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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.