Into Guatemala

Antigua: Existing like an utterly delightful bubble in the west of Guatemala, Antigua charms like no other Latin American colonial city – and we’ve seen a few. The lovely settlement, founded in 1543, is nestled in a valley overlooked by three magnificent volcanoes, my favourite of which is Volcan Fuego (Fire), which, at intervals of 5-10 minutes, puffs a plume of white smoke into the cloudless blue sky. Who can resist a perfectly formed cone-shape volcano that’s swallowed a dragon?

The cathedral has been rebuilt after multiple earthquakes
El Fuego puffs away. Our guidebook lists it as inactive, but the past few months have seen it wake up

We arrive here from Nicaragua by way of Honduras and El Salvador, crossing three borders and four countries in one day. At 3.30am, we wait at the gasoline station on the highway outside León – favourite site of rave parties, although there is nothing going on while we wait – and an hour later, our international King Quality bus arrives. It’s a long journey that we’ve both been dreading, so we’re ecstatically happy to discover the bus is clean, comfortable and our reserved seats are empty for us. It’s always good to have rock-bottom expectations.

Honduras in the shadow of our bus
A poor home in El Salvador

The journey passes more pleasantly than either of us could have imagined: food is provided regularly, there are pillows and blankets and a movie is playing that doesn’t involve martial arts or guns and even has a happy ending. Bliss.

View down over La Antigua from a hill guarded by tourist police. Volcan Agua is ahead
A Mayan fruit seller outside our hostel

As the sun rises, the dry plains of Nicaragua slide by and we reach the Honduras frontier. Our smiling bus boy gathers our passports, gets us stamped out of Nicaragua and into Honduras, while we lie back like the pampered tourist I’ve always wanted to be. No queuing for hours at immigration, no haggling down the border bribes with greedy officials, no fighting off touts and money changers. We can’t believe it.

An avocado seller. Antiguans are known as 'green bellies' for the number they eat
Shrine outside a house in Antigua

In Honduras, cows fill the highway and while we’re stopped, three scruffy scrotes try to sell our driver a couple of large iguanas. We see a lot more guns, military and poverty. The road is lined with an enormous amount of litter, the hills are denuded, dusty and hold little but anaemic grasses and scrub.

Three busy Mayan women. Most of Guatemala's indigenous population earn less than $120 a month.
Head carriers

At the border with El Salvador, the same smooth process is repeated. By the time the border police come aboard to check our bags, we are like well stroked, fell fed cats. We greet him with gracious smiles, we are magnanimous in our patience and cooperation; there is none of the usual frazzled nerves, frustration and irritation of being manipulated by an unsmiling jobsworth with a gun and way too much power over our destiny.

The breast-spurting fountain in Antigua's main square
The shouty bus boys have been silenced by Antigua's administration

El Salvador has more guns still, and they are bigger and more modern. And we learn something new: skunks smell of marijuana. Skunk actually smells of skunks! The carts are pulled by Asian cows and the trash-line road continues, but we see fruit orchards for the first time since southern Nicaragua.

Old stone troughs for citizens to do their laundry. Even the public toilets in this city are clean, attractive structures

In San Benito, an affluent quarter of San Salvador, we change bus – another smooth operation that avoids nasty bus terminals. We wait at the clean, quiet and secure King Quality offices – Nick goes out to find us some food, while I use the free WiFi to arrange our pickup from Guatemala City. And then, precisely on time, our next bus takes us further north to Ciudad Guatemala. From there, as arranged, we are swept like movie stars into our waiting vehicle (a clapped-out van) and driven up and down the mountains to Antigua.

Mayan women. More than 20 Mayan languages persist here.
Indigenous women have been hit particularly hard by more than 3 decades of civil war (that ended in 96) and continuing inequality whereby more than half live below the poverty line.ees

Antigua is another world, with its own administration and laws, which include burying all the power cables under the streets, a ban on vehicle horn blasting and other disruptions to the peace. As befits Central America’s former capital, the city is full of grand churches and palaces, generous archways and wide streets. It is clean and beautiful. Every building has some lovely detail, a pretty courtyard full of blossom, a carefully carved door or some other delight.

Jesus chair
Me and my restaurant! Guatemala has the world's 5th highest rate of malnutrition.

There are garden restaurants and terrace bars and cafés, little boutiques and a large and busy local market with fruit and veggie sellers descending from the country villages around.

Military presence in the street.
Nick makes a friend in what must be the world's poshest McDs
Former church

People are friendly and smiling, everyone is busily occupied, working, reading or studying. Locals here are known as panza verde (green bellies) because they eat so many of the avocados growing abundantly here.

Nick snaps the old government building
Yellow house

In the evening, we eat our dinner on a roof terrace, watching the Fuego dragon belching red fireworks of rocks into the sky every 20-30 minutes.

Volcan Fuego erupts around every 20 mins
We've been offered a climbing tour 'to see the lava'.

There is a volcano near here at Pacaya, where you used to be able to visit huge rivers of red lava. But its big eruption last May, which covered Guatemala City in metres-deep ash and killed many local villagers, has quietened it. Since May, the lava is sunk deep and there are no lava rivers to see. We consider climbing Fuego, but it is getting more active and we’re scared (and lazy).

Many of the churches stand as ruins after earthquakes
A major quake in 1773 destroyed the city and the capital moved to its present location.
1 Street

We settle for gentle exploration around the cobblestone streets, stopping frequently for juices and coffee, eating from the many stalls and cafés, each as enticing as the next.

Some churches are magnificently unruined, like La Merced.
Ceiling mosaic in La Merced.

One thought

  1. Wow, nostalgia trip. Takes me back to 1991. Some of my fondest memories of Central America in this beautiful city. An oasis compared to Guatemala City. Are you going into the Peten? Wondering if Finca Ixobel is still there.

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