Antigua, Agua, & All Things Colorful

duende n. (Spanish) The mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person; originally used to describe a spite-like being that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe at one’s natural surroundings.

After forking over $20 each at the hostel desk for a shuttle to Antigua, we went outside to bake in the sun while we waited for the shuttle.  Noon came and went and there was no sign of a shuttle.  We were beginning to learn that nothing in Central America was ever on time.  Show up ten minutes late and you’ll still be ten minutes early.  The only comfort I had that there was a shuttle at all was the local girl standing just across the street with luggage. Finally, about fifteen minutes after twelve, the shuttle pulled up and we loaded our stuff, inside this time.  Except for us, one other boy, and the girl across the street, who we soon found out had the most annoying voice known to man when she talked to the driver the entire six hour journey, the shuttle was empty.  It was a relief compared to the last shuttle bus. It also cost us over twice as much, but there didn't seem to be any cheaper way.

Copán Ruinas is located close to the Honduran/Guatemala border, so it wasn’t long into the ride that we found ourselves being ushered out of the bus at the border.  On the Honduras side, we had to wait in line to get our passports checked and our fingerprints scanned once again.  On the way out of the building, a young woman holding a clip board stopped me, and began asking me questions.  I had assumed this was some sort of official paperwork, but I soon discovered it to be nothing more than a tourist survey.  If you’re white, expect them to try to stop you for this, but don’t feel obligated to do it.  We walked about one hundred meters across the border to the Guatemalan side, where we got our passports stamped again and re-boarded the shuttle that had been waiting for us.

For the rest of the six hour journey, I alternated between writing, listening to podcasts, and staring out the window.  As we sped past countless little villages and towns, I found myself more and more amazed by the lifestyle.  Old men carried stacks of wood on their backs and old women balanced big bags of rice on their heads.  Even children seemed responsible for holding jobs to bring in some sort of income, whether it be manning the roadside fruit stand, or traffic hopping between cars trying to sell various goods.  So much for child labor laws.  And for all that effort, no home seemed particularly nice.  Every house was more of a shanty, and even the nicest homes weren’t much more than painted cement.  I had seen photos of such a simple and hardworking lifestyle, but when you come from a place like America, where it’s not uncommon to find college students who have never held jobs, it’s strange.  It’s dissociating.  To see a photo of that lifestyle is one thing, but to experience it, to take a photo of it on your expensive camera, to go write about it on your expensive laptop so all your privileged friends and family can read about it back home, that’s something entirely different.  

As dusk fell, we entered the capital, Guatemala City, an absolute shit heap of poverty and trash.  The stacks of plain cement houses built along the hillside of the gully was astounding.  The nicest building I saw throughout the entire urban sprawl was a Taco Bell.  You know something is wrong when Taco Bell is the nicest building.  It took over an hour just to drive through the nightmare of traffic.  As we emerged on the other side of the city, we finally got rid of annoying voice girl and Chris and I were the only ones left.  Antigua was only another thirty minutes beyond the city from that point, and our shuttle driver took us right to the Posada de San Jeronimo, where we had made a reservation for the next four nights.  

It was fully dark by now and we hadn't eaten in hours.  We weren’t sure how much would be open this time of night, but we dropped our stuff off in our private room and headed into the night.  A few blocks down the street from the hostel was the Iglesia de la Merced, and some sort of night festival.  On the lawn in front of the church were dozens of little tents selling various street food and other crafts.  Being as hungry as I was, I couldn’t really afford to be picky, and picked out the first plate I saw.  It was a hard flat tortilla shell piled high with what looked like shredded beets, lettuce, onion, and goat cheese.  All in all, it wasn’t terrible, but even better, it only cost me Q10.  The Guatemalan quetzal has a kind exchange rate, about Q7.5 to $1.  

After we found food, we returned to the hostel, exhausted and ready for bed.  At our hostel, we appeared to be the only guests, save for the two hostel dogs named Charlie, a very friendly yellow lab, and Toro, a beautiful husky.  Our room was located upstairs, and our window directly overlooked a small, open-air courtyard on the lower level.  We were steps away from a small, but well-equipped kitchen, and an upper outdoor terrace.  And best of all, no ants.

The hostel was the nicest we had encountered thus far, but the night was not without its negativities.  I noticed my nose felt extremely stuffy, and I couldn’t tell if it was because I was getting sick or simply because of all the smoke and dust I had been breathing throughout the shuttle ride.  Either way, I hoped it would be gone in the morning.  

It wasn’t.  I immediately woke up with the urge to blow a gallon of snot out of my nose and a scratchy throat.  Fantastic.  So now I was sick.  It always had to be something.  We set out that morning first to find food for breakfast, then to find groceries for the rest of our time there.  A few blocks from the hostel in the opposite direction from the church is a massive open air market containing everything from toilet paper to toys.  Near that, is an even larger mercado de las artesanias, or arts and crafts market.  Partially inside and partially outside, we soon found ourselves lost in a maze of little shops all selling the same colorful items: woven bags of all sizes, blankets, leather goods, shoes, and hard carved knives were the constants.  Normally, I’m not much of a souvenir person, but I did end up buying a small little pouch to store our money in, bargaining the price down from Q20 to Q15.  

