Accidently in love in Antigua

Published: April 24th 2016
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After a very long-haul flight from Hobart via Sydney and Dallas, we finally landed in Guatemala City at 7:30pm. The flight was basic to say the least, but it was comfortable. Our progression through customs was seamless, although we did get a scare when my pack was one of the last to appear on the baggage carousel. We made our way out of the airport, jumped into a transfer van and started out on the final leg of our outbound journey – a one hour drive to Antigua.

After about 45 minutes we started our descent into the valley surrounding Antigua (dominated by three volcanoes – two dormant and one active), and within no time at all we were bumping along the cobbled streets of Antigua itself. We arrived at our hotel at 9pm, only to find there had been a hotel change. We were momentarily speechless, but were relieved to find it was only a short walk around the corner. We checked in at our new hotel (Posada Los Bucaros II), dropped our bags and headed out to find some refreshments. We only needed to walk about 100 metres before finding a tiny local shop with a couple of policemen at a small table in the corner. We picked up a fresh roll (ham, cheese and chilli), iced tea, water and Gallo beer before retreating to our room for a long overdue shower. We had been travelling for 33 hours.

Considering the time we had been awake travelling half way around the world, we arrived feeling surprisingly upbeat, although we did sleep most of the flight from Dallas to Guatemala City. We finished the salad roll, iced tea and beer and crashed around 11pm. An overly enthusiastic local rooster woke us at 3am. I initially thought it was someone screaming!

We woke at 6am, organised our packs (and ourselves) and headed out at 8am. We walked a short distance to Fernando’s Kaffe for great coffee and a fresh vegetable juice to start the day. We then set out on a walking tour of Antigua. We stumbled upon Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced (also called La Merced, a church / monastery close to our hotel) and then found ourselves under the Arco de Santa Catalina, where we had a fantastic photo opportunity of Agua, the most imposing of the three volcanoes that surround the town. We then made our way Parque Central, where we witnessed how laid back life is in Antigua.

We loitered on the second floor of the Palacio del Ayuntamiento (town hall) for some more photo opportunities of Agua, and then headed out of the town centre to see the ruins of Las Capuchinas, Templo de Santa Rosa de Lima and Iglesia de la Candelaria. We then headed back into the town centre, stopping by at the imposing Catedral de Santiago to wander among the ruins. We ventured down into the cathedral’s crypts, and when our eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, we noticed a carving of the crucifixion on one of the walls.

We then met our guide Arianna for a guided food tour of Antigua. After a few rehearsed historical briefings, we walked to El Portal and tried longaniza, a vinegar oregano sausage with tortillas and a red salsa. It was fantastic. We also had a refreshing hibiscus tea and chicken broth to share with the sausage. We then walked to Tanque de la Union Park near Iglesia San Pedro and tried chuchitos (tamales wrapped in corn husks) from a street vendor. The tamales was incredibly heavy, but the taste was fantastic. We then walked to Dona Maria Gordillo and had canillitas de leche (condensed milk and sugar combined and cooked into a short biscuit type texture). I can only describe it as sickly sweet. We then walked to Odilia’s and tried pupusas de queso (tortilla with cheese filling). It was incredible, and the atmosphere at Odilia’s was fantastic. We then made our way to La Canche, where we tried pepian pollo (chicken stew) and a rellenito de platano (mashed plantain doughnut filled with black bean and chocolate paste). The pepian pollo was comfort food at its very best, although it was a little too salty, while the rellenito de platano was way too sweet and stodgy for me.

This was such a great introduction to local food in Antigua. We said goodbye to Arianna, withdrew some quetzal from an ATM and headed back to the hotel. We had been walking for six hours, and we were starting to feel weary. We got back to the hotel around 2pm. Heavy thunder rumbled throughout the afternoon, but no rain eventuated. It would have been a welcome break to the humidity.

We caught up on some travel writing and sleep and then headed out for a meal at Fonda de la Calle Real. I had the frijol blanco con costilla de marrano (white beans and pork ribs casserole), while Ren had the chiles rellenos (roasted bell peppers stuffed with beef and vegetables). I tried two of the local beers (Gallo and Cabro) while Ren had a daiquiri. The food was fantastic, and we were very full. We headed back to the hotel and crashed, as we had an early start planned for the next day.

