Articles tagged with "central america"

The end of everything

The end of everything

The day I got back we had nothing in particular planned. Mike and Aasta, with whom we had climbed Volcán San Pedro, were in town, and me, Moh, Mike and Mark, a Canadian who we’d met, decided to go for a bike ride. Having hired bikes, we set off down dusty roads, through small villages, past fields and towards the volcanoes. It was mostly downhill, and we cycled for miles before stopping for a drink in a spot with a fabulous view. The clouds had lifted, and we could see the tops of all three volcanoes, with Fuego steaming copiously. Just as we began the uphill run from here back to Antigua, though, my chain snapped. I had no option but to get the bus back to town with my bike going on the roof. The others got back sweating and exhausted some hours later.

We had met a local called Gustavo while we were in Antigua. He was an anthropologist, and knew many remote Mayan sites well. He had offered to take us to Mixco Viejo, some ruins a couple of hours drive from Antigua, to which he said we would most likely be the first British visitors. That was probably an exaggeration but they were definitely not well known. But I got struck down with a nasty illness the next day, and I could not go to Mixco Viejo. I was forced to spend my penultimate day in Guatemala in bed recovering.

I was pretty much recovered by the next day, our last in Guatemala. We spent the day buying some final souvenirs – coffee, an evil saint effigy, and a Che Guevara T-shirt for me – and getting everything in order for our trip home. In the evening we met up with Mike and Aasta, and also Will and Chad, also veterans of the San Pedro climb, and had a night out on the town to celebrate the end of our journey. We couldn’t have a very large one, though, because we had to get up at 4.30am to catch our flight. We went back to our hostel at midnight and packed, and though our backpacks were insanely huge and heavy, we didn’t mind too much – we were nearly home.

In the morning we made our way to the airport and had a safe and uneventful flight home. I was sad to be leaving, as we’d had an incredible time. In an unexpected development, my Mum, Dad, auntie, brother and sister came to meet me at Gatwick. It was a wonderful end to a fantastic trip.


Towering temples at Tikal

Towering temples at Tikal

It was a very pleasant bus ride up there. A few years ago the road to Flores was notorious for (guess what?) armed robberies, but the road has recently been paved, which speeds up the journey enormously and has cut incidences of robbery to zero. I arrived in Flores safe and well after a nine-hour journey. Flores is about an hour’s drive from Tikal itself, and I got the earliest bus to the ruins. It was a bit slower than it should have been, because the driver got into some kind of fight with a passer-by. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and so I kept myself to myself as blows were exchanged, bloody noses given, and clothes ripped. Eventually the business sorted itself out, and our flustered driver drove on to the ruins.

What makes Tikal so spectacular is the fact that it is deep in the jungle. Every other major Mayan site has had its plazas and temples cleared of vegetation, but at Tikal the forest still covers much of the site. Also amazing are Tikal’s enormous temples, the biggest of which, at 64m tall, was the tallest structure in the Americas until the Spanish arrived. I spent a day climbing all the temples and pyramids I could, and enjoying the awesome views over the jungle canopy from the top. The jungles of the Petén stretch for hundreds of miles around, covering the whole of the Yucatán peninsula, and from up the top of the 64m Temple IV the views were astonishing.

It was also nice to be back in fearsome heat. It was at least 30°, and this was some relief after two weeks of chilly weather in the highlands. I spent some time pondering the fact that I was going to return to England in just four days time, and came to the conclusion that I would die of flu within a month.

As well as the ruins, the jungle was impressive. Many times during the trip I had heard monkeys, but had never seen them until now. They weren’t exactly shy here, and the first one I saw was shamelessly throwing bits of twig at me. As well as the monkeys, there were raccoons and foxes, parrots and toucans, and the huge, colourful Petén turkey, found only in this part of the world. All in all it was a fantastic day. I slept well on my overnight journey back to Guatemala City.


Market madness

Market madness

The next day, we went to a mountain town called Chichicastenango. Apart from having a fantastic name, Chichi is famous for its markets. Local people converge on the town from the surrounding countryside every Sunday and Thursday to buy and sell fruit and veg, and many stalls sell fantastic Guatemalan handicrafts, bought mainly by foreigners. We had found that it was very easy to live cheaply in Guatemala, and we had enough spare money to go on a bit of a souvenir binge. After four hours of intense haggling, I came away with three rugs, two hammocks, some painted pots and a huge blanket, all at very agreeable prices. It was great fun, and I was sad to leave. Laden with new belongings, we decided to pay the extra for a minibus direct back to Antigua.

And so with exactly a week to go, we found ourselves back in Antigua. There were two things left to do – climb the volcanoes, and visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal. The ruins had not been on our original agenda, but we decided that if we had time, we would try and see them, as they are said by those in the know to be the most spectacular of the Mayan sites. But Moh had spent a little too lavishly at the market, and didn’t have enough for the bus fare, so it was on my own that I got the overnight bus from Guatemala City to Flores, way up in the north of Guatemala on the Yucatán peninsula.


Best sunrise ever seen

Best sunrise ever seen

We had been told that the temperature at the summit was usually around -5°C just before dawn, and we could well believe it as we emerged from the tent at 5.30am to find an awesome view before us. Pre-dawn colours dusted the sky, towns and villages glowed far beneath us, and a mighty plume of steam rose gently from Volcán Santiaguito. A continuous jet-engine roar could be heard from the volcano. Our friends with the fire came over to make sure we were up, and we watched with them as the stars were engulfed by the rising blue of the sky. It was a perfectly clear and still morning. The effort of carrying all our camping equipment up here had been rewarded.

