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After waking up very early twice in a row, after a few days loaded with physical activity and lots of walking, what would you do if you had to choose between an eight-to-nine-hour bus ride and a 45-minute flight to get from Flores (the town nearest to Tikal) to Guatemala City? That’s what I thought…
Our destination was actually the colonial town of Antigua Guatemala, about one hour away from the capital. The perspective of an overnight bus ride in a cramped seat wasn’t appealing to either of us, so we paid $125 each and jumped on the plane.
Taking a shuttle from the Guatemala City airport to Antigua was a bit of a shock. For three weeks now we have been visiting villages with dirt roads, small beach towns, and ruins hidden in the jungle; the sight of a six-lane highway packed with rush-hour stop-and-go traffic was something that I had almost forgotten. Throngs of people were crowding the sidewalks waiting for their rides home, mostly old American school-buses spitting thick, black smoke. Painted in vivid colors, this motley fleet of aged vehicles has been given a new lease on life in Central America and is the closest thing that can be called public transportation in Guatemala.
Antigua Guatemala, or short, Antigua, is the prettiest colonial gem in Central America. Once a former capital and prized jewel of the crown of Spain in the new world, it was nearly abandoned at one point because of the frequent floods and earthquakes that razed many of the buildings. This however seems to have actually been a stroke of “luck”. Had it not been the natural disasters, the town would look nowadays like present-day Guatemala City, a heap of non-descript architecture. Instead, at the beginning of the last century, under the auspices of an economic boom caused by the coffee trade, the town was gradually restored and kept its colonial character.
The streets are packed with hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars, cafes and – more recently – internet access points. Being one of the major tourist stops – and tourists, for sure, you will see everywhere – Antigua is not very cheap, but doesn’t hurt the wallet as bad as Belize. Most of its churches and convents are in ruin; they have never been rebuilt after the city was restored to its former glory. One notable landmark is the ruined convent of Santo Domingo which has been transformed in part into an upscale hotel, while the rest was kept as a museum. The ruin is covered with a protective canopy that shields it from the elements. Various crypts and chapels used nowadays as exhibition halls are open to the public – for quite a pricy fee – Q40 per person, which is more than we usually spend for lunch for both of us. The restoration is still in progress and it’s worth taking a look; you may even consider staying at the beautiful hotel if you’re not on a backpacking budget…
The first night we parked at the “Black Cat” hostel which has a funny and very diverse international crowd, but unfortunately the place seems to never sleep, the shared bathrooms are too few and too filthy, and the walls our tiny private room carried all the sounds from both the common area and the toilets. The next morning we moved across the street to the “Casa Rustica”, which, although more expensive (about $21) and lacking the party atmosphere, is more comfortable and quiet.
For the traveler coming from the jungle, getting to the highlands of Guatemala is a much welcome change. There’s no need to wear a hat and sun-block all the time for fear of burns and sun-stroke, no need for a noisy fan in the room to keep the temperature bearable at night, no pestering mosquitoes and no malaria. In a nutshell, you may feel a little like home. It’s no wonder those Spaniards built their colonial cities at higher altitudes in the Andes - Antigua enjoys a permanent spring-like climate.
For the amateur photographer Antigua and its surroundings is a challenging environment. The sky is covered most of the time, which makes for a very dull ambient light resulting in washed-up colors and unflattering pictures. Most of the surrounding volcanoes are active and regularly spew ash in the sky which mixes with the clouds, turning them darker and more ominous (although it never rained in the five days we spent here). To that, add the pollution caused by the predominantly old and decrepit vehicles and the passion of the Guatemalans to blow up fireworks at any time of the day on any day, and you get a nice smog cocktail. I spent an hour or so at the top of the Pacaya volcano hoping for a breach in the sky, but it wasn’t meant to happen on that day. I took some pictures anyway, but nothing to congratulate myself over.
While this town may not be the paradise of the photographers it is definitely the heaven for the American couples looking for cheap and speedy adoptions. The country’s adoptions system was (and still largely is) poorly regulated. This situation has lead to problems, fraud and deceived would-be parents, and has probably contributed to building up the popular opinion that Guatemalan babies can be simply “bought”. This is hopefully improving: the headline on today’s local newspaper says “This year 74% of adoption requests have been rejected. Last year only 9% were rejected”. The article goes on to say how a thorough and clear legal adoption procedure simply didn’t exist until recently.
There’s no shortage of monuments, museums and sights in this town or around, but I would consider the town itself as the main attraction. Between wandering up and down the “calles” and “avenidas”, stopping here and there in an artisan shop or at a market stall, looking at the people, taking pictures, or hiking up a volcano, your day will easily go by and you would want to stay another night. And another one… Many tourists remain fascinated by Antigua’s charm and easy-going atmosphere. We were too. But it’s soon time to leave again. Tomorrow at 4AM we leave for Honduras and back into the sweltering tropical lowlands. Another sleepless night…