Antigua and the volcano

Trip Start Aug 23, 2006
Trip End Apr 15, 2007

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Monday, September 18, 2006

Hola amigos! And all the rest of you too. We've spent the last few days relaxing in beautiful Antigua, an historic colonial town with crumbling ruins, cobblestone streets, volcanoes and the most annoyingly hip backpacker scene anywhere. We wandered the streets, explored the ruins, drank too much, paid the price, recovered and climbed an active volcano.

The ride to Antigua was easy, a private minivan shuttle with our three good friends from Semuc Champey, Lorraine, Alan and Manuel. The route here took us through Guatemala City, the capitol of the country, its primary source of crime, corruption, money and poverty, and a festering open wound on the face of Guatemala. Having passed (quickly) through there, it's actually amazing that someplace like Antigua can coexist with it. Founded by the Spanish in 1544, it was the capitol until it was largely destroyed by an earthquake 233 years later in 1773. Ironically, that probably saved it, as the capitol was moved to GC and Antigua became a backwater town that was able to preserve its historic architecture through lack of development.

We've been staying at a great hostel here, The Black Cat. It's a fun place, with a fantastic breakfast included in the price. It is also the hippest place I've ever spent time, filled with the hippest 20 something backpackers I've ever seen. What amazes me most is that despite being from all over the world, they all look so much alike. Similar clothes, hair, attitudes...only their accents set them apart. Antigua is apparently their gathering spot, with The Black Cat as ground zero. If you can ignore them, (as they do you) you'll love it here.

As everyone who comes here does, we signed up to climb Volcan Pacaya, one of the many active volcanoes in the area, and the easiest to climb. Not that it's actually easy. More like an hour and a half aerobic workout, that ends with you scrambling up the base of the cinder cone, about 300', doing the 2 steps forward 1 step back routine as you slide back down a bit with each step. It was great fun though, who knew lava was so mesmerizing. Or so hot. From 15' away you're just baking. And the cooled lava that you're standing on is still hot enough to boil water. Just a few hundred yards away, the jungle is already claiming the volcanic soil.

Antigua is an obviously prosperous place, with cars and mopeds everywhere, upscale restaurants and jewelry stores, all contrasting vividly with the poverty and subsistence level living of those in the many small towns outside the urban areas. Much of it is in service to the foreign tourists who flock here, but not all. There are many wealthy Guatemalans around as well, cell phones, SUV's and designer clothes on display. It's all vaguely disturbing, particularly since the Mayans are so obviously the majority of the poor and uneducated. What isn't clear though is whether they're being kept from prospering, or if they're opting out of a society so different from the traditional way of life they continue to live.

We're off to Lake Atitlan tomorrow morning. It will undoubtedly be another harrowing public transport nightmare. I can't wait.

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