After a lengthy stop at Lake Atitlan, we needed to start thinking about leaving Guatmela soon. There were however a few points on interest left. One of them being the highly recommended city of Antigua. Somewhat of a tourist hotspot, this pretty town is full of nice places to eat and drink as well the projected ruins of many churches. It’s little cobbled streets and bright yellow buildings are full of artisanal markets and cafes.
In the middle of town it is possible to park for free inside a large grassy yard that belongs to the tourist police. This was a pretty good option for us as not only was it a secure, but the cats could come out, something that is sometimes hard to come by in city campsites.
We arrived in the afternoon, signed in with the police and collapsed in the back of the van, worn out after our big hike the previous day. The steep downhill descent had been tough on our legs and even if we had found the energy to explore that day our muscles wouldn’t permit it. Soon after we arrived so did Hanno and Kikki, bringing the rain with them. The boys went off to find takeaway pizza, while we sorted our respective vans ready for a lazy evening.
The following day, a little more rested but still quite crippled, we hobbled around town. We visited some markets and admired some of the local jewellery which specialises in using jade.
Antigua has nearly 40 churches, many of them ruined by an earthquake in the 1700’s but the city opted to keep and preserve the ruins rather than rebuilding or removing them. We saw a few as we walked around, before rounded our day off with a pretty good, if a little expensive curry.
There was a lot of nice food and drink to be sampled here, but unfortunately it didn’t come in cheap. As ever we visited a local brewing company of which there are several here, we also tried Guatemalas attempt at an English pub. While neither were bad, we weren’t particularly blown away. It was still nice to enjoy some food and drinks out with friends.
One of highlights has got to be the chocolate workshop. The four of us were lucky in the fact that it was only us on the tour. Our teacher gave us a history of the cacao bean and encouraged us to eat one straight from the fruit. She explained how long people had been making chocolate and its origins with the Mayans before demonstrating how chocolate itself is made.
She lined of little pots with them at all stages of the process. First the beans are femented, then dried and roasted before the shells are removed. This leaves you with the coco nibs that you can buy in from health food stores and they also sold the dried roasted skins of the bean here to make tea with.
She showed how it was simply to grind the beans in a mortar and pestle to make a smooth paste as the oils from the bean are released and mixed in. She told us how this paste is the foundation for everything. The mayans used it to make a cacao drink which included spice, honey and the blood from sacrifices. Once this recipe had made it over to Spain, it was made more suitable for European palettes. They swapped out the blood for milk and added sugar, and so a variety of drinks could be produced. The cacao bean was so valuable within mayan civilisations that it was used actually used as currency.
Now we had a good understanding of the process, it was time to make our own chocolate. A big bowl of premade chocolate sat at the back and we were given moulds and a box of ingredients to go wild with. We would get our chocolate bars at the end to take home with us. Once we were finished they went into the fridge to set and we started on the final part of the workshop which was to make the drinks that we had learnt about earlier.
First we tried roasted off our beans and then set about deskinning them.
Then it was time to grind our own beans to make the mayan drink. This takes a while when done by hand. Hanno demonstrated for us how much easier it was to use the machine!
The shells made a tea, while our bean paste was mixed with water, honey and some spices for the mayan drink. The paste from the bean grinding mill was mixed with milk to make a more traditional hot chocolate that you might buy today.
I think we both actually preferred the more traditional hot chocolate, not being big milk fans. It was definitely more intense, but chocolate and chill is always ok with me. If the tea hadn’t been $5 a bag I might have bought some. Still, there’s plenty of cacao trees out in the jungle, maybe we can harvest our own.
With the conclusion of the drinks we were present with our finished chocolate bars before heading out. I looked forward to eating my chocolate another day, I was all chocolated out.
One final point of interest, and something that Hanno had been excited about for rather a long time was La Casa del Ron. We stopped off for some food first, enjoying some rather good Mexican style tacos, before walking into this rather fancy looking bar.
