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The Americas are an incredible place for those who love to travel. If you fancy roaming the cosmopolitan streets of New York, walking among the stars in LA or winning big in Vegas, then head upwards to the north. On the other hand, if you fancy the favelas of Brazil, the stunning salt flats of Bolivia or hiking the Inca Trail in Peru then South America is alternatively your best bet. Despite these often being perceived as the main areas of interest, the southernmost region of North America consisting of seven small countries, is often overlooked: Central America.
When I decided to spend my summer in one of these small countries, Guatemala, some people would genuinely ask "Is that in Africa?'"or say "Nice, I'd love to go to South America!" and even "Isn't that a Mexican dip?"
Ultimately this made me realise that Guatemala and Central America need more recognition. My first step towards loving this part of the world was based on the Guatemalan city of Antigua. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and despite going head to head with earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and uprisings, the city's incredible colonial architecture and cobbled streets have weathered the storm...literally.
Antigua's charm is hard to miss with the vibrancy of the markets and the smell of freshly cooked tortillas. You can easily get lost among the striking yellow churches as well as the grand monasteries and convents dating back to the 16th century. The small city is also full of hidden eateries and cosy coffee spots to just sit back and watch the world (and numerous tuk-tuks) go by. However, one of the best things you can do is take the short climb up to the Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) at the northern edge of the city. The vista point offers incredible views of Antigua as well as a backdrop of one of the three surrounding volcanoes looking down upon the city.
The tallest of these volcanoes called Acatenango can be climbed for about 200 quetzales (approx. £20) and so myself and a few other volunteers joined a two-day guided hike to reach the summit. The climb was mostly spent walking through the lush rainforest that thrives on the slopes of the volcano during the wet season, until we reached base camp for the night. As we were setting up the tents, one of the guides lightly tapped me on the shoulder and pointed towards the neighbouring volcano, Fuego. I looked up and saw a huge cloud of smoke billowing out from the crater, before feeling the delayed vibrations through the ground. I'd like to think that there aren't too many places in the world where you can climb one volcano while watching another erupt only a few miles away.
The cuisine is also amazing. Each day you can choose whether to have empanadas, tacos, quesadillas, tamales or your bodyweight in guacamole for lunch. Not only is the food delicious and fresh but so is the coffee. Small municipalities around the area such as Ciudad Vieja are known for producing amazing coffee beans from the rich soil of the volcano, Agua. This coffee is not only distributed around the area of Antigua but similarly sought after in the US, giving an idea of its unique quality and great taste. Despite being some of the best food and drink I have ever had abroad, the prices are incredible; you can buy a hearty lunch in one of the restaurants in Antigua for no more than £2!
Overall, my experience of Guatemala was one full of surprises. I never expected the people, food, architecture and natural landscape of this area of the world to be so vibrant and striking. There is also so much to discover in Central America with the chance to go surfing in El Salvador, diving in Nicaragua, exploring the jungles of Costa Rica or visiting the Mayan ruins of Belize. Perhaps if more people were in the know, then the hidden gem of the Americas would finally gain the recognition it deserves.