Antigua – 30/3/2019 – 22/4/2019

Antigua is very hipster-fied, filled with trendy cafes, restaurants, bars and spas and all for decidedly more than you will pay elsewhere, but it is the most visited place in Guatemala.  There is high chance you will see more tourists than locals as you wander around Antigua and vast majority seem to be American.

On the positive side, Antigua is filled with cobbled streets, probably more than we have ever encountered elsewhere and charming, brightly coloured buildings with terracotta roofs.  The volcanoes surrounding Antigua provide an amazing backdrop, especially on a cloudless day.

We had an early start on Saturday and walked down to the Mercado, a local farmer’s market held in Antigua on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  To say it is chaotic would be an understatement. 

The main mercado is set in a large brick structure and is filled to the brim with a multitude of stalls selling a huge array of brightly coloured fruits, vegetables, live and dead chickens, puppies, meats, (if you look closely you will see the normal meats; beef, chicken, pork but you may also spot some armadillo) flowers and pinatas.  

Fruits and Vegetables
Chickens at all stages of life
Puppies and pinatas
Beef, chicken, fish, pork or armadillo
flowers

It is a maze of narrow walkways with the vendor’s wares spilling over and both customers and sellers slowly shuffling forward and squeezing past in the overcrowded alleys, some carrying baskets on their heads too. 

Add to this the cacophony of noise of the seller’s voices as they try to sell their goods and the brightly coloured clothes of the women, some of whom have little bundles tied to their front or back with a young child’s head poking out.  It makes for an eye popping experience and an overload on the senses, where you are never quite able to keep up with everything going on. But probably the highlight for me of our trip to Antigua. 

Baby bundles and baskets

Outside the main building are further stalls selling clothing, CDs (yes they still exist) and other household goods, although probably not of real interest to the tourist.

One of the most photographed places in Antigua is of course the yellow Santa Catalino Arch with its French clock built in the 1690s and the Volcano de Agua in the background. The arch is also the main tourist strip.  Arch end of the street has women and children selling traditional clothing and jewellery and boys pushing wheelbarrows of peanuts.

Just near the arch is Nim Po’ts an artistinal Mercado filled with a colourful array of statues, masks and other handicrafts.  I think there is a much larger selection at the other artisanal market near the local Mercado.

In the city centre is the Parque Central or the old Plaza Real and originally housed markets and bullfights, but today is a city park complete with fountains.  The park is filled with locals, tourist and roving vendors selling food, drinks and trinkets and seems to be buzzing with activity at all times of the day.

We had one clear morning where we were able to see Volcano Agua from just near our hotel.  Volcano Agua means in English the Volcano of water and stands at 3760 m.  Most of the time the volcano wasn’t visible at all due to haze and cloud.

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Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm – 30/3/2019

After having explored Antigua in the morning we decided to go on a short drive to the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm.

Valhalla was established by American, Lawrence Gottschamer, after he unsuccessfully tried to establish a macadamia nut farm in Costa Rica using a Hawaiian breed of tree.  Valhalla was established in 1984 using a California macadamia nut tree and has successfully grown over 400 trees on the small farm and produces skin care products, chocolates and uses the nuts in products produced in their kitchen. They also sell macadamia nut trees to the public and have helped others in both Guatemala and other central American countries establish farms.

On our arrival one of the guides on the farm took our family on a short and informative tour.  Macadamia nuts originated in Queensland and Northern New South Wales, Australia where we are from, before being introduced to Hawaii and then California.  Our tour began with showing us the two varieties of macadamia trees grown on the property.   M. Tetraphylla produces pink flowers and smaller and sweeter nuts and the M. Lntegrifolia produces white flowers and much larger nuts.

The farm is completely organic and pesticide free.  All of the macadamia nut is used.  The green outer husk is used as compost, the hard outer shell is used in the kitchen as fuel to cook with and the nut is used in their soaps, skin care products and eaten.

The macadamia nut actually takes about 8 months to completely grow and is left to fall from the tree where it is collected from the ground.  The green outer shell is removed from the nut using a machine invented by Lawrence utilizing a tyre and a 5 power horse engine.  The engine rotates the tyre which scrapes the shell off and it falls through the wires to the ground and the nut encased in its hard shell ends up in the tray.  A simple but successful machine.

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From here the macadamia nut is left in the sun to dry until the moisture evaporates and the nut pulls away from the shell.  You can here the nut rattle when it has dried out.

P1120191 (800x335)The next step involves sorting he nuts into six different sizes and uses yet another machine invented by Lawrence.  The nuts roll down the wires that gradually get wider as they progress from top to bottom.  The nuts fall through and into the correct sized bag.  Max and Ava enjoyed grabbing a handful of nuts each and rolling them down.

The final part of the tour is the sampling.  We tried the macadamia nut oil and moisturiser, the nuts, some waffle and chocolate macadamia nuts.  The products, with the exception of the skin care range were delicious.

Another thing the farm prides itself on is its toilet.  Toilet? yes you did hear correctly.  They believe they have the best toilet in Guatemala.  Take a look at the picture and decide for your self.

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We decided to stay on and indulge in some macadamia nut pancakes with macadamia nut butter and blueberries.  I have to say they really were delicious.  They have an extensive menu for breakfast, lunch and snacks.  A dessert sized portion of the pancakes will set you back 35 Q.

Tourist Information:

The farm is open 8 am – 4 pm.   

For further information, click here or visit the following website: http://www.exvalhalla.net/

 

Lake Atitlan – 31/3/2019 – 1/4/2019

Sunday – 31/1/2019

We couldn’t make up our mind whether to visit Lake Atitlan, which was expecting afternoon rain or Pacaya Volcano which was covered in cloud.  We ended up deciding to book a nights accommodation in San Pedro, on Lake Atitlan and go for the night.