As we went to leave the market, having also bought a carton of 30 eggs for Q20, we suddenly realized we were lost.  Somewhere in all the chaos and twists and turns of the market, we had been spit out on a side we didn’t recognize.  We wandered around for a while before finally asking directions from a man pushing around an ice cream cart.  He told us where to go, but that seemed to get us even more lost on some quiet residential streets.  I finally found a family to ask, and they pointed us back in the right direction.  We dropped our eggs off at the hostel, and went a couple blogs away to a grocery store for some more groceries and a gallon of water.  

The heart of el mercado de las artesanias

A Brief Note on Water:

The trouble with this hostel was that they didn’t offer any free purified water like the previous two had. Since none of the water in Central America is safe to drink, this was problematic.  Growing up in America, where pretty much everywhere has safe drinking water (except for your handful of fracking counties), it is really easy to take water for granted.  It’s not until you get to a place where you can’t simply fill up your water bottle in the bathroom that you realize what a precious gift that really is.  And drinking unsafe water can have a host of bad consequences, such cholera, malaria, and typhoid.  Because of this, Guatemala does have an initiative to supply as much free, clean water a possible.  A company known as EcoFiltro is a huge part of this, supplying businesses with simple filtration tanks that can be used over and over again.  We found quite a few places in Antigua that had these white tanks, set out for any passerby to fill up a cup or bottle.  The concept is ingeniously simple.  Inside the white ceramic tank are three natural materials:

  1. Clay liner- This first layer traps any contaminants in the water, like solids, bacteria, and parasites
  2. Sawdust- This creates activated carbon which removes odor, taste, and turbidity from the water
  3. Colloidal silver- Lining the inside walls of the ceramic container, this acts as a bactericide which further rids the water of any contaminants missed by the clay liner.  unlike many bactericides, this is known to have no side effects.

The business may simply fill the tank with tap or even river water, which will then filter down through the claw and sawdust liner and into a lower tank from which you can fill your bottle.  It filters water at a rate of about 2 liters per hour.  It’s a simple and cost effective way (each tank only costing $35) to bring clean water to the world, without the waste produced by plastic water bottles and filtration plants, and I can only hope the idea spreads from Guatemala outward.  According to production manager Philip Wilson, the only thing that’s stopping expansion is the “need for a larger factory”.

We also backpack with a Sawyer Mini water filter.  For those who have never used one, I highly recommend buying it, whether for hiking in the woods or traveling to foreign countries.  It's seriously the greatest.  First of all, it only costs about $20 online, and it’s good to filter 100,000 gallons of water before replacing.  It’s also incredibly lightweight and more effective than many of the bulkier filters you can buy.  The filter itself is a straw like device that comes with a filter bag to put your un-purified water in, though the straw screws equally well onto any standard bottle.  If you’re like me and let yourself get super hydrated, you can use it to turn into a gerbil by drinking directly from a 3.3 liter bottle.

For the rest of the day, we merely wandered around the streets of Antigua.  Like Copán, everything was bumpy, uneven cobblestone, and the drivers took the streets at interstate-like speeds.  Despite that, the whole town gave off a bit more a calm and relaxed vibe. Antigua is well-known for its preservation of Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture and had been named a UNESCO World heritage Site.  Because of that, the whole town feels a little quaint and a little removed from the chaos of the rest of Central America.  All the buildings are colorful, if only a little worn down, and the people dress to match.  The women who sit along the streets or in the central park selling various woven wares all wear cloths of bright colors and contrasting patterns, a tribute to traditional Guatemalan clothing.  Unlike other places I had traveled, however, where such outfits are worn purely for the pleasure of tourist culture, there it felt genuine.  I witnessed these outfits everywhere in Guatemala and I began to understand them merely as what these women wore, rather than a tourist gimmick.  

We then hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz, or the Hill of the Cross.  As the name implies, it’s really just a short hike up the north hillside to a giant cross.  The cross is not so much the attraction as the view of the city below, and the looming Volcan Agua.  While it is most often shrouded in cloud cover so that you can’t actually see the entire thing, we lucked out on our hike up the hill and managed to see a five minute break in the clouds just long enough to spot the very top of the volcano, though still banded with clouds below, for the only time during our stay.

All in all, Antigua was a very interesting place, filled with strange oddities, like those signs with a hole for your face, and giant furniture.  We loved wandering into the many little courtyards located off the streets themselves just to see what surprises they held.  We found lovely little gardens with fountains and odd restaurants decorated with skulls.

