Our first stop was Quetzaltenango, a city in Guatemala`s highlands, with a back drop of volcanoes. This was our first experience of Guatemalan roads and it took a few hours to go a short distance due to the potholes and hills! Our first impressions of Guatemala were good-the people were very friendly and it was such a colourful place-particularly the locals in their wonderful woven traditional dress. As we climbed higher-the temperature cooled which was a welcome relief after the hot and humid climate on the Pacific coast of Mexico. We only spent one night in Quetzaltenango so didn`t fully get the chance to explore it, before heading to our next destination-Lake Atitlan.
One of the things we spotted as soon as we entered Guatemala, speeding along the roads and noisily beeping their horns, are the colourful chicken buses. When North American school buses reach the age of ten years or 150,000 miles, they are sold at auction. Many of these buses are bought and driven down through Mexico to Guatemala where they are prepared for their second lives. And wow, what a second life they have! In contrast to their modest first lives as yellow buses carting children to school, their second lives are spent stuffed with people, topped with roof racks full of cargo, and driving at high speeds over mountain passes. The old yellow paint is covered with colourful murals and praises to Jesus. One guide describes them as "dressed like a Vegas showgirl" which sums up these colourful buses perfectly! They are called chicken buses because they squash people into them like chickens and chickens are sometimes taken on to them! With the high-speed of the chicken bus and driving techniques of the driver such as overtaking around a blind corner on a narrow road on the top of a hill, a ride on them can be quite an adventure! They also regularly belch out thick black smoke-not pleasant when you are driving behind them! Ruby loved them-and has decided that she needs a paint job when she gets home so she too, can look like a Vegas showgirl!
The roads to Atitlan were better than the previous day-until we began the long winding descent downhill to Panajachel on the North East shore of Lake Atitlan. We could smell the burning of Ruby`s brakes as we inched our way down, trying not to career out of control! We headed around a steep corner and both shrieked as we saw a car and 2 motorcycles had stopped in the middle of the road. Gav was pressing the real brakes and I was pressing the imaginary brakes as we headed closer to the back of the motorcycles! We stopped with millimetres to spare and both heaved a huge sigh of relief, as Ruby juddered to a halt-as if to say-what`s the problem?!
We based ourselves at Panajachel for 5 days, on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Lake Atitlan is a body of water in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. Ringed by steep, verdant hills, it’s known for its Mayan villages and volcanoes with striking pointed cones. It was a beautiful place-particularly the 3 distinctive volcanoes around the lake-Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro. The busy town of Panajachel, where vendors sell traditional textiles, is a popular gateway to the lake. We really enjoyed our time here. We took a minibus to the nearby Sunday market at Chichicastenango, a charming, traditional and authentic traditional Mayan town, the market being one of the best known in Central America. It was probably our favourite market of the trip so far, locals travel from villages throughout the countryside and gather at this market to sell their beautiful handicrafts, colourful textiles, fresh produce, traditional clothing and more at this bustling and vibrant local market. The market was HUGE and it took over the entire central area of town. The small cobblestone streets had been transformed into narrow aisles and hundreds of vendors lined the streets on both sides, selling a variety of traditional Mayan handicrafts and textiles. The streets also featured colourfully painted colonial buildings. We stumbled upon the Saint Tomas church in the middle of the market-a beautiful white building with many people on the steps outside with incense and flowers-creating a colouful, noisy atmosphere. We were exhausted after half a day's shopping and returned to Panajachal with a few souvenirs!
Atitlan was a beautiful lake, with many small villages surrounding its shores. The best way to travel between them was by small boat. We visited the villages of San Pedro and San Marcos-both in stunning locations, with very touristy parts and then wonderful local parts if you walked out away from the dock. To be honest we found the tourist parts a bit pretentious, though it might just be our age! In San Marcos, there were loads of bare footed Westerners, and people strumming away on their guitars, singing about coffee and chocolate! Not our cup of tea!
We also took one of the wonderful, gaudy chicken buses to the town of Tonala for market day-and enjoyed the short ride up the mountain to a local market, with hardy any tourists. At the high elevation-it had a great view of the lake and one of the volcanoes.
On the day of departure from Atitlan, we set off at 7am from Panajachel, to make the long, steep, windy climb back up the hill. We wanted to avoid the traffic-particularly because various vehicles have a tendency to stop just when you have built up some momentum-and Ruby is a large, heavy lass! (I said Ruby is, not Jen!) We put Ruby into low gear and she slowly but surely chugged her way to the top! Our next destination was Antigua city in the central highlands of Guatemala, famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque -influenced architecture as well as a number of ruins of colonial churches. We spent a wonderful few days there. We stayed in a casa on the edge of town. It had a beautiful roof terrace with views of the 3 large volcanoes that dominate the skyline around Antigua-Volcan de Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. Fuego is famous for being almost constantly active at a low level. Steam and gas explode daily from its top, a larger eruption occurred in September 2012. As soon as we went onto the terrace-Fuego put on a show and belched a huge cloud of smoke! We also saw it at night-when you could see the red larva at the tip.
We spent a few days wandering the streets of Antigua-visiting its beautiful churches and ruins. We sat in the main square-Parque Central-and watched the people enjoying life. We also had a proper Sunday roast dinner here at a British pub we found-it was amazing and I had brussels sprouts for the first time in ages!
We went on a day trip to another active volcano-Pacaya. After being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. We hiked continuously uphill for about an hour and a half--coming out into a clearing where it was possible to see the summit of Pacaya (you are not allowed up to the summit due to the active status) and other lovely views. It was a long slog up, given we have not properly exercised for a while and have been partaking in far too many tacos! A number of guys on horseback follow you up the hill, making eye contact with you as you slowly make your way red faced, puffing and panting, and say "you want a taxi?"! It was funny at first but by the end, it felt like they were trying to psyche me out! Them-"madam-you need a taxi-last chance" me-"I am determined to walk this bloody hill if it kills me-no gracias"! As I staggered on! We loved the views from the top and seeing steam come out of the crater. We descended a little to a vast area where the floor is made of solidified lava. Here we toasted marshmallows in the rocks-the ground was that hot in parts! We descended very quickly (about 45 minutes) and headed back to Antigua.
I (Jen) had an important date in Guatemala City. A job interview via skype with England! I had been preparing for a few weeks, whenever I got the chance, in the most varied circumstances ever! I prepped through earthquakes in Mexico, with active volcanoes blowing outside the window in Guatemala and through the noise that is Mexico and Central America! We booked into a great business hotel in Guatemala City and paid for a small meeting room and extra good wifi. It was a strange experience being interviewed via skype and giving a presentation, however the good news is-I got the job! I will start when I return home at the end of May and am delighted to be going back to my previous place of work.
Feeling happy, we moved on for the longish drive to Coban, where we will spend a night before the short but tricky drive to Semuc Champey.