We gave Last Vegas and Costa Rica a wonderful hello in the last episode of The Travel Bug. That post was full of typical Vegas madness as you would come to expect, and it was teeming with gorgeous countryside which included volcanos, canopy walks and local wildlife in Costa Rica.
Dave goes deeper into Central America on this post as he explores the history of the country, stumbles into a volcano (keep your eyes peeled for this one) and is mesmerized by the pyramids. But my summary isn’t doing this juicy post justice.
And so without further ado..
My flight to Guatemala was on a first class ticket, it was the first time Id travelled in first class though honestly it looked no different to coach, Guatemalan first class is not all it’s cracked up to be. When I arrived I took the first cab out of the city, I’d heard nothing positive regarding Guatemala City so figured no point in wasting time. I found out later it’s actually regarded a very dangerous place for tourists and local alike, especially at night.
The town of Antigua
I arrived at my hostel a couple of hours later in the town of Antigua, it was very nice accommodation but did not have a hostel atmosphere as there was no communal area to meet people. This ended up a blessing in the end as I decided to go to one of the local Gringo bars up the road.
I met a guy from the US who had been in the city for a while learning Spanish, so we had a few beers there and then headed up to the local Irish bar and had way too many more. I was introduced to a Canadian in the bar who I immediately recognised from backpacking in Perth 6 years earlier which is quite remarkable.
If you end up travelling long enough, circumstances like this can occur and you can appreciate that despite the worlds size, it actually is a very small place.
The bars shut at 1 am all over Antigua, so my friends suggested an after party. I was tired and quite inebriated so decided to meet up the following night for my new American friends birthday. I went back to the hostel and fell asleep.
The following morning I decided to do one of the local tours, which the hostel organised for me, it started at 2 pm which was quite pleasant, plenty of time to lay in. The tour I was on involved climbing and an active volcano, Pacaya. This initially involved a1.5 hour drive on various windy roads and another 2.5hourhiketo the base of the volcano. I ascending to the top and there were some amazing to views, kind of what I would imagine the landscape of the moon would be like. Their whole horizon was a rocky landscape with steam coming up from the ground.
The volcano erupts every 10 years or so and there is an element of risk being there, in actual fact people are advised to not go to the area but fortune favours the brave, that and at the time when I made the booking I agreed to do anything with no real idea of what that would involve.
The guide persuaded me to jump into a fissure where the lava flows through when the volcano actually erupts. This was not a totally unpleasant experience as it was like jumping in a sauna, I was instantly covered in sweat and the scent of sulphur and steam was quite smelly. The next activity was to roast marsh mellows at a heat spot, quite a unique experience as you would imagine.
Watch out for the Lock Out
My tour headed back to town, I had power nap and then met my American mate for his birthday and a couple of his friends. This involved a lot more drinking and dinner, it is ridiculous how cheap alcohol is, $2 per beer and that’s not during happy hour.
One of his friends was a local DJ of some note in the town. The DJ took us about town for the night in his brand new BMW 4WD, we went to more authentic local bars and then once those bars shut, a good old fashioned lock-in. Antigua has lock-ins all over the place due to the 1 am rule, these lock-ins were full of locals and expats, mainly Americans and some Europeans, it was very good fun and a great way to meet people.
The lock-in was raided by the police at around 3 (a common occurrence) and we headed to a car park party by the local train station. Needless to say, more drinks ensued, I ended up drinking on the street at a hot dog stand, all very Antiguan, eventually made it home around 5, Guatemalans love to have a party.
A bit of history
The following afternoon I decided to stroll about Antigua and take in the sights of the town. It’s quite a lovely little place, Antigua had a major earthquake around 200 years ago so there were many ruined historical sites. The city was also designed in grids, so most of the shops which had small fronts opened up into a huge market like spaces within, kind of like the Tardis. The shop fronts were painted in various bright colours and the people very friendly. There was also an excellent viewpoint from a park at the top of the city, it included a rather large Cross. The only issue with the view was that it was sugar cane burning season so the beautiful views are somewhat obscured by a haze of smoke, that or it could be steam from the local volcano, not really sure.
Other things worth noting is the there are many Spanish schools within town which contributes to the local economy, it is also the party town for Guatemalans escaping the city for safety and a good night out and that it costs around $250 US a month to rent a decent house there.
The last evening
That evening I met up with my American mate for one last night, more drinking and eating ensured, managed to make it to bed sometime in the morning and was ready to head out the following morning to Atitlan. I had various party invites as I’d seemed to integrate with the locals and expats quite quickly, but I needed to leave to keep my sanity in check from the late nights as well as my liver, that and I was short on time so I need to do some tourism.
The bus trip 2.5 hours to Lake Atitlan, the lake is famous for its three volcanos and stunning views. Again unfortunately there was smoke once again obscuring the views making it difficult to see the volcanos; however you could still see the beauty of the place.
An American couple and I arranged transfer from our drop off point at Panajachel where the bus stopped, we then transferred to a water taxi that took us to Santa Cruz and our hostel.
The boat ride took about an hour and was quite pleasant.
