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Central America, Pt. 2: “Hey! Let’s Go Climb An Active Volcano!”

Two days of eating, climbing and drinking.

See, I told you it's more intimidating after dark...

“It’s a very friendly jungle.”

– A hippie with shitlocks and an Apple watch commenting on the jungle we were entering near Tikal, known to be populated by jaguars, tarantulas and a variety of snakes.

In my last installment I wrote about the epic inconveniences we had both at Newark Airport and on another United Airlines flight, as well as the great time we had just strolling around Antigua, Guatemala. Now Christmas was over and everything was open.

Saturday, December 26th, 2015
We explored the main area of the town the previous day, now it was time to do it all again when everything was open, but first we would need sustenance. That wouldn’t prove to be a problem as the food in Guatemala is really good, a mix of local and Spanish influences. We started with a delicious traditional, spicy, tomato-based soup that contained a lot of cheese and then moved on to some tamales. Tamales are everywhere in Guatemala and there are many different types. I wish I had read this before we went:

 There are reportedly hundreds of varieties of tamales throughout Guatemala. The key variations include the ingredients in the masa, or dough (corn, potatoes, rice), in the filling (meat, fruits, nuts), and what it is wrapped with (leaves, husks). Tamales in Guatemala tend to be wrapped in green ‘maxan’ leaves (Calathea lutea), while Chuchitos hi — which resemble Mexican tamales — are wrapped in corn husks.
The masa is made out of corn that is not sweet, such as what is known as feed corn in the U.S.A. In Guatemala, this non-sweet corn is called maize and the corn that Americans are used to eating on the cob (sweet corn), Guatemalans call elote. Tamales in Guatemala are more typically wrapped in plantain or banana leaves and maxan leaves than corn husks. Additionally Guatemalan tamales use cooked masa, which is prepared in a time-consuming process that requires a significant amount of work.

  • Tamales colorados (“red tamales”) owe their name to the tomato and achiote (annato seed) that give them their color, wrapped with corn masa and are stuffed with tomato recado (a flavorful thick sauce), roasted red bell pepper strips, capers, green olives, and chicken, beef or pork.
  • Tamales negros (“black tamales”) are darker and sweeter than their red counterparts due to the chocolate, raisins, prunes and almonds which are added to them. Other black tamales are not sweet but are simply made out of blue/black corn.
  • Tamales de elote (“sweet corn tamales”) do not use the typical masa but instead are made out of sweet corn. These may contain whole kernels of corn in the masa and do not generally contain meat.
  • Chuchitos (“small dogs”) are a very typical kind of Guatemalan tamale made using the same corn masa as a regular tamale but they are smaller, have a much firmer consistency and are wrapped in a tuzas (dried corn husks) instead of plantain leaves. Chuchitos are often accompanied by a simple tomato salsa and sprinkled with a hard, salty white cheese traditional from the Zacapa region. Chuchitos are a very common and are commonly served at luncheons, dinners and celebrations. The masa can be mixed with tomato recado or with a meat broth.
  • Tamalitos de masa (“small dough tamales”) are smaller than the typical tamales because they are usually plain in taste, with no filling and are used to dip in other foods such as soup, salsa or beans, rather than eaten alone.
  • Tamalitos de chipilín and tamales de loroco are other variants of the aforementioned tamalitos de masa, that have said ingredients added to the mix.
  • Paches are a kind of tamale made from potatoes or rice instead of corn.

I guess that makes the one we had on this occasion tamales colorades, as seen in the second picture:

We walked around all day and just kept stumbling upon more and more amazing looking food, but we had to pace ourselves; Just because we found a great looking – and smelling – French bakery, it didn’t mean Anna should eat a loaf of banana bread as a mid-afternoon snack. Also, with my history of getting food-poisoning quite easily, it probably wouldn’t have been a particularly bright idea to have bought some chicken wings that were being cooked at the roadside, even if I was instinctively drooling profusely without even realising it. Coffee, however, was always a safe option, especially when you consider that Guatemala was Central America’s top producer of coffee for most of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century.

