We arrived in the city Antigua midafternoon and went to a free RV camping spot right near the centre of town – unreal, right? The Tourist Police here have a large grassy compound surrounded by old stone walls where overlanders can stay for up to five days free provided they have their own bathroom facilities as there are none for public use here. You have to “check in” with them, they take down the details of your vehicle and yourselves and ask for copies of your passports. You can leave for a night or two as well and actually return for another five. We plan to do this.
Shot of Tigger from outside the compound walls:
When we arrived there were four other RV’s here; a VW from Argentina with a family of five in it!; one couple from Holland in a converted delivery van who had seen us on the road near Coban (and we learned they were groupies of Fran’s iOverlander postings 🙂 ), Leslie & Gerry; the German couple, Chris & Birger, whom we’d met in the Walmart parking lot back in Comitan, MX in early May and a “homemade” RV with GT plates being driving by an older American man, Steve, and his family who had been living in GT for over 12 years.
We had a fun “happy hour” that night. There is great comradery amoungst overlanders; you are complete strangers but this journey/lifestyle is a huge common interest. The sharing of experiences, trials/tribulations, plans, suggestions and vehicles, makes for some great entertainment and you usually bond easily.
Antigua is up at higher elevation again and the temps are quite pleasant with warm days and a good climate at night except for the almost daily shower this time of year. This is an old city; built by the Spanish in the mid 1500’s and for about 300 years was the capital of their empire (which stretched from Chiapas in Mexico right down to and including Panama). Originally it was called Santiago de Los Caballeros, now La Antigua Guatemala. There are a large number of convents/monasteries and churches but sadly this city saw two large earthquakes in the 1700’s and a large number of buildings were left in ruins. There was a third deadly earthquake in 1976 and many of those destroyed buildings/colonial homes have been rebuilt but there are still a lot of “ruins” to see. Antigua is also a UNESCO site and considered by many to be the most beautiful city in Central America. It is surrounded by three volcanoes: Agua, Acatenago and El Fuego – the latter is only one still active.
Monday and Tuesday, we ran some errands (like getting Fran’s other flip flop repaired!) and walked around the city. We both really like this city; climate is great, streets are all different and so interesting to wander down; services are available and there appears to be a lot of “gringoes” but they have not changed the city. There are fast food places, of course, but they are in local buildings and blend in with the colonial structures around them. We went into the McDonalds for some free Wi-Fi and it’s huge but you cannot tell that from the street nor are there any golden arches visible. There’s a courtyard in the building that it’s housed in and they have utilized that space for more tables and it feels like you are on a nice patio somewhere – complete with Ronald McDonald and a fountain in the middle of it.
All of the streets in this El Centro are cobbled and many are one way and narrow. The buildings are colourful and mostly one story. As you walk down the street there are no signs sticking out in front of the shops/restaurants; 0nly signs on the walls or sometimes little ceramic placards in the sidewalk indicating the business. We love all the ruins that have been left standing – they add such character to the city; a few are being worked on but many are just the outer walls with large cracks and/or missing sections – like the compound we are camped at.
Wednesday, Doug arranged to join a group climbing Volcan Pacaya which is still active and has hot lava pockets under the rocks. They picked him up (rather later than expected) and he was gone until early afternoon. He enjoyed the climb up then the walk into the crater where they roasted marshmallows over the hot rocks.
Fran had a leisurely morning walking around the area doing Spanish on her phone while taking photos of the architecture all around her. That day, a couple in a VW van with Peruvian plates arrived at the campground; he, Teco, is Guatemalan but has lived in the US and she is American, Samba, from Seattle. They are travelling north.
Thursday, Fran woke up feeling under the weather; she thinks it was the fried chicken we “spurlged” on the night before – she’s often had trouble with fried chicken (not a bad thing!). She had stomach cramps and was very lethargic for a few of days; sleep was hard to come by. A few more overlanders arrived today but we did not get a chance to meet them.
