28th July: Quick border crossing today, much more organised and tidy than the Nica/Honduras side. Good roads in general but a lot of up and down steep hills – (developing a nice judder on the brakes). We pass huge shopping malls and well-appointed (this is a good estate agent term) gated communities. Reasonable traverse of a buzzing Guatemala City – many slums cramming the steep hills surrounding it. The driving standard is crap – (whoops! there’s another one almost on our bumper). By 2.30 we reach Antigua (La Antigua Guatemala, to give its correct name) and park in a vast compound where the tourist police have their headquarters – this should be pretty secure. Head to town for a wander. This place is charming, a photo opportunity on every street. Great mixture of “Gringo-land” existing alongside Guatemalan life. We get an amazingly good croissant but they do insist on shaking cinnamon on the cappuccino – very curious. Our grassy, shaded camp site is surprisingly quiet for being in the town. Tonight we have a – ‘Did the earth move for you, darling ?’ – moment, except I’m fast asleep when it happens. ‘They’re stealing our wheels,’ Christine cries, leaping from the door like a paratrooper on D-Day. ‘Stealing our wheels?’ I mumble. But aren’t we in the tourist police compound? ‘The car was shaking like hell,’ she says, returning empty handed. ‘And a fat lot of good you were.’ I turn over, gibbering something about an earthquake. I feel in such safe hands with Christine.
29th July: We meet Alexander in the plaza for our tour of the town. Alexander is a long-term resident of Antigua. ‘Did you feel the earthquake last night?’ is the first thing he asks. ‘Uh. No, actually,’ I reply. ‘Volcan de Fuego,’ he says, grinning. ‘She likes to rumble every now and again.’ It did it last Saturday, we’re informed by an American lady. Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes – how wonderful. The town has been destroyed and moved and destroyed and rebuilt on various occasions due to eruptions and earthquakes. Many of the churches have had to be abandoned. I find their ruins rather picturesque, part of the character of this town. Presently, the biggest earner for Guatemala is tourism, followed by remittances (money sent home by Guatemalans working abroad). Apparently remittances add up to a staggering 5.2 billion US dollars. This is a poor country with lots of new cars and motorbikes and houses, all due to the value of remittances. So that answers a few questions. ‘Antigua has many homes valued at a million dollars,’ Alexander says. Corruption is a big issue. The former mayor is in a military prison and refusing to say where he hid the millions of dollars he siphoned during his tenure. Tonight we go to a wine bar and drink Argentine Torrontes wine – aah, I love this town. The bar is run by two girls, one Polish, the other Australian. They’re drifting round the world. They don’t know for how long Antigua will hold them. A holidaying American couple, teachers, are sat beside us in the bar. In the US they teach kids from Central America who have been smuggled into the country in the hope of securing their papers, and thereby opening the door for their families to follow. The problem has reached epidemic proportions. ‘Most teachers regularly work a 70 hour-week in the States,’ they say. ‘With a two week paid holiday.’ ‘In France they do less than 35 hours a week,’ we tell them. Ooh! I think they need another drink.
30th July: One last wander through the streets – good food, good wine – such temptation here. It’s dangerous, though for all the right reasons. Must drag ourselves away. In our absence a big old Mercedes truck has arrived in the tourist police compound. The truck is home to an Argentine couple and their daughter. They’ve been on the road since ’95. The 6-year old daughter was born in Ecuador. They’re going to America but he’s not sure he can get a visa, for he has no address, no income, no utility bills, no bank account, no…no nothing, in fact…only his truck and a desire to see the world. He laughs a carefree laugh. He has the freedom of the road.