Paradise is such a subjective feeling and if you don’t require a turquoise blue sea and white sand beaches, Antigua, Guatemala just might fit the bill. This charming colonial city with its ever spring-like weather was perfect for our two-month stay. We arrived in Antigua at the end of October so that we could attend the Sumpango Giant Kite Festival held every year on November 1st, All Saints Day. That spectacularly colorful event and a religious procession that burst forward from La Merced Church on October 28th would prove to be representative of the people and life in Guatemala we experienced.
Settling into our spacious two-bedroom Airbnb on Alameda Santa Lucia, with views of the three volcanos surrounding Antigua, was a breeze after living in two studio apartments and a boat cabin in Ecuador. At first, we thought the cost of living in Guatemala was going to be considerably higher than that of Ecuador, but that was due to eating dinner out the first couple of days before we got fully settled. The dinner restaurants in Ecuador are considerably less expensive than those in Guatemala, but once we started shopping in the central market our food expenses dropped dramatically. We were delighted with the freshness and quality of the local produce. On Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays the market tripled in size when the outdoor portion was open, and farmers brought in truckloads of fruits and vegetables from the surrounding villages. There we experienced one of the best markets going, set in a bustling, dusty lot with Volcans Agua, Fuego and Acatenango touching the sky in the background. Most produce was sold in quantities of 5 quetzals (60 cents) so bring lots of small bills, as vendors didn’t usually have change for anything larger than 10Q. The flavor of the locally grown vegetables was amazing. Being backyard gardeners ourselves, we were duly impressed. Twenty quetzals would buy enough vegetables for a week.
On Sundays we would walk to Caoba Farm, just on the outskirts of town, for their organic produce and stay for their brunch, which featured live music in a beautiful outdoor setting. They have mastered the farm-to-table restaurant concept.Shopping at the local supermarket, La Bodegona, was a wonderfully hectic experience. At times it could feel like you were shopping from a conga line, weaving up and down aisles, afraid to leave the line for fear of not being able to enter it again and being stuck in dairy for eternity. Numerous store employees lined the aisles offering samples of cookies, deli meats, drinks and other temptations to keep the energy level of the beast alive. It was a hoot! We had to psych ourselves up, like players before the big game, to shop there because it was so hectic and required a certain mental and physical stamina. I will confess though to dancing in the checkout line to blaring Latino Christmas music – the mood was contagious. On the same block D&C Cremas, a Walmart affiliate, offered a more sedate shopping experience. Both supermarkets had excellent poultry, which was more tender and tastier than back in Pennsylvania. We were also fortunate that a pork butcher opened a new shop a half block away and offered fresh meat and sausage daily. We enjoyed all the different varieties of Guatemalan sausage he made and found them to be very flavorful and lean, with almost no fat.
Antigua was a delight to explore on foot. Charm, color and textures greeted us around every corner. Every open doorway revealed something of interest. Old colonial doorknockers featuring various faces, animals or hands graced many of the doors and we became intrigued by their artistry. There are still several metalsmiths in town that cast and forge these works of art.
Most folks greeted us with a “Buena Dia” as they passed us on the sidewalk, though navigating the sidewalk hazards could be challenging at times. Our early weeks were spent exploring the ruins of convents and cathedrals destroyed in a 1773 earthquake. This cataclysmic event led to Antigua being abandoned as Guatemala’s capital and left as a forgotten backwater to evolve unchanged into a charming UNESCO heritage site. Today Antigua is a very cosmopolitan, old colonial city with sophisticated dining and museums, yet still retains a quaint authenticity with its Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets which haven’t changed for centuries. Many local women still wear traditional, locally woven blouses – guipils, created from the textiles for which Guatemala is renowned, which adds tremendously to the cultural atmosphere of the community. Antigua had a genuine character that we hadn’t experienced to this extent before.
Finding our new favorite spots was a fun quest we eagerly embarked upon. There were many choices: our favorite coffee café is Fernando’s; a roof-top bar with the best view is Café Sky; there were five wonderful panaderias, bakeries, among which we rotated. Six years ago, when we first visited Guatemala and Antigua, it was difficult to find a good cup of coffee. Instant coffee was served nearly everywhere, since the good beans were saved to be exported, and cappuccinos were unheard of. Now the barista culture is firmly embraced, and cappuccinos have become a competitive art form.
Our calendar for November and December filled quickly with fun and interesting activities to attend. The city sponsors many free events such as concerts on the central plaza; an annual Flower Festival, November 17th, which runs along the same street as the iconic arch; and the annual Waiters Race (Carrera de las Charolas) that starts early in the morning, so no one misses work. On November 14th. hundreds of waiters and waitresses filled the starting lines at the central plaza and, for cash prizes, zoomed around several city blocks to the cheers from a mostly local crowd. Saturday afternoons found us heading to the Santa Catalina Arch to watch wedding parties pose for photographs amidst admiring spectators under the iconic symbol of Antigua.
