There is one internal flight in Guatemala – from the lakeside resort of Flores to Guatemala City. Anna and I bicker our way over in a brand new turboprop and our driver blasts through the capital in record time. All for the best, perhaps; the area has a reputation for violence, and only place I saw open was a strip bar called Hathor’s Palace. There was a queue.
I’m dozing when we get to Antigua Guatemala, forty-five minutes away. Anna wakes me up to a twilight vista of cobbled streets and adobe buildings all bathed in soft orange streetlights. Someone is blasting the goddamn Vengaboys. Apparently they want to go boom-boom. We wander to the central square. It is 10:30 but the trees are draped in fairy lights and women in bright Maya dress are waving us towards their baskets. I have my first try of cream of bean soup and instantly regret it. If you’d like to know what it tastes like, boil a can of refried beans up with some onions and bacon and then add a dollop of cream.
Founded in 1547 as the capital of Spanish Guatemala, Antigua boasts more tumbledown colonial churches and secret gardens than you’d imagine would fit in a town of fewer than 40,000. The Parque Central is a shady wonderland; people lounge by the trees during the day, and by the 18th-century fountain in the evening. Most historical sites charge Q40 (about US$6.50) for entry; nearly all have suffered damage from the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that bedevil this area. Yet it is the volcanoes we owe the wonderful preservation of the city to – in 1773, after a particularly bad tremor, the Spanish crown ordered the capital be moved to contemporary Guatemala City.
The upheavals of the 1821 revolution, the US-dominated 19th and 20th centuries, and the bitter conflict of the Guatemalan Civil War passed it by. San Francisco de Antigua, one of the oldest and most spectacular churches, is now a great center of pilgrimage – after 200 fallow years. The Church and Convent of the Capuchins is also well worth a stroll. This is the sort of place where nothing moves too fast – not even the motorcycles – and neither should you.
The locals are all incredibly friendly. They nod and smile and say ‘de nada’ when I bust out my wretched Spanish (the most complicated thing I can say is ‘Hay cargador para esta cámera?’ The answer was ‘No, disculpe.’) The women favor a shade of electric pink lipstick and aquamarine eyeshadow, just like one of my exes, and I think of her as I wander aimlessly in the glorious mountain sun. The men like to unbutton their shirts and ride around on scooters, their moustaches resplendent and their mahogany chests gleaming with high-altitude sweat.
And high we certainly are. Antigua is at 5040 feet (1530 meters), and is surrounded by a clutch of volcanoes – Acetanango, Fuego, Agua, and Pacayá among them. I love volcanoes, so the day after we arive, I eagerly sign up for a trek up the 2,500 meter flank of Pacayá. Located an hour or so from Antigua, it’s been constantly erupting for decades – and occasionally, its runny Strombolian lava backs up and it spits giant plumes into the air in Plinian rage.
‘Plinian, Plinian, Plinian,’ I chant at Anna on the way there. We’ve just been to a great Guatemalan-German restaurant. My belly is full of schnitzel and lemony beer and Anna’s with currywurst.
‘Strombolian sounds like a desert,’ she says.
I poke her in the side. She rests her head on my shoulder. I swat her away. ‘You ain’t mah honey.’
‘When we get to the top, I’m shoving you into the volcano.’
‘I’d like to see you try.’
I try to look superior. If only I knew what horror awaited me.
We are swarmed with kids the instant we get to the visitors’ center at Pacayá National Park, 90 minutes by minivan from Antigua. Each is holding a bundle of walking sticks and yelling ‘It’s recommended!’ in Spanish. Dirty-faced and smiling and deploying what little English they know. ‘I am Eduardo!’, ‘I am Refe!’. I wander over to a kiosk to satisfy my addiction to Diet Coke. The littlest one follows me and hovers by my elbow.
‘Sir, you too big. I recommend stick.’
‘No, gracias,’ I say.
‘You give me quetzal?’
‘OK.’ He wanders off.
Entrance to Pacayá National Park is Q50 person; US dollars are exchanged US$1 = Q7. The guides set an easy pace but be warned: this is not a climb for the unfit. The route up the mountainside in sharp bends and narrow inclines. The black brown volcanic soil sticks to your shoes and to the foliage. For a long time there is no horizon and you cannot see the peak through the canopy. We ascend in sweating and puffing convoy, tailed by men on horses.
‘Taxi!’ they shout. ‘Natural taxi to the top.’
‘I’d rather go back down then get on a bloody horse,’ I growl at Anna.
When I was younger, and my toes were not obscured by my belly, I used to climb. Now, despite having the fitness of a battery hen, I find my muscle memory is still there. I haul myself up one steep climb, and another. Ten minutes later the air’s getting thinner, and someone is gasping nearby. I look around. Somehow I’ve dropped to the back of the group. There’s no one here but Anna and a guy on a horse. ‘Are you ok, dude?’ says Anna.
For a moment I wonder what she’s talking about. Then I realize that no, I’m not. That’s me gasping. It feels like some wraith has its hands clamped on my throat. Then it hits me – I’m having an asthma attack.
It’s a funny old thing, asthma. When I was younger, every now and then, an attack would hit me out of the blue. My lungs would seal up, my vision would blur, my face flush red with blood. But for a decade, I’ve had nothing worse than the occasional wheeze. I’d totally forgotten what it felt like – like your body is trying to strangle itself. Like you’re drowning in thin air.
Walk it off, I tell myself. You can do this. You lost seven kg this year. I ignore Anna and ascend another five meters. Ten. You can do this. I can’t. At 900 meters up, my throat constricts. My eyesight blurs. I start thinking obsessively about a sister of a friend. I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to me before that I really hate her. I look up the mountain but Pacayá will not show herself to me. Decked in foliage and wreathed in cloud, the mountain has no time for me.