Friday, after we’d spent five nights here at the tourist police compound, we headed towards Guatemala City (“Guate” as the locals call it”) and found a Walmart to do some shopping at before going to a hotel/restaurant that offers free camping (no services other than bathrooms) to overlanders called Cabaña Suiza. It came highly recommended and we hoped to speak to the owner about leaving our rig here while we’re gone home. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon but were unable to hook up with the owner that day; he was out for the afternoon.
As this is the beginning of the rainy season, we have had rain practically every day but mostly in the late afternoon/evening. Well tonight it absolutely poured! The temperature dropped considerably (it’s all relative my friends!) so not having the windows open tonight was not an issue. The problem we did have at bedtime was that Doug discovered there was a leak in one of the window seals at the front of the trunk so his bedding was getting wet! Luckily the rain had begun to slow down and we put some towels down and it did not worsen overnight – just meant a new job to be tackled in the morning – hopefully while it was not raining!
Saturday morning Doug worked on the leaky window and we hung around the campground; while the price is right, the location is not great for exploring – it’s up off a busy highway and there are no neighbourhoods and such to walk in. It’s about 20 klicks from Guate. We finally met the owner, Walter, in the late morning and asked about parking here for the six weeks when we fly home – he generously said no problem and he wouldn’t charge us at all! Amazing! We thanked him profusely and said we’d be here until this coming Monday and then return the following Monday afternoon for our flights on Tuesday. This place is very secure with high fences, a large remote controlled locking gate and 24/7 very friendly security guards as well as a duck pond with several ducks who enjoy exploring the grassing area around us.
We enjoyed a nice lunch in the Swiss café where we had really nice sandwiches with very yummy bread in a nice ambience – this allowed us to pay back for the free camping. About midafternoon, Doug was off walking and doing Spanish lessons, Fran was resting in the rig – still feeling a little under the weather – and she heard “hola chica – anybody home?” It was the German couple we’d met back in Comitan, Mexico last month and once again in Antigua – Chris & Birger. They came to camp here for a night or two as well.
Later that afternoon, in the chapel on the grounds here, we thought a wedding was beginning but it turned out to be a girl’s fifteenth birthday party; this is a significant age for a girl in the Latino culture and here we saw a family that was obviously well to do, do it up very fancy; she was in a white dress that looked like a wedding gown, she arrived in an antique car and the guests were all well-dressed bearing presents. The party went on till about midnight.
We had a nice happy hour in Chris & Birger’s rig as it began raining. Their “home” while not quite as long as ours, is an actual motor home and has more living space including a table that seats five! We told them we planned to go into Guatemala City the next day by taxi if they wanted to join us. They had not figured on going into the big city but thought why not?
The owner of the hotel, Walter, called us a taxi on Sunday morning and we were in the city around 9:30 am. We had planned to take what we’d read was a free hop-on hop-off bus offered on Sundays only but it turns out that is no longer running. As we’d had the cabbie drop us at the main city square, we visited the cathedral first which was bright and beautiful and contains a Black Jesus in a small chapel. Mass was about to start when we got there and it was quite full. We got our bearings, referred to our guide book and the local tourist map on the square and wandered there a bit. We walked about two kilometres to a huge “Relief Map” of Guatemala that had been built in a little square in Zone 2.
“Guate” is divided in “zonas” (there are 13) and it’s very important you know which zone you are in and which you are going as they pretty much have the same street names as most streets and avenues are numbered. It is a fairly modern city, with streets and decent sidewalks for the most part. It is quite densely populated but no one knows for sure the population. It seems to have all the mod cons like a subway, tall buildings (though not a huge number), lots of shopping, museums and restaurants. It’s not really a big tourist destination but we wanted to see it as well as the relief map.
As it was Sunday, traffic was light and some streets were blocked off and families were out walking, cycling, running and generally relaxing. While it’s Father’s Day back home, it’s actually like in Europe here and celebrated on the 17th of June not the third Sunday of June but many establishments were having Father’s Day specials for shopping and meals right through this weekend.