I was wide awake at 3:30am, so I decided to work on my travel writing for an hour – I was obviously still adjusting to jet lag, although the overly enthusiastic local rooster doing his thing again at 3am didn’t help. I fell asleep at 4:30am and woke again at 6:30am. We headed out at 7:30am to climb the steps to Cerro de la Cruz (or the ‘Cross on the Hill’ as most people call it). We stopped at Cafe Don Diego on the way for breakfast – a cappuccino with ham and egg croissant – which was fantastic. The sun had started to heat up as we navigated Antigua’s narrow cobblestone streets and started our ascent of the hill. The concrete steps were in the shade of trees, so the climb wasn’t too hot. We reached the top around 8:45am, only to find we were sharing the hilltop (and the view of Antigua) with about 400 school kids. We found some shade and enjoyed the chaos. Despite the sheer number of kids, they were well behaved, and we managed to get some good photos despite the dust and mayhem they were raising around us.

We headed back down into Antigua and headed to the markets. By the time we got there, we were parched, so we dropped into Fruitlandia at 10:30am for some fresh juice. It was refreshing, cold and just what we needed. We wandered the artisan, food and general market areas before making our way towards the ‘chicken bus’ station. The colourful old US buses were a sight to behold, as was the general madness of their schedules. We wandered the market area behind the dusty station before making our way back to the hotel. We arrived back at the hotel at midday, and we were weary. We’d been walking for four and a half hours in the morning haze, so we decided to shower before heading out to lunch at 1pm.

We walked to El Rinco Tipico in the heat of the midday sun, and it was well worth the effort. The restaurant was set back off the street, opening into a large internal covered courtyard. There was no menu, and when we asked the waiter (who didn’t speak English) what was available, he suggested the chicken. We happily agreed and before we knew it, two earthenware plates were placed in front of us, piled high with delicious baby potatoes in butter, tasty broccoli salad and roasted chicken from an enormous open rotisserie set into a brick wall at the side of the restaurant. The meal was incredibly tasty and filling. The meal came with freshly made (steaming hot) tortillas and a bottomless glass of refreshing tamarind juice. It was an incredible meal.

We then walked to the La Merced. We had walked past this incredible church / monastery so many times since arriving in Antigua, so we decided it was time to go in and have a look. We wandered around the ruins and climbed to the second floor, which offered fantastic views over the neighbouring Antiguan rooftops. The ruins of La Merced were very peaceful, possibly because no one else was there – we virtually had the place to ourselves. After soaking in the tranquil atmosphere, we made our way back to the hotel before heading out for a chocolate making class at the Chocolate Museum (Choco Museo) at 4pm.

I’m not a fan of history, and the first 30 minutes of this class took me back to the boredom of history at school. The chronology of chocolate making in Central America is not on my major interests list, so I drifted in and out of the endless facts and figures. However, when the history lesson stopped and the chocolate making began, I really started to enjoy this class. We began by constructing our own chocolates, which included choosing the mould, pouring the chocolate and adding toppings (I chose coffee beans, macadamia nuts, chilli and sea salt). We tasted my chocolates later in the evening, and while they certainly looked terrible, they tasted pretty good (although I may have gone overboard on the coffee beans). I can’t take credit for the chocolate, however, as this had been pre-made for us.

We then peeled roasted cacao beans, ground them in a mortar and pestle, made chocolate tea from the cacao shells (which was incredibly tasty) and made Maya hot chocolate using the ground beans, water, honey, chilli and vanilla. This was OK, but it was a bit crunchy. We then made Spanish hot chocolate using cacao beans (which we ground through a grinder rather than mortar and pestle), sugar, cardamom, cinnamon, anise, black pepper and hot milk. It was simply incredible – I had four refills.

The chocolate class finished at 6:30pm, and it was an entertaining way to finish the day. We headed back to the hotel, picking up some breakfast provisions on the way. We had a 5am start followed by a long bus trip the next day, so we needed to stock up on breakfast snacks. We opted for croissants, bread rolls and a few sweet pastries, along with some cold drinks to get us through the long drive. Mirroring our first day in Antigua, heavy thunder rumbled throughout the afternoon, but this time the rain came, and it was a welcome relief.

