The last days of Dr Ropata: Antigua II + Lake Atítlan

From what was surely our most naturally uplifting, yet draining, experience of the trip so far it was a given to take a nap, do some laundry and have a cerveza with our Aussie mates on the roof of our hostel (Estrella) in Antigua. After a delicious intake of mas tacos de pescado at the local “Cactus” restaurant we were fuelled up and ready for our next challenge ahead: thinking and learning – Español Escuela or Spanish School for us gringos.

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It turns out that Guatemala is one of, if not, the cheapest places to learn Spanish in the world, so what better way to spend a week in a homestay by the name of La Casa de Marie with a lovely Guatemalan host lady called Marie. For 5 days we spent 4 hours in the local Spanish school’s (Antigüeña Spanish Academy) beautifully green garden, speaking one on one with our awesome tutors Lorena and Noame. It turns out for $190 USD you get 20 hours of one-on-one tuition per week with a Guatemalan host family. Bargain, considering that’s 3 meals a day, a bed, a cheeky parrot to banter with, second-to-none hospitality, and the company of several other young travellers. Well recommended! After studying the basics in a formal setting, having the immersion experience of living in a Spanish only speaking house really upped the anti of learning the language.

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Gardens at Antigüeña Spanish School

Although our best source of internet for that week was a walk across town to the local McD’s (albeit the most scenic McD’s outdoor area we’ve ever laid lunch in), we learnt more Spanish than we thought possible making the rest of our stay in Central America thoroughly more enjoyable, although mostly there were still the lost in translation type amusing situations. Being able to engage in light conversation with locals you meet on the day to day goings of backpacking was not only easier but a far more rewarding experience.

Other recommendable highlights while in Antigua included a jaunt up to the sights of Cerro de la Crux (fantastic views of the city and the nearby Volcan Agua), a romantic dinner at Mr Sushi (a welcome variety of change from the overloading of Pepian), entertaining break dancing by the locals in the square, a day trip with Lorena and Noame to San Francisco Ingles and Hermano Pedro Museo, catching up with the Swiss girls from Lanquin on a rooftop bar, and a 5.00am start in a van to the nearest active volcano, Pacaya.

Pacaya seemed like a walk in the park in comparison to the mighty Acatenango, however it delivered in its volume of interestingness nonetheless. The walk consists of 6km of trekking up and down trails with the odd steep and uneven footing. The local kids offer you the option of renting a walking stick and the continual option (“TAXI!, Taxi senorita?”) of a bareback horse ride instead of the trek. Apparently most of the guided tours now only go halfway up the volcano, and on that day we were happy enough to climax the tour with roasting marshmallows on sticks over open hot-air vents rather than attempt the climb to the crater slipping on deep schist. There was even the option of purchasing locally made jewellery at the odd-placed, yet world famous, Lava Store.

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The Lava Store – atop the Pacaya lava flow, peak behind

Although not as active as our recent encounters, Pacaya last erupted in 2014 and the evidence that remains is really what makes the day trip worth it – the now solid lava fields are an amazing scenery arrangement and a well worth it half day trek (Picture your blacksanded Mars-like golf links on top of mountains of black pumice). After our final lesson of Spanish (a mosquito-swarmed affair, complete with too much Bushman Deet and literally melting pens from the Deetfingertips after applying the insaneo chemicals) and a final goodbye to our lovely hosts it was onto our next stop, Lake Atitlán.

Thankfully we had booked a comfortable hiace van for the 4 hour ride from Antigua to Atitlán – the snakelike, pothole-ridden, landslide-affected roads an absolute battlefield for the driver and a backbreaker for the tourists. But what a view as you climb the hill and find yourself with the view of the lake! Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America with a maximum depth of about 340 metres and apparently is rated as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Our home for the next 6 nights: San Pedro La Laguna in the mighty Mr Mullet’s hostel. During our stay, it was evident the hostel was using the quiet downtime of the year for this party hostel and its renovations. Completion should be done now for what will be a great spa, new steps and a new bar area but at the time of rainy season the construction site proved interesting negotiating to our first room. The room consisted of a prison like steel door and matching toilet/shower in an uncomfortably cold walled area. Our opinion became even less complimenting when Kim spotted a large spider and Jim suffered an electric shock from the typical Central America Thermo ducha (aka “Suicide Shower”), however after a change of room the next morning (albeit another jail cell feel) and a hearty english muffin-based eggs bene breakfast soon cheered us up and got us into the vibe of the bustling little town beside the lake. The presence of a pool table right beside the well served bar and spaceys machine in the corner also adding bonus points to the hostel.

