After an overnight bus to Guatemala City, two hours of huddling sleepily in the bus station, and another van ride between a few peaks and into the historical valley below. Nestled in the center of the valley is Antigua, a gem of an old colonial town, dotted with ruined churches, cafes, and everything a weary traveler might desire. We made our way through the cobbled streets to our little hostel, aptly called A Place to Stay. Inside, we were treated to free breakfast (although we had not stayed the previous night) and met a bunch of other travelers, as well as the resident felines and rabbit. Another guest looked vaguely familiar…we had rode horses together in Panama! The rest of the day was spent acquainting ourselves with the large market, the excellent fresh local coffee, and the insides of the hostel kitchen.
The following morning, we walked down to one of the motorbike rental shops (that also hosted a flower shop) and signed the papers for a weeklong rental on our own small bike. While the cobblestone streets were murder for the person riding on the back (OUCH!), we were glad to have the freedom to go whizzing around on our own adventures. First on our agenda was the organic macadamia nut farm, Valhalla, a couple towns away. We pulled in and walked up the trail of crushed macadamia shells and led ourselves on our own little tour of the farm equipment and nursery, before finding the wee restaurant that serves pancakes made from macadamia flour, topped with macadamia butter and blueberries, which they also grow on the property. Full of all the fresh, organic goodness, we headed out to continue exploring. We passed coffee plantations and fruit orchards, eventually wending our way down to a small village, where we stepped into the market to cool off. A friendly Mayan woman explained her weavings to us and asked us many questions about Asia and America.
Back in town, we found a friendly cafe which served local coffee, but introduced globak styles of serving it…like a soy flat white with a bear in the foam art. Antigua has market every day, but today was one of the “large” days, and we found avocados being sold at the curb…five for about 75 cents! I’m in love with Guatemalan avocados. The next morning, we ventured in the other direction across the valley and stumbled across a village building a huge, block-long sandwich. It also appeared that they were practicing their street paintings for Holy Week.
Sunday morning we arose with the sun and set off, climbing the mountains slowly on our little motorbike on the way to Chichicastenango. We didn’t quite make it all the way, but we got to the nearest major town on the highway and we were able to catch a collectivo the rest of the way…good thing, too, as the road was steep, gravelly, and treacherous. Trying to listen in on the conversations, I realized I understood nothing…everyone was speaking in one of the local Mayan dialects. All of the women and several of the older men were wearing the traditional dress, with special embroidery that indicates which village they come from. Pulling into Chichi, the other passengers scattered in all directions as one of the largest markets in all of Central America spread before us. In all the thin walkways, in stall after stall, unbelievably bright colors swirled in a kaleidoscope of cloth, pottery, masks, snacks, and a million other temptations. In the center of the maelstrom, the old church was lit only by candles and men carrying homemade censors filled it with clouds of sweet smelling incense. Out on the steps, laden with flower sellers, we could look out at the market stretching far off to the edges of the town center. We spent hours wandering around, goggling at all the gorgeous items for sale (and buying a lot of gifts). On the way home, we decided to spare the poor motorbike and I rode the bus home while Sangbyeong encouraged the bike to make it back through the mountain passes.
The next day, we talked the motorbike shop owner into swapping our vehicle out for another one that was capable of carrying the two of us up hills. We took our new bike for a little spin…and this one also stopped in the middle of the road and wouldn’t start again! Another phone call and another swap, and we had our third bike of the week. The next day, we decided we would try to make it to one of the volcano parks in the area. The closest one was considered unsafe because of so many robberies…so we planned to reach another one about an hour away. Except one of Volcan Fuego’s recent eruptions had spread slippery ash over the back road we were on and we ended up in a shallow ditch. We had broke a couple pieces off the bike, so we abandoned our attempt to reach the park and backtracked to the village of Santa Maria de Jesus, where a friendly garage helped us to wire and weld the pieces back on…even better than new! On the way back toward Antigua, we turned off the highway into another little village and discovered an artisanal chocolatier using all local cacao and flavoring. She served us drinking chocolate, chocolate tea, and several pieces of bitter dark chocolate. It was amazing.
Back in Antigua, we spent the remainder of our time wandering through the colonial streets and eating huge amounts of avocados. We found a kind gentleman in the back alleys of the market who fixed Sangbyeong’s dilapidated sneakers for a few quetzals. The town was preparing for its world-famous Holy Week celebrations, with purple and white banners decorating all the buildings and streets. In the market, we also saw stencils for the street paintings that they lay along the parade route. We even got to see the practice run of the parade…although it resulted in us getting a parking ticket for the motorbike. Oops. In the evenings, we would climb to the roof of our hostel to watch the sunsets as they glowed in fiery hazes through all the ash hanging in the air from Fuego’s almost constant tantrums. It had had a major eruption the month before, so we were thankful that it restrained itself to only minor pyrotechnics.
We took our last spin on our trusty (3rd) motorbike (that had had minor surgery) through the foothill roads that circled the valley, looking down at the little town that had become our home for a week.
The next morning, we climbed into a van that would take us up into the highlands, some of which we saw on the way to Chichi…up to Lago Atitlan, a large high altitude lake that is ringed by dormant volcanoes and charming villages. We crawled to the top of the vehicle to strap our luggage to the roof and relaxed into the scenery of the ride.