Our time in Antigua was pretty epic from start to finish. We rode towards the central park to pick David up. Coban had very few gringos, but the first thing I noticed was that there was no shortage of them here. I wanted to pull up to obvious tourists and ask in the worst Spanish I could muster where the Centrale Parque was, but I refrained.
David struggled to climb on top of Aaron’s bags and, basically standing straight up on the rear pegs maintained his balance as we rode towards his Antiguan home. He was there through a scholarship at his college (Spring Arbor). He stayed at a small complex owned by a Guatemalan family. Several other students stay there. They eat what the family provides and are forced to interact in Spanish. It’s a pretty sweet deal.
We were made comfortable there right away, ate dinner with the family and David’s housemates, and made plans for the next day; Halloween.
There are three or four volcanoes surrounding Antigua. One is huge, dead, and full of water. One is big and dead, but connected to a living one. Another is just a big live, sometimes destructive volcano. Some are more dangerous than others… not so much because of volcanic activity, actually, the water one is probably most dangerous because of the thieves that live there.
We chose the large active one, as it was strongly suggested by our tour guide, David. David has done a fair amount of adventuring, too. He and his fiance, Valerie, once rode a tandem bicycle from coast to coast in the United States. Ever since then, he’s been looking for ways to return the kindnesses that were offered to him on the road to others. We were lucky enough to be able to take advantage of him.
After dinner we walked around Antigua and looked at some old buildings and went to a nice restaurant/bar with David and Valerie.
The next morning we woke up somewhat early and headed towards Volcan Pacaya. David was excited just to be on the motorcycle. Aaron and I were just appreciative, as usual, that by having our own means of transportation we didn’t have to follow any pre-packaged tour plan. This backfired, somewhat, when we got lost on the way there, but once we found the volcano, things went a bit better.
Aaron and I both fantasized about pulling a Fonz and jumping our bikes over the volcano. We realize this was probably impossible, as they probably wouldn’t let us get our bikes that close. Instead we decided we would just try to ride them up the volcano, but we were told ‘No’ by several entrances. Later on, we ran into some police on the trail that confided to us that we could have definitely rode them up, had we only ignored the people below and given them (the police) an appropriate bribe. Oh well.
So we parked the bikes, told about 10 people that we didn’t want to have a guide, and eventually signed a form that stated we were taking our lives into our own hands. I always assumed that this was assumed, but apparently in some situations you have to make it crystal clear.
While hiking up the trail, we had to tell several more concerned officials that we were unassisted in our trek and we wanted it that way. Some assured us we would get lost. Others that we would be harmed in some way. I, personally, am not exactly sure how people get lost walking up a volcano, but I suppose it must happen once in a while.
David was only really worried about the possibility of the volcano erupting and ending our lives in a Pompey-esque fury. I thought that’d be a pretty sweet way to go, but did not feel that was to be our fate.
Aaron’s knee is very broken. It basically still works, but not well. He’s had several operations and it was the cause of his medical separation from the army. He probably should have had it looked at one more time before going on this trip, but he figured there’d be time for it after Tierra del Fuego. Because of this situation, some adventures are a bit harder for him. The trail started to get steeper and Aaron was the first to start questioning how much further we should go.
Just about everyone told us we couldn’t go all the way to the top, but we were determined… at least I was.
Eventually we hit the treeline and were greeted with black, scorched earth and a clear view of the top of the volcano. We also had a great vantage point of the surrounding mountains. It was amazing.
Aaron tried to give up by hiding in a steam pocket, but we got him out and continued our ascent. Not long after that, we were met by a man who set himself directly against our wishes. He claimed to not speak any English, but this was OK because David spoke passable Spanish.
Whenever the man didn’t want to understand what David was saying, however, we would just ignore him. The conversation went something like this:
Man: You cannot go any further up.
David: Yes we can. We signed papers that said we can.
Man: No, you can’t.
David: Police a bit further down said we could. (This was true. We did find police that said we could.)
Me: [in English] Why does he care? He doesn’t look like an official… he just looks like a hiker.
David: [back in Spanish] Why do you care?
Man: [pretends not to understand]
-Repeat the majority of what was already said-
Man: The boss on the walkie-talkie told me to stop you.
David: We don’t believe you. But just give us 10 minutes to walk a bit further. That’s all we want.
Man: Do you have a cigarette?
Man: Nevermind. Get out of my face.
This is actually the abridged version, as the real conversation lasted about 10-15 minutes and the word, “What” was used a lot more frequently along with, “I don’t understand.”
