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Dave and Jan's travels, day 217:
Around Antigua

22nd December
The general nature of our Antiguan life is described in Antigua: this page is about three specific adventures.

So, as well as studying hard, we've had time - mostly at weekends - to get out and about and see some of the rest of the city. The rest of this page talks about three trips we made. First, to the Pacayo volcano, second to Montericco, and third to the Templo de San Simon.

Pacayo Volcano

The weekend before last we climbed the "slightly active" Pacayo volcano. This involved the usual terrifying race across crummy roads and up a dirt track, so that our party of eight could get there ten minutes earlier and wait ten minutes more for our guide to arrive. Eventually our guide arrived, a local who rejoices in the name "Lionel". This strangeness continues: his sons' names are "Edgar" and "Kevin".

Off we set. The walk is about four kilometres along and about eight hundred metres up. Not that far, by our US National Park standards, but it's amazing how a couple of months of inactivity can reduce one's fitness level. We were soon huffing and puffing, but it's quite fun, the views are getting more and more spectacular as we rise, and we're enjoying our guide's beautifully and slowly enunciated Spanish.

Then we reach a rise and before us is a dip, then a valley and then an enormous mountain that's almost perfectly conical. Both valley and mountain are jet black, a sea of volcanic ashes stretching into the misty distance. It looks like the moon, or maybe the end of the world. It also looks a hell of a long way up, utterly exposed and extremely steep.

Worse, when we reach the base of the mountain, it turns out that the whole thing is covered in loose rocks ranging from an inch to a foot across. Every third step up brings a fall onto razor sharp rubble, and even when you don't fall you end up not necessarily higher than before the last step. Fortunately Lionel is used to ginger gringos, and so with a lot of patient advice and help, we eventually stagger to the top.

A hundred yards below the crater, it becomes clear that this is emphatically a geological work in progress. Steam billows everywhere, and every so often one appears to walk through an al fresco sauna of stunning humidity and heat. Plus, occasional gusts of sulphurous smoke leave you gasping for breath.

Eventually we overlook the rim. I'd sort of naively assumed that the phrase "slightly active" might mean "steam drifting from fissures" or "slightly warm", or if we were really lucky, "a slight glow a hundred yards away behind a fence". Instead, it turned out to mean "orange- and red- hot rocks being lobbed fifty or a hundred feet overhead from a piece of ground that looked like a rather wobbly rice pudding only orange, glowing, and making a noise like an oversized kettle". I have rarely been so alarmed, but the insouciance of our guide lent us courage and we eventually stopped flinching. Then the rocks suddenly shot a little higher and our guide ran away! Once calm had returned, and the cameras re-emerged, he explained that he wasn't actually frightened of the volcano, merely respectful of it. It's worth remarking that our group run away only went fifty yards, because that's where the vertiginous drop starts. Heaven knows what happens when the rocks get higher still.


Last weekend we went to the idyllic beach and surf of Montericco. This is a small town on the Pacific coast, that as well as sun and sand, features a nature reserve which breeds and releases various endangerd species including sea turtles, various species of lizards, and caymans (smallish alligators). All these animals are both endangered and gigantic: the turtles can get to as much as 8 feet long, and the lizards much larger.

To raise money, the reserve organises a little celebration around their weekly releases of turtles into the surf. Each of about 50 gringos sponsored a turtle and then had to stand with it behind a line about 5 yards from the sea. We released them all together and the winner won a prize for its sponsors. Baby turtles are about 2 inches long, and are highly entertaining. All the time that we held them they paddled furiously with their flippers. When we put them on the ground they all headed immediately for the sea - how did they know? Instinct? Smell? Sound? Or were they just running away from a line of 50 mad gringos? Another concern is a 2 inch turtle's chances in a twenty foot wave, but presumably they do better than I did.

The beach itself is also mighty fine. The surf really is twenty feet high at times, but at others it's mild, and always very warm, something I've never previously associated with the Pacific. The sand is black and volcanic, but very fine and comfy nonetheless. Being able to take a quick weekend break spent in hammocks and reading with the odd dip is a significant advantage of living in this part of the world

We also found time for a swift boat tour of the nature reserve itself, which largely comprises a mangrove swamp. We had a very knowledgable boatman who told us the Spanish names for umpteen bird species, obviously we've forgotten those already. There were a lot of kingfishers and herons though.

Templo de San Simon

Final adventure was a visit to the Temple of Saint Simon. This temple is dedicated to said saint, who in the eyes of these believers, is not your typical Catholic saint. For example, he accepts various offerings including in particular, cigarettes, whisky and sweets. His statue lives in a glass case, where he sits wearing a sombrero, a business suit, smoking a cigarette and surrounded by recent offerings. The temple itself contains a queue of people waiting to make offerings. There are also several tables (no pews or chairs) at which people light candles and smoke furiously on big cheroots. Yes, they do. Apparently Simon likes the smoke. All around the wall are plaques aid for by the various people whose prayers have been answered by Simon.

The patio in front of the church is, if anything, even stranger. People construct fires in which they put a heap of candles and a few eggs. The eggs explode of course: I don't know what the significance of this is. The candles are colour-coded according to what request is being made of the saint: red for love, green for cash, black for bad effects on enemies, and so on. The whole lot is then ignited, and the offerers stand around watching, occasionally helping the fire along with a splash of whisky, and of course, remaining alert to dodge bits of flying egg.

Also, there are a few professional helpers around the fires. If you believe yourself to be infested with malign spirits, one of these people will cleanse you. This consists of putting various unguents onto a bunch of foliage, than cuffing the patient all over with the foliage. Once the demons have been transferred to the foliage, it is then added to the fire.

Apparently the church has been refused affiliation with the mainstream Catholic church, who feel that some of the practices stretch the breadth of their church to the breaking point. I think that I forgot to mention the occasional sacrifice of chickens. Nevertheless, the faith is quite widespread, and several of the plaques from grateful supplicants originate outside the country, including several from the US.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Vulcan Pacayo

Big Lizards

The beach

Mangrove swamp

Floating car