After our coffee we went to the Street Market (that’s its actual name). There are quite a few markets in Antigua, but after a while they all have the same stuff; Clothes made from local fabrics, “handmade” backpacks that clearly come from a factory, jade jewelry, wooden figures, Mayan souvenirs and assorted nuts and seeds. The Street Market has all of these things and in great abundance, but we also found a few other interesting items for sale:

The Funstation One got me thinking; If it is number one, that would imply that there is, or will be, a Funstation Two, which should be a superior model. Just wait for that one.

Strolling around the market made us a bit hungry and eventually we stumbled upon Rincon Tipico, a restaurant that looked and smelt like it had amazing barbecued chickens that cost the equivalent of about US$4.00. This place must have been there for quite some time, because it had calendars on the walls dating back to the early 1940s. It was around 4.00pm when we sat down and ordered but the seating proved a little problematic; Sit at the front and you will be sweltering in the heat of their enormous barbecue, but if you sit in the middle you get a waft of the toilet each time it opened, which was often. The pipes in Guatemala and Honduras can’t handle toilet paper, so instead of flushing it, you wipe and then place it in a basket next to the toilet. This process can make things a little smelly. We were given a table near the toilet
We saw our waitress walking around with plates of chicken but instead of bringing us our food, she came to inform us that they had just run out of chicken and it would be about an hour before there was any more. In place of the chicken we ordered pork that turned out to pretty spectacular, but Anna now had a craving for their chicken. They told us that the best time to get it is midday, so that was tomorrow’s lunch planned.
Not many places have wifi in Central America, but Rincon Tipico did and while we were waiting for our food, Anna started looking at things to do. “Hey! Would you like to climb an active volcano?” Well, that doesn’t sound like an opportunity that will raise its head too often, so of course I would! Anna booked the tour and that was tomorrow afternoon sorted. Chicken and hiking.

We finished our pork, Anna collected her lavender-jade ring that she had ordered from the shop the previous day, we went home and relaxed for a bit and soon it was time for dinner, but we only wanted something light. The previous day I had seen a lot of people lined up at a place called La Cuevita de los Urquizu and it looked great so we decided to try that. They have a lot of traditional stews and meat dishes, so you get to choose one of those and two sides. I saw an interesting looking stew, so I asked what it was. “It is made from a pig’s face” was the reply. “One pig-face stew, please!”

When we were done with dinner we went out for some drinks and this was when I accidentally order a michelada, a drink that basically equated to a “Beery Mary”. It was listed under beers but consisted of beer, tomato juice and shellfish with salt around the rim. Once we found out what it was it became remotely drinkable.

Sunday, December 27th, 2015
It was our last day in Antigua, but we definitely made it worth it. Anna had no intentions of missing that chicken again and insisted we arrive Rincon Tipico at 11.00am. For lunch! This time we didn’t miss out and we didn’t get seats near the toilets. That chicken was worth the wait, too!

Soon it would be time for us to try and conquer that hill. The volcano we would be climbing was Pacaya:

Pacaya is an active complex volcano in Guatemala, which first erupted approximately 23,000 years ago and has erupted at least 23 times since the Spanish invasion of Guatemala. Pacaya rises to an elevation of 2,552 metres (8,373 ft). After being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. Much of its activity is Strombolian, but occasional Plinian eruptions also occur, sometimes showering the area of the nearby Departments with ash.
Pacaya is a popular tourist attraction. Pacaya lies 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Guatemala City and close to Antigua. The volcano sits inside the Escuintla Department.
So far, the last activity reported has been the eruption that peaked on March 2, 2014 causing ash to rain down in Guatemala City, Antigua and Escuintla.