So began our windy drive along pothole ridden roads which became not only steeper, but more and tighter switchbacks, the closer we came to San Pedro.   Nevertheless the drive did provide us with a beautiful, if not cloudy view overlooking the mountains, little towns with women in the traditional Mayan dress and roadside stands selling pots, wooden carved giraffes and other trinkets. Once we reached the lake we passed a couple of small Mayan villages all with murals painted on the walls, unfortunately I only managed to snap a few pictures, but they were lovely and incorporated the local environment or people.

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The challenge of the day turned out to be finding a way to reach our hostel.  It seems google maps was either trying to direct us down a street that a car would definitely not fit, the wrong way down a one way street or through the street with no entry because there was a market.  Andrew grew more frustrated as we drove round and round the tiny, steep streets to no avail. Eventually we asked a tuk tuk guy if he would show us to the hostel and we would pay him a tuk tuk fee.  That seemed simple enough, but it did require him having to ask a few other people how to get to the hostel first.  We did eventually get to there thanks in part to the tuk tuk driver and also because the market had closed and the road reopened. 

We spent some time wandering the main street of the tourist area and down along the lake watching the locals wash their clothes, rake the sea weed out of the water, bathe and the kids jumping off a jetty.  As the town is primarily filled with back packers the restaurants and bars are substantially cheaper than Antigua.  It definitely had a more hippie feel than Antigua with many of the tourists sporting dreadlocks, gauges, piercings and tattoos.

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It was my dinner choice tonight and we ate at the Garden Restaurant, because I saw a pizza over earlier.  Unfortunately the pizza oven was not in use, we were the only ones there and the food was very ordinary, but the lady owner was lovely.

Monday – 1/4/2019

After days of clouds, we began with cloudless, sunny skies and beautiful views of Lake Atitlan.  For the first time since arriving in Guatemala we were able to view the volcanoes for which the country is famous.

The first thing we could see from our bedroom window was the Indian nose.  Locals now refer to it as the Mayan nose as their rich heritage comes from the Mayan Indian and not the north American Indian.  Its name originates from the profile of the mountain which depicts the face of a sleeping Indian an the viewpoint is on its nose. There is a hike to the viewpoint which begins at 4 am, which we did not do.  But you can clearly see the Mayan Indian profile from anywhere in San Pedro.

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We began the morning with breakfast beside the serene view of the lake enjoying the slow hum of activity, the occasional boat crossing the lake and the very few tourists awake yet.  We also enjoyed watching the smoking of a volcano across the lake, which kept us entertained for a long time, or at least Andrew and I.

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The view to the right of the restaurant where we ate breakfast.

The view to the left of the restaurant.

We decided to go for a drive around to San Marcos, the hippie tourist town which afforded us a lovely view of San Pedro Volcano.

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San Pedro Volcano

Views around Lake Atitlan

The manager of our hostel, a back packer told us that Volcano Fuego in Antigua was very active and they were worried it was going to erupt.  So we decided on a return trip to Antigua we would see if we could view the erupting volcano from a nearby town.  It was an adventurous drive to reach the caldera, one section of road was in the process of being graded and we along with a bus, cars and motorbikes, slipped and slid our way up the steep hill.  Google then decided to take us on another shortcut up a very steep incline of paved, dirt and potholed roads, before ending up back behind the buses who had taken the smart route.

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It appears the luggage racks on the chicken buses are not only for luggage but also teen boys.

It turns out that we could not see Volcano Fuegos, but we did have a great view of  Volcano Acatenango.  Volcano Acatenango is considered dormant, although it had eruptions in 1924, 1927 and 1972 and is the volcano people climb to reach Fuegos or just to get a view of it. While Acatenango is not active it is still impressive standing at 3976 m.  Later in the day we did find out from one of the hosts at our Antigua hotel that Acatenango has been a little more active than normal, but they did not expect an eruption, turns out it was a backpacker rumour.

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Driving and Border Crossings – El Salvador and Guatemala

“Life is a journey. Make the best of it.”

Prior to our trip I had read many blogs on the border crossing between El Salvador and Guatemala and I have to say our experience was easy and very uneventful.  We drove a car that we had hired in El Salvador and paid $25 for the hire car company to type up a letter to take with us to Guatemala where we crossed the border at Pedro de Alvarado.  On the El Salvador side we had to show the papers for the car and attend the immigration office.  On the Guatemala side we just went to the Immigration office.  The whole process took 15 minutes and required us to fill in no paperwork. 

On our return trip from Guatemala to El Salvador we crossed the border at Vallie Nuevo.  On the Guatemala side we just went to the immigration office.  After driving over the bridge into El Salvador we had our passports checked by an official, no immigration office and we were done.  Again the process took less than 15 minutes and required no paperwork.

The roads through Guatemala and near the coast of El Salvador were pot holed and a mixture of dirt and sealed.  The potholes were often large and you would unfortunately often not see them until it was too late.  We did have some problems with Google maps through both countries, where the instructions would say turn right and in fact the map said turn left.  Other things we found was that it was directing us up one way streets or streets where a car could not possibly fit.  Finally the major problem and you really need to check it in your planning, is that google maps will take you on the shortest route.  This route may also be the one that is unsealed, windy and the locals rarely use.  We found ourselves many times on the fastest route with very few other cars and bumping along on a jaw rattling ride and being surprised that the car made it intact.  In fact we did stop to check if we had a flat tyre on one occasion but it was just the road.  But all that being said, google maps is free so you can’t complain too much.