Pre-Christmas at the beach
It took 4 buses and a boat across a mangrove swamp to reach Monterrico beach in Guatemalan from El Salvador (more of which at some point). As we chugged through the swamp in the tiny wooden tiny boat, the locals had a great time laughing at us for living out of backpacks rather than choosing to live in a house in our country like sensible people.
Monterrico beach encourages extreme laziness, being mostly about food, sunsets and watching baby turtles pegging it towards the sea every evening. The local conservation team gather the turtle eggs that are laid each night to protect them from poachers (huge problem all through Central America), then at sunset the babies are freed to hurtle down the beach and throw themselves into the giant waves. It’s super cute watching them making their teeny, flappy way down the beach and then get knocked into the air by a huge wave at the shore line. I was a massive tourist and paid to ‘release’ one on our final night. I named him Rudolph in the festive hope that he would lead the others in the race to the sea, but it turned out he was more of a thinker than a doer. He did make it down to the sea eventually though, as did all the others.
Christmas in Antigua
Antigua is a magic little cobble-filled city tucked away in the mountains and brimming with traditional culture. On Christmas eve we took a shuttle bus straight up from the beach, past jagged volcano ridges and a misty sunset to arrive in the city after dark. There we stumbled upon a candle lit procession singing Christmas carols and carrying giant angels. Following them through the winding streets led us to a beautiful square where for some unfathomably wonderful reason, people with giant papier mache heads were dancing around to a live calypso band. Some had giant fruit heads, some were animals and some seemed to be caricatures of politicians. They all bopped about merrily as the church bells started ringing and firework displays started right over our heads. Fireworks are not so health-and-safety conscious here, so people were covering their eyes from the falling sparks and ash! In the same square we found some amazing street food called cerdo adobado, sort of like the inside of a chorizo but served in torillas with loads of salsas and mystery veg. At midnight, we watched many many more fireworks all around the city from our hotel room balcony (a Christmas treat – gorgeous proper hotel!), wrapped in big blankets because it is actually cold here!
Christmas day was marked by a line of explosives going off in the street right outside our hotel which sounded quite a lot like a machine gun and seemed to cause great joy despite almost certain hearing loss for people at close range. We spent the day wandering the city, then went out for a fancy 8 course tasting menu (also Christmas treat) in a beautiful restaurant built in the ruins of an old monastery. We ate some seriously incredible food, even if the two beef courses near the end ALMOST defeated us.
Another Christmas treat was one of the greatest wine bars in the world, where the wine gets cheaper with every glass you buy! This was especially exciting as wine is not really a thing in Central America, and good wine even less so. We got chatting with one of the local staff there, who told us in her home town (outside the city) no-one feels safe to walk outside of their houses, so people drive everywhere. Because of the danger in surrounding areas, Antigua has become the region’s ‘walking city’, meaning people drive into the centre from miles away, just to have the freedom to walk around the streets and parks with their families in the evening. It was strange to think of walking outside as a luxury, and made us appreciate the security we have at home a whole lot more.
Before leaving Antigua, we took a bag of marshmallows on our hike up the nearby Volcan Pacaya so that we could toast them in the heat of the active volcano! In the manner of fellow rugged survivalist Bear Grylls, I gathered appropriately twiggy sticks on our way up in order to perfect the toasting experience. To toast a marshmallow most effectively you have to find a fairly deep hole in the volcanic rock, and the deeper the hole, the quicker they toast. They tasted especially delicious on the weird and misty landscape of broken lava rock.
Hasta la proxima!