Adam writes on 2014.01.03:
I am writing from Antigua Guatemala, sitting in the courtyard of a hotel called Posadita Casa Maria Jose. It is basically an old colonial homestead where the family lives in the back behind some doors and where the front has six or so guest rooms with their own bathrooms. It is a quaint and somewhat elegant place, and while a little bit more than we wanted to pay, it is quiet, very secure – almost too secure, and pretty secluded. I had envisioned arriving in Antigua and finding a cheap hostel, based on previous experience – or staying at one of the hotels suggested to us by Lenny who we met in Panajachel.
Lenny had suggested that we would be able to stay at a hotel that he has stayed at multiple times for about US$5 each which sounded nice (as in affordable). We were not able to find one (“Tres Volcanes”) or any reference to such by way of internet, or asking around. It may exist here, but is not obvious. The second, being “Hotel Cristal” happens to be a Lonely Planet “recommended” hotel but is only pennies cheaper than where we are staying now – which, by the way, is discounted – and Hotel Cristal is pretty much a dump compared to here.
Having arrived in Antigua, we rode around for a bit. As I stayed here before, I was hoping that the geography would magically return to me, but not so much. We had intended to find on the internet ahead of time Lenny’s suggestions but then New Years, is just New Years and we lost track of this idea. We paid a couple of Quetzales (Q7 = about USD$1) to use the internet at a hotel and I did find Hotel Cristal, but when we arrived it was closed and the doors padlocked. In fact, a lot of things seemed to be closed on New Years Day. We landed at Posadita Casa Maria Jose by way of Jose flagging us down as we circled around the cheaper hotel district. Having approached some other hostels we found them to be ridiculously expensive, full, or lacking parking. Jose’s offer, having talked him down a bit, would do for the night.
Antigua is an old colonial town surround by crumbling walls with volcanoes in the not too far distance. My understanding is that it was the flourishing capital of Guatemala until much of its grand architecture began to crumble under the power of earthquakes and the capital was eventually moved to Guatemala City. Antigua, or at least its colonial center, is full of cobblestone roads and is a fusion or modernity and antiquity. The sidewalks are rough, in that there are holes, sudden drops, and various strange angles. We have had several good chuckles as we watched “sophisticated” women stumbling around in heels or tall platform shoes in both Antigua and Panajachel. We even witnessed one using her male companion as a burro as to avoid breaking her ankles, or perhaps ruining her shoes.
Antigua is a UNESCO world heritage city and I assume that it is for this reason that most businesses have very modest signs. For example, many things can be had in Antigua – new motorcycles, McDonald’s, Office Depot, electronics, and on and on but you really have to pay attention relative to what we are used to. In this sense, it reminds me a lot of Cuba in terms of the almost complete lack of advertising. The Office Depot, Burger King, and McDonald’s have very subtle signage, basically just their name in brass letters. The local chicken fast-food joint, Pollo Campero, must have had to put up a fight to get their cowboy chicken logo painted on the whitewash walls.
Once, however, you enter a business – at least a large, contemporary one, the decor is somewhat familiar but enshrouded by historic architecture. In a desperate attempt to find Jenn a bathroom, we GPS-ed McDonald’s and her response was that it was the nicest one that she had ever been in. At the same time, at least in Jenn’s world, while a lovely place with lovely architecture somehow there is a circus element to it – and not in a good way. Tourist kitsch is abound, and by this I even mean for locals with silly toys for children, etc. That said, Antigua is probably a nice place to come for a visit even for Guatemalans, and while their are no shortage of “gringos” with all of the hostels here, it was full of Latino visitors, especially on New Years Day. In this respect, if you are going to drag your four year old out to look at some colonial city that the child probably has little interest or understanding of, one can see why it would be easy to sell little foam reptiles on a wire and other toys.
Getting around Antigua is pretty interesting. As I mentioned, solid footwear is advisable and we are wearing our closed toe Keens sandals instead of our commonly used flip-flops in fear of twisting an ankle or ripping a toenail off with a rusty piece of rebar. We have seen more than one person hobbling along with the aid of their companion, favouring one foot or the other. On the bikes, it is good fun. Or at least I say it is good fun and Jenn uses the term “treacherous”. Antigua was built using a grid pattern with many one way streets and the occasional two way. Because of the cobblestones and foot traffic, especially on busy days such as New Years, cars move at a snail’s pace. Even though we recently changed our front sprockets on our bikes for 15 tooth to 14 tooth for more power and ability to travel at slower speeds, we still find ourselves riding the clutch too much in these conditions and I inevitable fly past the cars basically planing (not quite hydroplaning) across the cobble stones to avoid the chaos.
The grid pattern is pretty interesting. It is easy to “feel lost” but hard to get lost. Streets (calles) and Avenues (avenidas) run in predictable East-West and North-South trajectories and using the walls, volcanos and parks as landmarks, you won’t be “lost” for two long.
I did promise Jenn that we would see the smoke from an active volcano, but to date we haven’t seen anything obvious as it has been fairly cloudy. My last time here I definitely saw one of the local volcanoes pluming smoke, and another called Volcan Pacaya erupted when I was in Guatemala City spewing volcanic ash everywhere of which I collected samples to take home for souvenirs. Indeed Pacaya is still active and we may yet see more but full eruptions like that of 2010 are not that common.
We have been here for two nights already and plan for a third. Jenn has a pretty bad head cold at the moment and has spent much of the day resting. Our next plan is to head up towards Tikal – a major Mayan archaeological site – but the riding sounds challenging so her cold needs to be under control.
