We eventually made it to Guatemala City albeit 90 minutes late, only to find we had missed our connecting shuttle to Antigua. It would be another two hours before the next shuttle. We could have used this time as an opportunity to explore the city. But after viewing it from the bus window on the way in coupled with the awful things we had heard and read, we decided our best option was to entertain ourselves in the Bus terminal. Guatemala City is a filthy, run down place filled with hustlers and chicken busses that spew black, toxic smoke. Joseph could hardly breathe and my eyes burnt from the pollution. We were relieved to finally be in our minivan and heading out of the city even though our driver was a crazy little Guatemalan lady who drove like a bat out of hell.
With a few hours to kill in Antigua before our final shuttle to San Pedro and the air pollution at a minimum, we took this opportunity to explore this city. Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala until it was practically levelled twice by earthquakes. There are a few massive volcanoes surrounding the city so it is definitely a place where you would feel a bit on edge if you lived there. The city is packed with old Spanish colonial architecture and the whole place looks like it has been preserved in a time capsule
. The streets are paved with cobblestones and the locals hang out in the town square to pass the time. After a few hours of wandering around, Joseph and I were done with Antigua.
We climbed aboard our final van to San Pedro only to discover it was full and we would be joining the driver in the front. I was lucky enough to have the middle seat which I am sure is made only for children or people with no legs. After two and a half hours being wedged between the driver and Joseph and my legs in some uncomfortable yoga position, we stopped for a mandatory "you buy souvenirs from the place and I get kickback" break. I swapped seats with Joseph so he too could experience the torture chair and advised him to go to his happy place to endure the pain. The road down to the shores of San Pedro is spectacular. There are three volcanoes on the lake and I am sure we drove down one. Looking past the fact that the roads have no barriers to stop our van plunging off the sheer cliffs, the view of the lake and surrounding towns was simply awesome.
By the time we were dropped off in San Pedro and the blood returned to Joseph's legs it was nightfall. This was the first time we decided not to book accommodation in advance. We both had read a book by Catherine Ryan called “Backpacked” and based on her experience, decided to seek out a place called Hotel San Francisco
. We were advised that the streets of San Pedro were easy to navigate but nothing could be further from the truth. As chief navigator, I managed to get us absolutely lost and wandering up streets that sloped upwards at a 60 degree angle. With the help of a friendly Canadian we soon arrived at Hotel San Fransico only to find no one there. We were hustled by a man who owned the dump next door and after viewing a room that rivalled Fritzle’s basement we decided not to stick around. Down the street we found a place called Villa Del Sol and for 70 Quetzales, about $9, we thought it was our best option for the night. From the time we checked out from Hotel Las Gardineas to the finally checking in to Hotel Villa Sol, forty hours had passed. FORTY!
Our accommodation was equipped with an electric shower. The water would pass through a device that was poorly wired in and heated the water as it hummed overhead. We both touched a metal screw in one of the light switches and after receiving a small electric shock we decided our morning would be best spent looking for a new place to stay. Over dinner the night before we decided to enrol in Spanish class and as we would be spending a week in San Pedro, it would be nice to stay somewhere a little more comfortable where electrocution was not on the cards. We were recommended a place called Hotel Mikaso so decided to check it out
. The moment we walked into the hotel, saw the view over the lake and the immaculate rooms we knew we had found our new home. The price was steep at 280 Quetzales, but for $34 a night we choose to spoil ourselves. Bad backpackers!
The next task for the day was to enrol in Spanish school. Based again on Catherin Ryan’s recommendation we chose a school called Cooperativa and after filling out some forms and paying $80 each for five three hour lessons we were on our way to become fluent Spanish speakers. I should point out that Joseph already speaks fluent Spanish. He wanted to polish his skills. I was looking to broaden my language ability to more than 'hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘beer’ and ‘ashtray please’. The school has an idyllic setting overlooking the lake and as the tuition is one on one, our classes take place under individual little thatched huts. The school also supports impoverished families in San Pedro with some of the proceeds, so you get a warm fuzzy feeling about learning too.
