We were maybe 3 shots of mezcal in, at a dimly lit bar in Antigua, Guatemala, when Tim and I verbally committed to one another to return here someday to spend a month learning Spanish. It was one of those nights where everything seems illuminated and you spend hours talking with someone you’ve been with for 6 years about things that, somehow, you’d never talked about before.
It’s this intangible magic that brought us back to Antigua 2 years later, with a month long apartment rental and reservations for 4 weeks of classes at one of the many Spanish language schools in town.
Dates: January 13 – February 13, 2019
Back to School
We arrived on a Sunday and Monday morning we started school. We planned our breakfast, laid out our clothes for the next morning, and excitedly mused about what our teacher would be like.
When Monday morning rolled around, we left the apartment early to get to the school office. On the way we passed by so many beautiful Antigua icons. The Santa Catalina Arch, the bright yellow Iglesia La Merced, and pastel painted homes framed with vibrant bougainvilleas.
We arrived, with first-day-of-school jitters, and met our teacher, Byron. He walked us another 20 minutes through the city to a back street that didn’t seem like there would be anything on it, only to eventually reveal through a gate a large open-air compound that Byron referred to simply as el jardín, the garden.
All around the garden were tables and chairs, some occupied with teacher-student pairs. Byron took us up some concrete steps to the roof, where there were more tables and chairs. In the corner was a table with three chairs. Byron told us this would be our classroom for our four weeks of study.
For two hours, Byron went over basics with us, and by snack time at 10am, we already knew how to say what day and time it was, as well as some basic sentences in the present tense.
At snack time, everyone in the school got in a line for a 3 quetzal tostada – a hard shell corn tortilla topped with pico de gallo, refried beans, guacamole, and sprinkled cheese.
After the break we had two more hours of class, most of which we did by reviewing flashcards and then playing a rudimentary game of scrabble in Spanish.
At 1pm, Tim and I officially finished our first day of school!
Our first two weeks of school in Antigua passed similarly. Byron took us on field trips to free museums like Santo Domingo del Cerro up the hill next to our apartment and El Centro de Formación de la Cooperación Española, housed in an old monastery in the center of town. We even walked out of town one morning to a coffee plantation, where we toured a cultural museum and learned about the coffee process, all in Spanish!
We were learning fast and having fun. Our brains were exhausted, especially with our nightly homework, but I was amazed at how quickly we were able to say simple things in past and present tense.
On weekends, after our 4-day school week, Tim and I explored Guatemala as best we could. On our first weekend, we hiked Pacaya Volcano. We saw lava rivers flowing down its side, the red glow intensifying as the sun set, creating silhouettes of the many other volcanos in the distance.
That same weekend we drank ourselves silly on a Sunday-funday. We discovered picositas – beers with shrimp, hot sauce, avocado, and onion in them, and returned to the dimly lit bar where it had all started 2 years prior. Antigua filled me with joy, and I was falling even more in love with Guatemala.
The following weekend we took a long bus trip to Semuc Champey, where we spent two nights at a festive lodge just outside the national park. We spent a day hiking and swimming in the natural pools of the the many step waterfalls.
We even climbed and swam our way through the Kamba Caves with nothing but a local Mayan guide and a candle to guide us (an activity that leaves many travelers rattled by the lack of safety precautions, but which reminded us of previous experiences we’d had at the ATM caves in Belize and the Green Canyon in Indonesia).
The day ended with a inner tube float down the river, with ice cold beers provided by the boys selling them to tourists with the promise that we could “pay later” at our hotel. An effective hustle, indeed!
When we returned to Antigua that Sunday night, we were exhausted, and Tim’s stomach was bothering him. Nonetheless, we went to school the next morning, told Byron about our weekend in mediocre Spanish, and began our lessons. Tim’s stomach continued to cause him issues, so he ended up going home at the break.
The next day, we both felt healthy and went to school. Byron took us on a field trip to the local cemetery. He told us about how on birthdays and anniversaries, the family will come to the cemetery to play music, drink, and eat. They even bring the deceased person their favorite foods and alcohol. It’s a full-on party and celebration of that person’s life and their permanent place in the family, even if they aren’t still “alive” in the same way we are.
That night, Tim and I baked a birthday cake for me, since my birthday was coming up that Sunday. It was delicious, and we even enjoyed a lick of batter each from the mixing bowl.
This proved to be a terrible mistake. We woke up on Wednesday morning incredibly sick. We knew right away we couldn’t make it to school that day, so we wrote Byron to let him know.
We didn’t know it at the time, but after 2 and a half weeks together, our Tuesday cemetery field trip would be the last time we saw our teacher. No, he didn’t die. But circumstances out of his and our control meant he couldn’t teach us anymore. Combined with the onset of salmonella poisoning that week (which lasted for a full 6 days of bedrest, interrupted only for bathroom trips), losing our teacher (and thus, a full week and a half of Spanish classes), left me feeling very depressed.