We arrived in Antigua having taken a somewhat back route from Panajachel. During my previous visit visitors to Pana were “held captive” by way of an indigenous political road block, except for those with 4x4s and dual purpose motorcycles. At this time I took a pretty rough tertiary dirt road and found my way out. While here and there, I am enjoying revisiting sites of my previous trip, there is no need to over complicate things and take nasty back routes deliberately. We don’t need to break ourselves or the bikes. Instead, we let the GPS do the guiding and, let me tell you, it isn’t always correct. At one point we were getting mixed directions from the GPS and even with the help of our decent map of Guatemala we were going too far without asking for directions and that we did. One man said to go one way, and a police office said to go the other way. Eventually with a combination of a GPS re-calculation, common sense and a guess, we took the way the police did not suggest.
This route took as down some pretty harrowing paved but pothole ridden roads and for a while we were questioning our choice. Fairly shortly after this, I began to see some familiar sites. Previously I had run into some caves dug into the side of a twisty road. Over the last while I have thought about these caves a few times as I never did figure out their purpose and could not quite remember where they were – until now I thought they might have been in Mexico. So riding down this twisty road something caught my attention and I was distracted for a minute – caught myself riding in what is barely a shoulder but more of a tiny draining ditch. I recovered from this easily but reminded myself to always stay focused. Minutes later we rode past the caves. Are people haphazardly mining for small amounts of precious metal? Or are these dwellings, as a few pieces of clothing inside would indicate that someone is around? An interesting sight, none the less.
Not too long after this we realized that the road we were about to continue on was blocked by rock pylons (i.e. just rocks) and a portion of road I inevitably had travelled on before had fallen off into a river. A passing motorist in a pickup communicated to us as we were taking photos that there was a small river crossing, and that we should have no issue since cars were doing it. We followed the make shift dirt road round and, indeed, found a small line up of cars crossing the river. Observing a car making the crossing, I was pretty sure that it was a fairly mellow one and made a run for it. Back home, we do this stuff for fun and often find ourselves in more challenging situations. That said, we are not here necessarily to ride to our limits, or break the bikes, or our ourselves.
I took a slow path veering to the right of the river and happily made it to the bank when a big white VW pickup truck decided to be an asshole and start his crossing before I had made it up the bank. I swerved and passed him without much issue narrowly avoiding being forced into the earthen wall of the dirt track, presumably created by a bull dozer. I am floored by the utter stupidity and/or direct displays of self entitlement I see from time to time. Given that we are talking about a timescale where said asshole in VW might have lost five seconds from his day, what sort of person points their pickup truck directly at a motorcycle who is obviously crawling up a river bank after having crossed a river?
Once White-VM-Pickup-Its-All-About-Me had his turn, which was really Jenn’s turn as she was there long before he was, Jenn made her pass. Being slightly nervous having not made too many water crossings in the past, and certainly not on a loaded bike, she gunned it across. While an impressive feat, I cautioned her to take it a little more slowly next time in the event that a larger rock or log stand in her way and make her front wheel less circle-like. Regardless, bravo!
As part of the GPS confusion, we also found ourselves in a small, rustic town which was one of our landmarks on the map indicating that we were going in the right direction. Again, the GPS were playing tricks and instead of taking us through the most sensible route through town, it had us going up and down roads with fairly precarious slopes and curves in which case all you can do is ride up hard in first, make the curve – whether going against a one way sign or not – and eventually reconvene on the next horizontal surface. I can say that this is challenging “urban” riding at its best. Jenn might explain it as terrifying.
In the end, we are glad that we did not listen to the seemingly sixteen year old police officer and took the direction of the local, as taking a route following the CA1 highway would have offered less adventure. It turns out that forum posts on the ADVrider website actually suggest this route as something more interesting that the CA1 when travelling from Pana to Antigua.
Speaking of Panajachel, we had a great night. Jenn was suffering slightly from indigestion and it looked like the night would be heading south but things took a turn for the better and we found ourselves wandering around various areas of town shooting photos and videos, hanging out with locals and generally having a good time. Fireworks and specifically firecrackers are very popular and many shops and stands were selling them. Children had been playing with various pyrotechnics for several days and we started to even joke about what scenarios might be at play: “Jose, Maria…please! Just go outside and play with your sparklers like the other children…”. There were plenty of sites to be seen, amongst the smoke, intermittent flare ups, moderately impressive aerial fireworks, and lots of twenty foot strips of firecrackers been set off sending stinging paper shrapnel at us while trying to capture it all on video.
In the morning we packed up and headed out to Antigua. Arriving here, we both didn’t feel that well but did manage to have a good look around. Jenn now has a full head cold and spent most of day two in bed. I am a little sneezy and have a very mild sore throat and when we arrived home last night I passed out at about 6:00pm for more than an hour feeling completely wiped.
Jenn spent the next day (today) almost entirely in bed. It is not really a surprise to get sick, I guess. We have been spending our time around crowds of people and don’t always sleep well, especially the first night somewhere. Jenn, I believe to be joking, said it was too quiet here in Antigua due to lack of roosters and source unknown nocturnal crashing and banging like that of Pana. Hopefully we are in full health shortly as we want to head up to Semuc Champey – some impressive springs – and Tikal shortly.
As part of our of our planning, we are trying to make use of some good tips – especially around camping and cheap accommodations – as per the Life Remotely web site. Being motorcyclists, we haven’t focused much on our RVing and car/truck driving “cousins”, but the guys at Life Remotely while driving a car, emphasize camping with a tent. Their website is most interesting, especially their Accommodation Listing series.