We loved our time in Antigua, and we’re looking forward to returning here in a few weeks’ time. The day had been long and we were weary, so we organised our packs for an early start and crashed at 10pm.

We landed in Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport at 7:30pm. Our total flight and airport time (over three flights) for this trip was just under 29 hours! We had arranged a hotel transfer through our hotel in Antigua Guatemala as we had anticipated being utterly tired after travelling half way around the world and arriving at night. Even though we weren’t as tired as I’d thought we’d be, we were certainly grateful about not having to haggle over an intercity fare with taxi drivers when we were running on reserve energy.

I couldn’t tell you much about Guatemala City (the capital), as it was already dark when we drove through, but the roads were great and the traffic worked very well for such a densely populated city. And unsurprisingly, the urban sprawl formed a chain of outer suburbs almost all the way to Antigua.

It was a one hour drive to our hotel in Antigua – Posada Los Bucaros. However, when we got to the hotel we were told they were full and we’d been shunted into their overflow house Posada Los Bucaros II. While I wasn’t impressed at the time, in hindsight the second house was much smaller, quieter and with better wifi. 😊

Door to door, we’d been travelling for 33 hours! With a 17 hour time difference, it felt really weird to have left Hobart on Thursday 20th morning, travelled ‘back in time’ for 29 hours, and arrived on the other side of the world still on Thursday evening. All we wanted to do was shower and sleep. However, we were also eager to get out for some fresh air and get a feel for Antigua.

Antigua is in the Highlands of southern Guatemala, and sits at 1500m above sea level (so I’m not sure if we were just tired, or if the altitude was also affecting us). Antigua has many beautiful and intimate posadas (small inns/hotels), and ours was no exception. Posada Los Bucaros II is set in an old colonial house that had been converted into a small boutique hotel. The rooms were set around a small brightly painted courtyard. The staff spoke very little English but were efficient and friendly. I realised when we checked in that my smattering of Spanish is going to get quite a work out here. We scored a room on the top floor with a cute view of a wild reserve, which also housed all manner of wildlife that made themselves known to us during the night and early morning.

We ventured out for a short walk with the goal of finding water and snacks. We stumbled upon a small family shop and stocked up on water, iced tea, a salad and ham roll and a Guatemalan Gallo beer for Andrew. Even though Antigua felt safe to us, the fact that there were armed guards outside the chemist, and that our hotel’s front gate was always locked and staffed gave us a clue that we needed to be a bit more vigilant than normal.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was 11pm (which meant that we’d been up and about for 35 hours!). So it was no wonder that I barely have any recollection of crawling into bed. I slept quite heavily and only woke when a nearby rooster decided to crow every few seconds for about an hour. We beat our 7am alarm by an hour and decided to go for an early morning walk.

We got ourselves organised and excitedly set off to explore a new city. As soon as our car had driven into Antigua, I had a warm familiar feeling that I get when I love a place. I actually think I loved Antigua before I even set foot here. We were based at the northern end of Avenida del Desengano, which was about a 5-10 minute walk away from the generally acknowledged centre of town – Parque Central.

We had a whole day before our Intrepid Travel trip’s first group meeting that evening, and we’d decided we were going to spend our first day in Antigua doing a tailored version of the Lonely Planet guide’s walking tour, followed by a Street Food crawl. Only a few minutes from our hotel there were clumps of restaurants and bars, and also some enticing looking street food stands. But for our first meal in Guatemala, we opted for a bricks and mortor place. We had a quick breakfast of gorgeous Guatemalan coffee, juice and pastries at Fernando’s Kaffe right near our hotel. We sat at tables in the courtyard with colourful local woven textile tablecloths, and enjoyed a seriously good cup of house-roasted Guatemalan coffee. I was tempted by the cronuts and the ‘sexy orange’ chocolate, but the shiny and sticky cinnamon scroll was still warm and caught my eye. It gave me a burst of energy for a couple of hours of walking.

Ah, first morning in a new place bliss. I was immediately in love with the brightly coloured haciendas and colonial buildings (in various states of repair), the charming cobblestone streets and the smell of the mountains in the air. I would think that few cities in the world could rival Antigua’s setting of being surrounded by active volcanoes!

