Chichicastenango / Antigua

Antigua Travel Blog

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I went to Volcan Pacaya in Guatemala. We couldn't get closer to the lava because it was too dangerous from the fast moving rocks and lava coming down.
Early on the Wednesday morning we took a private van from our hotel in Panajachel to first visit the markets at Chichicastenanga. The markets were really big and actually had a decent amount of variety. We walked around them for a while just to see if anything would catch our interest. There were a couple of churches at either end that we checked out. Markets aren't really my thing and after going to so many of them in South America I was done with it almost straight away. We had a restaurant as our meeting point so I went up there early and got some lunch to make up for my missed breakfast.

After we left Chichi it was not too far to get to Antigua. The city is one of the few places in Central America that is UNESCO World Heritage listed. Antigua was a huge city in early Spanish colonialism and they built many grand churches as a result. A lot of these churches are still there in Antigua awaiting restoration in their heavily deteriorated state. The city proper has a well defined boundary that gives it a feel of being a place isolated in time. The roads are big cobbles and there are restrictions on the colours that can be used on the front of buildings. I thought the whole place looked fantastic.

After checking in to our nice hotel Todd gave us an orientation walk of the main sights. Gary wanted to do a walking tour run by the tourist police so we headed a bit off the main area to get him there. When we dropped him near the starting point we went into a bustling market on the outskirts of town that I liked a lot more than Chichi, mainly because it sold practical things instead of just textiles and souvenirs. Todd wanted to buy some DVDs so while he haggled over the price I went in search of new sunglasses, since I had carelessly left mine in the van to Panajachel. I found a cheap looking pair that seemed to look alright. The store owner offered me 35 Quetzales (best currency name ever), but being the acute haggler I counter-offered with 25. He said OK so quickly I knew I could have gone lower. But then it was like $4 for sunglasses so how could I complain?

Todd got his DVDs, including the much sought after motion picture classic Bruno, and we kept walking through the sights. We were wandering around the town hall at the main square when Gary found us with the news that the walking tour was nowhere to be found. Vicky, Gary and I went to a trendy cafe full of hip locals using Macbooks and had a coffee before I ventured off on my own in search of a new digital camera.

I went to about four electronic camera stores before I found one with a decent range. I thought I might be able to just pick one there and then but they seem to be suspiciously low on detail on the boxes and just try to wow you with a picture and vague technology terms instead. I wrote down all the brand and model names and went back to the hotel to research on the Interwebs. It was a bit frustrating to find that all the cameras they had were behind the curve of what I was used to with my last camera and so I would have to settle for something average. I guess Antigua does not have a market for better and therefore more expensive cameras. While I was researching the world of cameras I met Mel from Switzerland who was starting on our tour from that point.

I decided on an out-of-date Panasonic Lumix and headed back to the camera store to purchase. I tried to use my debit card to pay for it but it wasn't working on their machine. I quickly went down to the ATM and found that even that wasn't reading my card. By now it was getting late and I had to meet the others soon for dinner so I quickly rushed back to the hotel, got my credit card out of my bag, and rushed back to the camera store. The credit card worked and I again rushed back to the hotel with camera in hand, just in time. About then I met Thomas from Belgium who was also starting on our tour!

We (now Todd, Gary, Vicky, Nick, Kate, Mel, Thomas and myself) went out to dinner at a nice restaurant. After that we walked to a very cool bar in town that had a special tequila-only bar in the back. I wasn't really up for straight tequila so some of the others tried out the local specialties. Next up was the local Irish bar Riley's where it wasn't that busy but we stayed for a few beers. I had a very early start the next morning so I left before the others. It was the last night on the tour for Vicky, Kate and Nick so I said farewell to them and headed to the hotel.

Gary and I got up at about 5am the next morning to do the climb up Volcan Pacaya. The volcano is very active, so much that the reason people climb it is in search of flowing lava. It ejects lava almost constantly but (assumedly) never in force or quantity that it is too dangerous for people to go see it up close.

We got ready and went to the lobby of the hotel for our pick up. To our surprise the front door was locked from the inside and there was nobody at reception. When the pick up started banging on the door and we couldn't get out we were a bit worried. After a few loud calls of 'hola!' we eventually woke someone from the hotel to let us out. We got in the pick up car that took us to a van in another part of Antigua to take us the rest of the way. Foolishly I left my iPhone in my pants pocket and it fell out during the car ride and I hadn't noticed as I got out. Luckily for me Gary got out on the same side as me and noticed it on the seat. Thank you Gary.

There were a few others on the van but generally it was a quiet ride up to the start point. The transport takes you a long way up to the starting town where it is then about a two hour hike up to near the summit where the lava gradually erupts. Near the town we stopped to enter the conservation area and a local came up to the van selling marshmallows. The idea of getting a photo of me toasting marshmallows on flowing lava seemed too good an opportunity to miss so I bought a bag for about $3 and generously promised the rest of the van I would sell them one marshmallow each for $1.

