20th December 2021 – 3rd January 2022
Even after driving between the Rio and the lake, we weren’t prepared for some of the ‘highways’ we encountered on the journey between Lake Atitlan and Antigua. In the hills, we were sandwiched on blind bends between a sheer drop on one side and mounds of sand from people quarrying the hillsides (from the driving lane) on the other. The main route also went through a river- luckily, we had hired a 4×4 and there hadn’t been much rainfall, but it was still a bit nerve-wracking. The boys were especially keen watching the ‘Chicken Buses’ we saw en route- beautifully decorated buses used by locals and travellers to get around Guatemala cheaply, where the driver slows and stops for a bare minimum of time at each place whilst a man clambers around the top of the moving bus to exchange the luggage of the disembarking and embarking passengers. As the bus builds speed, the man on the roof rearranges the luggage (including chickens in crates, unless they are riding inside), then climbs in through the rear door until the next stop. Fun to watch, but like many aspects of road use in the Caribbean and Central America, crazy by European standards.
Antigua was the third capital of Guatemala, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nestled in beautiful countryside and surrounded by volcanic mountains and hills, including Volcan Agua, which dominates the skyline to the south. The architecture is colourful and interesting, and given its Spanish colonial history, it isn’t a surprise that it reminded us of the European towns and cities we’ve visited in the past. I especially liked the layers of paint that you could see on the buildings, like a history in itself.
The house we rented for two weeks was a great base for exploring the city, situated a few blocks towards the south of the main square within a quiet, gated residential area. The communal grounds were pretty and well-maintained, with parking, a trampoline for the kids, and two pools, including a shallow one for children. As the water wasn’t heated, we spent less time swimming than we otherwise would have (even the boys found it a bit bracing to be tempted for long), but it was good to have some outdoor space and the option to swim. The house was wonderful, well-maintained and carefully decorated, with touches of traditional Guatemalan arts and crafts alongside the simple colonial style. The owner, based in the US, resolved the problem with the fridge (which stopped working shortly after we had loaded it with a full shop), within a day, and was very understanding when a chimney sweep and decorator were need after we tried to use the fireplace, only for the house to fill with smoke due to a blocked chimney!
Antigua is a popular tourist destination, especially so at Christmas, and perhaps we didn’t fully consider this when we chose to spend two weeks there as part of our road trip. At this time, most people were still being careful about COVID, but the narrow streets were very crowded and outdoors many people went maskless. Because of this, we probably explored less than we would have done within the city itself- we felt a bit uncomfortable being sandwiched between so many people without masks, especially given that a large proportion had recently travelled by plane from countries all over the world. It’s difficult now things have relaxed to conjure up this sense of caution, and I’m sure this reads like we were super paranoid!
Anyway, one way we found to explore more happily was to go out in the mornings when the streets were quiet and the main square virtually empty, save for a few people selling trinkets and jewellery. The square was decorated beautifully for Christmas, and again it was nice to be somewhere cooler at this time of year that also had a ‘Christmassy’ atmosphere. The boys loved chasing the numerous pigeons around the square, and were delighted when we bought some seed for them, although they were so overfed that after a couple of pecks, most of lost interest. Apart from the square, there are many examples of wonderful architecture around Antigua. We particularly enjoyed visiting the ruins of some of the older buildings- Antigua has a history of earthquakes- especially as it’s been a long time since we did any city/museum/history-like sight-seeing. And being a builder’s daughter, I found the restoration work really interesting.
To the north of the city, there is a walk up to a local viewpoint. It’s a big tourist attraction, so a bit crowded at times, but the view over the city towards the south and Volcan Agua is spectacular. The first time we visited we all walked from the house, but kids soon get bored of walking designated routes, especially as much of this was along streets and roads. The second time, I found a map that showed there were walking routes from the viewpoint, so we took a (very expensive) tuk-tuk to base of the park to cut out the time in the town. After a while, it was clear that the routes were either too overgrown to use or no longer accessible, and a young solo traveller told us park security had advised him against taking any of the more remote paths, so we decided to play around in the trees and walk back. Good to get out and stretch our legs, but at these times we regretted not being out at Lake Atitlan.
We drove the short journey to Finca el Pilar, a local park where you can pay to walk, use the BBQs and picnic areas, and some (very cold) swimming pools. The first time, we did the walk from the lower car park up about 1/3 way to the top of the mountain, then descended through the forest using a pretty steep array of steps and boardwalks. The second time, we drove to the higher car park and walked towards the top where was marked as ‘cloud forest’. Although we didn’t make the peak, the views were amazing. We also felt a strange vibration and heard a rumbling- looking in the distance, there was smoke and ash coming from the top of Volcan Fuego- we had felt/heard a volcanic eruption! Later, from the house, we could see a small trickle of lava stand out against the dark skies.
Volcan Pacaya is a big attraction for tourists to Antigua, and is one of the more accessible volcano tours for kids. You have the option to hire a horse for the walk, which although isn’t far can be made more difficult by the altitude. We were hoping the kids would walk, especially after being in the car for a while, but the lure of riding a horse was too much. We hired two horses and their handlers, and the boys spent most of the ascent taking turns riding and walking. For Hector, this was probably sensible, as carrying him along with our backpacks would have been a bit much. The track is mostly loose volcanic ash, so good boots were a must, and some sections were quite steep. Worth noting that there is a small shop at one point, where local crafts made from volcanic lava can be bought. Also, the man running it was very willing to have a pine battle with the boys, which surprisingly he initiated!
The day we took the tour was exceptionally misty. Most photographs from other visitors show spectacular views of the surrounding area from viewpoints along the route and the peak, but we could see very little at all. Which was a bit disappointing, until we reached closer to the peak. There is a point where you must leave the horses as the ground is jagged and uneven lava rock. Now the mist really added to the surreal atmosphere of the area. We timed the trip right, missing the morning and evening tours (we saw the evening tours ascending on our descent, it was a stream of people), so the area around the peak was incredibly quiet. Eerily quiet. If I stopped to take a photograph, I soon lost sight of the others in front, and the safe path through the lava field was only marked with chalk lines on the rocks. In places, the guide pointed out places where volcanic heat seeped to the surface and where the rock was different colours due to its mineral content. With the lack of sounds, voices and ‘normal’ sites, it really felt like another world. Finally, we reached an area where you can explore the landscape. The guide produced marshmallows and skewers, showing us where we could toast them using the volcanic heat, and we even bought a pricey, but delicious, pizza cooked by the volcano. Again, I was glad there was only our group at the top, it would have felt crowded with more people, especially as the mist meant we could roam too far. The walk back down Pacaya was pretty quick, and we were soon back in the car. It makes an expensive trip and maybe feels a bit touristy, and I’m not sure we got the most out of our guide, but I’m glad we got to experience close-hand a real volcano- definitely one to remember.
Would we spend two weeks in Antigua again? Perhaps not. It was a beautiful place to visit, and had the boys been older and interested enough in the cultural/historic aspects for us to take some guided tours, we would probably want more time. Ideally, we would have booked accommodation at Finca el Pilar, or one of the other rural sites that surround Antigua, where we could travel into the city for tours and exploring but otherwise have nature and walks on the doorstep- the landscape is just stunning.