Nestled among a ring of active volcanoes, the city of Antigua, Guatemala, is one of the most charming places I've ever been. Wide cobblestone streets lined with colourful shops criss-cross the city, taking you from the artisan market to the leafy main square to the magical ChocoMuseo (Chocolate Museum), which is only surpassed by the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm we visited a few kilometres out of town. Everywhere you go in Antigua you're surrounded by mountains and ruined cathedrals. You see, the Spanish built this city to be their capital and they had a knack for choosing places that were earthquake-prone and surrounded by erupting volcanoes (San Salvador is also built on the slope of an active volcano). I wouldn't have chosen Antigua's current location, but the Spanish were not about to let a little thing like plate tectonics get in their way. Every time there was an earthquake they just rebuilt, displaying a touching faith in the power of their righteousness over the forces of nature. This happened again and again and again, until they finally abandoned Antigua for a less earthquake-prone region. I think Antigua has more ruined cathedrals per capita than anywhere else on the planet.
|Now the ruined cathedrals house eerily life-like Easter floats|
|Previously a Jesuit seminary|
We stayed in Antigua for four days in a hostel called Hostal Holistico. If you ever go to Antigua - and you will now that you know there's a Chocolate Museum - you should stay here. It's got real mattresses, hot showers, an espresso machine, and the nicest staff ever, all for $10/night.
The high point of our trip was hiking Mount Pacaya. Mount Pacaya last erupted two years ago, sending a 40 metre flow of lava down its flank. It destroyed an entire village of 300 homes, but everyone had evacuated. There was only one death: a television reporter who got hit by a flying rock.
The hike was like the hobbits' trek to Mordor. We started in lush green pastures filled with cows, and walked straight up the side of the mountain. As we climbed it began to rain, a drizzle at first and then heavy and cold. The vegetation grew more and more stunted, until finally we climbed over a ridge and there were no more trees. A vast lava plain extended below us and the cone lay ahead, although we could barely see it through the rain. We were to follow a narrow path along the cinder slope. It looked barely wide enough for a goat.
|The tree line|
|Ashes and smoke|
We knew we were getting close when the rain started steaming as it hit the ground. For the last part of the hike we had to walk over the lava flow itself. The brittle rocks looked like a field of bones, or a bomb site.
Finally we crested a ridge and found ourselves a few hundred feet below Pacaya's smoking crater. We weren't allowed to go any closer, so we roasted marshmallows in volcanic vents. Tons of tourists were there, including a couple of large and rowdy youth groups on a 'mission year,' which apparently is a thing that Americans are into right now.
|The vent is right around our knees spewing super-heated air from the magma chamber|
|Our friend Xixi|