Guatemala – Antigua
I gave up telling people I was going to visit Guatemala and Belize and simply said Mexico to avoid further blank stares. Inevitably when they heard Mexico they assumed I was going to be slaughtered by a drug cartel so I ended up buggered no matter what I said which is usually the case in general for me. Saying Central America sounds no better but it did get me thinking, is Central America on the North American continent or the South? Turns out the three countries I visited are all on the North American side of life. I was about to write that it’s the last region for me to have visited but that would be a ludicrous claim to make for the fact I have not visited Antartica, Greenland, Russia, China, the ‘Stans’ and Central Africa, all of which are huge regions. This fact does answer why I hadn’t been to Central America until now and this is simply because the world is so damn big. Yet also the region really hadn’t taken my interest other than Belize, a tropical paradise I had seen on the tele around ten years ago. As per usual the tele has lied to me (spoiler alert – Belize ain’t that good) and, going into a tour with low expectations has thrown me out the other side completely in love with the area. With everyone going to the North or the South, Central America has largely kept a low profile and anyone that knows me will understand why I immediately took a liking to the place.
Touching down in Guatemala City on a bright, warm, sunny morning, I took an instant liking to the country when I strolled straight through the modern and empty airport with a stamp in my passport in less than fifteen minutes. Jumping into the back of a car we (I dared to bring the lady-friend travelling for the first time) headed through the city and onto our destination for the evening. Rut asked if it is anything like I’ve seen before and at first the question bugged me as I muttered something about every city being the same but as I watched a herd of goats wonder down the crowded pavement I began to dwell on the question some more. Still I can’t confidently answer it! Of course I’ve seen similar scenes before and obviously it isn’t exactly the same as somewhere else, it has it’s own character. Driving through the city I can tell you this. It is like a city in West Africa, only a little tidier, with better infrastructure and everything is in Spanish. Street vendors are everywhere, the sun beats down, the cars range from big and shiny to buckets of rust, and of course goats roam the streets. Call it a variation on a theme if you will. Rut was going through what I first experienced in Nairobi twelve years ago, the whole place was alive, crazy and nothing I had seen before. On one hand I’m a little jealous of her excitement about every little detail as I sit there with my senses numbed by years of travel but on the other hand her energy rejuvenated me and her enthusiasm gave me a kick that I have maybe been in need of for a while.
The next thing I knew I was waking up as the car shook violently along an old cobble street. We had arrived in Antigua, a small ex-colonial town that impressed from the start with it’s narrow old streets, quiet charm, sun drenched skies and a colossal volcano towering over it all. I have no interest in towns and cities but Antigua is a little town that demands attention without her even knowing it and as a result we were soon out of the hotel and wondering the streets. It immediately struck me that what I was feeling was how I should have felt about Peru all those years ago. Peru is a country that I famously dislike much to many peoples surprise, a country I feel is over-rated and over-catered for tourists. Arequipa was alright, and Cuzco had all the excitement of being the gateway to the Inca Trail but they lacked their original charm, not that I know what that was in the first place. I visited other towns but they were forgettable. Antigua on the other hand is completely understated and although visited by tourists, it isn’t crowded and nor do the local population care too much. What I mean by that is you can walk around freely without people trying to sell you tat and restaurants are not adorned with TripAdvisor stickers. Being the old colonial capital city it has some beautiful colonial buildings, most of which are slowly crumbling away. Ruined churches can be found down every street and like the Great Eye, the volcano constantly steals your attention from behind the haze.
Food for me is a lot like travel. I can’t provide much detail but I bloody love it. Little did we know but our first feed in Central America would be one of our best. A restaurant full of locals was chosen, fully open at the front and with a beautiful open courtyard at the back which was home to the kitchen. Within minutes we were sipping away at the cold local beer and not so long after that our lunch had arrived. Some local soup dish thing for Rut and stuffed peppers for me. I have no idea what they were stuffed with, they didn’t hugely resemble stuffed peppers but they were delicious nonetheless. The stand out was the guacamole! We all love guacamole (don’t pretend otherwise) yet it’s become something of a symbol for the Anti-Snowflake Society (ASS) with climate change being blamed on millennials desire for smashed avocado on toast in the UK. Whatever your thoughts, I took great joy in eating as much guacamole as I could handle over the twelve day tour under the assumption that it is grown reasonably locally and boy was it fresh and yummy! All in all, an afternoon really wasn’t enough, the volcanoes surrounding the town needed climbing, lazy time was needed in hammocks and many cafes and restaurants needed to be dined at. I was sad not to have arrived a few days earlier.
After meeting the rest of the group the night before we were up at 3.45am and on the road heading to Rio Dulce, five hours to the north-east. As per usual I had no idea what was waiting for us on our arrival. Turned out it was a collection of lodges spread throughout a mangrove, connected by boardwalks and located on the edge of a huge river which as luck would have it was called the Rio Dulce. Fantastically peaceful with an outdoor pool, cold beer and good food there was barely time to check in and eat lunch before we were on a boat charging across a huge pristine lake. Yes I said river a second ago but the town of Rio Dulce sits right on the edge of a huge lake which at this moment in time was perfectly flat with a strange purple/blue colour reflecting off it’s surface in the mid afternoon sun. It was all very tranquil as we ironically tore through it in our high speed boat. Our destination was a tiny village which boasted a waterfall. Yeah yeah another waterfall, but this one was different. The water was hot. Water that supplied this waterfall is heated by volcanic activity and a quirk in geology meant that it flowed over a small waterfall into a small cold river, all in a forested setting in a small ravine. We had to bounce around in the back of an open top truck to get there and it was a little busy with a few locals and tourists but it was my kind of adventure and a wonderful place to spend a bit of time. The water really was hot, like the perfect shower temperature for a woman yet makes a man feel like he is melting. There was then the sensation of moving from where the hot water fell into the river to the cold water of the river itself. It took just the right location where one could be not too hot but not too cold. Again this is what travelling is about. Not paying huge amounts to be hoarded with a crowd of tourists in places like Iceland’s Blue Lagoon. If I’m going to part with cash I want as much natural environment and as few people as possible. The forty-five minute boat ride back was a little bouncier but it was no bother as we all looked out towards the shore to see rolling hills covered in trees and small fields in the lower parts. As ever the setting sun made everything extra special. I had been in Guatemala for just over a day and I was already in love with the country, her people, and the guacamole.