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Excursions Around Antigua

One of our side trips involved hopping the bus for the mile or two up to the next town of Jocotenango. Very different than Antigua, it is a rather nondescript kind of place with few tourists visible on the dusty main street. It was however, home to Fraternidad Naturista. Written up in the Lonely Planet, it sells all kinds of medicinal herbs for ailments ranging from pulmonary to GI problems. More importantly they offer messages for about $8 US. It is not meant for tourists, and the building and surroundings are on the funky side. After we paid, I was directed down the hallway to the inner sanctum and changing area. In another part of the room there were four or five massage tables, though only one person was being worked on during my first visit. Not knowing the protocol, I waited on a bench for the masseur to finish. The place smelled like a gym, and water was dripping on the other side of the room. I began to think it was a mistake to come, especially with no other gringos in sight. Eventually, my turn came and I walked over to the table. As I was being slathered with oil, the masseur asked, in Spanish, how I liked the massage; duro, normalmente, or soave. " Normalmente,"I said, not quite knowing what was in store for me. After an hour of delightful, mostly, pummeling, I forgot about the rigors of studying, and became oblivious to the surroundings. It was one of the best, if strongest, messages that I have ever had. Thank God I didn't say duro to begin with. For some, it might be a little too intense, but a few words to communicate menos duro should suffice. On the way out we were handed a cup of herbal tea, vowing to return. We did come back twice more during the month, once dragging a somewhat reluctant friend who had never had a massage in her life. She loved it.


Another trip we took was to Santiago de Sacatepequez for the Day of the Dead. The origins of this holiday are somewhat obscure, being a combination of the Spanish, All Saints Day, and earlier Mayan celebrations. Normally a sleepy place, Santiago comes to life with both tourists and locals on November 2nd. People line the streets to watch the annual flying of the kites.


And the cemeteries.


The dead are thought to identify their families through the colors and words used on the kites. Some of them are as large as 35-40 feet high, and are constructed of wood and tissue paper.


The largest are usually stationary, but there were still some big ones that managed to get aloft, even though the day we were there it was almost too windy


The atmosphere is festive, like a carnival. There is music and even some dancing.


Families stroll around eating fiambre, a meat, cheese and olive concoction, thought to be a favorite of the dead. Many also sit around the graves of their family members, decorated with flowers, while offering food and drink to their dearly departed, as well as drinking cerveza. Tourists do much of the same, eating and drinking the offerings from the many street vendors, while taking pictures of the locals.




On a somewhat different note, my favorite trip was a climb of Volcan Pacaya. Below is a picture of the top of the mountain.


At 2552m or 7000 feet, this is not one of the higher volcanoes near Antigua. It is one of the most active. Just a month earlier. there had been a major eruption and no one had been allowed to climb it until recently. This excursion was organized by our school, although they actually subcontracted it to one of the many tour agencies in town. Cost was about $5 US, and it was exciting. We were picked up by bus around 1PM, and stopped to get a 2nd group from Academia Sevilla, another Spanish school. In all we were about 20. The ride took about 1 & 1/2 hours. It was only about 40 miles or so, but there was a lot of traffic and no direct way of getting there without going through Guate City.

When we arrived, close to 3PM, our guide gave a short talk about the mountain, now a national park, and said that the hike to the summit and back would take about 4 hours. Damn, I should have brought my headlamp, despite being told I wouldn't need it. We were also accompanied by a security guard who carried a gun, as there had been some tourist robberies on the mountain in the past, though none recently we were assured. The hike was fairly easy at first, but as we got higher to areas that were still warm from recent eruptions, the rocks were loose and sharp. Care was necessary to pick through the ash and boulders. The day was overcast and seemed to threaten rain, but intermittently the sun would come out and illuminate the clouds and steam from the fumaroles, which at times were difficult to distinguish from each other. We continued up to a point where the rocks were very hot, and it became hard to breath because of the heavy sulfurous fumes.


We had to cover our mouths and noses with our shirts in order to continue. As I peered over the edge of the largest caldera, through the clouds of boiling steam, I could make out the molten lava below. I threw a rock in, and with a sudden whoosh it exploded into flame and vaporized. This was about as close as you could be without actually being inside the volcano. What if this thing decides to blow again without any warning, I thought, remembering that this had happened a few months earlier. What indeed! In Guate they are clearly less rule bound and less concerned with lawsuits than in the states. But hey, this enabled me to have an experience that I could never have somewhere else.


Picking our way


It is hard to overstate the raw power of seeing the earth transformed, literally before your eyes. I felt it viscerally, and it was intimidating. After an hour or so of poking around at the top, I was not unhappy to be heading down. By then, some of the clouds had dissipated, and it was possible to Volcan Agua and Arcatenango through the setting sun. So much for getting back before dark.

As we continued to hike, everyone was high from the experience. We chatted, shared food, and talked about travel plans and experiences. It was a very international group, though I spent much of my time talking to another norteamericano, whose name happened to be Jonathan. The last hour was almost totally in the dark, and our pace slowly considerably. A few did have headlamps, and tried to assist those of us who didn't, but it was not easy to follow the constantly bobbing lights, without being able to see what was directly on the ground in front of you. At one point I twisted my ankle on rock, luckily not too badly. When we got back go the bus it started to rain,
the clouds having moved back under cover of darkness. Perfect timing. We finally arrived back in Antigua around 10PM. Tired, dirty, but elated.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:17 Archived in Guatemala Tagged living_abroad

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