From there the path got a lot steeper and the ground turned to very loose, black, volcanic gravel. This is about where I began to get tired. I didn’t really want to go back down, but the altitude and the sheer distance we’d hiked started to get to me. David, claiming that the year before he had run a marathon that ended just about where we were was intent on climbing just a bit further, so we pressed on.
About 10 minutes later David, too, got tired, but Aaron was in disbelief. He couldn’t understand how we had pushed him so far to give up this close. He was angered that when we hit the treeline, he accurately surveyed the distance to the top and dubbed it, “really far away,” as he is able to do from his land navigation training in the army. I still hold that I just wanted to take a brief nap or something, but nonetheless, we continued at his insistence.
It was about here that we met two musicians descending. They were welcoming either Halloween or All Saints Day, I’m not sure which, by blowing loud, hollowed animal horns into the volcano. David translated what they had said and it was something like, “Yes, you can go to the top. It’s only five more minutes up the trail. We were just there. It filled us with fear.”
They played their instruments for us, we shook hands, and parted.
As we got nearer to the mouth, David began irrational avoiding what he called “the lava flows,” claiming that’s the place the lava would come first to get him.
When we reached the top, I was ecstatic and went to the very edge to look inside. David kept his distance… and “his” distance was a lot of distance. Aaron forbid me to get any closer, which I probably couldn’t have done without falling in and commanded that I return. I skipped about the edge for a bit longer and made sure we got a couple decent picture and then we returned.
While I was still hanging out at the mouth of the volcano, there was a private conversation between Aaron and David that went something like this:
David: We need to get out of here.
David: There’s no point in being up here now that we’ve seen the top. It’s dangerous.
Aaron: What are you thinking?
David: Let’s run down.
Aaron: I told you earlier that I can’t run because of my knee.
David: Oh yeah… OK later.
David then fled.
Aaron claimed he wasn’t as bold at the mouth because we needed at least one of us to return to the parents.
As we descended, we found that just as it was incredibly difficult to climb up the loose gravel, it was exceedingly easy to slide down. We jumped and slid down most of the steepest parts and made it back down to the old man who tried to stop us from climbing earlier. He seemed genuinely happy to see us. It is possible that he’s the guy who’s got the job of carrying careless hikers down the volcano if they’re injured or something and was just relieved that his services wouldn’t be put to use that day, but whatever the case, the second meeting was much less tense.
When we finally got back down to the motos, we were pleased to see that the children who had been swarming us and the bikes earlier hadn’t stolen anything from us. As a means of thanking them for this kindness, Aaron bought some of them candy from the nearby store.
When we arrived back at Antigua, it was time to start getting ready for Halloween. David and Valerie went as a fisherman and a squid. Aaron and I went dressed in our blue coveralls and helmets. We honestly hadn’t planned for Halloween and that was about the only themed thing we could pull off. Passing by a bar on the way to David’s school’s shindig, a passerby complemented us on our Daft Punk costumes. Thus, for a good portion of the night, we were Daft Punk.
The school’s Halloween party was filled with foods that we’d never seen or eaten before. In fact, after a solid attempt at a large, red, orb-like thing, Aaron had to remove it from his mouth and proclaim it, “not a food.”
After the meal, there was a costume competition that Aaron and I did not win.
After that party, we went off to meet back up with the Irish girls that we’d met back in Semuc Champey. For this leg of the journey, at least, we were scheduled to be in almost all the same places.
The next morning we went to the local market. I finally got new sandals. I was using David’s shoes since arriving in Antigua. Aaron bought a new hoodie, as he lost the one I gave him when he hit that truck. He also lost the machete in that exchange, but we weren’t satisfied with any of the blades offered at the market, so we decided not to buy a replacement yet.
After that, we went to Big Kite Day, or as everyone else calls it, All Saints Day. The Guatemalan custom is to build enormous kites, ranging from about 10ft to 50ft diameter, bring them to a sports field, and try to get them to stay in the air for a while. To do this, they have runners close to the kite and holders further back. We didn’t know this at first, but the hope is to get the kite to stay up indefinitely. The wind and skill of the handlers doesn’t always help in this attempt, however, so this leads to a lot of enormous kites falling into a crowd of onlookers.
When we originally heard of this practice, Aaron said it couldn’t be how we were imagining it, as it would simply be too dangerous. It was exactly what we thought, though, and it was great.
The next day we bid our farewells and headed for Honduras.