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Guatemala: Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal
Antigua, Guatemala: Valley painted in pastels
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Antigua is full of historic buildings, monuments, fountains and ruins. This city was founded by the Spanish in the 17th Century, and it follows the traditional design of a Main Plaza surrounded by Government and Catholic Church buildings. The city is surrounded by three enormous volcanoes and mountains, plains and hills. This territory was called "Valley of Guatemala" and had 73 villages, two towns and the city of Santiago de los Caballeros.
After a sumptuous breakfast in Guatemala City, we took our bus for our 60-minute drive to the beautiful city of Antigua. For our stay we were booked at Camino Real. Hotel Camino Real Antigua has a strict colonial style, with special attention to detail and service. It offers elegant and welcoming environments that invite you to live an unforgettable experience. The Hotel is located four blocks away from the Central Plaza of the City, surrounded by culture, history and colonial art.
Just after settling in our rooms, we were ready to explore the town. The city is laid out in a square pattern, with streets running north to south and from east to west, with a central square. Both church and government buildings were designated important places around the central plaza. Between 1549 and 1563, property southeast of the square was sold to the crown and occupied by the first president of the Real Audiencia de los Confines; the lawyer Alonso Lopez Cerrato, who also served as governor and captain general.
Walking is the best way to getting around. With a map in hand, it would be very easy to find places of interest. Of course, we had our guide to show us around. Walking between iconic landmarks, the fun was also in experiencing the local life and enjoying the colourful rows of houses on either sides of streets and avenues. Some of the landmarks we visited include:
The church and convent of the Society of Jesus is a religious complex that was built between 1690 and 1698. It was built on a block that is only a few hundred yards away from the Cathedral of Saint James on a lot that once belonged to the family of famous chronicler Bernal Diaz del Castillo and had three monastery wings and a church. There were only a maximum of 13 Jesuit priest at any given time in the building, but they also hosted Jesuit brothers and secular students. In the building was the San Lucas School of the Society of Jesus, until the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish colonies in 1767.
From 1549, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the Captain General) was Central America’s colonial headquarters and the home of the Spanish viceroy. The original building was constructed in the late 1500s and contained a court of law, provincial offices, a post office, treasury, royal office, servants’ quarters and horse stables. Several earthquakes have damaged the building over the years, but it has been lovingly restored each time. The grand double-arched facade is all that’s left of the original complex.
The Antigua Cathedral was originally built in 1541, but was later destroyed by an earthquake. It was rebuilt in 1680, yet the devastating earthquake of 1773 (which destroyed many of Antigua’s oldest buildings) seriously damaged it yet again. The front of the cathedral is still standing and is a striking example of colonial architecture – but step behind it and you’ll find the haunting, roofless ruins of the main building.
The Parque Central is a park in the center of town. The park is a city block in size, with concentric circular walkways threading among trees and a fountain in the center. The trees are decorated with lights, and there are plenty of benches for sitting and people-watching. The city hall and police office, the cathedral, and several banks and tourist businesses line the four sides of the park. Many Antiguans hang out in the park, and it has a pleasant, bustling, friendly feeling.
It was now time to break for lunch. The group split into 3 groups – each according to the cuisine they wanted to try. My group decided for a Mexican fare. The other one opted for a pizza joint while the third one had their go in an Indian restaurant. Antigua being a tourist town, options for food are plenty. We were allotted 60-minutes to finish our gastronomical experiments. Our walk would commence soon after.
The Arch of Santa Catalina is one of Antigua’s most recognizable landmarks, and it’s easy to see why. Perched above a busy cobbled street, the yellow arch with its neat, white trim perfectly frames Agua Volcano looming behind. Built in the 1690s, it originally connected the Santa Catalina convent to a school, allowing the nuns to pass through while avoiding the street. The iconic French clock on top was added later, in the 1830s.
Iglesia La Merced is one of the prettiest churches in the city, boasting intricate stucco work that showcases the Moorish influence in Spain at that time. The stone cross at the atrium and the rooms behind the altar are the oldest structures, dating from the 1600s. The sanctuary and cloister were specifically designed to withstand earthquakes, and as a result are squatter than their predecessors, the building’s arches and columns being wider for this same reason. The facade was designed in typical baroque style, remaining untouched apart from a coat of yellow paint.
