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Days 190-193 Saturday-Tuesday October 27-30, 2007
Antigua, Chichicastenango & Volcan Pacaya, Guatemala
As we arrived back in Antigua from Coban, a sense of relief set in. The past three months of travel in Central America had taken a lot out of us and we were finally going to get a bit of a break. The thought of seeing family was a joyful one as well. We had already laid out our final days in Antigua, which featured day trips outside the city, but always the comfort of coming back to the same hotel at night. This was also important because once again, I needed to watch the Red Sox play, this time in the World Series.
On Friday afternoon, now back in Antigua, we set out to book the shuttle tickets we needed to fill out our last couple of days in Guatemala. The first shuttle we booked was for Sunday morning to the market at Chichicastenango, the second on Monday to Volcan Pacaya and the third and final shuttle to the airport on Tuesday afternoon for our flight. We visited several travel agents before finding the cheapest price (meaning most crowded) and booking. With that bit of business taken care of, we had the pleasure of taking most of Saturday to relax a bit. The rest was essential, because our final three days were going to be action packed and tiring!
The first of our three shuttles came to pick us up at our hotel on Sunday morning to take us on a two hour trip to the market at Chichicastenango. If you are saying right now, “Didn’t you already go there” then you are right. We did visit the market and I wrote all about it here. We decided to revisit the over crowded market to shop for a few presents for friends and family along with a few souvenirs for ourselves. In that we are returning home for a bit, we can pick up a few small items for ourselves and leave them with family.
Our trip back to Chichicastenango saw us in a different mindset than the first and thus lead to an interesting experience. When we visited for the first time, we had been in Guatemala around ten days and were still getting used to traveling in a developing country. This time, with a little more perspective and experience, we saw the place a little differently. We still weren’t impressed with the town, but this time in addition feeling no love for the pueblo, we left realizing just what a giant tourist trap it is! The people are amongst the pushiest in Guatemala and the market is incredibly chaotic. I can’t say that I don’t understand why given the amount of tourist dollars they see, but that doesn’t change the fact that Chichicastenango is one of the least compelling places to visit in this beautiful country! With all of that said, we did find a few items worth purchasing and although it probably wasn’t worth the cost of the shuttle to visit a second time, we left with no regrets.
After returning to Antigua on Sunday afternoon we were determined to get a little rest. The constant walking around Chichi’s market left us tired and we still had to climb a volcano on Monday morning. We did manage to take in the World Series on Sunday night before climbing into bed. Our shuttle to the volcano was coming at 5am on Monday morning and we didn’t want to miss it.
Perhaps the one MUST DO thing in Guatemala is hiking up a volcano. Upon arrival in Guatemala, we opted to put off climbing Volcan Pacaya because we wanted to adjust more to traveling in the country. In knowing that we were going to return to Antigua, putting the hike off to the end of the trip wasn’t a bad idea and it gave us something to look forward to when we returned. We also hoped that a couple of more months of travel would leave us in better shape to climb the massive erupting beast. Finally on November 5th, with only one day left, we were finally going to climb it.
Another interesting fact about this hike is that from day one in Guatemala everyone has said that Shawn Reece wouldn’t be able to finish the climb to the top of Volcan Pacaya. While Jasmine and I never really doubted his ability, we did want to make sure there was a backup plan and were relieved to find out that horses were available in case he couldn’t make it. For some reason though, neither of us thought that he would need them as he has been going non stop for six months now and on almost every occasion he runs circles around us!
The shuttle ride from our hotel took around an hour and for the last twenty minutes I sat with my head glued to the window as we ascended out of a valley up to the base of the volcano. When we finally arrived at the ticket office a gang of ten or fifteen kids swarmed around the group, offering to sell us walking sticks for our journey. These kids looked incredibly dirty with holes ripped in their clothes and most of them without shoes. While we didn’t end up buying a stick, there was no way not to feel for these children, all of whom have incredible spirits.
From the base, the hike up Volcan Pacaya takes about 1.5 hours and ascends to an altitude of around 7000 feet. Our group consisted of two Australian men, a couple of middle ages woman from Texas, a German couple, Peruvian man, a Canadian woman and us, your favorite American family of three! If you add in our guide who was obviously Guatemalan, you had six countries represented in a tiny group of 12 people. We often find ourselves in situations like this and being grouped with people from other cultures really can make for a fascinating experience.
The Australians blew right up the mountain while the rest of us made our way up at a leisurely pace. At 7000 feet, the altitude is nothing to laugh about and we often had to stop to catch our breath. Stopping wasn’t a problem though as we were able to take in the spectacular views that existed during every point of the trek. About halfway up the peak, I looked back and dropped my jaw at the site of two neighboring volcanoes in the distance.
After about 90 minutes we finally reached the plateau at the top where we took in even more spectacular views and looked down into the volcano’s crater. We had made it and our guide was happy to inform us that Volcan Pacaya was erupting today. Oh, what’s that? I forgot to mention that Pacaya is active? After marveling at all of this, we ran down the hill into the crater and began carefully climbing over the dried volcanic rock.
A couple of minutes into carefully winding our way through the lava field, our guide stopped and dumped a little water down into the cracks and laughed as a plume of steam came up. It was obvious that we were getting closer to the lava and before long we could see it seeping in between the cracks. Our guide stopped us said to go no further but encouraged us to stand in certain places where it almost felt like our shoes were going to melt right around our toes.
The site of the volcano and all of its surrounding beauty was incredible. We spent around thirty minutes in the crater before heading back down and off of the volcano. At the bottom, we started eating our picnic lunch of sandwiches and chips and it didn’t take long for the sweet local kids to start begging.
In the past three months we have run into no shortage of children begging us for one thing or another. The kids at the volcano were no different in their requests, but left us with a very different feeling. They were sweet, polite and looked genuinely in need of food. While I am sure that they beg and receive food from tourists daily, I am not sure if they would eat if not for this food. A couple of minutes into enjoying my lunch, one of the children asked for some chips and Jasmine and I gave them the rest of our bag of Doritos. A couple of minutes later a child asked for my sandwich and I originally said no. Almost immediately I changed my mind after thinking to myself how much more he needed it than me and went over, broke the half eaten sandwich in four pieces and handed one to him and the other three children in the area.
The children were delighted at this gift and when I asked to take their picture, (with the local adult’s approval) excitement came over them. As the four children posed for a photo, a few others ran in from out of nowhere to join in. After it was all over, they took great joy in viewing the photo back on the LCD screen of my camera. The innocence and pure joy of children is AMAZING!
Shortly after our powerful encounter with the local children, we boarded our shuttle back and once again talked to Shawn Reece about the importance of sharing and helping others. We also explained to him how fortunate he is that he doesn’t have to beg other people for food. After a couple of minutes Jasmine and Shawn Reece were passed out and I was left alone contemplating our time spent in Guatemala.
On Monday night, we packed up our things and prepared for the flight home, hoping that Spirit Airlines wouldn’t cancel it like they did when we flew to Guatemala from Los Angeles. Luckily, Tuesday’s flight was on time and we did make it back to the US. Our time in Guatemala and Central America forever touched and changed us in ways that we will still be learning about many years from now.
During our 88 days south of the border, we found a generosity and kindness not present in every day life in the US. The indigenous people of Guatemala while sometimes old fashioned and rigid in their thinking, are among the most honest and noble people I have ever come to know. We were so grateful to be accepted in Xela where for 33 days we never felt like outsiders or tourists. On the flip side, three months of travel in Central America has left us a bit tired. A little rest sure won’t hurt. That’s all we have from here and we hope you follow us to the Eastern Hemisphere next!
The Coomer Family
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