Revisiting Antigua and Earth Lodge
At the end of our week in Xela, Rachel, Sarah and I headed back to Antigua. Sarah had to fly home from Guatemala City in a few days time, and I was happy to go back and share the amazing ruins with them and explore a few more.
We went to The Monastery of the Recollection convent again, and were lucky enough to get another another tour from the same ground keeper. I was really please he was there, it would not have been anywhere as good without being able to get into the restricted parts again.
I noticed a decent improvement in my understanding of his Spanish this time around and the lighting was a little better this time around so I got to take some more photos of the place.
We went on the walking tour led by a guy named Alexander, telling us about Antigua's history and some of it's ruins. It was from him that I found out how the “public service” preservation of ruins is the reason so many of them are just fenced off without any info or maintenance, and the lack of public funds to change that.
Many of Antigua's old buildings are just their façades now, with either nothing behind them, or completely new buildings built behind them. It was also from him that I learned that the Cathedral off central park didn't actually fall from the earthquake, but rather from lack of maintenance. He told us that some work is done now to stop it decaying any further, but they wont be restoring it. We learned how colonial style architecture in this area meant super thick walls to withstand earthquakes, which also means generally dark building without windows.
The tour stopped in at a jade factory, where we were told how the Mayan empire had collapsed because of their indulgent greed and decoration, and then at the end we were pressured to try and get us to buy super expensive jade jewellery. I think the irony was lost on them.
The tour finished up at a old ruin that is privately owned, San Jeronimo, which now functions as a pretty great museum. We were told that because they don't have the UNESCO restrictions that the publicly maintained ones do, they're able to do things their own way and thus it's in much better condition than pretty much any of the other ones. Full of beautiful gardens and classy looking old room, it's apparently used for a lot of weddings.
Another day Rachel and Sarah went to climb Volcan Pacaya; I had wanted to do a tour in Antigua that I found online that visited a bunch of out of the ordinary places including a coffin maker's workshop and a chicken bus factory, but the tour wasn't available during the days I was around. The chicken bus factory was the part that interested me most so I asked at the hostel and got some directions and set out to find it myself.
As an aside for those in the dark, "chicken bus" is the moniker that pretty much everyone in Central America uses for the old USA school buses (often Blue Birds) that have been refitted and painted up, often with very bright and colourful paint jobs and nearly always with lots of biblical passages as decals on the windows.
I got on a chicken bus that took me to Ciudad Vieja (old city), a much more authentically Guatemalan city next to Antigua. When I got off the bus, I had no idea where to go, and just a scrap of paper with the name of the workshop written on it. I asked in a little food shop and he gave me a general direction to head in, and eventually I found the place I was looking for.
It turned out there was a whole cluster of places clumped together that all did work on chicken buses so I visited a few of them. The first one had a lot of old American school buses being painted and refitted, lots of people busy working. There were a bit confused why a gringo would want to look around, but let me walk through and see some shiny newly painted buses being worked on.
The place that I'd been given the name of by the hostel, Taller Horacios de Camionetas, appeared closed when I arrived. I knocked on the door anyway and a guy who actually spoke a decent amount of English answered the door. He was happy to let me come in for a look and told me a bunch about how they also make new buses out of trucks, stripping them down and pretty much building entirely new vehicles out of them.
Apparently buses take about 40-60 days to fit-out, and start from about 50,000 Quetzales ($6,500 USD) for a basic fit-out, but can cost a whole lot more if you want lots of fancy lights and stuff. Depending on where the bus is going to be used, they will actually shorten them so they'll be able to get around tight corners in that city, put in more powerful engines to deal with hills in the area, change them over to have manual transmissions, or upgrade the engine computers with ones from trucks in order to get more power from the engines. It was fascinating to find out how unique each bus on the road must end up being.
The next morning we got up to say goodbye to Sarah at 4am before going back to bed to sleep until a more sane time to start the day. After we'd had breakfast, we got picked up by a shuttle to take us up into the hills above Antigua to an eco-lodge and avocado farm called Earth Lodge where we were booked to stay for a few days. It was a really nice location with a fantastic view looking out towards Volcan de Agua and Volcan Fuego, surrounded by farmers fields and green forests.
We spent many hours in Earth Lodge's numerous hammocks looking out that view of the volcanoes, talking about everything and nothing, and got in a lot of reading too.
During the period we were there Volcan Fuego seemed to be quite active, blowing out plumes of smoke several times a day. It kind of made the effort we'd put in to see Santiaguito erupt seem unnecessary, although I still think it was worthwhile to actually hear the boom from up close.
Most days we went on hikes further up into the hills to get some exercise, passing a lot of farms that seemed to be growing flowers, and along trails through the forest.
Being an avocado farm, the kitchen's menu was well packed with meals that included deliciously ripe avocado. They also made terrific fruit smoothies, so I tried all kinds of strange combinations. I think my favourite combination was strawberry and avocado.
One night, possibly the last one we were there, there was an epic lightning storm. Lightning was streaking across the sky every few seconds lighting up the clouds, and thunder was booming, but interestingly there was not a drop of rain to go with it so we got to sit outside and enjoy the show. Nature is amazing!