Published: April 9th 2010March 15th 2010
the lent procession passes our hostel
How many months left? Or are we counting in weeks now? Uh-oh, time for some country skipping. On the chopping block were Honduras and El Salvador. Well, technically we passed through both on a 2 day bus ride, and stopped in San Salvador for the overnight break in the trip. Despite its reputation as a ridiculously dangerous capital - not to mention the machine gun guards every 2 metres - we found San Salvador almost pleasant, and enjoyed our conversations with the few Salvadorians we met (ie. a couple of taxi drivers and a waiter).
And then the next morning the bubble was broken. Trying to get money out of an ATM in Guatemala we found that we had 'insufficient funds'. Tried another bank. Same thing...Uh oh.. It turns out, somehow, somebody in San Salvador had managed to clean out Jen's account of 1000 big ones. We're hopeful that the bank will cover this but are STILL waiting to hear from them... And so this definitely put us in a very bad mood for a few days, but hey, this aint the place to dwell on that. In and Around Antigua
Upon arrival in the pretty colonial city of
wandering the streets
Antigua we realised that we had our usual good luck of arriving in town on the day of a big party or event. This, being one of the several Sundays during Lent, meant many of the streets were closed off, lined with mats of leaves and a massive procession of hundreds of youths all dressed in purple robes. From the rooftop of our hostel we had a great view as the procession grew to include massive wooden sculptures being carried along the street as marching bands providing the soundtrack. It was pretty funny noticing a few of the traditionally robed youths listening to their ipods as they marched!
We also had the fortune on that first day of noticing that there was a pub trivia night going down at the extremely gringofied Irish pub in the middle of town. Without Dawson nor any other passers by to drag into our team we were only 66% of the magic sausage team which went undefeated through South American pub trivia games. And sadly, we must have been missing some key ingredients as we only managed a middle of the road forth placing. But nevertheless it was still a very enjoyable night!
and this isn't even the Cathedral!
The next few days in Antigua were spent trying to sort out our financial situation and generally just wandering about town. All the buildings in central Antigua are very pleasant to the eyes, as are the cobblestone streets. It was about our third day in town before Jen finally clicked with 'you know what, I think I've been here before. Yep, I have, I remember drinking a coke on that street corner!' And so we saw (or re-saw) the sights of town, but soon enough we had had enough of this extremely touristy town. But we couldn't leave town until we had done the day trip that everyone in the hostel was raving about... Volcan Pacaya
Now Jen had also been to Volcan Pacaya 6 years earlier in 2004, however the first view of the volcano had Jen questioning her memory. But then as we began climbing through the forest, our guide explained how there was a massive eruption in 2005 which had changed the shape and dynamics of the volcano. As we went up the hill, several local entrepenuers were trying to rent the services of their horses - or 'taxi natural' as they called them -
with just one of the 3 nearby volcanos in the background
for the climb. The second you began panting, or stopped for a rest you were mobbed by a group of them shouting 'good price, good price'. One particularly unfit couple (not us!) were hounded the entire way, and eventually gave in as the steep climb took its toll.
Finally we made it to the wide expanse of the lava field, with a sea of black, crumbly rock in front of us. We began walking across it, careful not to fall and shred ourselves on the ridiculously sharp rock beneath. Then the wind began to pick up, and we were clearly getting closer to some vents of the volcano as the air became thick with smoke, choking us with the horrible smell of sulfur. It was about here that questions began to arise within our minds, like 'is this really a sensible thing to do?' But onward and upward, until all of a sudden it was getting quite hot, and what the hell is that orange glowing underneath us???!!!
Thats right folks, they let you wander freely up as close as you like to flowing lava on an active volcano. A quick scan of the faces of other people
they ain't joking with that sign!
on our group showed that we weren't the only ones extremely concerned by the situation we had just willingly walked ourselves into. Strong winds full of sulfur and smoke pushing you off balance as you try to step from one sharp crumbly ledge of rock to another, over holes of orange death below! One false step and you'd lose a leg, if not your life! And so we got out the marshmellows, put them on our sticks, and roasted them to perfection in the lava flowing beneath us. Quite tasty! But worth the danger of the situation? Perhaps not.
