Refreshed from our swim in the turquoise pools at Semuc Champey we set off towards our next destination – Lake Atitlan, via Coban and Chichicastenango as it turned out to be a long drive. The weather grew increasingly wet and we acted as convoy leader and chief pothole/ speedbump spotters with Alex and Jade following close behind on their bikes. After an uneventful, but slow drive we arrived in the dark in Coban and as it was still raining we parted company with @wanderdon’twonder who headed to find a dry hotel (while we appreciated the luxuries of a car and our comparatively vast amount of storage). After a quiet night in a nature reserve right in the middle of Coban city, we hit the road early (fortified by a McDonalds breakfast – so bad but sooo good – we needed their wifi)! Chichicastenango is a small town, that really comes alive on Thursdays and Sundays when local Maya descend on it and swell the market to encompass the whole town with all manner of goods. We camped in a gated parking lot in order to be able to see the market early before the hordes (Americans on bus tours from Antigua)also descend. Our hosts were extremely welcoming and we even treated the car to its first wash (it must have been kgs lighter with all the dust and mud removed!) unfortunately the nearby bar was having a fiesta – so sleep was hard to come by. The market next morning was a mass of people, smells and noise – everything you need and possibly don’t could be found amongst the chicken, pigs and pineapples.
‘Marketed’ out we set out for Lake Atitlan. I should point out that it was not until we were halfway down the umpteenth steep switchback on the road to San Marcos that Rachel informed me of the possibility that we could have to turn around if the road was closed as rumoured to be (roadworks). Luck being with us with only a 90 minute wait until the 1 hour a day the road was open during which we made friends with our fellow traffic-jammers. We arrived at Pasaj Cap campsite and were relieved that it had been worth the risk of the journey. This is without doubt the best campsite we have been in on our trip. Pierre, our French host, was so welcoming and the setting can not be beaten; views across the lake to the volcanos surrounding us, clean hot showers, the lake to swim in and the camping area to ourselves – to say we were happy is an understatement 🙂
Our planned 2 night stop rapidly became 3 – we could have stayed a lot longer but we are aware that we’ve booked our shipping to Columbia. Our stay was relaxing and useful as we reorganised the car and booked it in for some work, (again) met new friends – @Itsnotaslowcaritsafasthouse and treated ourselves to a slap up meal at an artisan restaurant renowned for its cheese and charcuterie platters, 24 Guatamalan cheeses – yes please!
Relaxed but reluctant we left Lake Atitlan, I suspect we will be back. We survived the notorious bandit road south around the volcano thanks to a police escort but nearly didn’t survive the traffic jam just outside Antigua – 3 hours to go 10km in 38 degree heat! We left the car and the majority of our belongings with Gunter, our German Guatamalan mechanic and headed to our hotel ready to climb Volcano Acatenango the next day. I’m not sure it’s easy to explain how we feel when leaving the car… it’s our transport, our home and refuge and, quite frankly, it’s terrifying being parted from it!
Acatenango, at 4000, (3976m if you’re being pedantic) is the 3rd highest peak in Central America and has clear views across to volcano Fuego, Guatemala’s most active volcano, right beside it. We started the hike at around 2200m and it was all up hill from there, but our local guides made sure we took regular breaks, like we needed encouragement to do so and got us to our base camp at 3600m 5 hours later. The views and sheer power on display as Fuego spewed ash and lava into the air pretty much every 20 minutes made all the hard work so worth it – so did the hot chocolate and marshmallows by the fire!
At 3.45am we were awake for the final push to the summit – a mere 400m was the toughest climb I have done… mostly thick volcanic grit underfoot meant you slipped down each step you took up and the air was so thin – but with some very tolerant and supportive guides (and a patient Richard) we were at the top for sunrise. Coming down from the summit was much like running a sand dune, with the occasional rock, and I think the guides were slightly stunned when I took off at a run quite happily hurling myself down the slope!
Back to Antigua – a town that seems to be able to capture visitors for far longer than they expect to stay; beautiful old buildings, a fantastic array of restaurants and wine bars and cobbled streets to explore means it is popular with tourists as well as weekend escapees from Guatemala City. Following the climb we decided we deserved a couple of good meals out and made the most of the last affordable wine we’ll see for a while. The car is purring with its new timing belt and brakes rejigged for the switchbacks to come. The car is parked and the tent is up, ready for bed, on a city sidestreet, which still seems a little odd, but it’s a well renowned overlanders haven so I am sure we will be safe… albeit not the quietest night in town as Antigua has just made it into the Guatmalan Cup Final!