Antigua was the colonial capital of Spanish Central America for over two centuries, but after a series of earthquakes kept flattening the city, the Spanish relocated their capital to Guatemala City. The Santa Marta earthquake of 1773 was particularly nasty and most of the ruins around the city were due to it. Guatemala is not short on seismic activity, and as a result the country’s landscape is strewn with volcanic peaks – of both the dormant and active type. Three volcanoes (Agua, Fuego and Acatenango) loom over the tiled roofs of Antigua, and another (Pacaya) sits just out of town. I was mesmerized by their beauty, but I was also quite intimidated by the fact that there were active volcanos acting as backdrops to my morning photos.

Our early morning walk through Antigua offered a very calm and peaceful outlook on this beautiful, historic city. Drifting along the streets as everyone was waking up gave us the time and space to take in our surroundings at a gentle pace. But the biggest bonus was that the early morning light was spectacular and the vistas were impossibly picturesque. Most of the streets were deserted, and the walk was a perfect way to get into exploration mode and clear the cobwebs out of our heads after a long day of travel.

Walking around Antigua was quite a lovely experience. It had a beautiful relaxed atmosphere, helped in part by the fact that most buildings were less than three storeys high, and also by the indigenous marimba music (played mainly on a wooden xylophone) coming from the many bars and restaurants lining the streets. The streets were set out in my favourite of city planning styles – the ultra-navigable grid. We love getting lost in new places so we didn’t really mind that street signs were sometimes lacking… and yes, we got lost many times on that first day. There were very photogenic collections of colourful building facades lining the charming cobblestone streets, so we ‘accidently’ discovered many lovely streets we wouldn’t otherwise have found.

Despite the multiple earthquakes that caused so many of the ruins we walked past, there are also many well-preserved Spanish baroque-influenced churches and colonial mansions from the 17th and 18th centuries. It was easy to see why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage city.

The small but beautiful and shady Parque Central (also called Plaza Mayor) is the heart of the city. The impressive Fountain of the Sirens sat in the centre of the plaza. Antigua had been built according to Spanish design with a square at the heart of the city surrounded by buildings of power – the church and the government. On the east side of the square was the lustrous white Catedral de Santiago, and on the north the Palacio del Ayuntamiento which houses the city’s municipal offices and a couple of museums. Opposite this on the south side was the very grand Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Finally, on the west side facing the cathedral was an arcaded row of banks, shops and cafes known as the Portal del Comercio. The park was our main point of reference for navigation and we walked to, through and passed it many times.

I loved the Palacio del Ayuntamiento building. We walked upstairs and were awestruck by the gorgeous views through the beautiful arched columns. The most striking was a frame of the closest volcano – Volcan Agua – and other views of the cathedral, the surrounding streets and the park below. We lingered there for longer than we should have, and only left when I felt bad that people were working in offices around us as we walked about with our cameras. No one seemed to mind or even notice us that much, but I still felt bad.

Antigua’s cathedral – the once imposing Catedral de Santiago, sat on the adjoining border of Parque Central. It’s talked of as a metaphor for the city – built in 1548, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, and finally rebuilt on a much simpler scale. It’s now more of a church than a cathedral, as only the main part of the church has been restored for use. It may be a lot less ostentatious than it used to be, but it’s still pretty impressive. Entry to the church was free and a visit was worth it just to see the striking altarpiece. We also paid to visit the extensive ruins that sat behind it. I found the crumbling walls, broken arches and faded decorations very atmospheric. There was a sign pointing out which part of the original cathedral we were standing in – for inspiration to picture the original gargantuan grandeur, I suppose. But I was more in awe of the earthquake that so easily reduced decades of human labour and design into a pile of rubble. There were two crypts which we entered, not knowing the many OH&S non-compliances within. The southern crypt was a series of very dark empty rooms where my trusty iPhone torch came in very handy when we couldn’t see the floor or the low ceilings looming ahead of us. The crypt under what was once the altar was closed off, but there were lit candles and flowers in front of the iron gates, and in the darkness beyond I could just make out a carving of Jesus on the cross and the two Marys’ either side of him.

The Arco de Santa Catalina was a few blocks north of Parque Central. The arch was built in 1693 to allow the Nuns from the Convent of Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced on one side of the street to walk to the Santa Catalina School on the other side without violating their vow of seclusion. The Convent and the school are long gone but the arch has become Antigua's most recognisable and photographed landmark. When the sky is clear, everyone tries to get that classic photograph where (with a bit of maneuvering) Volcan Agua is framed in the arch. The squat arch has been damaged by multiple earthquakes, but still defiantly straddles 5a Avenida Norte. We loved this arch and visited it multiple times to see it in different lights.

