Apollo 21

*This is part 1 of 2 of Guatemala.  Part 2 is in a different post above.*

Bump.  Surrounded by roofs of a thousand colors, ramshackle homes meet the grey fog hanging low over the city.  Bump.  Green and black volcanoes loom, watching, over the valley, like a cat in vacant wanderlust on a river’s edge.  Bump.  As American Airlines 983 from Miami descended into La Aurora International Airport, the plane bounced on small holes on the third world runway.  Welcome to Guatemala.

Upon landing and clearing customs, my dad and I relished in the smell that is third world Latin America.  Just like you associate some places, like home, with a certain smell, poor countries in Latin America all share a similar one – one of diesel and the gentle hint of distant fruits.  Having travelled extensively in Central and especially South America, Guatemala is no exception.  It’s not the most pleasant smell, but you know that adventures await whenever you come across it.  In that sense, it was invigorating.

Our home base was the colonial city of Antigua (pronounced an-ti-gwa, not like the island pair with Barbuda), the Spanish’s capital for Central America.  Antigua is what Guatemala City isn’t – it’s exceptionally colorful, it abounds with native Guatemalans and Europeans alike, and it has an Old World charm reminiscent of Charleston or Savannah.  Women covered in traditional fabrics carry baskets of bottled water on their heads as children wander near their feat.  On street corners, elderly people offer their wares to people navigating the cobblestone streets.  The city is full of magnificently designed and fairly well preserved churches, given the tectonic rumblings of the past.  La Catedral, the largest cathedral in Antigua, glares alabaster in the mountain sun, facing the west side of the busy central park.  Inside, people pray, and outside, tourists (however few) stare in wonder at the remains of the giant monolith.

The next day, my father and I climbed Volcán Pacaya, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  About an hour away from Antigua, the mighty peak stares down into the bowl that is Guatemala City.  Given it’s proximity to the main population center, Pacaya occasionally disrupts life in the capital.  In fact, in May, the airport was closed after an eruption killed many and spewed ash and lava down its fiery crag.

If I had ever been to the moon, I would say Pacaya was mighty close to resembling it.  Having just erupted a few months prior, we literally climbed and hoisted ourselves over pumice-like rock, feeling the soles of our shoes warm as we neared the summit.  Nearly as far up as you can (legally) travel, we saw it – lava flowing through an underground chasm, mere feet away.  A blast of heat, as if opening an oven, blew from from the inside of the rocks, from the bowels of the earth itself.  At another spot, fire emanated right below the surface.  We stuck our walking sticks in the porous ground only to see them engulfed in flames moments later.

Guatemala is an extraordinary little country.  Known in the recent past for extreme violence, the country has been welcoming off-the-beaten path travelers for years.  In fact, one of the best travel tips I ever received was: if you show up with a smile, are friendly, are not overtly touristy, and make an effort to say “thank you” in the local language, you are welcome literally everywhere in the world – in Afghanistan, in Iran, Yemen, and the Sudan.  Be a traveller, not a tourist.

Anyway, pictures…

Arriving in Antigua, the colonial capital of the Spanish's reach into Central America. When Madrid was the crown, Antigua was the scepter.

Colorful alleys like this abounded across Antigua, all without street signs...

You know I love signs

La Merced, one of the many churches around the town

Lots of color

El Arco, the defining testament to the Madrid's reach into Guatemala that survives to this day

Many buildings, surviving the earthquakes that plague the country, show their original foundation

El Arco again

Traditional clothing worn by Guatemala women. Interestingly, unlike other places where (some) tourists go, like Phuket in Thailand, locals actually live and come to Antigua to visit, just like the bloodshot Germans arriving from Frankfurt and the ever-present Israelis from Tel Aviv.

All the streets were cobblestone, which made walking a little more arduous

Me in front of the main fountain in the city's central park

The great facade of La Catedral, the main cathedral in Antigua. On the back, we explored the giant ruins (built in the early 1700s) for 3 quetzales, or about 40 US cents

A busy street

An old government building (also from the 1700s). The green flag on the right is the state flag while the blue one on the left is Guatemalan national flag.

Side view

Much like Israel, Guatemala is full of colorful fabrics

A great chicken-cheese dish made by a lady on sitting on the curb for 5 quetzales (around 40 US cents). The CDC recommends not drinking the water and making sure all food you eat is peeled, boiled, and/or thoroughly cooked. Oops. While you can minimize some things, like brushing your teeth with bottled water (like I did in Egypt), you cannot not eat food made by locals. I ate fresh vegetables, juice, and mysterious meats from Quechua-speaking natives on dusty streets.

Exploring the ruins of San Jeronimo's school, built in the early 1700s, near Antigua.

She wanted a picture with me...

A volcano in the distance (Guatemala has 38 active volcanoes, with most of them on the Pacific side, where we were)

The aptly named Volcán Fuego

Climbing the ruins. 450 horses were kept here?!

I love signs, especially in ancient ruins in rural Guatemala

Ladies exercising in the ruins. Not sure this would be allowed in America...

Trying to find the local produce market, an area which we knew would be completely devoid of Westerners. We were right.

She made me a spicy chicken salad pita thing for a few cents. That is one thing about the Guatemalans - they are incredibly friendly people.

Leaving the ruins of San Jeronimo's school and the local produce market, we head to La Catedral before we ascend Volcán Pacaya in a few hours

People actually legitimately still get around by horses

Inside the colossal ruins of the La Catedral that collapses in the early 1700s

More cathedral ruins. They were felled by a massive earthquake in the 1730s.

Making our way back to the hotel where we would start our adventure climbing Volcán Pacaya. Antigua is exceptionally colorful, abounding in the profusion of colonial and traditional life.


Outside our hotel, my dad bought a kilo of sugary pecans for a dollar. Probably way too expensive.

Reaching the base camp of Pacaya. Because the volcano erupted in May, killed quite a few people, and closed the country down to aviation due to lava and ash reaching the Guatemala City international airport, it is now required to have a guide.

The 5k-each-way path was like dragging your feet through a desert uphill

The caldera lagoon, a deep lake that used to be an active volcano

Children on horses tried to rent their animals to us and sell us sticks and marshmallows. We fashioned our own sticks from wood found on the trail.


...and more climbing

Almost there...already coming across recently scorched earth

Ah, the smoking beast itself - Pacaya, one of the most active volcanoes in the world

Close-up of the crater

Danger = exciting (most of the time)

Me in front of Pacaya

My dad and I, wielding our walking sticks (soon to be thrown in lava), in front of the volcano

This is probably the closest I will ever get to experiencing a lunar-like landscape

The sun came out and lit our path along the pumice rock. We climbed through this - there was no trail

The camera can't capture it, but there was intense heat coming out of this crag and warping the air, like looking over the surface of a hot shopping mall parking lot. Inside, lava flowed fairly close to the surface.

Blurry, but my camera can't really capture fast-moving magma in a dark abyss very well. It was really hot standing near it. You could feel the soles of your shoes getting warmer as we approached this hot spot.

Another crag, but this time, we went inside. It was an intensely hot sauna!

Throwing our walking sticks into a lava spout near the surface

Little dogs lived on the volcano. Where do they get water?

Descending another 5 km; soon, we would be hiking downhill in absolute darkness, save the radiant moon. Good thing we brought flashlights!

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