We could see Guatemala’s chain of volcanoes stretching away 100km in either direction: as far as Mexico to the west, and to Fuego and Acatenango in the east. Between us and these two were the volcanoes around Atitlán. It was only a week since we had been at the top of San Pedro, and I still felt like I owned it as I looked back at it from here. It was a truly beautiful moment when over this awesome scene the sun appeared, and we basked in its rays as the temperature very slowly began to rise. To make the moment perfect, Volcán Fuego chose that moment to erupt a small cloud of ash.

But the best moment was still to come. I walked round to the west side of the summit, and was amazed to see the perfectly straight-sided shadow of the volcano stretching away to the horizon. This was beautiful in itself, but then I climbed onto the very peak of the volcano to get a better view. To my astonishment I could then see my own shadow stretching away into the distance as well. It was an amazing moment, and looking back, probably ranks as the outstanding memory of the trip.

After this incredible sunrise, we walked over to the south side of the volcano to look down on Volcán Santiaguito. It was incredible to look down on, and hear, this erupting volcano while 100km away we could see another volcano erupting at the same time. We sat there silently for a long time, gazing at the view which stretched away before us to the Pacific. At 9.30am, though, the peace was shattered when a group of climbers arrived at the top. They were out of luck, getting just a few minutes of the view we had been enjoying for hours before the clouds rolled in below us. We had seen what we came to see, and so after we had eaten a breakfast of Rice Krispies in hot milk, we broke camp and reluctantly set off down the mountain.

As on the way up, we took it slowly, and after almost three hours we were at the bottom of the steep section. Here we rested for a while, and had a chat with a farmer who was on his way to his fields. He was very friendly, and talked to us for quite a while, asking us where we were from, what England was like, what the weather was like, whether there were farmers like him in England, what tools the farmers used, and what the word for ‘Machete’ was in English. We shook hands heartily as he headed off to work. After another hour’s walk, we were back at the road, from where we got a bus back to town.


Very high

Very high

Volcán Santamaria stands 3772m tall, just south of Xela. It had never been known to erupt before 1902, but in that year it underwent the third-largest eruption of the 20th century. The cataclysmic explosion ripped away the southern flank of the volcano, leaving a huge gash in the side of the mountain. After 20 years of calm, new eruptions began in this gash, forming a new volcano, Santiguito, which has been erupting ever since.

Santamaria is a popular climb among visitors to Xela, and every morning a minibus took climbers to the start of the trail for 5.30am. Along with 7 other travellers, we got this bus, and so before the sun rose we were already making our way up the lower slopes of the volcano. Me and Moh were the only ones planning to stay at the top, and so we were carrying much more weight than everyone else. For the first hour or so, on the gentle lower slopes, we kept up with the group OK, but as the path got steeper and the forest thicker there was no way we could keep up, and so the fast guys disappeared into the undergrowth. We knew that at the pace we were going we would be unlikely to get a view when we reached the top, but we also knew that we were staying the night and would get the view in the morning. So we just took our time and didn’t push too hard.

The air had seemed thin when we climbed Volcán San Pedro, but here it really began to have an effect. As we climbed to well over 3000m, we found that we needed to stop for rests ever more frequently, and after four hours or so, we were only progressing short distances at a time. At about 10am we were overtaken by a group of young Guatemalans, who told us we were about an hour and a half below the summit. We pressed on, and at 11.30am we met our group coming down. They told us it was another half hour to the top, and with renewed energy we pressed on to the top. I arrived just after midday, with Moh following a quarter of an hour later. The Guatemalans who had passed us earlier were there, and gave us each a round of applause. We were relieved to have made it to the summit: after six hours, we began to believe it didn’t exist.

As expected, it was cloudy, so we couldn’t really tell we were on top of a huge mountain. As well as the young Guatemalans, we were sharing the summit with some Mayan worshippers, who were chanting and praying. We chatted to the Guatemalans, who turned out to be students at the university of Quetzaltenango, and they shared their biscuits with us. They were a lively bunch, and the summit was very quiet after they headed down at about 2pm. We set up our camp in a sheltered spot, and made ourselves feel at home. Despite the long hard climb we felt exhilarated. It was cold and cloudy but we were camping at 3,772m (12,572ft) in Guatemala, so all was well and we were happy.

We rested in the tent listening to the Mayan people singing for a couple of hours, emerging to watch the daylight fade at about 5.30pm. By this time, the worshippers had gone, and we were sharing the summit with six Guatemalans who had arrived during the afternoon. They had built a camp fire, and called us over to join them. As we stood around the fire, the clouds momentarily parted to reveal a livid red sun sinking beneath the horizon, the city lights twinkling far below us and a huge column of steam rising from the unseen cone of Santiaguito. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and we became soaked with dew as we stood around the camp fire. We chatted to the Guatemalans for a while, but soon there came a pause in the conversation when our Spanish could take us no further.

After a few seconds silence, one of the Guatemalans asked us if we liked football. We said yes, and the conversation started again. ‘Manchester United!’ said one. ‘Tottenham Hotspur’, I rejoined. ‘David Beckham’ said another. I risked ‘Watford FC’, but to no great surprise they’d never heard of the mighty hornets. We exchanged a few more player and teams names, before we left the fire to go and cook dinner.

When you’re camping in the wilderness in Central America, simple foods become culinary experiences, and we had a spectacular ravioli con carne from a packet, followed by potato soup. We bedded down for the night at about 7pm.