Laying low in Antigua, Guatemala

I should have left this place a week ago.

But there’s something special about it you can’t quite put your finger on.

The atmosphere is different here and each person I speak to agrees.

In fact, some non-natives who live here will tell you they were just passing through with the intention to stay no more than a week and somehow they’ve been here ever since.

Maybe the pull to stay is caused by the mountainous thin air in this volcanic region. Or maybe it’s something else altogether.

Whatever it is, it steers you into a relaxed, reflective and an almost-subdued mood.

Perhaps it’s why the Spanish Empire made Antigua the headquarters of its Central American rule for over 200 years.

With its rich history, colonial architecture and surrounding natural beauty, it rightfully lays claim to UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Antigua is a special place. It’s been modernised in recent years and even the old colonial buildings, which there are many, have been converted into bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

That doesn’t spoil its charm, however, because despite the consumerism, it feels like it’s been a bustling place of trade and commerce since the Spanish rule.

antigua bus
Public transport. A “chicken bus” which are converted North American school busses

I’m a coffee snob so any chance to visit a plantation where the finest organic Guatemalan coffee beans are grown, I’m all over it.

I visited a family-owned coffee plantation just on the outskirts of the city. It’s a small operation consisting mainly of the coffee farmer and his immediate family.

With a close proximity to live volcanoes, the volcanic soil at the plantation produces some of the best coffee in the world. The taste didn’t disappoint.

While the farm itself is small, it’s part of a co-op of other farms which have clubbed together to create a holding group called De La Gente which means From The People.

fresh coffee
Coffee from beans we picked, shelled, roasted and brewed.

By coming together and with greater bargaining power, the farmers can ensure they are paid fairly for the coffee they produce.

Prior to this, the large coffee companies and the middlemen (locally known as the “Coyotes”) would pay them very little. Some coffee farmers are still paid very little.

De La Gente removes the need for big coffee companies and coyotes by selling directly to independent coffee shops and consumers.

The tour was given by the plantation owner and afterwards he invited us to his home for coffee (obviously) and pepia which is a fusion of Spanish and Mayan food and also the national dish of Guatemala – all served up with hibiscus juice.

Meeting the independent coffee farmer

All in all, a great experience and a big F.U to both the big coffee companies and Coyotes.

Next up I decided to climb a local volcano.

In eyes’ view from the city are a bunch of volcanos. Some are dormant but some are very much still alive.

A couple of months before I arrived, there was a large eruption which killed 194 people. A local told me the number of casualties is much more but it was covered up by the local government.

Volcan Fuego (Fire Volcano) is one of Central America’s most active volcanoes and in June this year sent it erupted sending molten lava down the streets below and clouds of ash throughout the air.

I climbed Acatenango which is a dormant volcano directly opposite Fuego.

It’s a surreal experience camping on the summit over-night, toasting marshmallows by the fire with Fuego, across the way, occasionally erupting with puffs of smoke and small streams of molten lava.

Volcano Fuego doing its thing in the day time.

You hike Acatenango to see Guatemala’s best sunrise which means a 3:30am start to get from basecamp to peak.

Unfortunately for our group, Mother Nature wasn’t too kind on the visibility that day.

Nevertheless, some of the views were nothing short of amazing.

benefits of travel
The view from hiking the Acatenango volcano in Antigua, Guatemala.

Fatigued, we made the slow descent back down to ground level and then a bus ride back to Antigua.

Like I said, I should have left this place at least a week ago but there’s something about Antigua that keeps you here. If time wasn’t against me I could probably stay another couple of weeks.

Maybe next time I will.

Written by Ste Davies

Ste ‘Stephen’ Davies is a freelance digital consultant, traveller, writer, podcaster and speaker based in London, UK. You can reach him here or follow him on Twitter below.

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