By now the sun had set and we were up on an active volcano with the wind and the lava and now it was dark. Well, at least it made the lava glow a brighter shade of orange, meaning that we could see it more clearly now underfoot. It was about now that I also realised that the heat of the lava and rocks had done some serious damage to my shoes. So slowly, step by step with shoes falling apart we made it back to the safety of the grass, all the while being distracted by amazing explosions of
lava beneath us, just a misplaced step away!
lava higher up the volcano in the distance. Amazed and extremely glad that we survived the adventure! Trekking in the Highlands
Heading out of Antigua we experienced our first ride in the Guatemalan version of 'chicken buses'. Here, we hypothesised that perhaps the chicken name comes not from people carrying chickens on board as usually thought, but instead by a little game our driver seemed to be playing with every oncoming vehicle as he pulled out into the other side of the road to overtake. Seriously, this guy seemed to enjoy spending more time on the left side of the road than the right! But thankfully we made it to the halfway stop of Santa Cruz del Quiché where we enjoyed some good cheap meals, people watching in the main plaza and a good nights sleep. Then back out onto another chicken bus (much the same story) to Nebaj.
In Nebaj we strapped our walking boots back on for a 2 day hike we organised with Guías Ixiles (www.nebaj.com) - a co-operative of highland guides. For about 40 bucks each they organised a great deal for all involved. We got a great, cheap tour; a local guide got
Jen enjoying some toasted marshmellows, with just a hint of Sulphur!
some work; and several very poor villagers who put us up for the night and feed us some basic meals got a bit of cash for their very kind hospitality. The walking itself was also great, though at times very challenging. Heading out of town we were soon heading in an upward direction into some beautiful cloud forests, where the view was well, cloudy. But after a while we came to a clearing and our guide Jacinto pointed out across the valley the route we would be taking over the next day and a half. Down, then up, then down, then up and up some more, and down and up, up up up up!
And even that first downhill section proved to be difficult. Our knees and hips were jarring, and all of a sudden we didn't really have a track to follow anymore. Despite having a guide we had all managed to get a bit lost. So it was bush bashing down even steeper sections trying to find the trail that we lost, trying to avoid fences of barbed wire as we went slipping and sliding on the leaf litter all the way down. With that, we came
sure the lava was moving slowly, but should we really be allowed to get this close???
to the bottom of the valley, walked along the river and refound our intended route. Then the up began!
About halfway up the massive climb we stopped for lunch in a one-street village. As the father of the household came out to greet us we noticed all the kids run and hide. Slowly but surely one brave kid after the other would poke their head through the doorway or window to see who these bizarre and scary white-skinned guests were. We smiled and waved, but this was usually enough to send the kids into spin and off they would run in a mixture of laughter and fear. As we rested after lunch the kids began to reappear and before long realised that we weren't so scary, and if anything we were just plain boring as we attempted to recuperate for the next uphill climb. So saying our thankyous and goodbyes, it was off uphill once again. One step after the other in the afternoon heat we continued, enjoying amazing views over pine filled valleys down to a gorgeous river. Along the way we asked Jacinto if the kids are always so bewildered when gringos came hiking through, and he
Jeff shows of his melted shoes
revealed that we were actually taking a different route to most hikers in the past. So for some of the kids we were possibly the first foreigners they had ever seen - and what a hot and sweaty first impression we must have made! Occassionally Jacinto would also stop and chat at certain households. It turns out that Jacinto was killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Up until 1996 the area we were walking in was ravaged by the Guatemalan civil war. Jacinto now holds a role with a human rights group assisting some of the victims and also helping investigations into attrocities carried out by both sides during the conflict. Of course we were more than happy to oblige to the occassional rest break whilst Jacinto stopped here and there for a quick chat with people. Jacinto was also kind enough to share with us his own personal experience of the war, in which he lived and fought in one of the remote villages from the early 70s all the way through to the mid 90s. Really full on stuff!
