Antigua and Volcan Pacaya
Check out the Guatemala homepage
From what I have found, nearly all Central American capitals are worth avoiding. This is not to overlook the genuine sights, beautiful people, and happening nightlife found in many capital cities, just that when you visit Central America, it usually isn’t for the congested traffic and petty theft. Luckily in the case of Guatemala, the fabled colonial town of Antigua is close enough to the capital city (1 hour) that it is convenient for airport transport, but far enough away to be removed from all the chaos and angst. A nearly guaranteed waypoint on any Guatemalan adventure, Antigua is a charming haven for travelers and great launching point into the rest of the country.
Sharing a cab from the airport with an expat from Lake Atitlan who had spent the last eight years in the country, our courageous cab driver battled the throngs of late-afternoon traffic in Guatemala City and climbed us up and over the mountains and into the downtown area of Antigua proper. With its narrow, gridlined, cobbelstoned streets, Antigua is somewhat difficult to navigate for those who are new to the city. While it appears easily navigable on a map, with streets centered around the central square and cathedral at the city center, all of the streets look exactly the same. It is one of those cities where you take the same route home every night, even though you know it is slightly longer, simply because it is the only one you know.
While many people come to Antigua and spend months on end in one of the cities many language schools, I came to the town with really only two things in mind: eating as much good food as possible and climbing Volcan Pacaya. I accomplished the first task each and every evening at a quaint little restaurant set out in the central square by the name of Cafe Flan. While the streets were strangely empty the entire time I was in the town, the restaurant was completely deserted each time I ate there, which is strange, because the food was fantastic. The only thing better than the food was the price. For a full dinner of two entrees, two large beers, and a tip, the total was usually around $7. That’s my kind of night on the town.
On my last day in town I gathered outside of the cathedral with two heaping plated of food and waited for the 2pm transport up the mountain to climb Volcan Pacaya. Located an hour or so outside of town in the Pacaya National Park, many companies in Antigua can make cheap bookings up the volcano and advance reservations prior to arriving in Guatemela aren’t necessary. There is an additional 10 quetzal fee for entering the park that sometimes is not advertised, so bring some extra cash. Sharing a van with some Italians, Dutch, Japanese, and one Israeli, we ascended the dirt switchbacks to the base of the looming mountain.
Upon arriving in the parking lot, all of the local children try to sell you walking sticks for 5 quetzales. Many people try tobargain these kids down, but I feel that it’s completely tacky as you are saving yourself mere pennies by doing so. I paid the 5 quetzales and barely used the stick. The climb up itself is somewhat strenuous, but nothing over the top. Our guide was a total stud as he was probably 50 years old and sometimes ascended the mountain as many as three times in a single day. While somewhat ofa trek, the views afforded are worth the entire climb, however. Make sure you remember to bring a jacket and something for wind protection, because the wind speeds on the open flanks can really whip at you pretty good.
Running full speed across the moondust of the side of the mountain, it becomes apparent how many travelers are actually on the mountain at one time as you can see them snaking all the way up the mountain slope towards the active lava. Unlike the US, here in Guatemala you can get right up next to the lava and roast a marshmellow over it and no one will give you a hard time. How I love being outside of the US. Watching the sunset over the distant valley floor, surrounded by a backdrop of glowing, flowing magma, all of the rocks in my shoes were worth the trip, and I felt as if I could see all the way to the other side of the Earth.