When we got to the start point the van got swarmed by about a dozen local kids selling walking sticks. This is obviously a big deal for them because they were so keen to be the chosen one who sold a stick for like 50 cents. I bought one through the intensely analytical process of who was closest to me at the time I decided I wanted one.

With sticks in tow we started the climb. Following our group of maybe eight hikers and the guide was about six horses prepared to take anyone who didn't feel up to the challenge of two hours of steep hiking. It didn't take long before a mother and her small son went on the horses and followed the group. The hike up was pretty steady but I think my hiking in South America had paid off because I was doing it easier than most in the group. I am sure if I hadn't done all that previous hiking then I would have struggled a lot more.

I would say just over half the walk was in forest so there was not much to see. After that we were in the open and had fantastic views way out into the distance. At one point we could even see across to Guatemala City. We walked around the side of a mountain adjacent to Pacaya before the volcano came into view. It is a big black beast that deposits fresh lava so often that vegetation has no time to take over. We could see it smoking heavily but from that distance we couldn't see any lava. Down at the base of Pacaya were huge swaths of land covered in volcanic rock from bigger eruptions in the recent past. We came to the base of where the mountain met Pacaya to be met by a small but ominous "DANGER" sign. I thought it was a funny sign to have because it would be a strange occurance for someone to get to that point and realise there was in fact danger and they should reconsider their attempt to climb a volcano that is spewing out molten rock.

We started scaling up Pacaya, which was starting to get more difficult because the volcanic rock was broken down to a loose gravel so it made it tough to walk up without sliding back down on each step. The further we got up the more solid the rock became, and before long we were on rock that was jagged sharp. The guide informed us that it was like that because it was only a month old and hadn't eroded yet. Going further up we could start to feel warmth radiating out of the ground, and there were some small pockets where it was actually hot. We had been warned not to stand still too long because those spots will melt the soles of your shoes. As we got much closer we could hear the sound of rocks falling down the side of the volcano but weren't seeing anything yet. The rock was getting very sharp so I was just concentrating on not falling and cutting myself. We then saw a bunch of people at a ridge gaping over.

I hurried up to a good spot and looked over the ridge. The volcano was ejecting lava but it was on a very steep spot and the lava was so heavy in silicates that as it drooled out it was forming large near-solid rocks that were hurling down the side of the volcano. We were probably about 200m away and wouldn't have been able to get much closer without being in unacceptable danger. Occasionally a really big red-hot molten rock would come out and tear itself up down the mountain side at considerable speed. I took some cool videos of it, at least as good as my new camera could do.

On many days the lava is only slowly flowing and people can go right up to it so it was a bit of a shame I couldn't do that and get my marshmallow shot. The guide said it changes so quickly from day to day that it is just pot luck what conditions the lava flow is going through when you go up Pacaya. Still, the barreling lava rocks down the volcano were pretty damn impressive.

We hiked back down the way we came in, which was mostly uneventful other than getting to run down the steep gravel near where we started ascending Pacaya. As we got about 15 minutes from the bottom a few kids came running up asking for our walking sticks. They were pretty insistent but I was also pretty insistent on getting to the bottom with mine! When we got down I just handed it over to the one kid around me who didn't already have one (medal please?).

There was a bit of a rest at the end point and then we got the van back to Antigua. By this point I had not really eaten much all day so I was starting to feel off from combining lots of exercise with lack of food. Gary and I went to a cafe he had been to when he started his tour three weeks earlier and had a really good lunch.

For the rest of the afternoon I lay around trying to get some energy back. I checked out the photos and videos I took on Pacaya with my new camera and put the best video of the lava falling on YouTube.

We met in the lobby for dinner and I met the two others joining our tour in Antigua - David and Tara, both from the UK. I was now the only Aussie in the group, which I am told is a fairly rare thing for a Tucan tour. We went out to dinner coincidentally at the same place that Gary and I had had lunch. It felt a lot different though because instead of being out in the courtyard in the sun we were now inside at night.

After dinner we went to Riley's again. It was a lot busier than the night before, and even though it was early there were two girls dancing on the bar as we walked in. We had some beers off to the side as we watched the bartender get on the bar and pour straight tequila down the throats of anyone standing close enough. At one point a random guy got up on the bar and proceeded to scull an entire bottle of hot sauce. I wasn't really up for a big night after the long day so I went back to the hotel around midnight.
Clarafina says:
Wow cool Pacaya video! When I went I got to toast my marshmallows, which was fun, but perhaps not as exciting! Did you hear Pacaya erupted recently?
Posted on: Jun 26, 2010
David says:
Crazy video of the molten rocks coming down.
Posted on: Jan 05, 2010
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I went to Volcan Pacaya in Guatem…
photo by: monky