Volcano trekking in Guatemala and Maya ruins in Copan

Mar 15, 2016 BY Paul McWilliams

Doesn’t time fly? It’s week five of our Central American odyssey. This week it’s all about watching lava flows, volcano trekking in Guatemala and Mayan ruins in Copan. That’s right, it’s finally time to face the fear and visit Honduras but don’t worry, it all turns out nice in the end.

Volcano trekking in Guatemala image by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

Colonial capitalism in Antigua

We arrive in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, after taking a series of chicken buses from El Salvador. Antigua is without a doubt in a beautiful spot. Surrounded on all sides by towering mountains and no less than three volcanoes (one of which is very active) – it’s a stunning setting.

However, despite its obvious charm, you can’t help but notice the sheer number of tourists. Behind the well-preserved colonial arches lurk a McDonalds, Burger King, even a Starbucks. It all seems to be catering for the foreign dollar – and the prices have been hiked up to match.

Volcano trekking in Guatemala image flickr image by Frank_am_Main

Luckily, there is still a big local market where you can get lost in the labyrinthine stalls, and buy pretty much anything you can imagine. It’s also the place to go for cheap street eats. Put aside everything you’ve ever learned about food hygiene and just go with it. And although you’ll probably pay a little more than a Guatemalan would, it’s still ridiculously cheap. Plus the money is lining local pockets rather Ronald McDonald’s oversized clown trousers.

Later in the evening, something pretty incredible happens. Wandering the streets looking for more meat of questionable origin, I look up to see that Fuego (the active volcano) is actually erupting. In the pitch black night sky, you can clearly see lava frothing and boil its way down the slopes. It’s a pretty incredible sight but does create a certain air of trepidation about tomorrow’s activity.

Volcano trekking in Guatemala

Although you’re not allowed to climb Fuego, I take the bus to another active giant called Pacaya. It last erupted in 2014, and once we’ve made the tough climb to the top, you can see where the most recent lava flows carved out their path. Not only that, once you get close you can really feel the heat. Our guide lifts a rock, produces a marshmallow and proceeds to roast it. Given this lava is over two years old, the fact it almost burns the soles of my shoes is terrifying.

Volcano trekking in Guatemala image by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

Leaving Antigua with mixed feelings, we head back over the border into intimidating Honduras. Virtually no one I’ve met has braved it. The major cities are essentially no-go zones, and a quick google search brings up horror stories about buses being machine gunned and outrageous gang violence.

But I’m only really going just over the border to the Maya ruins at Copan, said to be the safest town in the country. And you know what, it’s really fine. While I’m still not sure I’d like to go strolling around downtown San Pedro Sula with a wallet full of cash, basically you should never believe what you read on the internet (with the exception of this blog, obviously). It doesn’t do any good and most of the scare stories are probably exaggerated.

Volcano trekking in Guatemala image by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

The mystery of the Maya

The Copan ruins are my first taste of the ancient Maya civilisation. For about two thousand years the Maya was MesoAmerica’s great empire. Incredibly gifted mathematicians and architects, they created colossal city states that were far superior and larger than anything in contemporary Europe. Then in around the 10th century, everything suddenly went quiet.

Volcano trekking in Guatemala image by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

Historians and archaeologists argue about the exact reason. Droughts, inter-city wars and peasant rebellions are all cited as causes. The Maya themselves survived and today still form the majority of Central America’s indigenous population (religions and languages are currently thriving). But the great cities were reclaimed by the jungles they had initially replaced.

The ruins are pretty spectacular. Towering pyramids and temples, some of which have been found to contain elaborate stucco tombs and offerings, were all originally painted bright red. You can only imagine how this place must have looked when it was home to tens of thousands of Mayans, making blood sacrifices and offerings to their gods.

Volcano trekking in Guatemala image by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

After a few days in the nearby town of Copan Ruinas (imaginative name), it’s time to get going. I spent a few very lovely and peaceful nights in the very well run and tranquil Casa de Cafe in the town and it’s tough to drag myself away and onto another mammoth shuttle bus run.

But for now, it’s back to Guatemala. I wish I’d been braver and explored more of Honduras but it’ll have to wait for another time.

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Antigua, Central America, Copan Ruins, Guatemala, Guatemala City, Honduras
Overlanding, Trekking
Cultural, Independent Travel, Volcano
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