The one sight that really warrants a day-trip from the capital is Volcán de Pacaya, a highly active cone, though this is actually easier to visit from nearby Antigua, from where most tours leave. From Guatemala City, the highway to the Pacific passes through endless suburbs, a swathe of new housing projects and giant maquila (clothing assembly) factories until you glimpse the (polluted waters) of Lago de Amatitlán nestling at the base of the Pacaya volcano.
To the northwest of the capital lies a hilly, forested area that, despite its proximity, is little tainted by the influence of the city. The one sight out this way, the Mixco Viejo ruins, the ancient capital of the Poqomam Maya, enjoy the most dramatic setting of any archeological site in Guatemala.Read More
Volcán de Pacaya
Volcán de Pacaya
Rising to a height of 2250m, this volcano regularly spits out clouds of rock and ash in the country’s most dramatic sound-and-light extravaganza. The current period of eruption began in 1965, and colonial records show that it was also active between 1565 and 1775. Today it certainly ranks as one of the most accessible and exciting volcanoes in Central America, and a trip to the cone is an unforgettable experience (although sulphurous fumes and very high winds can make an ascent impossible some days). The best time to watch the eruptions is at night, when the volcano often spouts plumes of brilliant orange lava.
It’s a steep but steady hour’s climb up a good path through milpas and thickish forest until you suddenly emerge on the lip of an exposed ridge from where you can see the cone in all its brutal beauty. In front of you is a massive bowl of cooled lava, its fossilized currents flowing away to the right; opposite is the cone itself, a jet-black triangular peak that occasionally spews rock and ash. It’s possible to descend, and pick your way carefully across the lava fields until you reach a section that’s oozing molten lava. If you’ve brought a marshmallow along, toast yourself a snack.
Many standard tours don’t allow enough time, but it’s a further 45 minutes to the summit of the cone itself. The route passes between charred stumps of trees, and then up the slippery ashen sides of the cone itself, a terrifying but thrilling ascent, eventually bringing you face to face with bubbling patches of molten magma and minor eruptions (if conditions permit). A noxious brew of sulphurous fumes (that choke the throat) swirls around the lip of the crater and you’ll feel the heat of the ash and lava beneath your feet. The climb certainly shouldn’t be attempted when Pacaya is highly active – check with your tour agency about the state of the eruptions before setting out.
Mixco Viejo was the capital of the Poqomam Maya, one of the main pre-conquest tribes. The site itself is thought to date from the thirteenth century, and its construction, designed to withstand siege, bears all the hallmarks of the troubled times before the arrival of the Spanish. Protected on all sides by deep ravines, it can be entered only along a single-file causeway. At the time the Spanish arrived, in 1525, this was one of the largest highland centres, with nine temples, two ball courts and a population of around nine thousand. Though the Spanish cavalry and their Mexican allies defeated Poqomam forces, the city remained impenetrable until a secret entrance was revealed, allowing the Spanish to enter virtually unopposed and to unleash a massacre of its inhabitants.
Mixco Viejo’s plazas and temples are laid out across several flat-topped ridges. Like all the highland sites the structures are fairly low – the largest temple reaches only about 10m in height – and are devoid of decoration. It is, however, an interesting site in a spectacular setting, and during the week you’ll probably have the ruins to yourself, which gives the place all the more atmosphere.
The Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead
Santiago’s local fiesta to honour the Day of the Dead on November 1 is one of the nation’s most spectacular, with massive kites flown from the cemetery to release the souls of the dead from their agony. The festival is immensely popular, and thousands of Guatemalans (and tourists) come every year to watch the spectacle. The colourful kites, made from paper and bamboo, are huge circular creations, measuring up to about 3m in diameter. Teams of young men struggle to get them aloft while the crowd looks on with bated breath, rushing for cover if a kite comes crashing to the ground. All in all it’s quite a scene, the cemetery lined with even larger kites of up to 10m across that are too heavy to get off the ground but which form an impressive backdrop. Early mornings are often calm, with the wind usually picking up around lunchtime, so you may want to time your arrival accordingly.