Just a block north of the Arco de Santa Catalina was the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced (commonly called La Merced). The striking yellow and white terracotta facade of the church was very eye catching, and it seemed to be a very popular church with the locals.

By now the city had woken and was starting to come alive. But even then, the traffic moved slowly over the cobblestone streets and everyone went about their business at a relaxed pace.

At 11:30am we met Arianna from Taste Antigua in front of a small bar just near Parque Central and began our Street Food Tour. We first stopped at El Portal for a comida corrida (menu del dia/ set menu of the day) meal, where the main dish comes with a drink and bowl of soup. We got a glass of refreshing agua de jamaica (iced tea made with hibiscus flower) and chicken broth with the main dish of longaniza sausages, which was served with sides of red salsa, rice, cucumber and slices of giant radish.

For our next tasting, we walked to Tanque de la Union Park next to Iglesia San Pedro church and Antigua’s only public hospital. We headed to Jorge’s food cart for chuchitos (one of many types of Guatemalan tamales). The chuchitos were steamed in dried corn husk, with a tomato-based antigueno sauce and a small piece of chicken.

The next stop was at Dona Maria Gordillo’s sweet shop where we tried their signature sweet canillitas de leche. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, and I can only describe as eating fluffy crumbly condensed milk!

We walked for a few more blocks and tried pupusas de queso at Odilia’s – a tiny family run shop front that only cooks a few dishes everyday. Pupusas are traditionally El Salvadorian, but Guatemalans have adopted this delicious dish as a favourite street food. Pupusas are also called ‘gorditas’ – literally, ‘little fatties’. Thick handmade corn tortillas are filled with cheese and then cooked on a flat top griddle. The pupusa are served with a curtido (a lightly fermented cabbages slaw) and a simple tomato sauce. It sounds very simple, but it was sooo seriously delicious!

Our final stop was at La Canche, where we tasted the classic Guatemalan dish Pepin chicken stew with rice and tortillas. Dessert of rellenito de platano (mashed plantain doughnut filled with black bean and chocolate paste). It was seriously delicious, and my favourite snack of the street food tour.

We’ve always said that one of the best ways to experience a country is through eating! I had read a few articles that claimed the cuisine of Guatemala was among the best in Central America, so we were eager to get to know the food. We wanted to give equal time to street food and to structured meals in cafes and restaurants. Guatemala’s cuisine has distinctive regional variations, and many of the dishes have descended from Maya ancestry combined with Spanish and Mexican influences. Corn, beans, rice, cheese and tortillas form the backbone of most Guatemalan cuisine. Meat stews and soups are also popular dishes. Chicken and pork seem to be the most popular proteins. Many of the dishes have similarities to what we’d call Mexican food at home (e.g. tamales and enchiladas).

After lunch we walked to the ATM that Arianna personally prefers to use (there are a few dodgy ATMs around town) and then walked back to our hotel and collapsed. In hindsight it was rather masochistic to do six hours of walking the day after travelling across the world, but it’s the best way we know to beat jetlag.

We had a quiet afternoon, regrouped (i.e. napped!), wrote for a bit and prepared for our upcoming journey through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. We had our Mayan Adventure Intrepid Travel trip group meeting at 6:30pm (which is a combination trip of the Best of Guatemala and Mexico and Mexico and Guatemala Highlights trips). We met our group leader Sophie who is Guatemalan and very passionate about sustainable tourism in her country. The group members included Alex, Emma, Brendan, Lisa, Jess and Lauren from Australia and Gavin, Qua, Yen, Meagan from the UK.

After our meeting we walked to La Fonda de la Calle Real (the one on 3a Calle Poniente) for some typical Guatemalan food. I loved my dish of chiles rellenos (roasted bell peppers stuffed with beef and vegetables), as did Andrew his dish of frijol blanco con costilla de marrano (white beans and pork ribs casserole). I also had a daiquiri which was strong enough to floor a donkey, which they counteracted by making the drink uber sweet. I thought I had a sweet tooth until I came here… their love of sugar is on a different plane to mine!

