Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala
We had heard from one traveler to the next that Guatemala was a knock out, the most favored country in Central America due to its indigenous roots, raw culture, incredible topography of volcanoes and host to one of the oldest Mayan and Spanish cities of the region. So as we waited sipping a coffee at a small coffee shop in Copan, we were excited to jump on board the red mini bus to take us the nine hours to the historical Spanish built city of Antigua.
It was a mere 12kms to the border town and a simple stamp and $1.50 entry fee into the country. Guatemala immediately had a different feeling about it as I spent the next eight hours staring out the window viewing the arid mountain range with high peaks, dusty townships, a continuation of the men wearing cowboy hats as we experienced in Copan and women and children dressed in traditional attire with their long black platted hair and crimson red cheeks. The country was much more reminiscent of alto-plano South America like Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru..this was going to be good. Then we hit peak hour on the outskirts of Guatemala City, a sprawling concrete jungle housing a 2.3 million citizens, 22 zones and a ‘reconsider your need to travel’ warning on most advisory websites. But again, we choose to bypass this Central American city due to its high crime rate and hit the countries oldest and most beautiful only 15kms next door.
We arrived in Antigua at seven at night and entered the old city through the maze of high wall surrounding the town to pull up right outside the central square. Beautifully lit up at night by fairy lights, the surrounding churches, park and government buildings shimmered in the night. Grabbing our packs we took one of the side streets surrounding the square, passed some beautifully merchandised tourist shops, bars and restaurants, got a little lost but finally found our hotel for the next four nights. An old yellow casa with a fabulous rooftop overlooking the historic town with small but comfortable rooms jam packed with bright doona covers and heavy teak furniture. But with our own television and bathroom, it suited us well for our stay. I had just recovered from a week long cold picked up in Roatan, probably by utilising the snorkeling gear and sharing it with how many other people, and decided to share it with Murray and Belinda whom both came down with an endlessly running nose for the following days. So taking some time out, I wondered around Antigua and this is what I found..
Central Park was the heart of the city with its reconstructed fountain in the middle, locals gathered on the park benches while women sold jewelry and tapestries carried on their heads to passing tourists. Off to the side of the park was Arco de Santa Catalina and arch way of shops and cafes while Cathedral of San Jose was the pretty white church center piece. Standing centrally in the plaza, three large volcanoes dominated the horizon. South of the city was Volcan de Agua, imposing at 3766mtrs, this was the volcano responsible for Antigua’s foundation, as the previous capital was wiped out by its eruption. To the west were two peaks, Acatenango last erupting in 1972 and standing at 3976mtrs and Volcan de Fuego, a constantly active volcano and a popular hike for tourists up some 3763mtrs to view the steam and sometimes lava flow. After our last volcano climb and flu outbreak, this was not on the itinerary.
The street scape was fairly low rising filled with colorfully painted Spanish casa’s and shop fronts in bright blues, greens, oranges, whites and burgundies. They sat on cobblestone streets walled in by bougainvilleas and the occasional palm tree. Fringing the small grid-like streets where a handful of churches placed north, south, east and west. Two of the key churches along with another 3,000 buildings were severely damaged in an earthquake that hit the capital in 1717 at a magnitude of 7.4 but the ruins added to the beauty of the old city and droves of American and European tourist groups walked the grounds in their safari suits taking photos with their digital SLRs and extended lenses. As they stopped outside each notable landmark, they were accosted by droves of women from local villages selling handicrafts and men selling jade jewelry.
Although highly touristic towns can have their downside and potentially spoil the “scenery” or “authenticity” (of course we wernt tourists) the upside is there is always more variety on the culinary scene. I spent my time sipping coffee’s in the Rainbow Caffe with its soup bowl sized cappuccinos, Pushkar an Indian restaurant with its beautifully manicured outdoor sun filled garden where you could escape the crowds, a French Bakery perfect for crepes, The Bagel Cafe filled with every variety of Americanised bagel with cream cheese and Griri a middle eastern bar and restaurant where you could smoke a hooker, watch the belly dancing and gobble up a bowl of humus. The food was good. Antigua was also know as a great base for those that wanted to learn Spanish. With its myriad of schools, teaching associations and language swaps, it reminded me somewhat of Cusco, Peru as a great hangout to learn the language, meet new people and enjoy the surrounding nightlife. The nightlife also consisted of ear drum busting fireworks that were let of at all hours of the night. Sounding more like bombs or gunfire, the locals favored them for all occasions and just for fun.
Our four nights were up quickly and we had planed to head to Lake Atitlan the next morning. An easy booking with another tourist shuttle that would commute us the 180kms west in 3 hours. Leaving the tissues behind, we were all just about in the clear of swine flu and awoke the next morning early for an 8am departure to the volcanoes surrounding the lake and the highly recommend stay at Casa del Mundo, a hidden gem in the mountainside. Guatemala was no disappointment so far and we were ready for more.