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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Guatemala Continued: Antigua & Acatenango

Racing through the baron, meandering roads in the front seat of the tourista-modded Hiace, we glared at the dash readout of the ambient outside temperature: 41°c. It was an extremely welcome gesture of our previous hostel owner to book us the two front seats for the 10 hour van ride from Lanquin to Antigua, although they turned out to be the hottest, bumpiest and loudest seats in the house – Kimmy riding biatch directly over the hot engine, TV screen directly behind her head blasting movies on full volume for 12 other tourists in the back. Fortunately the sweltering journey was complimented with spectacular views of the Guatemalan countryside. To our fright upon hitting the fringes of Guatemala City, we rounded a bend to find a big rig truck on the opposite side of the road fully well engulfed in flames along with most of the grassy roadside. A quick glance back at us and our driver decides he’ll risk it and gun it right through the danger zone blanketed in plumes of thick black smoke. Thankfully it looked like the truck driver had escaped unscathed but the city traffic backup was a sight in itself, chicken buses honking and flashing their pokie-machine-like-LED-lit exteriors and the plethora of modified utes sitting idle, locals exchanging convo be polite or otherwise. The start of a tentative but interesting circus of the next few hours of negotiating the route through the metropolis of Guatemala City.

From the outset, we were recommended to skip the Guatemalan capital and by the looks of the brief encounter of the big city it was a worthy recommendation. Our driver hitting the door lock button as we pulled up to the first set of lights, the signs outside a local establishment informing to leave your gubs elsewhere if you’d prefer to be permitted inside. The drive from GC to Antigua though proved to be peaceful and an exciting and windy descent, large evergreen trees lining the roads and the presence of sloping valleys amongst the reemergence of now larger reductors set the scene for our next 4 weeks – the ups and downs on hills, mountains, volcanos, lakes and valleys.

The van ambient readout showed a welcoming 18°C as we jolted onto the wobbly cobblestones of Antigua. So close, yet such a contrast to Guatemala City, Antigua is a myriad of cobblestones and Spanish colonial buildings surrounded by the magnificence of shadowing volcanoes. Such a picturesque town, albeit a little more pricey with hip coffee joints, creperies, and even a sushi restaurant (deep fried beef sushi with chipotle mayo, yuh-huh out of this world). The fast food giants haven’t been kept out either, the golden arches, Burger King and Wendy’s at least had colonial looking shop fronts to fit in.

We spent our first few days checking the town out, strolling through the streets and the central park, giggling maturely at the topless fountain lady statues with water coming out of…. well we’ll let the photo do the talking. The Antiguan streets are beautiful, the central Zocalo a neat meeting point for the locals and tourist’s alike, shoe shiners watching break dancers in between kids slingshotting LED lit parachutemen. Highlights included spotting nightly thunderstorms from the rooftops of our hostels (Three Monkeys and Villa Esthela), Jimmy running by chance into uni day friends, wandering the amazing quant side streets and sampling the diverse food on offer, a quick jaunt up to see the majestic view from Cerro de la Cruz, and our favourite and highly recommended little bar, Por Que No? Café.

There were a couple of things we had been advised on being really worth doing while we were here: climb Volcan Acatenango, and improve our Español by taking a few lessons in the most affordable country in the world to do so. We researched our options and managed to lock both in relatively quickly. We’d climb the volcano Saturday and start classes on Tuesday, staying with a local homestay.

We had spent some time researching Acatenango to get a feel for what we were in for, reading reviews to get tips from other travellers and trying to decide whether our beer bloated and taco heavy bodies would survive. From what we could tell it was going to be effing difficult, effing freezing, but effing worth it. It truly was all three. The pull of this volcano is the opportunity you get *if* you’re lucky – if the conditions are on your side, you’ll see from the top the neighbouring highly active Volcan Fuego (fire) erupting up close. If the conditions aren’t on your side, you’ll climb a big mountain and see nothing but cloud and rage. We had no warm gears but our best piece of advice saw us heading to the local marketplace right down the back past all the touristy bits to the second hand stalls where there are hundreds and hundreds of ‘secondhand’ clothes – suspiciously great condition ski jackets, snowboarding pants, labelled designer clothing…. speculation had us questioning the origin of this clothing, likely the contents of that unlucky tourist’s bag that got nabbed – but lucky for us we were spoilt for choice and we got some snazzy warm Guatemalan gears for super cheap!

Picked up from our hostel at 8.00am, slightly nervous at what was ahead of us, we jumped into the van and picked up our fellow climbers on the way and met our guide, Fidel. There were only five of us plus our guide, a very small number compared to another group of 20ish we passed on the way up. Dropped off at the base of the volcano we were immediately swooped on by a herd of young locals trying to sell us walking sticks for a couple of quetzales. We’d heard it was a good investment so we were quick to accept and thank the lord we did. After being given our tents, sleeping bags and food (couple of sammies, a can of soda, Cup of noodles, some apples, supplemented by our own snacks – scrog of course and kit kats) for the overnight adventure, packs strapped on backs and not quite sure what state we’d be in this time tomorrow, we set off.