The next morning we meant to wake up for sunrise, but our plans were thwarted by the rooster who woke us at 3am again, and by 5am we were more interested in going back to sleep than walking up a hill. We eventually got ourselves out by 7:30am and had a quick cappuccino with a ham and cheese croissant for breakfast at Cafe Don Diego. Even though we were in the warm dry season, the mornings in Antigua felt like a fresh spring mornings, probably due to the high altitude.

On a hill not so far away, just north of our hotel, stood an old rugged stone cross (apologies to one of my Dad’s favourite hymns 😊), and we wanted to climb Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). We made our way to 1a Avenida Norte, walked through a nice residential neighborhood, and after two blocks or so, there was a road leading uphill. We climbed the steep 15 minute trail to the top of the hill, and with the cross in the foreground, there were fabulous south-facing sweeping views over Antigua, with the magnificent Volcan Agua towering over the whole landscape. We had timed our visit just as a massive group of high school kids on an excursion were settling in with breakfast snacks. It was as loud as you would imagine it would be, and at first we tried taking photos without the hundreds of kids in each frame, but the longer we were there, the more we just embraced their presence and enjoyed sharing the experience with them. They were a nice and happy (but very loud) bunch of teenagers, and at one point I heard a couple of them behind us rehearsing the question ‘can we have a photo with you?’, so I turned around and smiled and that was the only invitation about fifteen of them needed to pile in around us giggling (girls) and shirking with excitement (boys) – it was seriously cute. Their teachers were very amused. The school group eventually walked back down to their school at the bottom of the hill and we got those shots of the cross and the volcano we’d originally wanted.

After descending back into town, we walked over to the western end of town. I had read that the mercados (markets) near the bus terminal were worth checking out, and also that the tucked away bus terminal was full of the famous Guatemalan ‘chicken buses’. The ‘chicken buses’ are transit city buses, and so named by tourists for the fact that rural Guatemalans used to transport live animals on them (which the foreigners found shocking). They are repurposed old US school buses, which although brightly repainted, looked and sounded like they were at death’s door. I think some were only being held together by their paint jobs. For reasons I can’t fathom, they’ve achieved legendary status in travel circles, even though they don’t actually have chickens on the buses anymore (as far as I know).

We noticed an army presence around the very busy bus station, and also slowly realised that two of them were trying to stealthily shadow us. We were the only non-locals around, so we assumed they were trying to keep us safe. As we were leaving I asked the army guy boss if I could take their photo, and they readily agreed and immediately changed their smiley loungey demeanours to upright with hands on guns… it was hilarious; but not as hilarious as the fact that Andrew noticed a random passer-by vigorously stopping pedestrians from walking into the photo frame. 😊

The main mercado was a rambling riot of noise, grit and colour. As much as I love streets of UNESCO World Heritage protected old towns, they can sometimes feel a bit too Disneyesque, but little pockets like the Mercado keep things real. It wasn’t market day and a few of the stalls were closed, but there were still quite a few villagers (mostly Maya women) from the hills who had come down to the city to sell their wares. It was a typical market with different sections for produce, household goods and clothing. I loved the produce section of the market. There were piles and piles of fruit and vegetables that I had never seen before, or even heard of. And even the produce I knew like chiles and avocados looked so much more alive over here. The Antiguan locals are nicknamed 'panza verde' (green belly) due to all of the avocados that grow on the hills surrounding the city.

We also visited the artisan market which was pleasant enough, but after about the third stall all the products became samey-samey and we didn’t last much longer than half a circuit.

We’d been subjected to a total overload of our senses at the markets and it wasn’t even midday yet! We decided to walk back to the hotel and shower (to wash off the dust off from Cerro de la Cruz, the bus station and the repair works on the cobblestone road outside our hotel).

For lunch we went looking for a restaurant I’d read a review of online called El Rinco Tipico. It’s one of those places where they serve three choices for their comida corrida (daily set menu), and their menu changes every day. By the time we went they only had the chicken and pork hock options left. We both ordered the rotisserie roast chicken which came with the most delicious baby potatoes and a broccoli and white onion salad. This was a huge meal, and on top of that we also got a basket of warm and very tasty tortillas and a bottomless drink of agua de tamarindo (the pulp of the tamarind pod mixed with water and sugar) tamarind. I was in ‘new food’ heaven. Sadly, I just couldn’t get through even half my Flintstones sized meal. We will definitely go back for more meals at El Rinco Tipico.

