It’s a strawberry shadowed full moon and I have that beautiful song in my head about being followed by one. I am smiling, because just like Cat Stevens I would not have to cry no more if the colors in my eyes had to run dry. Colors so vivid and textures so pleasant and soft have embellished my senses to the extent that I am now convinced that I might just, for the time being, be passing through a rainbow. Becoming more and more infatuated with what is being revealed every new day here in Guatemala is making me wonder; why has it taken us so long to come to this captivating place?
Victor is holding up the sign with our hostel name on it as we exit the terminal at Aeropuerto Internacional La Aurora in Guatemala City. My last minute efforts on the plane on how to say “ Hello, nice to meet you” in Spanish, becomes scrambled at my first attempt to seem like I am not ignorant, but all that comes out is a mixture of Afrikaans and Xhosa. Victor doesn’t seem to mind, but I know that he must be thinking that I am such a gringo. He does not speak a word of English and I can only say ¿Puedo hacer fotos por favor? (May I take photo of you?) and ¿huevos fritos vuelta y vuelta, con la yema blanda? (Can I have my eggs over easy please?)
Antigua Santa Catalina Arch
It seems a bit inappropriate asking him these kinds of questions after just meeting him so it’s a pretty quiet ride to the hostel. Our first night in Guatemala is spent wondering where exactly we are. Eventually we wake up at the usual 03:30am as per international jetlag criterion and as the loud minute hand ticks by the sound of birds and chickens also start getting louder and louder. We don’t know what it looks like outside in Zona 13 because we arrived at night. It is amazing what a difference that can make to your perception of things. After learning that Zona 1 and 18 are pretty dangerous places, I don’t know what to make of the Zona we are in, seeing that it is bordered off and you can only enter through a beam manned by guys armed with rifles. In the short ride to where we will catch our connecting transport to Antigua, I see about a million colourful chicken busses and I have myself imagining what it must be like to travel on one of those. I decide there and then that it will have to be done before the end of this trip.
Vulcan Agua dominates the lush landscape as we descend down one of the many hills we have to navigate to get to Antigua. It is seriously hilly here. We enter Antigua and it is as if you drive into the sixteenth century. The cobble stone roads are bustling with people and every beautiful wooden door leads to another world. It is a multi coloured colonial town with incredibly beautiful views of three towering, smoking volcanoes. When I see a Mayan woman in traditional clothing sitting under the Santa Catalina Convent arch I cant get to my camera fast enough so I take a picture with my eyes that wont fade in my mind.
Through our colourful bedroom windows we have a beautiful view of Vulcan Agua. The sunrise on this still and quiet morning painted the sky in magnificent shades of red and yellow and left us well inspired to go hiking up a volcano that is still active. We heard loud explosions throughout the evening and after being reassured that they were not bombs but Vulcan Pacaya puffing like a mad dragon, we also understood why we felt that incredible tremor of an earthquake earlier. Walking up Pacaya is not as easy as it originally seemed to be. I managed to walk all the way but Tam had to catch a ride on a horse at some point. Breathing becomes difficult with each meter you ascend and in the tropical heat I felt like a fruit fly being smacked by an electric flyswatter when least expected. We are in a group of mixed nationalities with posh chickas from England and a cool couple from Belgium. One of the things I enjoyed on our trip through Guatemala is that there are not too many tourists, but just enough of them so you don’t feel like you should be worried. We toast some marshmallows over the hot lava that is setting into black volcanic stone while moving around so that our shoes don’t melt. It just goes to show that you should follow your wildest dreams because I never thought I would be eating a perfectly toasted mallow on top of a volcano.
Daily life in Antigua
We have two weeks to explore as much as we can in this beautiful country so we decide to head down to the laid back town of Panajachel. The best thing, I reckon, since guacamole nachos my amigos. The town of Panajachel lies at the edge of the volcanic crater lake Atitlan. No words in all the worlds’ dictionaries can put a sentence together to explain the breath-taking scenery. From there we catch a boat to the neighbouring hippy towns of San Juan, San Marco, San Pedro and Santiago Atitlan. We learn about Mayan plants used for medicine and about the intricate weaving methods used to this day. I can see myself staying in any of these small colourful places drinking the best coffee in the world, learning Spanish and becoming vegetarian. Back in the Transkei we say that people get Pondo fever, never wanting to leave the place. Here around lake Atitlan I see people getting the same fever and I recognise many of our friends back home in the faces of the folk who got trapped here. Trapped is the wrong word, it’s more like they are hummingbirds flittering about living off the sweet nectar of a very fertile place. I leave a piece of my heart down here in lake Atitlan, not only because I found my namesake in one of the towns but also because of the realness I see in the reflection of an old mans eyes as he asks me for something in return when I take his picture.
At Chichi the activities will leave you mesmerized
Tomb at cemetery
Cemetery tombs at Chichicastenango
I don’t know why the American government issues travel warnings like they do. I wonder if the person who wrote it actually went to Guatemala. Even though the country recently went through a civil war and police presence is very obvious, I did not feel unsafe once during our stay here. We jump on a bus and take it to Chichicastenango, the largest market in Central America. It only happens on a Thursday and a Sunday and we chose to go on the Sabbath. The place is unreal with thousands upon thousands of people selling their craft, vegetables and livestock in stalls ranging from the size of a small bag to that of a large tent. The buzzing sound of bargaining and the colours of the traditional clothes is like something only Joseph would have dreamed up- extremely vivid. There is a fascinating cemetery just outside the market that we want to go to and are advised to take a guided walk there as people have been robbed at gunpoint in the past. Alfredo guides us through the colourful necropolis while I buy us some ice cream from a vendor ringing his eerie sounding bell. There is a Mayan priest swinging a tin can full of smoke while a family is burning piles of tobacco and candles, hoping that the wind will take the smoke straight up and not sideways. The tombs are painted in bright colours and some stand as tall as a small house. As we exit the cemetery, a priest throws a type of pepper into a can filled with a burning concoction of petrol and incense and it explodes with a loud bang. I don’t quite understand much of what I have seen in this crazy colourful place but it fascinates me beyond my belief. I don’t have much experience with psychedelics, but I rate that Chichicastenango is probably similar to a psychedelic experience. You either love it or hate it. My eyes were tired from all the looking when we left there and my ears were happy to have some peace and quiet on way back to Panajachel.
I see you
Vegetable market at Chichi
There is one more place we are going to visit in Guatemala and we chose to experience it at the end of our trip. We have to catch an overnight bus to this destination and I know that it is going to be one experience we will never forget. Even though our once empty bags have become heavy and my memory cards are full of pictures, we are excited and ready for the world that awaits us in Tikal, the lost world of the ancient Mayans.