We hadn’t really brought the right equipment for hiking, but we could still pull it off, we’ll just need some supplies. We went to a market and picked up one of the crappy “handmade” backpacks and then it was off to the French bakery for a loaf of banana bread for the walk.
We piled into a bus for the half-hour trip to Pacaya and this was the first instance that lead me to coming to the realisation that in any given tour group there is going to be at least one person that absolutely shits me. On this occasion it was an 11 year-old German boy who would not stop talking, just constantly whining and throwing tantrums.
We eventually arrived at our destination and were immediately swarmed by children screaming, “Stick! Stick!” They had taken large sticks and carved them so you wouldn’t get splinters and were trying to get people to rent them to help make it easier to hike up the mountain and these kids would not leave you alone! There had to be about fifty of them and they all came up to us at least three times each! We finally got past the kids and were now being asked by men with horses if we wanted a “taxi”. Five minutes into our ascent I was panting and wheezing, leading me to believe that one of the equine taxis might have been a good idea. Persistence paid off in the end and eventually, after continually dodging copious amounts of horse manure and eating almost an entire loaf of banana bread, we made it to the summit, the two of us grey with volcanic ash, where the ground was so warm that we were able to toast marshmallows in it. We stayed up there and watched a beautiful sunset and then struggled to climb back down to the van in the dark. It was definitely a workout, the pedometer on my phone calculated that reaching the top was the equivalent of climbing 139 floors worth of stairs. We were exhausted, our legs were killing us, so I asked our guide how often he does the tour. He replied that he has done it two or three times a day, every day, since he was 14. Damn! But enough reading about it, have a look for yourself:

We barely survived our journey home, thanks to our crazy van driver taking us on a trip similar to the one when we first arrived in Guatemala, at some points doing triple the speed limit, overtaking on blind corners and speed humps, he even tried to overtake a car in the driveway of our resort! Fortunately, I was able to put the deep fear for our lives that I was feeling to the back of my mind as they were overwhelmed by the feelings of irritation toward the German kid that just wouldn’t shut the hell up!
Our bodies hated us by the time we got back to the resort, our legs were like jelly and my back wasn’t holding up too well, but we had one more mission for the night; On Christmas day, our first full day in Antigua, we met an older Australian couple who suggested we try a bar called Café No Sé, because it is open later than most. We didn’t really think much of it until we heard other people talking about it, because it turns out that this place was once an illegal mezcal bar, where they used to illegally import the drink from Mexico and they still have a hidden bar now, besides the main bar, that is accessible by a tiny door. So, what is mezcal?

Mezcal, or mescal, is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant (a form of agave, Agave americana) native to Mexico.
The maguey grows in many parts of Mexico, though most mezcal is made in Oaxaca. A saying attributed to Oaxaca regarding the drink is: “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también.” (“For every ill, Mezcal, and for every good as well.”).
It is unclear whether distilled drinks were produced in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest. The Spaniards were introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, also made from the maguey plant. Soon, the conquistadors began experimenting with the maguey plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash. The result was mezcal.
Today, mezcal is still made from the heart of the maguey plant, called the piña, much the same way it was 200 years ago, in most places. In Mexico, mezcal is generally consumed straight and has a strong smoky flavor. Though mezcal is not as popular as tequila (a mezcal made specifically from the blue agave in select regions of the country), Mexico does export the product, mostly to Japan and the United States, and exports are growing.
Despite the similar name, mezcal does not contain mescaline or other psychedelic substances.

We grabbed some quesadillas for dinner and headed down there. I’ve never been much of a spirit drinker and this stuff did nothing to sway me, but we had to try it. And besides, it was just a really fun bar. We started off in the main bar with a couple of beers, just kicking back, recuperating from our hike and generally just having a good time and then we headed into the mezcal bar, which had a two shot minimum. We were served by a woman who acted like sommelier, telling us about the finer notes and the smokey aroma of the mezcal, but failing to inform us that this stuff could probably also remove the chrome from a trailer hitch. Still, when in Rome…

It was a great night, but we were in pain and had to catch a flight to Flores the next day, but that is a whole other chapter…

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