The Convent of Las Capuchinas was damaged by the earthquake of 1773 and was abandoned for two centuries, even though the damage wasn’t too extensive. It was restored in the 1940s and remains one of the finest examples of an 18th-century convent in Guatemala. The ruins are open to the public and include several pretty courtyards and gardens, the former bathing halls, and a round tower which contained the nuns’ cells.
That was enough for the day. We walked back to our hotel. The rest of the evening was free. After utilizing the hotel’s spa facilities, I just strolled in the hotel’s various courtyards.
After breakfast the next morning, a chicken bus would take us to neighbouring villages to explore coffee farms; macadamia farms and a weaving centre.
It's hard to miss the colourfully decorated buses that crowd the streets of major cities and highways of Guatemala. And Antigua was no exception. These are chicken buses, or camionetas in Guatemalan dialect Spanish, and are a common form of travel for Guatemalans and a travel adventure for tourists. They are much cheaper than tourist vans or taxis and are usually very crowded, with three people squeezed into seats barely big enough for two children, and more people standing in the aisles. These buses are often used North American school buses with the "Blue Bird" (brand of school bus) and "Ford" logos clearly visible. In addition to the driver there is usually a conductor standing in the door. The conductor collects fares, and from time to time jumps out to direct the bus through a blind intersection or around a tight turn and to climb up to the top to retrieve or put in luggage & cargo people bring along. We had chartered a chicken bus so life wasn't as scary and smelly as it would otherwise be.
After Colombia, Guatemala ranks second in the world in the amount of high-grade coffee it produces, and has the highest percentage of its crop classified as "high quality" by worldwide buyers. While exports of sugar, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables are grown, coffee remains Guatemala's largest export, representing around 15% of the Guatemalan Gross National Product.
De la Gente develops sustainable, community-led strategies to promote economic development, direct trade and improve the livelihoods of small-holder coffee farmers, their families and communities. A 30-minute drive from our hotel got us to the little community of San Miguel Escobar. Waiting for us in the town's main square was Daniel Gonzalez Vasquez, father of 9 children and a coffee farmer. For the next couple of hours, Daniel would show us around his farm, tell us about the various coffee berries, will pluck a few for us, then will take us to his home and introduce to his wife, sons, daughters and grandchildren. At his home, his wife demonstrated the roasting and grinding of coffee beans. The icing on the cake was freshly brewed coffee tasting. And as is if that was not enough, each one in the group was presented with a pound of roasted ground coffee. Thank you Daniel.
From the coffee farm we drove for another 20 minutes to arrive at Valhalla Macadamia Farm. After becoming an expert with coffee, it was now time to become a nut-expert! Touring a nut farm is just as fun as touring a coffee farm. Valhalla Macadamia Farm is an organic, family-run macadamia nut farm that is committed to sustainable practices and assisting indigenous communities through education about the environment and developing self-sustaining agricultures. At the farm we were shown around the macadamia trees, the pickings and their sorting. Until this trip, I was not even aware about the fine medicinal values the nuts enjoy. And the icing on the cake at this farm was a 5-minute facial using macadamia oil. Heaven.
From the macadamia farm we drove to the town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes. This town is known for its weavers. Mayan women in the area use a back strap loom to weave traditional patterns. There is a two story market on the square that sells weavings and other crafts. Several of the women have their looms set up and were happy to demonstrate their skills.
It was now time to head back to Antigua. For the evening we had plans to take our bus near the foothills of the Fuego Volcano. We parked our bus at a gas station and then spent the next hour looking up to the volcano. As luck would have it, we were blessed with eruptions every few minutes. Just so you know, hiking up to Acatenango is a strenuous hike which can be done in one day or overnight. Camping overnight on Acatenango lets you watch the spectacular explosions of the active Fuego volcano from the camp site. That night we slept satisfied. After all, none of us in the group had seen lava eruptions ever before.
The next morning we would be on our way to Lake Atitlan – the last leg of Guatemala and our Central American tour.
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