Day one of Spanish school and I was introduced to my teacher, Delia. She jumped straight into verb conjugations and I was relieved Joseph had taken the time with me back in Australia to teach me a little Spanish on Wednesday night Mexican night
. Delia and I got to talking in Spanglish and it became quickly apparent she was digging for information on Joseph’s and my relationship. Although it obviously exists, homosexuality is not talked about in Central America and as it a fairly religious place we decided not to go around waving a big rainbow flag on this part of our journey. That said after 5 minutes, Delia had figured it out and I spilled the beans. So we spent the next 30 minutes talking about Joseph, our home and cat. It was interesting getting a Guatemalans perspective on it all and Delia confirmed that it is a subject that is rarely discussed. She is a sweet lady who even talked about the process of adopting a Guatemalan baby. Most of our lessons involved discussing Joseph in some capacity but at the same time I was slowly building my Spanish skills. I think to truly get the most out of the school you need to spend a good month there. Our mornings were spent checking out San Pedro town and participating in the various activities on offer, like kayaking. One morning, Joseph and I rented two kayaks and headed out onto Lake Atitlan for two hours. Joseph sensibly slip, slop, slapped himself to avoid the sun’s nasty rays. Unbeknownst to him the sunscreen he had purchased had surpassed its expiration date by quite a few years. He came off the lake with the skin of a very pink piglet and in need of a lot of aloe vera gel.
We did meet some nice people, other students at the school and even one who convinced us to climb the San Pedro Volcano
. The volcano is 3000 meters (9900 ft) above sea level. There are two options for the walk. Depart at 3:00am to see the sunrise from the summit, or depart at 6:00am. Joseph has a theory on hikes that involve the sunrise. You have to get up at ridiculous o’clock, trudge around in the dark and more often than not, clouds obscure the actual sunrise and the whole thing is a bit disappointing. So we opted for the sensible 6:00am option. That said we were still up at 5:30 to meet our guide and at 6:15 we departed to conquer the beast. I can honestly say it the climb was one of the most physically enduring things either of us have ever done. Being a volcano, it has a fairly distinct, steep sloping shape. The climb up took three hours and, with the exception of the summit, it never once plateaued. The pain was excruciating and the sweat was pouring off us. However, at 3000 meters, the temperature dropped significantly. By the time we reached the top, as Joseph predicted, it was covered in a cloud and we were shivering cold. There was about three seconds when a gap in the cloud revealed the most spectacular view over Lake Atitlan. We only spent 15 minutes on the summit before heading back down. The descending journey, although only two hours, brought on another fresh bout of pain in different areas of the body. After an hour, my knees were about to give way and my feet were developing some fairly serious blisters. Five hours from the time we departed, we found ourselves back at our hotel wondering why we ever decided to do the climb. I am sure once we can walk again without looking like Forest Gump in callipers, we will look back and be glad we defeated the volcano.
Today was our last day of Spanish school and after finishing with some more irregular verb conjugations, I handed Delia a card with some Quetzales to say thank you and farewell. Tomorrow we head to Copan Ruinas, Honduras and then onto Roatan for some fun in the Caribbean sun! Adios!
We left you last time in El Remate preparing for the long journey to San Pedro La Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Long journey is an understatement. We checked out of Hotel Las Gardineas in El Remate at 1pm and made our way to Flores where our overnight bus was set to depart at 9:30pm. In hindsight, we should have just stayed in Flores. El Remate was nice but it should be renamed El Remote. Joseph and I did manage to kill close to 8 hours hopping from restaurant to restaurant and strolling around town in Flores. By the time our bus arrived to collect us we were happy to say goodbye to Flores. It quickly became evident our driver was new to this bus driving thing and changing gears was particularly challenging. We jolted and lurched our way through small towns to the harsh sounds of gears being grinded together. Although the seats reclined nicely, sleeping was an issue as the bus would violently shake us awake every 10 or so minutes. I remember wondering if we would make it to Guatemala City at all. The longest stretch of sleep I had was when the bus broke down