I woke at 4am, picked up one of the teachers, and drove to a common place where Jerry and Lucinda picked us up. The tour bus we boarded in Antigua was packed - a group of Israelis joined us, two Australians and many other Spanish speakers. The bus wound it's way up to the small town of San Francisco (obviously not the same one as you know) to catch the start of the trail. The way was steep and straight up for most of the 2 hour hike. After the first half hour or so, I established a comfortable pace with Stacy and most of the Israeli group. The younger teachers and others forged ahead to the top. At one point our guide disappeared into the forest and we heard him chopping with his machete. We looked at each other with concern and kept walking. He emerged with a big grin and two walking sticks, nicely shaven on top for us to hold.
Stacy and I stopped just below the cinder cone. She was slowing down from the climb, I was doing ok but looked out over a narrow bridge type trail ahead to the cone with sloping sides off to nowhere, and knew I couldn't cross that section. Afraid of heights, I have learned that the terror and panic of being out there just isn't worth the view from the top for me. We talked with the park ranger some (I did - in my broken Spanish, Stacy's Spanish is worse than mine), ate our snacks and watched the people go by. Almost immediately after the first of our group made it to the smoking top of volcano, they were engulfed in clouds. The ranger advised that it might rain soon, so we headed down just a little ways and waited for our group. After a while, they caught up having had a strenuous but enjoyable trek to the top. They described heavy sulfur clouds on top, hard to breathe, the yellow stained crevice below them, no bubbling lava visible, and the fun slide back down the cinder cone.
We had a snack in San Francisco and waited and waited and waited on the bus. Finally, an hour after we returned, one of the girls from Israel came down on the back of one of her male friends, carrying her too small hiking boots. No apologies (her friend did say he had hoped we just left without them), checked her look in the mirror, and proceeded to stretch across the seats over her friends on the way back. Arriving later than expected in Antigua, we had a late lunch at a tasty Greek restaurant that took forever, and attempted to find our way out of town about 4:30pm.
Gridlock. There was no way out on the Antigua streets, and hardly any movement. The fact that we didn't know the way didn't help. Lucinda was driving - she headed out into a village where the roads were clear, the steady good-natured banter between her and Jerry about which way to go was amusing and no one was concerned. When it became obvious we were not headed to the road to Guatemala, we returned into Antigua, asked for directions many times, and were back in the fray. Small groups of runner carrying torches, mostly kids, clogged the streets and highways, passing us now and then blowing whistles. Flags flying. All of the passengers in this vehicle were new to Guatemala, naively expecting the crowds celebrating Independence Day to gather on Monday, not tonight!
Three and a half hours and two accidents later we finally found a way out. Lucinda tapped the car in front of us, hardly a scratch, but we weren't unhappy to have hit a women who kept cutting us off. A few long slow blocks later, a man came to the window and explained we'd have to turn right at the next block and go around the outlying streets or we'd never get out - Lucinda asked to follow him. The second accident happened when we were stopped at a corner. An old pick up truck that was turning from the outside lane cut it short and crunched the corner of our vehicle. The second collision did some damage but the car was driveable. A policeman came and one of the truck passengers explained quickly in Spanish that Lucinda's car hit them, but a kind woman who witnessed the collision pulled over and described what really happened. Shaken and not at fault, Lucinda was ready to relinquish the wheel. By that time, we'd lost track of the driver that helped us out of the most congested area. After repeatedly asking directions down dark streets at the outskirts of Antigua, Jerry located the return route, to our cheers.
All along the road back to the city we passed whistling groups of runners bearing torches. I read later in the paper (online) that the runners actually started a few blocks from my apartment, ran to various cities and were on their way back, to conclude around midnight. It's an amazing and beautiful celebration. Parades followed Monday in the city.