December 1st brought the first music concert of the Christmas season. It was held in the ruins of Antigua’s first cathedral, behind Iglesia de la Escuela de Cristo, just off the central plaza. The musicians and audience sat under arches now open to the stars. Christmas carols reverberated off the ancient walls which provided amazing acoustics. The concert ended with fireworks bursting over the open domes. And then the spectacular and noisy religious festivals and processions of December began. Guatemalans love their FIREWORKS!! And I swear every family has an arsenal of them at home, under the beds. Some peaceful religious events resembled imagery seen on the nightly news, of war-torn streets filled with smoke and the sound of large explosions. The smell of gunpowder was ever present and filled the air. It was difficult to find a comprehensive list of local events, but InGuat, the Guatemalan tourism agency, compiles a list of events that changes every day and it is available on their Facebook page. OkAntigua.com proved to be a good resource for upcoming events, also. Around town shops and restaurants hung posters announcing activities too.
For a change of pace, we rented a car from Renta Autos de Guatemala, that went very well. The cobblestoned streets of Antigua quickly changed to smooth pavement as we headed to Santa Maria de Jesus which is high up on the slope of Volcan Agua. In the evenings we could see the lights of this village from our rooftop. They don’t get many visitors up there, so this village was a wonderful destination for a very authentic market day. After getting directions at the communal laundry basin we found everything you could imagine on sale in front of the church: hand crafted guipils, cooking utensils, fruit, fresh fish from the Pacific and Lake Atitlan, and rabbit hutches to name a few. Fried iguana was available for the willing. Horses carried jugs of water for home delivery and hay for animals out in distant fields down the streets around the market. And women carried those rabbit hutches home on top of their heads.
Lower on the slope of Volcan Agua, San Juan del Obispo offered the colonial era Bishop’s Palace and a chance to taste some wine made from locally grown nispero fruit, for which the town is famous. Knock loudly on the door so the nuns can hear you and usher you inside for a tour. The plaza behind the former bishops’ residence has a beautiful church and a nice view of Antigua. Just uphill and around a corner from the palace is Casa Museo Luis De Lion. This is a small family-run museum dedicated to the Guatemalan poet who celebrated his country in verse. Today it doubles as a child care center for children displaced from their homes by the frequent eruptions of Volcan Fuego. Musicians travel from as far as Guatemala City to give these young children free music lessons. It’s a wonderful program run by dedicated staff.
Most of the beautiful textiles you see for purchase in Antigua are crafted in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, so we decided to check out the source. At Mercado de la Artesanía, we watched women create intricate weavings on their back-strap looms as they sat on the floor in front of their stalls. Upstairs the sales pressure was less intense, and we found Anna, a delightful weaver who pleasantly shared her life with us. I turned away for moment only to find Donna fully clad in traditional clothing when I turned backed.
Pastores offered handmade leather boots and shoes, for unbelievable prices, in shops that lined both sides of the road. A week later we returned, via Uber, to pick up our custom fitted boots. Cost $40.00 per pair. On our way back, we diverted to Finca Filadelfia, a quiet coffee plantation, to review our shopping expedition and plan further adventures with our wheels.The next day we a followed a serpentine mountain road, second gear all the way, up to Santo Domingo del Cerro, a beautiful sculpture and art park with museums, walking trails and a restaurant that overlooks Antigua. Plan on spending at least a half day there, because it is a beautiful setting for a restful day or afternoon. Casa Santo Domingo offers a free hourly shuttle to the park from the hotel in town.
For the nine days before Christmas, Las Posadas de Navidads proceeded through the neighborhoods of Antigua. Each evening smaller processions, led by fireworks and accompanied by a band and carolers bearing torches, carried a small float of the Holy Family door to door to a different home, re-enacting their search for shelter as they traveled to Bethlehem. Arriving at the predetermined host for the night they sing, “In the name of God, we ask for shelter, for my beloved wife cannot walk.” (En el hombre del cielo, os pido posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.) It is considered a great honor and blessing to be a host, and the family provides the participants in the procession with traditional food and drink after the statues are brought into the home. Home town Saint Hermano Pedro started this tradition in 1663.
On Christmas Eve we watched from our rooftop as the surrounding countryside exploded in a spectacular display of fireworks. All around us our neighbors and families near and far, lit the night sky for at least two hours. The night’s fireworks displays rivaled July 4th celebrations in the states. Instead of our usual cold northeast weather and a large family gathering, our first Christmas away from home was celebrated with weather in the high 70’s, blue skies and shirtsleeves. It was odd because we had broken a tradition and we were a little blue because of it. Then again it was warm and sunny, Feliz Navidad!! I think we have quickly become snowbirds. Antigua filled early with people in all their finery on New Year’s. Vendors selling textiles the day before were now offering party hats and all sort of 2019 memorabilia. Concerts were held in Plaza Mayor and under El Arco. Firework launchers were being setup amidst the crowds in the streets. Families were picnicking in the park and folks were staking their spots early to watch the fireworks later. At midnight a loud and colorful display filled the night sky. We could hear the roar of an appreciative crowd from our rooftop. We heard random explosions throughout the night to sunrise. Guatemalans love their fireworks!
Two days later we boarded a tourist shuttle to San Pedro La Laguna for our last week in Guatemala.
Till next time,
Craig & Donna