Plush armchairs sat around small tables, large glass cabinets lined the walls and the air con was on full tilt. Fancy. The same could not be said for the service. We sat outside, a faint smell of drains wafting across the table. The waiter said the kitchen was closed, the first blow. Then he said it was just him working so he wouldn’t be able to show us around or anything like that, then checked we still wanted to order, despite the rather depressing start we went ahead after moving tables. Kikki ordered a weird cocktail while Hanno got a rum tasting sampler. Lee and I got one to share. It was pretty expensive, so we were a bit disappointed when we were told that we couldn’t have another chocolate unless we paid a dollar for it. When you go to fancy places and pay a lot, stuff like that is normally included.
The rum itself was nice enough, but we could barely tell the difference between the three. After putting Hanno through several blind tastings we concluded that it all tasted the same. Somewhat underwhelmed, we paid. The waiter came back to tell us that we had forgotten to pay the tip and was somewhat miffed when we told him it was no accident and left. We headed for a nearby bar after getting absolutely soaked as the heavens opened when we left the rum place. We enjoyed some rather more exciting rums for half the price at a local Irish bar while the rain came to an end.
Antigua is a nice place, but not for those on a budget. I was glad that at least the camping was free, a rare luxury.
We needed to visit the city of Guatemala, which is around an hour north of Antigua, but first we headed to Pacaya. This volcano is famous for its lava. There are supposedly many places on site where you can see the lava and toast marshmallows on it. We wanted to avoid paying for an unnecessary guide and so left Antigua late afternoon. After going completely the wrong way with google constant insistence that a small rocky footpath up a mountain was a perfectly viable road, we arrived somewhat later in the dark. Bruno was already there and we parked in the deserted car park by the entrance booth.
Apparently you need to hike up in the dark in order to see the lava better, although we had heard that there wasn’t any to see right now. Still it would be an early start at 4am to get to the top for sunrise. This seemed to be happening rather regularly now, I wasn’t sure how I felt about all these early mornings. Still, at 4am, we headed off with our torches.
The path is incredibly straightforward and it’s a fairly short hike to the main viewpoint. This is not on the volcano itself and it is not possible to hike up to crater of Pacaya, presumably it’s too active. As we looked out over the other volcanoes we hard recently been near, we saw Fuego spitting lava and ash into the sky in a giant cloud. It was impressive from where we were but a little frustrating that when we had actually been close we had seen very little. In actual fact, the volcano became so active recently that they suspended all hiking to Acatenango so we should at least be grateful that we got to go at all.
As the view before us brightened with the sun rising behind it was a beautiful sight, lava or not.
We headed back towards the lava field of Pacaya, climbing up a little way. Here you could see how the molten rock had flowed, cooled and subsequently cracked. It must have been impressive at the time. A ‘Lava Store’ is even available if you want to purchase a non descript looking piece of rock and spend your time convincing everyone that, “No really, it’s really lava!”
For a little while we enjoyed the view to ourselves and then wobbled our way across the lava field. The rocks are brittle, sharp and loose and you could see how the lava had flowed and cooled in great rivers down the sides of the volcano. It wasn’t easy to walk on though, Lee twisted his ankle and hobbled around the last bit. We needed to roast our marshmallows…
Next the the lava shop is a flat area of ground from which steam pours from the ground.
We walked around hunting for a hot bit, nothing seemed to be up to the job of actually roasting a marshmallow. Kikki tried and ended up with something bit and covered in gravel. Lee headed back to the van as the rest of us decided that we would climb across the entire lava field to roast our marshmallow, a precarious business.
Eventually, I reached the smokiest part and spent some time excavating a hole to get nearer the hot part while I waited for the others. We just about managed to toast our marshmallow, but I’m not quite sure it was worth it. I imagined a roasting our marshmallow over a red hot lava flow until it was browned on the outside and all gooey and melty. In the end we got a slightly melted wet marshmallow that I stuck in a hole in the floor. While still an experience, it seemed that timing was not on our side, judging by the photos I have seen of the lava that is here sometimes.
It was still a beautiful hike and we were back down early morning, as we returned we met multiple guided groups coming up. Despite the early start, I was glad we had come early and enjoyed the peace and quiet of it to ourselves. Back at the camper the carpark was filling up with school tours and tourists and the day was already heating up.
From here we split up, Hanna and Kikki heading down the coast of El Paredon while we headed north to the city. We wanted to see if we could get our drone repaired and we needed to buy some parts for Ruby from the only place in Guatemala that stocks VW parts.