We eventually made it on a flight to Guatemala City (no thanks to the best "efforts" of American Airlines finest check-in staff in Miami) and met our driver Jose who quickly whisked us past the usual crew of taxi drivers to his wagon. As we drove through GC you could instantly see the US influences and it wasn't long before we'd spotted all the big brand names (Maccas, BK, Pepsi, Walmart, etc). We're glad we decided to skip GC...
After an hours drive and some 15 hours after we started our little journey from Cayman, we rolled to a stop in a dark cobbled street outside what turned out to be our language school and home for the next week, only 8 hours later than planned. Greeted at the door by Ana, who is owner of the house, a teacher, the cook, and surrogate mother to all, we were quickly shown to our room for a much needed sleep.
In the morning we're served the first of many great meals by Ana, and meet the ladies who will spend the next 4 days attempting to give us a basic grasp of Español. These 4 days would follow the same basic plan - 4 hours of lessons in the morning, an excursion or free time in the afternoon, and free time in the evenings. Note from CP....Rich is great at his lessons. CP is not so great, but at least we get to do them on the rooftop overlooking the volcanos!
Tuesdays excursion took us to Volcan Pacaya, a 90 minute drive each way in a typically questionable minibus which at times seemed like we would need to get out and push as the road turned vertical. There was about 15 of us, some from the school, some randoms, and we set off on our hike in the hope of seeing some lava. The local entrepreneurs were offering sticks to aid walking, and horses that followed behind almost to the top in case some of our comrades didn't have the legs for the climb. At a mere 100 quetzalas (hereafter "Q"), or £7, we expected some of the older / larger people to hop on. There was one lady who defiantly should have, but she stubbornly pressed on, even when the guide had to physically pull her via her stick to get her up some steps... give it up lady... credit to her, she made it, oblivious to the fact that the lead group (including me, Carly, the guide, a 55 year old guy from our school who put the rest of us to shame, and a couple of others) could have strolled up there I'm half the time.
At the top, we played with the hot rocks (formerly lava) and toasted marshmallows using the volcanos heat.
Then repeat the same stop-start process climbing down in a race against the fading light. We lost this race, the last half hour trek by torchlight as we walked, waited, walked down the mountain, the main concern being that we might miss dinner back at the school, and I'd just shared my snacks with the local dogs.
The following days trip to the coffee plantation was cancelled due a major road closure, so we set off to explore Antigua by ourselves. The road layout is a perfect grid, avenues running north to south, streets running east to west, however that doesn't help too much when the map has numbers for these roads, but none are actually sign posted, and we frequently found ourselves lost. Landmarks are hard to come by as all the houses look similar and must be painted in one of five colours. Everything is single story and it is like working your way through a labyrinth of red, orange, blue, yellow and white houses! The beauty of Antigua is in what is behind each of the closed doors, often opening up a mysterious paradise which could never be guessed from the outside.
They also love speed bumps in Antigua. The roads are so cobbled that cars never get above the pace of a very gentle jog for fear of shaking bits of the car off (we saw at least one example of this, the fix was reattaching the door using a twisted wire coat hanger - where's the cable ties and duck tape?) yet for some reason speed bumps appear to be necessary on nearly every street.
What I thought was to be a pleasant afternoon wandering the city streets, turned out to be an afternoon spent looking for some kind of handbag for CP. She knows what she wants... but that one is too heavy, too bright, too plain, too big, too small, etc, etc, not that those issues stopped her from touching every bag in every shop that we saw. By the time the purchase was made (shop #8 btw), I was ready to call it a day but instead we went for a stroll through the local markets. A bit like their version of the sooks in Marrakech, but with much less pushy and much more polite vendors.
In the evening a quick visit to a local bar (The Red Zebra, great name) turned into us competing in a pub quiz, we were second for a while then faded badly on the last 2 rounds, including a music round more varied and eclectic than the average Touch quiz!
For the next day we'd booked a proper guided walking tour which is ridiculously well recommended on Trip Advisor. Long story short... It was rubbish, boring, included a couple of sales pitches at different places (when leaving the ruins of an old cathedral, "this is my friend, he made this book with photos, if you like you can buy for $20" *silence*) and too long - so long that we ended up being late for happy hour back at the school (not happy!). We took full advantage of our 15 minutes of happy hour before heading out for an amazing dinner at a place called ¿Porque No? (Why Not?) with a couple of the other students, Cody & Danielle.
One thing we did learn on the tour is the reason why owls are so popular here - apparently they represent luck and abundance..:
Friday saw us finish our last Spanish lessons - not exactly fluent, but should give us enough to build on as we continue our travels. In the afternoon, at my insistence (couldn't risk another afternoon spent bag shopping...), we set off for the short but steep climb to Cerro de la Cruz (hill of the cross). As the name suggests, there's a hill with a big cross on it, but for us the reason to go there was for the amazing view over Antigua. The road up hits 25% at times, definitely enough to get a serious sweat on, although on the way up we past a guy who was pushing his heavy bike up the hill but barely breathing, let alone breaking a sweat.
Depending on how Sunday night goes we (or just I?) might go for a quick jaunt up there for sunrise... (update, we didn't make it up again and instead updated this blog...!)
Our time at the Spanish school has been great, we've learnt a lot and met some great people. But it's now time to move on, and this weekend we have a trip planned to Lago de Atitlan - a lake surrounded by 3 volcanos - before heading back to the school for Sunday night, and then finally on to the much anticipated stay in a glass treehouse on an avocado farm.