful experiences. We drifted off a bit on the way back to the hostel and then hit the showers, washing away the sweat and black dirt that coated our bodies.

After a quick dinner of veggie sandwiches, we made our way back to the hostel, checked out our photos and videos, and fell asleep at an alarmingly early hour.

Stay tuned to hear about our adventures, including our meeting with the founder of an artisan cooperative!