After lunch we retraced our steps to re-visit some of the buildings we’d been intrigued by on our walk the previous day. The La Merced church and monastery which were near the Arco de Santa Catalina was on our list. I thought the yellow building with stunning white filigree made it one of the most beautiful and ornate churches in Antigua. The church was still used, but the other buildings were in ruins. There was a small fee to access the monastery and other portions of the grounds that were in ruins. At the centre of the monastery cloister was the Fuente de Peces, thought to be the largest water fountain in Central America. The fountain was in the shape of a water lily which was a symbol of power among the Maya, so that spawned theories that Maya laboring slaves may have had some influence on the design of the church. We got the best views of the ruins by climbing up to the terrace above the cloister. There were also views of the city and hazy volcanoes beyond. When the sun was out La Merced’s vibrant yellow paint and intricate white carvings were quite stunning.

Given chocolate is such a large part of the history of Central America, we visited Choco Museo one afternoon and decided to do their chocolate workshop. It went for a couple of hours, and it was interesting, fun and delicious! Chocolate comes from cacao pods which grow on trees, and when ripe (and looking like yellow rugby balls) they are split in two to extract the white pulp which encloses the cacao beans. The pulp is wrapped in banana leaves for fermentation, after which the beans are sun dried. At this stage the farmers sell the beans to chocolate manufacturers. The beans are then roasted and crushed to release the nibs from their thin bean shells. The nibs are ground into thick brown cocoa mass and processed to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. These products are mixed with sugar and milk and manipulated to produce the chocolate products we know and love today. At the Choco Museo, before learning how to make chocolate, we were given an introduction to the history of chocolate in the Maya and Aztec empires. Not only was it a fun activity, but it was also a unique and hands-on way to learn something about the pre-Hispanic history of the area, and how instrumental drinking chocolate/cacao was to Maya rituals.

We then got hands-on and roasted fermented cacao beans, shelled the beans and ground half of it in a mortar and pestle and the other half in a grinder. We prepared three chocolate drinks – first we made chocolate tea with the roasted bean shells, which was surprisingly refreshing and tasty. We then made kakawa (Maya hot chocolate) in the ancient traditional way with our hand ground beans, water, honey, vanilla and chile. It had a pleasant flavour but the gritty cacao bits weren’t very nice, but I can see how it would have been tasty to a palette that wasn’t used to creamy and smooth drinks. Kakawa was the early ancestor of hot chocolate as we know it now, so for our third drink we leant the recipe the colonial Spanish had used when they arrived. We used the machine ground cacao and added hot milk, sugar, cardamom, cinnamon, anise and black pepper. We then used a wooden implement to froth the mixture and created frothy delicious hot chocolate which I was instantly in love with. We then moved to the making of chocolates! They refined and tempered the chocolate for us, and we then got to mould our own chocolates. We were allowed to be creative and add our flavours of choice, and I chose ginger and sea salt for half my mould and macadamia and sea salt for the other half. Our guide Sergio was knowledgeable and entertaining, and I would highly recommend this workshop for anyone who likes chocolate.

So to add to the paddock-to-plate, grape-to-glass and grain-to-glass experiences that have become popular in Australia, we now had a crop-to-cup coffee experience, as well as a bean-to-bar chocolate experience! 😊

While we’d been getting our hands dirty with chocolate, the regular late afternoon thunderstorm hit with a vengeance. Typically the mornings have been comfortably cool but sunny, with the heat building to an afternoon shower, and a cool night.

Our two days in Antigua were very enjoyable. The patina of time was visibly imprinted on Antigua, with its cobblestone roads, old-fashioned cars, baroque architecture and earthquake ruins making it feel quite antique. But there was also a very warm and welcoming energy to the city. The locals were friendly but not overly so, which for the most part allowed us to mingle and be part of things without being constantly treated as tourists. There were quite a few expats who have adopted the city, and the language students (who come here in seasonal waves) gave the naturally laid back city a very vibrant sense of community.

