27th September: We awoke to the creeping smell of damp. Nothing dries here in the mountains at this time of year as it’s rainy season and everything is perpetually soaked either from the torrential rains or permanent mist. We had so many wet clothes from the day before including the ones from the walk back from dinner when we got drenched in the downpour. The hotel towels hadn’t dried in two days and smelt mouldy. The frog was back obviously feeling well at home in the moist environment of our room.
We scoffed down our 25 quetzals breakfast at Shalom, tried to buy sandwiches from the English Tolkien reading baker but he was still closed at 8am (he manages to get all his books delivered from Amazon right out here in the mountains of Guatemala!), packed up our bags and with the wet clothes wrapped in plastic bags to fester on the long bus ride; waited outside Rabin Itzam for our 8am pick up to drive to Antigua in the south, one hour outside Guatemala city. We had booked tickets with El Retiro for one of their collectivos rather than have to travel 2 hours to Coban to connect with one of the national buses.
11 of us squashed in and mentally and physically tried to prepare for another gruelling uncomfortable bus journey. At least this one had a toilet stop and later on a lunch stop at a canteen style place about 4 hours in to the journey. I managed to convince Thomas our driver to take the huge spare tyre out from under the back seat and strap it to the roof rack to give us all some extra room. 7 hours later we hit the urban sprawl of Guatemala city in the pouring rain, choking pollution and traffic jams. We prayed we wouldn’t be making a stop here as we crawled by mile after mile of miserable slums of corrugated tin piled haphazardly on top of each other clinging to the sides of desolate deforested mountain smothered in traffic fumes. It looked irredeemably miserable. Guatemala city is notoriously dangerous with very high crime statistics and the mugging and even kidnapping of tourists widely reported. We had no intention of visiting.
Just less than an hour later and we pulled in to the more salubrious and beautiful city of Antigua, population around 45,000 and the former colonial capital of Guatemala; the capital was transferred to Guatemala city after Antigua was flattened by an earthquake in 1773. Antigua is now a beautifully restored cobble stoned city and a UNESCO world heritage site. Old colonial buildings rub shoulders with low level shops and houses painted in soft Mediterranean colours. The city nestles between 3 volcanoes; Volcan Agua, Acatenango and Fuego. The streets are clean, rubbish is collected, the stray dog population under control and the power lines either hidden or less straggled chokingly around the city. It’s a welcome relief after days on buses and in damp rooms; our suitcase now also wet through from the journey down strapped to the roof under a totally inadequate piece of blue tarpaulin. Our group split up to find different budget levels of accommodation, Amit and Michal check in to Casa Santa Lucia No 1with us, we are all too tired and irritable to find anything slightly more upmarket which is actually vacant. Weekends are very busy in Antigua even in the slow rainy season. Hadley, Christopher and Julia check in to hostels, Hadley’s in the Yellow House sharing a dorm room with 6 other beds but his place actually looks really good and becomes the regular meeting place for all of us.
We all went out for evening dinner but the food was pretty uneventful apart from a hilarious mushroom and cheese fondue which we dipped in to with forks, cheese stretching out like elastic strings across the full length of the table.
28th September: Church bells woke us around 6am. We were absolutely knackered. The bed was comfortable it had 2 mattresses on it but the pillows were wafer thin, the room smelt musty and damp and the shower ranged from scalding hot to freezing cold within a millimetre turn of the rusty broken tap. Check out was a miserably early 10am but we scrambled our wet bags together and moved to the more upmarket and much more expensive Casa Florenica at £25 a night just around the corner. Comfy beds, squashy white pillows, cable TV and an immaculate bathroom, sod it, we are splashing out again. Budget accommodation can be endured a couple of nights in a row but at our age we aren’t up for many more than that! Travelling with the Lonely Planet guide to Central America ‘on a shoestring’ means last minute decisions on late arrivals in towns invariably mean a low budget musty room with questionable hygiene; unless we wanted to spend hours dragging our bags around the streets in the dark to find a mid-range alternative.
We dumped our laundry in at the local lavederia £4 for 4 kilos, and spent our first full day in Antigua exploring the streets, meeting up with Hadley at the Bagel Barn where we could eat well and connect to wi-fi for the first time in a week, wandering around the local market and taking photos in the colourful chicken bus station.
Life on the streets of Antigua. Local women dress in colourful woven fabrics but many of them are extremely poor; this lady was begging on the streets so I gave her some money in exchange for a photograph of her traditional dress.
We found an amazing local crafts centre selling this Jesus chair!
Wouldn’t mind squeezing one of these in my suitcase but not sure what I would do with a life size replica of a local when I get home.
Chicken buses on the main street.
A street vendor selling necklaces. I had to pay for this photo too but it seems fair enough.
Local kids playing in a doorway, she was putting makeup on the younger girl.
I took a photo of them with their camera in exchange for a photo on mine. They didn’t smile because they were both wearing braces!
Local crafts shop….anyone for a pair of stripey Guatemalan trousers or a hippy bag? No? I thought not. You would be amazed how many tourists are walking around wearing this stuff though. I am thinking of giving them violation tickets for crimes against fashion.