It was a pleasant walk to the relief map and it was worth. It is built to scale with the highlands, the coast and the rivers all nicely done with signposts for many cities. It took 18 months to build and was completed in 1905. They have a staircase on either side so you can get up above it and look down – unfortunately it’s not high enough to get a complete shot of the map when taking photos. The map includes Belize as Guatemalans believe it should be part of their country and there are often problems between the two countries to this day.
We then visited the main market and did a little shopping for a few things before finding a place to have lunch. We returned to the main pedestrian street (reminded us of Sparks Street in Ottawa or that lovely walk we took in San Luis Potosi back in Mexico) and found a Mexican place where were enjoyed a very nice meal with our new friends.
It began to rain quite hard while we were eating so we hung around a bit before calling our cab driver to pick us up. As he could not meet us on the pedestrian street, we did not want to get to wet heading back to where he dropped us off. When the rain lessened, Enrique was waiting for us at the square and took us back to Cabaña Suiza. He was very pleasant and we attempted several conversions in his Spanish, our broken but improving Spanish with some English and German thrown in for good measure.
After relaxing for a while, we had another happy hour with Birger & Chris as no one felt like dinner after our big lunch and enjoyed playing some UNO. When we went to bed, Doug checked the leaky window and discovered much to his dismay, that it was still leaking some. We packed the area with towels and he tackled it again the next morning. He had a couple of hours of office work to get done before we left the campground to return to Antigua.
We got our “spot” back at the tourist police compound and settled in. As Fran’s birthday is coming up and she wanted a purse/camera bag to better hold her new camera, Doug had investigated where we could get one custom made for a third of the price of actually buying a purse that service this purpose (they are not many). We had a photo of how she wanted the inside divvied up and took it to a leather shop in the local market. The gentlemen at the tourist info place had recommended two places – the first appeared to specialize in shoes and this shop had lots of bags and wallets. We gave him the dimensions and specs and details of what Fran wanted and he gave us a decent price and said it would be ready Thursday
Tuesday morning Doug did a bit of work again before we had another nice leisurely day. Wednesday he joined another tour group doing the difficult hike up Volcan Acatenango – this is the one you climb to see the active, Volcan de Fuego located beside it. This was an overnight hike. Fran opted not to go and it turned out to be a good thing as Doug found the hike quite challenging and you have to carry your own gear – something else she dislikes immensely! The first day you hike to “base camp” just above the tree line, getting there in the late afternoon. There were eight in his group including three young people who had approached us at the campsite asking if they could leave their extra gear with us while they did the same hike. They are backpackers from Brazil and we were actually quite surprised they were here at the police compound at all as they do not normally allow tenters as there are no bathroom facilities (we didn’t ask what they did in that regard!).
After an early bedtime, the hikers arose at 3:30 to complete the ascent to the summit and were greeted with clear skies, awesome views and the erupting volcano. Doug said they could see the ocean, so many mountain peaks, including Tajumulco (which he had climbed over a month ago) and Antigua, of course. The volcano erupted about every 10-15 minutes with thundering noise. They actually heard it through much of the night as well. Three of their group did not make it to the top. That last 300 metres was rough; mostly walking through scree and it was a hard slog, like walking in marbles.
He returned to Tigger by mid-day and was pretty wiped out. That evening we met another overlanding couple at the compound: Ryan & Kyla from Australia. They were thinking of leaving the next day until they heard about Doug’s hike. We invited them to “happy hour” later that day.
We went back to the leather shop to pick up Fran’s new purse but although it was done, the section for the camera was not strong enough so we asked them to “reinforce” it to protect the camera better. David said it would take two additional days.