I’m already looking forward to coming back here in just over three weeks, but my poor feet will be happy to get a break from the unforgiving cobblestone streets. 😊

Next we travel northeast to Rio Dulce, in the Izabal Department of Eastern Guatemala.


25th April 2016

We are off to a great start
I am enjoying your blogs and pictures on this trip. That is one heck of a long time to be traveling and not sleeping. Too bad the rooster is so perky. Hopefully you will be rested and on the new time zone quickly. Enjoy your travels and keep the wonderful food descriptions coming.
25th April 2016

Re: We are off to a great start
Thanks Brendan! We have kind of adjusted to the new time zone and seem to wake up at naturally at 5am, which is perfect for sunrise :)
25th April 2016

Retracing my foot steps!!
Loving your blog guys, bringing back lots of memories of that great little city. Keep enjoying!!
26th April 2016

Re: Retracing my foot steps!!
Thanks Damo! We are in northern Guatemala now, but already looking forward to visiting Antigua again...
25th April 2016
arco de santa catalina

Very Artsy
Nice one.
26th April 2016
arco de santa catalina

Re: Very Artsy
Thanks Merry :)
25th April 2016

Street Food Crawl
What a way to start a vacation and travel adventure. Glad you like the vibe. It is a city few people dislike. Central America is charming. The roosters will prevent you from being late for any of your tours. You just need to get on the roosters time schedule and go to bed earlier. :) The chocolate workshop sounds incredible. Volcanos, markets,cobble stone streets, chicken buses and are off to a good start.
28th April 2016

Re: Street Food Crawl
We've had a few early starts since Antigua, and I've almost wished the rooster was around to help with a wake up call (but I should be careful what I wish for!). Antigua was the perfect start to our trip, both as a gentle introduction to Central America as well as a gentle introduction to the heat :)
25th April 2016

Sleep, who needs it when a new country awaits?
It is amazing how the body and mind just keeps functioning on that first day of a trip, and generally under extra pressure too of getting through an airport and customs. An 8 hour work day in an office generally kills my brain but 33 hours of flying and changing country and you can still negotiate a feed with next to no local language. The food sounds incredible, just wish you could somehow post the smell and flavours. looking forward to the next.
28th April 2016

Re: Sleep, who needs it when a new country awaits?
Absolutely! I think it took us a few days to come down from the adrenaline rush of starting a trip, and by then our bodies had adjusted to local time - so it all worked well! The food has continued to be great, and we have a theory that it won't belong before we can post smells and tastes on photos :)
25th April 2016

Properly in love!
Love the words you two used when describing some of your time here--laid back, loitering, wandered, drifting along--it was this relaxed pace that seduced me into staying in this colorful, colonial city for six weeks. And despite the rooster and jet lag, you really packed in fabulous exploration, especially of the food scene--this gordita loves those gorditas (fab photos as usual)! Your blog was so inspiring that I just checked out residency requirements for Guatemala. Thanks for my new direction!
28th April 2016

Re: Properly in love!
I'm really looking forward to having more pupusas/gorditas when we get back to Antigua! Hope your move to Guatemala works out - that would be so amazing :)
26th April 2016

Hi Ren and Andrew! I Love that your trip is getting off to a great start! And as always, your photos and descriptions of the local food has my mouth watering lol. Ya'll are so lucky to be experiencing such cultural and tropical places... my heart was set on going somewhere like that this year but it'll have to wait for now while we transition our lives into parenthood. By the way, I live in Dallas 20 minutes away from the airport and I read your blog about your flight connection at the DFW airport, I had no idea it would be so difficult! I hope that your return connection is a better one and I'm looking forward to seeing more of your trip!
28th April 2016

Re: Hola!
Thanks Jennifer! Yes our trip really did get off to a fabulous start, and we are slowly acclimatising to the tropical heat. Congratulations on your wonderful news and hope the transitioning goes well... you'll be travelling with buns in no time :)
1st May 2016

Great start :)
It's amazing how much you guys fit into a day of travel out there! Thanks for the blog entry, it seems that you may be following a similar route to my own this summer, so I'll be reading avidly - especially the positive comments on posadas and eateries you may be posting :)
3rd May 2016

Re: Great start :)
I still can't believe that we are travelling the same trip as you (again)... we loved Antigua very much and can't wait to return in a few weeks. If you have any specific questions closer to your trip, please feel free to message us.

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