That night, we needed a plan for the remainder of our time in Antigua.  Thus far, we hadn’t really been that ambitious in doing much of anything besides wandering the cities, mainly because we were still trying to find our footing a little bit.  While there was little to do in Antigua itself other than see some of the old church ruins that all cost money to get into, there was a lot to do in the area surrounding Antigua.  On pretty much every block of the city, we found some tour agency advertising the various guided volcanoes.  We listed out our options:

  1. Volcan Agua: This is the most obvious volcano in Antigua because it’s the one that towers immediately over the town.  Funnily enough, it’s the one volcano you can’t really climb as a tourist.  The crime on the mountain is rampant and any local you talk to will warn you of the robbers up there waiting to prey on even locals that attempt the mountain in anything other than a large group.  When we would inquire about the mountain, we got wide eyes and a lot of “nooooo”s.
  2. Volcan Pacaya: Pacaya is one of several active volcanos in the country that can be hiked and because of that, it’s the most popular.  Almost every travel agency has photos of tourists grinning from ear to ear as they toast marshmallows over the runs of cooling lava.  These photos, however, are misleading, as it is no longer possible to hike up to the very top caldera of the volcano.  Guides keep you far away from any lava due to past accidents.  Additionally, it is impossible to hike the volcano without a guide due to its location in a national park.  Because Chris and I are adamantly against doing guided hikes, especially one that we couldn’t even go all the way to the top, this one was out.
  3. Acatenango: This is also a popular hike, but it's more extreme than the others.  Acatenango is about a nine hour hike up some extremely steep terrain, littered with loose scree at the top.  Its main attraction is the view if its active neighbor, Volcan Fuego, erupting, especially if done at night.  This is why many people start the hike around 3am, or simply do it overnight, hiking up to about 3,000 meters on the first day, camping to watch the eruptions through the night, then summiting and descending the following day.
  4. Volcan Fuego: This is the active volcano attached to Acatenango that you can watch erupt on a night hike up Acatenango.  It is also possible to hike Fuego itself, as the two are connected by a frigid and narrow ridge 

After looking at these options, we decided Acatenango was definitely on our list, but we wanted to do the overnight version of the hike, which would mean that we would probably go there after our reservation in Antigua was complete.  We would also need to figure out how to do the hike unguided.  As mentioned above, Chris and I are very opposed to the idea of guided hikes.  Here is our reasoning: Both of us have goals toward mountaineering and peak bagging, so if we can’t hike something as non-technical as some of these, then what business do we have pursuing such things.  While locals highly discourage you from hiking Acatenango without a guide, it is not prohibited, and after some research on route-finding on the mountain, we were confident we could do it.  For more information, see this post.

So we planned on doing Acatenango in a few days, but that still left us wondering what we would do for the next two days in Antigua.  Our minds fell to Agua, the volcano that everyone told us we couldn’t hike.  A quick fact about me: Telling me not to do something is the fastest way to encourage me to do it.  How do you think I ended up in Central America?  We did a bit of research, and discovered that it is possible to hike Agua. The hike itself isn’t that difficult and we didn’t think we would need a guide to navigate it, but we were worried about the crime on the mountain.  But then we discovered that the country of Guatemala will provide hikers with a free police escort up the mountain.  You just need to provide and carry his food and water.  He carries the gun.  

Volcan Agua in its usual state: shrouded in clouds

We just needed to figure out how to arrange a police escort, which is what we dedicated the next entire day to doing.  To save you some time, if you’re interested in doing the same, here’s how it’s done:

The route to Agua starts in a town on the upper slopes of Antigua called Santa Maria de Jesus.  It is 11km outside the center of Antigua and easily reachable by frequent city buses.  That’s where you’ll meet your police escort, and word is that you can simply show up on the day, go to city hall, and be provided an escort, but I recommend calling ahead of time to set it up.  This was the number that we worked hard to get, talking to numerous actual police officers who finally directed us to the city tourist agency.  The woman we spoked to first directed us to Eric Coroy (reachable at 5012-3064).  Since he was a colleague of hers and we had no phone access, she called him for us, and he directed us to Angel Quinonez, at 4796-8164.   He is apparently the main person in charge of setting up the escorts and a call to him is all that is needed.  However, since he wasn’t in the same agency, the tourist agent wasn’t allowed to call him for us.  We would need to do that on our own.  Which naturally we couldn’t do because our hostel did not allow us to use the phone, even for a local call.  We would just be showing up and hoping they had one on hand.

  1. The next day broke to the forecast of rain… all day.  And not just rain, but thunderstorms.  While rain didn’t really bother me, especially in such a warm climate, I was not about to haul my ass up the side of a volcano in the middle of a thunderstorm.  It looked like Agua wasn’t going to happen for us, and since the forecast predicted thunderstorms for the next few days, it looked like Acatenango wasn’t going to happen either.  We resigned ourselves to a very typical fate and planned our next move, yet again.  Instead, we decide to move on to Lake Atitlan the following day and perhaps try to come back to Acatenango, though I wasn’t getting my hopes up.  My goal was to hike at least one volcano on my trip and thankfully, Central America had plenty of them, so I was sure I would get my chance sooner or later.  After the disaster with my computer, I was trying my best not to get upset over things I couldn’t control.  I was simply going to make the best of what was given.  Down there, it seemed like the most I could do.