More chicken bus action on the way from Xela to Antigua. This time we were shoved in like chickens in cages, with up to five people squished on a seat clearly designed for two. We opted to stand for part of the journey as this was more comfortable than sitting, although it wasn't so easy on the winding road.
In short, Antigua is beautiful. I know it's the hot spot for tourists, but with good reason. Cobblestone streets, colourful buildings, no skyscrapers, Baroque-style architecture, plazas with fountains, street markets, ruins from the numerous earthquakes that had devastated the region, well-preserved/rebuilt houses and shops, volcanoes nearby, international restaurants and bars - I could go on forever. It was fantastic.
My only piece of advice would be to avoid religious festivals (unless you are traveling specifically for this reason, in which case Antigua is Central American Mecca). It was extremely busy with locals and tourists alike, accommodation mostly sold out well in advance and prices quadrupled. Although it was great to experience Semana Santa, I would have loved to have seen the town when it was a little quieter. And cheaper.
Semana Santa celebrations were EVERYWHERE! No matter what street we turned down, there would be a procession, floats, bands, sombre music and about a gazillion people, even at night. All we wanted to do was explore the town, visit a few churches and museums, see what Antigua had to offer but everything took twice as long due to the festivities. We stopped occasionally to watch the proceedings, but as we didn't really understand why they were doing what they were doing, we became bored quickly. I think if we grew up seeing the annual event, being involved in the parades, knowing the history behind it, we would have had a great time. Unfortunately we were just ignorant tourists looking for the best happy hour deals.
Luckily for us the markets were unaffected by Holy Week, so we spent a lot of time wandering through these. Danny even found a stubbie holder in one market stall, which was completely unexpected. Of course he bought it immediately - you never know when you will see another one. Dinner was also street-side, consisting of staples such as tostadas, pickled cabbage, avocado, salsa, corn soup, empanadas, chargrilled corn and churros. I was appreciative of how many vegetarian options there were at food markets, even though this usually led to me over-eating and swearing off food forever.
Of course there was a volcano excursion or two from Antigua, as there were several looming over the town. Our first adventure was Volcan Pacaya, for which we joined a tour. We presumed we would be climbing to the summit of this active volcano but instead we only climbed part of the way up then walked horizontally along the side, watching the smoke continually pour out of the summit (I guess this was why we weren't going any further up). The last eruption was in 2010 and we walked over the now solid lava path it created. We saw a video of the explosion; it was incredibly violent, and, looking up at the smoke, I had serious doubts about whether we should really be on the volcano right now. Surprisingly, the volcanic rock we were walking on was warm, with pockets of steam underneath keeping the surface toasty. It was at this point that our guide pulled out a packet of marshmallows and placed them on sticks. We all sat at the opening of these vents, cooking our marshmallows until they were a melted gooey mess. I'm sure not a huge proportion of the population can say they have roasted marshmallows on a volcano. It was definitely touristy, but we still liked it.
Our second tour had us up at an inconceivable hour: 2:30am. Besides shift workers, is there anyone else in the world setting their alarm for this time? It was only a one hour drive to the start of our hike up Volcan Acatenango, so we couldn't even reclaim some of our lost sleep in the car. I thought maybe we could see the sunrise while we were hiking, make it worth the early start. Nope. We were on the wrong side of the mountain. It was a tough 3 hours and 45 minutes up steep, loose stones, constantly sliding down as far as we climbed up. But we made it, and we were so grateful that we decided to make the effort for this volcano. The views from the summit were astounding, and combined with our elation for finishing such as hard trek, we were on (or in this case, above) cloud nine. Surrounding us were other volcanoes, mountains, lakes and small towns, as well as nearby Volcan Fuego, which erupted every 10 minutes or so. It was extraordinary.
We descended in about two hours, sliding most of the way and falling several times (downhill has never been my strength, in hiking or running). I watched others as they gracefully strode past as though they were walking on solid ground. I had no idea how they did it. At the bottom our guide took us back to his mother's house, who fed us huge sandwiches that were not part of the tour but much appreciated.
Given how cosmopolitan Antigua was, we thought we should break away from our standard fare and cheap drinks. Many of the bars would have been right at home in Melbourne, trying their best to be uber-modern and a little hipster. There was one that we visited often, loving the range of drinks they had on hand. While we were there we thought it would be a great opportunity to try a local specialty: Ron Zacapa, the most expensive rum in the country (and apparently one of the best in the world). I'm not a rum aficionado, so I had no idea if it was worth the money (probably not is my thinking). Danny was impressed; he was almost ready to buy the bottle. I gave him the ultimatum of holidaying for another four months or going back to work next week. He came to his senses.
On our meandering around town we passed by a hostel that had a pool inside (this was a rarity) and also a poolside bar that delivered drinks! We clearly chose the wrong place to stay. We then saw the dorm rooms with triple bunks, plus the sort of clientele this hostel attracted, and decided our overpriced two star hotel was probably the right option.