My 32nd birthday was just around the corner, and I felt sad I wasn’t achieving my goal of taking a full month of Spanish classes. I’d had the “full month” thing in my head as this duration I needed to complete in order to say that I studied Spanish. Plus, we really liked Byron. It felt like a loss.
But finally, on my birthday, we were both well enough to venture outside the apartment for food. I had birthday McNuggets at the weirdly beautiful Antigua McDonald’s, and we watched the Super Bowl.
I returned to the school office the next morning to see about finishing our last week of classes. They didn’t have a teacher scheduled for us, and Byron was still not available, so Tim and I made the decision to self-study our last week using the apps, worksheets, and lesson books we already had.
With only a little over a week left in Guatemala, we decided to maximize our time as best we could, especially after having lost an entire week to being sick.
On Thursday we visited Lake Atitlan on a day trip where we visited the towns of San Juan, San Pedro, and Santiago Atitlan. We learned about traditional weaving methods and enjoyed boat rides surrounded by volcanos.
On Friday we explored various ruins of convents and monasteries throughout Antigua, including Casa Santo Domingo (now a luxury hotel and museum complex), semi-touristy Convento Santa Clara (where we watched wedding preparations), and off-the-beaten-path Iglesia de San Francisco. The latter was easily our favorite.
The Iglesia de San Francisco dates back to the 1500s, making it some of the oldest remaining architecture in Antigua. Half of the church is in ruins due to an earthquake in the 1700s. This same earthquake had also damaged Casa Santo Domingo and Convento Santa Clara.
Today, thousands of pilgrams visit the church to see the tomb Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur, a Spanish missionary in Guatemala who was canonized in 2002. He devoted his life to helping marginalized populations, such as prisoners, slaves, lepers, and indigenous groups.
Tim and I paid a visit to the tomb, and then explored the ruins of the church. We found local families playing with their kids on the grassy hills among crumbling arches, couples cuddling in the gardens, and other than that, no one else. We essentially had the place to ourselves.
On Sunday we took a cooking class at the Choco Museo. We learned how to make pepian and a ridiculously rich dessert made of boiled plantains and chocolate. We also tried the most delicious fruit I’ve ever tasted. Called a sapote, it’s got the texture of an avocado, but it’s sweet and pink inside. It’s like ice cream.
The Final Climb
Then, on Monday, we embarked on the final adventure we had hoped to have during our time in Guatemala – hiking Acatenango Volcano.
We’d seen this volcano, as well as its neighbors, active Fuego and dormant Agua volcanos, every day, looming over the city. Fuego regularly released plumes of ash into the sky every day. Guatemala is very geologically active – we felt the rumbles of an earthquake one morning while we were still sick, and it wasn’t uncommon for our table at school to be covered in a thin layer of ash in the mornings.
Now, we wanted to see Fuego up close, in an overnight hike to the summit of Acatenango. We booked our hike with Old Town Outfitters, and set out Monday morning in a small group of 6, plus our guide and porters.
The hike is a steady incline all day long to base camp, where the views more than make up for any difficulties with the climb. As we sat there at camp, Fuego Volcano released plumes of ash every 15 minutes. As sun began to set, we saw the glow of red rocks flying out of the cone. It was then that we understood the kind of show we were in for that night.
After sunset, about every half hour or so, we witnessed larger eruptions where Fuego would spew out red hot rocks and lava, like a firework going off right on its tip. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes.
We woke up at 4am to start the final push up to the summit of Acatenango Volcano. From camp, it was over an hour of steep, soft ground – the kind where you slide back with every step forward, doubling your work.
It was dark out, and we were still able to see bright lava spewing from Fuego Volcano every time we heard its characteristic rumble. Those pauses to look back at Fuego were the only ones I wanted to take – I wanted to keep moving to stay warm.
Before the last scramble up the steepest part of the rocky slope, we stopped with our guide to wait for the time to be closer to sunrise. He didn’t want us to get to the top beforehand because of how powerful the winds are there. Combined with the cold, the summit is not a comfortable place to linger.
When we finally reached the top, the wind was fierce enough to make you feel like you would blow right off the volcano, or at least knock you to the ground. Over the roar of the wind and the crackling of the hood of my jacket as it caught the gusts of air, I could faintly hear the shouts of our guide directing us where to go for the best sunrise views.
Then, for a few moments looking out over Agua and Fuego Volcanos, time slowed down and I made the mental note to remember this, and to file it away to a place I’ll never forget.
We spent our last day in Guatemala hiking back down Acatenango and returning to Antigua, elated by the beautiful weather and amazing views we’d had.
Crossing through Antigua’s familiar main square, which we’d walked by every day, I realized with a bittersweet gratitude that after a month here, this would be the last time I’d see this place. For now, anyway.