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The view from Sublime cafe, Lake Atitlán and the outline of ‘Indian’s Nose’

San Pedro La Laguna is a mismatch of traditional and new age tourist-inspired, culturally diverse village bursting at the seams. Streets are aligned with a caliboration of street art and graffiti. Although not as ‘hippie’ inspired as other villages on the side of the lake, SPLL still has a lively feel of small entrepreneurial businesses of travellers who have never left the clutches of the narrow streets, doing their thing with with new and old ideas. The area is absolutely beautiful, the views of the lake from the waterfront hostels, bars and cafes – priceless.

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Church on the hill of San Pedro La Laguna

A game of chicken is often had too, the alleyways only just wide enough for one beetle like tuk-tuk so get side stepping into a doorway if you hear one coming! The whole village was in its downtime during the rainy season so we had our pick of bars and restaurants to shimmy along to throughout the days, but there was a definite feel of dusty, quiet off-peakedness. The rain arriving like clockwork in the afternoons adding another factor to the decision of where to eat and what to do. Our favs included the three-storey ‘Alegre’ Irish bar with amazing prebooked pot pie, the tasty ‘Blue Parrot’ American burger joint, the other Irish ‘El Barrio’ pub with live music and tasty peanut satay on rice, the Israeli ‘Shanti Shanti’ cafe with epic smoothies, bhakashuka and waterfront views, the ‘Jakru Shack’ with its rugs lining the shack walls and of course the local style Guat street food every so often for good measure. The village restaurants and cafes all pretty much run by foreigners, for foreigners. Definitely worth a cuba libre or five was ‘Sublime’ bar, with top notch food, a view of the lake and live DJ sets and couches around multiple firepits burning bonfires nightly.

We spent a good day hooning across the lake in a rented kayak, paddling across to a cafe on the other side of the lake and making mates with a family of stray dogs. Every now and again Kim sqawking at Jim to keep his paddle paddling on course.

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Kayaking Lago Atitlán

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Our fave mish of the week though was an early morning hike up Indian’s Nose, a remarkably PC named rock thought to resemble the schnoz of the aforementioned Indian. Another 4am start, this time with our guide Juan, an all round champ,  that was to lead us up for sunrise. On foot we started, walking through the night (morning) to where the van would pick us up and take us to the start of the hike up through the coffee plantations. We’d heard a bit about some of the troublesome mischief that goes on in the trails between the villages that surround the lake, petty theft, muggings and the like, so we had our wits about us. Sure enough, ahead on the track is a young dude we are extremely relieved to find is a mate of Juan’s… later we understand that this guy has been posted ahead on the trail to keep an eye out for no-gooders lurking ahead. Turns out this is a bloody good idea because he informs Juan there are some banditos up ahead, and when Juan relays the information to us, our patchy interpretation of his Spanish means we’re not sure if he’s saying there are banditos, or there might be banditos, but we tighten our belts a bit all the same. We’re told to wait on the hill for the van to come and get us, and when it finally does, our heartbeats are a few notches quicker as we ride the fast and windy trip through the ‘rival’ village to the beginning of the trip, half expecting a machete wielding bad guy to jump out of the shadows. The whole escapade takes a turn for the lighter when we pick up Juan’s mate Migel who is going to join us on the hike. He’s a character and he seems beside himself with excitement to be joining us, and really just stoked with life in general. He likes to say our names repeatedly, and have a good crack up to himself at the fact Jim and Kim rhyme. We begin the short hike up the hill, scrambling on a non-existent path and yanking onto any kind of plant that can assist us with the climb.

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Sunrise from atop Indian’s Nose

We stop at a wee lookout and look at the view which we can now see is farking fantastic…. out to the lake, sun rising behind it, a splattering of clouds floating about like cotton wool. Migel has jaunted on ahead, and when we reach the top we realise it’s because he’s made a campfire in advance of our arrival, boiling a pot and bless his soul, arranging four little plastic cups of coffee for us all! Juan busts out a plastic bag of pan dulce, a sweet bread, and we spend the next half an hour bantering in broken Spanish, admiring a gorgeous view of the 3 volcanos we now felt so familiar with (including Acatenango in the far distance), and appreciating how kind and happy these two guys are to be showing us their little slice of paradise. With the sun now up, the trek down seemed significantly less dangerous, and in no time at all we’re waving goodbye to Migel and jumping on a collectivo on our way back to the village.

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After another nap, fine food and a Gallo for good measure we pick a torrential downpour as our setting of departure of San Pedro. Sardined full of tourists, we feel a little uneasy as the van creaks it’s way up the steep hills, lurching into potholes and around hairpin bends, the road ahead well transformed into waterfall. Jimmy seems to get over his angst and falls straight asleep snoring to everyone’s delight, while Kim’s knuckles and face get whiter. Finally, we’re on a level road and whizzing back to Antigua, for half a night’s sleep at a hostel: we’re up for another early start to catch a ride, out of the Guat and into the very warm Copan, Honduras.

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