We enjoyed a pleasant evening with Ryan & Kyla that became fantastic about an hour later. The morning of the day before while Doug was away, Fran had discovered that if you walked to the back of the compound you could see the peaks of Acatenango and de Fuego and while enjoying our beer with Kyla & Ryan, she noticed a plume of smoke passing by; she got up, walked over the 10 metres to the “viewing spot” and lo and behold, de Fuego was erupting! She called everyone else over and as the sun set we saw it erupt and erupt and erupt! We stood there nearly an hour taking it all it. It was exploding every ten-fifteen seconds and from two spots. You could see the lava pouring down the one side of the volcano and it was just amazing. After an hour we grabbed our beers and walked out to the street where we could get a more unobstructed view (no power lines) and watched for another hour or so. It just didn’t stop. Fran was so happy that she got to see this knee-pain free! Doug said the “show” was even better as the view that they had from the top of Acatenango was more from one side and they did not see two spots erupting (or perhaps that morning it was only one), you could not see the lava trail and it was only erupting every ten to fifteen MINUTES not seconds. It was an experience of a lifetime and a night to remember, for sure.
Friday was our fifth day here at the police compound so after picking up laundry, we pulled out our suitcases and began the task of packing for our trip home in a couple of days, as we figured we’d have more room here than at the next place. We pulled out our tarp and began the job which took way longer than expected. We were each packing a roller board carry on bag and Doug was packing his large hiking backpack as this year he is doing the Rock Wall hike in Kootenay National Park (the hike he cancelled last summer due to his heart surgery). We managed to fit everything in (gifts take up lots of room!) and decided we deserved a treat – we went for mani/pedi’s. We returned, broke camp, filled our water tanks and drove 2km to our next campsite. This is parking outside of a hostel that allows you to come in and use their bathrooms and wifi for about $8 a night.
Fran’s birthday purse:
We got set up (not a great place for us it turned out as we were parked under a tree and this street does not get a great deal of sun for our solar panels) but it was alright for two nights. We went into the hostel and spent several hours on the wi-fi. There was a van parked next to us that we recognized as belonging to Bea & Matt from Vancouver – we’d met them in Izamal and Cancun, Mexico. They were travelling much faster than us and had decided to turn around in Nicaragua so they were headed home. They too loved Antigua – had spent about 6 weeks here in April/May and were now finishing a week in June on the return journey.
As we wanted to deplete our food supply, we were not shopping much and decided a “nice” meal was in order. After going to pick up Fran’s purse which was now complete and very nice, we found an Italian restaurant with the same name as our favourite restaurant in Draper, Utah – Fratelli’s – and decided to check out their menu. Turned out to be a great decisions and we had a wonderful meal.
We enjoyed catching up with Bea & Matt the next day when we met them in the hostel courtyard. We spent a second night here and after breakfast on Monday, we moved Tigger around the corner from the hostel so it could power up the solar panels in direct sunlight while we spent more time on the internet etc.
We headed over to Cabaña Suiza about mid-afternoon and the security guards let us in (they are closed on Mondays) and we got settled. We found Walter in his office and “checked” in with him, confirming our dates. No sooner had we settled in at Tigger when again, we hear “hola chica” and Birger and Chris were with us again! Last weekend when we parted, they were headed north to Coban before going to El Salvador when their fridge began acting up. They returned to Guatemala City and found a repairman who diagnosed the problem and they had to order a part from Austria! It took a week to get here and they had returned to Lake Atitlan for the week as they needed to be plugged in to keep the fridge running. They had the part installed today and were going to spend the night here before heading across the border. We enjoyed some of our cold beer with them before dinner and then played a few more rousing games of UNO.
Tuesday morning, we did our final last minute packing and joined Chris and Birger for a lovely Swiss breakfast in the café. After saying “hasta luego” (see you later) once again to our friends, our cab driver from the weekend before arrived and off we went to the airport.
We are flying American Airlines from here to Miami (2.75 hours), then we fly from Miami to Phoenix (4.25 hours). There we have an overnight layover so we have booked an airport hotel to at least get some sleep before the 2.5 hour flight on Wednesday morning to Seattle.