I peer up at the dude on the horse behind me. He’s been following me like a Komodo dragon stalking its prey. The Buddhist in me cannot contemplate placing my colossal arse on the poor dusty horse’s back.
‘How much farther?’ I ask.
‘More than halfway.’
I look at Anna. ‘I gotta go down,’ I manage to say.
‘Oh, dude. But you so wanted to see the top.’
I did. I also want throw up. I give her my camera.
‘Take pics for me.’
‘Are you sure?’
I flee down the volcano. The humiliation hot in my face. I stop when no one is around and kick a tree, but one of its branches whips down and slaps me in the face. I pass a little black dog. It skips up past me, tail held high. As if there were nothing to it at all. I sit in the dust with my head in my hands. It takes twenty minutes for the nausea to pass. It takes forty for me to breathe easy again. I wander back down to the visitors’ center and befriend a starving dog. I try to buy some Doritos to feed it – there’s nothing else around – but the shop won’t change my 100 quetzal note. My adventure ends here. Pacayá has defeated me. Side note: in the language of my parents, ‘pakaya’ means ‘bastard’.
Anna continues up the volcano. The ground levels out and the path narrows. The packed earth begins to crumble; she sinks ankle deep into the grey-black dust. Sharp volcanic stones in her sandals. The smell of sulphur heavy in the air. There are some Polish women up ahead, puffing like buffalo. Every time the group stops one of them whips out a cigarette and sucks on it frantically. So does the bald guy in the strappy red top who mocked us on the way over for eating at a Bavarian restaurant.
The group reaches the treeline; the forest drops away and now there is nothing but a few obstinate bushes and bare volcanic ground. Not far above, the peak, shrouded in cloud. No, not cloud – gas and smoke. The guide runs up and down the black dunes of ash, as nimble as a mountain goat. The group struggles to keep up.
Anna looks back over her shoulder. The sun is setting. Her skin is beginning to break out into goosepimples. As the others begin to put on their jackets, she realizes she has nothing. That she’s 2500 meters above sea level on the side of a goddamn volcano in a thin shirt and shorts. That her long-suffering knee is beginning to twinge a little. And that somewhere down below her, her oldest friend is either safe in the visitors’ centre, or dead in a bush.
Then, up ahead, a field of smoke – the fumaroles. They walk through the hot gas and the rest of the group fades away into the murk. Claudio points and smiles. The ground is warm, he says. Go on. Sit down. Warm your butt. The acrid fumes sting the back of her throat and she begins to think that maybe hanging around here is doing more damage than good.
The group climbs up to a viewpoint, slipping on volcanic scree. They all sit and watch the sun setting behind the volcano and the instant it does an icy gust billows downs from the peak. There is no snow here, not like the mountains she’s climbed in southern Chile – that terrifying wilderness with peaks twice as tall and volcanoes twice as hot – but it’s cold enough for her to fret. Time to go down, she thinks.
Claudio seems to agree. He rushes them down. He doesn’t seem to need a torch, but she does. Luckily, there’s one in her bag. Halfway down, the tip of the volcano reveals itself, silhouetted against the crimson sunset. As they get back to the visitors’ centre, she hands her stick to one of the waiting urchins. The scabby one she bought it from flits around her like a angry bat. She ignores him.
I greet her with a round of applause when and go up to her, grinning, hand held out.
‘Hey, lend me twenty quetzals, would you?’
‘I want to feed these dogs.’
I buy two packs of Doritos and empty them onto the floor. My friend – a pregnant mutt with stripes like a Tasmanian tiger – gobbles up most of it up. A goofy-looking little male comes over, and she immediately snarls and drives him away.
‘Amazing,’ I say.
‘Yeah, she’s pretty mean.’
‘No, I mean you. You conquered the mountain, dude. You went all the way up and all the way down. I barely made it halfway.’
Side note: ‘Pacayá’ comes from the Quechua ‘pakay’ – a tough little tree that produces edible pods and thrives anywhere. A bit like Anna herself. Except she’s not edible.
We stayed at Hotel y Arte (6a Avenida Sur #6; +502 5879 1296), a nice hotel with fantastic showers and big, comfy beds, a block from the Parque Central. The courtyard is full of the work of local artists, who come by in the afternoon to put up new stuff. Beware the mosquitoes, though. From US$30 a night.
We ate at Jardin Bavaria (7 Avenida Norte #49; +502 7832 5904) is an unexpected haven of Germanness, featuring Currywurst and spicy schnitzel (Q64 and Q32 respectively). The drinks and ambience are wonderful. Beltz Chef & Sommelier (6 Avenida Norte #21B; +(502) 7832-8226 / +(502) 3045-1206), a pricy and slightly pretentious location with no English language menus and quite the most delicious tuna tartare and lime cheesecake we’ve ever eaten. Dishes range from Q35 to Q225. For an antidote, try the charming and cheap Taqueria Doña Lupita (7a Calle Poniente # 14), where the food is prepared on a small cart in front of you, and you can choose to top your food off with a bewildering variety of sauces and relishes. Be careful, though – they’re organized in ascending order of spiciness from left to right, and when Guatemalans say spicy, they mean the sort of eye-watering, tongue-burning, stomach-scarring spicy that Sri Lankans and the Vietnamese love. Nothing is more than Q30.
We also visited several churches and museums around Antigua. You will find something of historical or cultural interest practically down every street, but keep an eye out – there are very few street signs and most places have small, low-fi plaques indicating what they are. Apart from the churches mentioned above, there is also a Museum of Cavalry and Cannon in the Parque Central, and the Gate of Santa Catalina provides some beautiful views.
Next: We will be going to San Ignacio, Belize, and hanging out with some iguanas.