Then began a solid 6 hours of climbing. Not up and down, rolly hills climbing, just up. Up, up, stumble, up, whimper, up. The schisty volcanic sand at the start was torture. For every step you take your foot would slide back down the sand as you tried to scramble and dig your stick in for stability. One hour in and our legs were jelly. Our guide was incredibly patient and would wait for us as we took breathers when we needed to. Not only that, but he was hiking in jeans! And instead of a backpack, he had a large shoulder bag, the strap of which he hung on his head, carrying the weight of the bag. Kim mainly hung at the back cursing everybody and life itself, sweating in her itchy Guatemalan jersey and baggy Asia pants. It was difficult. Both of us have done a fair amount of rookie tramping and hiking before but this was something else. At the base it was warm but as we got higher it started to get chillier, but we were extremely lucky with the weather and we didn’t have any rain like the group did they day before us, horror stories we’d heard at our hostel. About 3.30pm, Fidel told us we only 40 minutes away, music to our tired ears. Vamos!

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Fuego awakening

And then, all of a sudden, there was a smoking volcano in the distance. Just hanging there like it was nothing. Not even that far away, subtly letting off plumes of smoke and a low rumble in the distance. But that was only the beginning. We eventually made it to our campsite, a clear patch of ground on the side of the volcano, in clear view of Fuego. The night set in, the smoke of the volcano turned into red, hot, fiery lava. Not more than 2km from us, it was spewing rocks into the sky the size of cars which came plummeting and rolling down the side at pace. We set up our tents and campfire, our heads were constantly craned and distracted, watching the eruption, still not believing what we were seeing.

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As the darkness of night set in a full moon rose in the distance above Fuego’s sister, Agua. The black canvas of the night star-studded sky, an electrical storm approaching from the distance and from where we were sitting above the cloudline, we could see the lightening cracking below, the booming thunder challenging its presence by being muffled from the continous groan of the mountain . As the night went on the eruptions got bigger and louder – Fidel even commenting that if it gets bigger they don’t let tourists up anymore. Thanks Fidel, that’s comforting. To calm us he made hot chocolates and we all huddled around the campfire. We sat there for hours just looking at the incredible sight,  entranced. At its zenith we’d guessed the fiery rocks were constantly being shot more than 2-300m in the air, insaneo! When we finally gave in to tiredness we pulled ourselves away from the entertainment and zipped up the tent we were lullabied to sleep by the endless locomotive-like chorus of Fuego, an eerie glow of red flickering across the tent ceiling from the magma outside, a comforting lullaby.

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Moon rising over Vulcan Agua, Fuego spewing, thunderstorms approaching in the distance, stars burning bright

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The slog wasn’t over though, because we weren’t quite at the summit. And you don’t come this far without getting to the summit. What’s more, if you can get there for sunrise, then why the fuck not? One of our group got altitude sickness so she stayed back, but the rest of us were up at 4am to climb the final hour to the summit. It was about as steep and difficult as the first bit the day before, this time pitch black and a single degree Celsius. We winded around a bit and battled with the schist some more, our tired bodies clumsily following Fidel, our breathing getting vague from the altitude. As the sky began to get lighter we got further above the treeline and the pillowy clouds. The sky turned a tinge of orange and we were close to the top. Kim struggled at the back and Fidel literally had to tow her the final 50m up the steep schist face to get to the top, Jim abandoning the poor soul to run the last few hundred metres for the sunrise photo opportunities.

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Climbing over that last rock, when there was no more up to go, what a feeling. The panorama was astounding, and we had never seen anything like it before. It was so, so cold but we stayed for as long as we could handle to take snaps and take in the epicness of the situation. The figure of Fuego every so often coughing up the odd smoke ring (a comical ‘poooooshhh’ noise every so often). Clouds, volcanoes, rising sun, and  the most amazing sensation of feeling on top of everything.

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I don’t know how many times we can say it (apparently at least once more), but words and photos will never justify this experience for us. Without a doubt one of our top 5 moments of life to date. It was truly lifechanging and so surreal to do something so terribly difficult but so rewarding. There were goosebumps at the top and not just from the cold. It was a feeling of awe and pure elation at the situation, the surrounding, the enormity of mama nature and the feat that our bodies had endured to reach that moment.

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Misty descent

The descent was remarkably shorter and more uneventful than the ascent. We packed down our ash covered tent and vamosed once more. The air tastefully grew thicker and the ground noticeably easier to tread, even after the endurance for our legs. All the vegetation nearby to the mountain was now blanketed in a grey thick coating of ash. We were down by noon, and couldn’t have been happier to see our van. Back to the hostel we spent the rest of the day in bed on the comedown from the natural high. After all, we had to be up early for Spanish class!