Antigua means, “antique” in Spanish. The city of Antigua is truly an antique, a relic of the past. This city was once the bustling business and religious capital of the country of Guatemala. But after many cycles of volcano and earthquake damage the residents abandoned the efforts to rebuild and restore. The capital was moved to the present-day location of Guatemala City. This move left behind a beautiful, old colonial city with many tumbledown churches, cobblestone streets and an interesting blend of cultures. Now the city does a bustling tourist trade, the earth doesn’t shake as often and the locals are a blend of Guatemalan locals, indigenous Mayans and international citizens who have expatriated here. Blended with these residents is a steady stream of backpackers, cruise ship passengers and destination travelers who pass through to hike, spend money and enjoy the year-round climate and views. Enough of the city has been restored to provide full services to a needy crowd. Hotels, hostels, restaurants, museums and services are fully functioning. While Antigua feels like a tourist destination on the surface, it quickly begins to reveal the workings of a business and trade center.
The Mercado in Antigua is one of the largest in the area. It is clearly laid out to serve the tourist trade. Even cruise ships send busloads of people to Antigua to shop. But the market is also a bustling trade center for the neighboring villages, as traditionally dressed Mayan women shop and sell through the aisles. While we were at the Mercado we strode through the labyrinth of hallways and passages. Our stomachs were hungry and our noses were following the scent of cooking. We found a vary traditional diner, serving the “plato tipico” or “menú del dia” so we nestled into the corner to eat the food of the merchants. It was delicious and cheap. Later we had an adorable exchange of glances with this young Mayan girl. She was waiting while her mother peddled from her basket full of home grown vegetables and hand woven fabrics.
Mayans are very aware of their use of the planet, and the impact of over population. I was curious to spy this poster, offering free and low-cost birth control, by a government agency. The IUD and implant are free. The vasectomy and tubal ligation are about $15 usd. Such an interesting promotion.
Antigua is nestled in the valley of several volcanoes. One can be seen on the South end of town. This ever-changing scene plays out in clouds and colors throughout the day. The beauty continues as the street lamps are lit and the glow remains in the sky.
A popular recreation that draws many visitors to Antigua is the hike of Volcano Acatenango for the views of Volcano Fuego, hiking up an inactive volcano to look across the small saddle at the active volcano. This is typically an overnight expedition, requiring logistics, backpacks and warm clothing. Mike signed up for the hike and immediately felt nervous about the journey ahead. He packed a bag and paced the street, testing the weight and pondering the challenge.
After an early morning departure, he tackled the volcano mountain with the group and felt strong and capable. The scenes on Acatenango were cloudy, misty and murky however, and views of the glowing Fuego never did present themselves. Although they could hear Fuego rumbling and spitting off in the distance, they never saw the glowing lava flows. Their views were limited to the rough living area that the guides have established for the visiting hikers. The campsite is terraced on the side of the inactive volcano. A fire burns continually for warmth, clothes drying and heating water. The hikers sleep in rented tents covered with tarps to hold in heat and keep out the steady drizzle. The ramshackle little set up remains there year-round for the steady stream of hikers and guides. On his way back down, the clouds began to clear and the valley below became visible. The hike was a huge personal victory, but beautiful photos of an active volcano were not the reward for this physical challenge.
While Mike was hiking, Geneva attended a cooking class. Working alongside a restaurant cook in a typical Guatemalan kitchen she learned to make some regional dishes. The beautiful Guatemalan rice includes thinly sliced carrots, bell peppers and celery. The Guatemalan chili rellenos are a stuffed green chili, which is filled with a spicy ground chicken mixed with finely diced vegetables, then breaded with an egg batter and fried. She also made a pureed salsa and cinnamon horchata to accompany the meal. All very delicious, and enough servings to feed the hikers when they returned from the mountain.
We actually visited Antigua three different times. Twice we parked in front of Hostel Antigueña, tucked in between the other overlanders. This hostel invites travelers to park here and for a fee they provide breakfast, wifi and hot showers. It is a pleasant place to base the visit to this city. On one visit to Antigua we stayed at a public parking lot, also with other travelers. This is a free location, with no services. It is always interesting to see the other rigs that travelers are using. These two rigs are traveling from South to North. The blue one is a couple from Argentina. The black rig is a family of three from Brazil.
And it is fun to socialize with new friends and share road stories. It gives us a chance to peek inside their vehicles and learn how other people travel. One warm afternoon turned in to barber shop day, with haircuts delivered in the grassy park across the street and bartered for banana bread with other travelers. Mike got a haircut, also!
Antigua is a town of international dining. We were told that there are over 300 restaurants in this city. Many varieties and ethnicities are represented in the menus, billboards and advertising of these restaurants. We checked out a few of them, and enjoyed the international fare this city offers. We particularly enjoyed a tiny little vegetarian place, with philosophical wall art.
We visited a nearby coffee farm for a tour and information about coffee production. This story illustrates the traditional Guatemalan style of coffee brewing. The final statement is humorous.
We also toured a macadamia farm. The owner is a colorful man who left San Francisco about 40 years ago. He looks a bit like Jerry Garcia and has an off-color sense of humor and a cynical outlook on life.
Antigua holds some bittersweet memories for us. This is the last place that Mango was healthy and vibrant. During our final visit there, she became paralyzed and subsequently quite ill. We will never know exactly what happened to her medically, but it was a painful, sad process for our little family. We know that we offered her some fun adventures in the time she traveled with us and she gave us much love and happiness in return.
The history in this city runs deep. The photo below shows an old pila or washing sink. This is where the women and children would gather. Clothes and babies were washed here for many generations. Stories were exchanged, decisions were made and a history was formed. Pilas (washing sinks) are protected artifacts in all of Guatemala. If you have one on your property, you must preserve it. Many homes and businesses turn them into beautiful fountains or fish ponds. But in many areas, they are still in use. Most communities have a community washing area, and in a prior post I wrote about one in a neighborhood in Guatemala City. (click here to open a new window about that post)
Antigua is a beautiful city. We returned there three different times, and we will probably go there again. If you have an opportunity to visit Antigua, Guatemala – pack some good walking shoes and go for it. You will not be disappointed.