At night we stopped in another small town. As Jen and I took a small
Santa Cruz del Quiché
The punchline - 'I believe it's pronounced 'quiche...''
Well here its more like 'ki-che'
sunset stroll through town one-by-one kids began to come out of their houses to look at us. Again, scared and wary at first, but as we turned to walk back to our house for the night, we realised we had a following of about 15 little ones, all walking at a safe distance behind us. A few followed us back to our house where we all sat on the grass and sang songs. 'We all know frogs go la-di-da-di-da' proved quite a hit, with the kids requesting it time and time again. Now as these kids only spoke Ixil, and not Spanish, we were unable to tell them - after the 24th rendition - that it was time to stop. So on and on it went!
That night we slept on some wooden planks with pillows made of our kind family's spare clothes. Being up high in the mountains it got quite cold in the night. Luckily we had each other to keep warm, unlike poor Jacinto who told us in the morning how cold it was being 'soltero' on such nights in the highlands.
A pre-6am rise the next morning, walking for a couple of hours, then
breakfast in a household in another town, thankyous and goodbyes again, and then back to the walking. By the middle of the day we were undertaking our final long section of descent, ahead of which lay one of the hardest climbs of the walk, and the finish line. In one of those moments of fate, Jacinto asked us 'do you want to take this 30m steep shortcut, or walk 100m along the normal way?' We opted for the former and as I reached the end of this shortcut, forgetting that Jen was still a bit of a way behind me, I began thinking, 'shortcut, yeah! good choice!!'... And then I turned to the sound of Jen slipping and tumbling through the final steps of the shortcut. Jen sat herself up, clutching at her ankle.. It was bad news. Unable to stand on it, let alone walk, and on a mountainside miles from the nearest road we were in a pickle of a situation. Jacinto's pulling and prodding of the ankle didn't really help, and we got the impression that he thought Jen was being a bit soft by not carrying on. Eventually when it became clear that she wasn't able
to move he kindly offered to head back to the last village we had passed and check out our options for evacuation.
About half an hour later a couple of young kids emerged from the trail behind us, leading a 'horse'. Well it was a horse, but it wasn't a particularly old horse, nor was it particularly large. As it was market day, all of the village horses capable of carrying anything of size were off at the markets, and this poor creature was the only option left for us. And so we boosted Jen up over a cardboard saddle and the evacuation began. A ten year old girl leading Jen and her mighty stead, followed by the five year old sister (there with a stick to make sure the horse didn't stumble down from the steep narrow track), and Jacinto and myself. The rest of the downhill climb was fine, though the horse did stop for a particularly long drink at the river. Then the evacuation party continued on into the final, massive uphill assault. After about 15 minutes (and just about equal intervals thereafter) we all needed a long rest. Well actually no, I needed a long
the advertising brochure!
it worth reading the finer details sometimes
rest, and more importantly the poor little horsette needed a rest too - Jen, Jacinto and the young girls had barely raised a sweat!. So pull Jen down from the horse, sit down for a bit, then put Jen back on the horse and we're off. After what seemed like an eternity to me, we finally made it to the top of the hill and to the road. We paid for the horse and thanked the girls (though they didn't speak Spanish, our present of a pack of choccy biscuits seemed to translate well enough) and waited for the next van to pass through.
Back in Nebaj we thanked Jacinto for sharing all his stories and organising the evacuation and wished him all the best for his human rights work. As Jen hobbled back to our hotel, the medical suggestions began to flow. First an old woman told us to put it in hot water and vinegar, and then somebody suggested a massage and then our friendly hotel owner gave us some strange ointment for it. The next morning we took Jen's newly acquired tennis ball to the doctor where he thankfully confirmed that no bones were broken, but
for 'el ligamento' the news wasn't so good - a partial tear. Complete rest for seventy-two hours, some cream, some pills and a jab in the bum should fix the swelling and get you on your way. Thanks doc!
And so, after the prescribed 72 hours Jen limped to the bus terminal, whilst I struggled on carrying all our bags. Sore, but by no means broken, we were heading out of the lowlands to see some one of the great wonders of the Mayan world.
There are more photos below