And the hostel is quite GOOD
The hostel was one of the most amazing I have ever been too. Surrounded by forest at the base of a mountain with the town of Santa Cruz a steep 2 km walk ascending up the volcano (thankfully this one was inactive). I checked in, met some more travellers at the hostel organised communal dinner which happens every night. It also happened to be a public holiday for the locals in the town which I was informed is a must do.
The Festival’s here
We hiked up to the village and came across a festival that would put St Patricks and Oktoberfest to shame. The festival was to celebrate a local god by drinking as much beer as humanly possible before passing out, as you can imagine a lot of the locals were in a mess.
This festival also included various bands playing to outrageously oversized speakers blaring at strange music. The local men were dancing around in a comatose state, either punching each other or hugging and/or collapsing. The local women don’t drink during this festival and are not allowed to participate in the dancing so the families were waiting patiently for their family patriarch to fall over before he could be dragged away by the Mum and children.
Unfortunately, we had missed the street parade, though were informed that this involved people lighting themselves on fire with high-octane pyrotechnics. Please note this is not normal behaviour in the town of Santa Cruz, many men only drink once a year at this festival, and the locals generally were no taller than 150 cm so getting drunk and falling over did not necessarily involve much beer.
Weaving with your friend Dave
The following day I decided to go to a local Mayan house and learn how to weave, thought I’d try and do something traditional. The task was quite repetitive involving using three different colour threads hooking them around a loon; I did this without a problem. The next part of hemming and tightening the belt, however, proved a little too difficult.
After a couple of hours, my belt was complete thanks to the Mayan woman teaching me as she had taken over the weaving as I had given up. Happy with my belt headed back down the volcano for another communal dinner at the hostel, it was not as busy as the night previous as a few people has come for the festival. I had another lovely dinner and ended up chatting with a few guests and the hostel staff, I then headed to bed.
The next day decided to do the hike to San Marcos, another village apparently 3 hours away. This involved some quite large ascents and descents mainly along the foreshore of the lake, again unfortunately because of smoke the view was obscured, but I managed to make San Marcos in 2 hours.
Despite some heavy nights boozing, I was getting plenty of sleep and doing a lot of walking and hiking so overall my fitness level was quite reasonable. All the healthy fruit and vegetables I’d been eating probably helped as well, I’d been eating very healthily since arriving in Central America, most meals consisting of fruit and vegetables.
I then took a local water taxi back to my hostel after completing my hike; San Marcos looked like a smaller version of Santa Cruz, basically another village up a volcano. That night the hostel cooked us a great barbeque, the hostel owner and one of his staff pulled out a guitar and bongos and we ended up singing for the next few hours, it was an excellent night and one of the best and most authentic experiences I’d had since Id started backpacking.
As with Antigua, I wish I could have stayed longer.
The next morning I was off to Tikal, famous for its pyramids and at the time it was rumoured that this was the focal point for the end of the earth later in the year, Mayans love doomsday predictions.
I took the bus back to Guatemala City to board my local flight, a two engine and propeller driven plane. This made me a little anxious as I don’t particularly like flying but the flight took around and hour and I arrived safely. I had a cab booked at the airport and after another 1.5 hours I made it to the Mayan national park and ruins at Tikal.
I arrived at my hotel late at night so nothing much to see, I had some fruit salad and went to sleep. I had decided to stay at the hotel on the site within in the park instead of the local town which is why the cab took so long to get there.
They’re like Banshees
Next morning got up at 4 am whilst it was til pitch black, reason being I wanted to be in the forest alone to get the full effect, someone had recommended this as a truly wonderous (and frightening) way to experience the park. I headed to the entrance to the park, paid the customary bribe to the security forces there and entered early (around 30 dollars AUS). All I had with me was my mobile phone torch so navigating whilst not impossible was a little difficult, there was a clearly defined path however which I could just make out.
The frightening part however, was not walking alone through a pitch black rainforest where human sacrifice was all the norm a few thousand years earlier, but the hundreds (or thousands) of Howler monkeys emitting their high pitch screams, a truly horrifying sound if you are not familiar with it.
The magical pyramids
I manned up however and dealt with this, I headed to one of the pyramids on the map, I then climbed one of the pyramids and sat at the top all alone waiting for the sun to come up. The view was somewhat obscured by the heavy fog (not smoke or volcanic gas) so I headed back to my room about an hour later, got some sleep and came back when the sun was out. I was feeling very Indiana Jones.
I had a few hours to walk around the park and check out the pyramids, there are lots of organised trails and native animals wondering around to which I am not familiar with. There were also lots of tourists that had come in from the local town which is the reason, I had come in earlier as I wanted to experience the loneliness of it. I climbed up a few of the pyramids to look at the canopy views and then headed back to the hotel as it was time to check out and head to Belize.
The Travel Bug
The Travel Bug is a collaboration project that goes through Dave’s travel journals around the world. This series started a while back and finished right here in Costa Rica. We’ll be back soon in the Belize!
He just completed another world trip and will be sharing his tall travel tales shortly.
PC likes getting the job done by day and writes, designs and codes during his spare time. He also enjoys having a drink with Dave and hearing his tall travel tales.
We hope to entertain you with these stories.