Next stop for me was Antigua Guatemala, the original capital of Guatemala until they got sick of all the earthquakes knocking it over every few decades. It's a very beautiful city, littered with ruins of majestic old ruins of buildings that the government doesn't have enough funds to do preservation works to, so most of them are fenced off without so much as a plaque to say what it was.
My first day in Antigua, I went with an Aussie couple I met at the hostel to explore some of the markets in the city. We went to the "real" market and a few of the tourist ones and the differences were striking. The real markets were busy, noisy places, each shop seems to specialise in selling only one type of things, largely stuff I wouldn't need but it was interesting to see and made for some nice photos. The tourist markets on the other hand were big places with pretty much no one in them but the shop owners, filled with hundreds of shops all selling the same kitsch crap.
We stopped for lunch at a place that my Aussie friends had heard was good and they had a pretty amusing menu featuring an egg mcfuckin' muffin and free Advil!
I ordered myself the egg mcfuckin and thought it seemed like a good deal coming with a free cocktail. I was pretty surprised when it came out and the muffin, fries and fruit came out on skewers in the cocktail, like cocktail stirrers!
The next day I booked myself in for a trip up Volcan Pacaya, one of Guatemala more active volcanoes that last seriously erupted in 2010, blowing ash so high that it even rained down on the modern day capital Guatemala City.
The walk up wasn't too challenging, there were a few steep parts with very fine (thankfully damp) gravel-ish soil, but for the most part it was an easy walk up a hill. There were some guys with horses that insisted on following us and trying to coerce us into paying to ride a horse up instead, shouting "taxi" at us over and over. Annoying on a bunch of levels, making the nature we were surrounded by feel as obnoxious as a city street, covering the trail in horse shit, and triggering my allergy to horses pretty severely.
When we got to the top, it was like looking at the surface of another planet. An huge hill of jagged black volcanic rocks, steam vents letting out steam all over the place.
There was a little shop up there selling souvenirs, working under the novel pretence of being a shop on a volcano.
However, the highlight was being able to roast marshmallows over invisible volcanic heat vents. They were some of the tastiest roasted marshmallows I've ever had; we even toasted a few tortillas and made a marshmallow taco!
We actually had a dog follow us up the hill the whole way, and found there were a whole bunch of them at the vents where people roast marshmallows, who had apparently developed a taste for marshmallows.
While in Antigua I also took advantage of some of the free salsa lessons on offer around the city. I was absolutely terrible to start off, and didn't improve very quickly, but I could feel a lot of similarities in the learning with the way I have to learn new poi moves; repetition of the basics over and over until I no longer have to think "ok, what's next" and can free up my mind to concentrate on the more complicated aspects. I do wish rhythm came a bit more naturally to me.
I explored a few of the more maintained ruins around the city, but the most impressive one for me was Convento La Recolección, an old cathedral and monastery/convent. I'd barely entered the site and a grounds keeper approached me and started showing me around as a bit of a tour guide, all in Spanish which was good practice but may mean I have some mistranslations.
The level of the soil is apparently now about 3 metres higher than it was, so big parts are now buried. He showed me around a few of the courtyards with tons of rooms leading off them which I think the inhabitants used to live in.
We then went to a little room with a big locked door with "Danger" written on it in Spanish, that he proceeded to unlock and lead me in. Inside was a chapel, one of the less destroyed parts of the site. I went down a little hole in the ground down a ladder and into the catacombs where it was pitch black. There was a dark tunnel leading off that I was told was an ancient secret passage between here and one of the churches over in the middle of the city. Amazing! I wish I'd had a better flashlight than my iPhone.
The chapel was beautiful, a beautiful example of nature reclaiming man made structures. Green moss growing over most of the surfaces, a hole in the roof letting light stream in on top of a little garden of ferns. I really wish I'd had a tripod to take a series of shots of varied exposures to have a go at some proper HDR shots, but I made do with what I had and got some nice shots anyway.
The last part he showed me was the cathedral itself, which must have had 30-40 meter high ceilings and walls several meters thick, now largely in huge chunks on the floor. The earthquakes must have been incredible to knock this place down so thoroughly.
Other highlights where the massive fountain inside Iglesia La Merced, 27 metres across and set inside a huge courtyard.
And the cathedral next to central park. From the outside I didn't even realise it was a ruin, but inside all of the domes of the ceilings are gone and a few other bits have collapsed, making some stunning natural skylights. I heard that this one wasn't actually a victim of the earthquakes, but rather collapsed because of a lack of maintenance.