All you need is love in Antigua

Published: June 24th 2016
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Today we were travelling southeast from San Jorge la Laguna to Antigua(with a small detour north to Chichicastenango).

We said our goodbyes to Dora and her family at our home stay house in San Jorge la Laguna, walked down the steep cobblestone path to the town square at 8:30am, loaded our packs onto the roof of a waiting minibus and started out on the final leg of this part of our journey – we were travelling back to Antigua where we started 24 days ago.

We climbed the steep winding road out of San Jorge, narrowly missing speeding ‘chicken buses’ and stopping briefly at a lookout to capture a few last photos of Lake Atitlan and its three volcanoes. We headed north for about an hour before pulling into the bustling mountain town of Chichicastenango at 9:45am. We explored the central market, visited the churches at opposite ends of the main plaza (Iglesia de Santo Tomas and Capilla del Calvario), climbed and crossed the colourful Arco Gucumatz at the northern end of town before ambling back to the minibus. We left Chichicastenango at 11am and began twisting and winding our way through valleys and steep mountain roads towards Antigua, eventually arriving at 1:30pm.

We checked into Hotel Posada Los Bucaros, organised our laundry, picked up some croissants from Cafe Don Diego (opposite La Merced) and settled into our room to catch up on some travel writing. We ventured out into the cobblestone streets of Antigua around 5pm to visit some of our favourite haunts, including Parque Central, Arco de Santa Catalina and La Merced. A wedding had just finished at the church, so we were able to wander in (a mass was being held last time we were in Antigua, so we had not been able to enter). We captured a few more great photos at the Arco de Santa Catalina, and we were also able to capture some photos of the Parque Central fountain in full operation – the water had been turned off on our previous visit.

We wandered Antigua’s streets as dusk fell, only just capturing a photo of Volcan Agua through the Arco de Santa Catalina. The atmosphere on the streets was fantastic – it was a Saturday, and people were enjoying the holiday. We wandered back to the hotel, freshened up and then headed out to La Palmas for dinner at 8:30pm. We were exhausted from the home stay, so we ordered soup – I opted for chicken and Ren ordered vegetable. It was bland and tasteless, but the copa de vinto tinto (glass of red wine) was great, as was the Salsa band that started halfway through our meal.

We wandered home along the dark cobblestone streets, said goodbye to all our fellow travellers and retired to our room at 10:30pm. We had a completely free day in Antigua the next day, and we were looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the night took a dramatic turn, with a nasty tummy bug hitting Ren. I’d been carrying a stomach bug that I’d picked up in San Cristobal five days earlier, but it hadn’t impacted my travels too much. However, this was much worse. We woke fairly late, but Ren was still not well. After a dose of anti-biotics (that we always travel with), she stayed in bed. I headed out and picked up some fresh fruit and Gatorade, but she could barely eat. We were lucky we had a free day in Antigua before flying to Mexico City the following day.

I headed out at midday to pick up our laundry, and then headed out again in the early afternoon to pick up some postcards, Guatemalan coffee and a fruit salad for Ren. An old Canadian guy sitting in Cafe Don Diego helped me order the fruit salad for Ren (in Spanish), and while I waited for the staff to prepare it, he told me he knew more about Maya architecture than any person on this planet. He also told me he’d discovered an extra five constellations, and that no one on this planet (one of his favourite terms of phrase) was intelligent enough to understand him. What made matters worse for his self-anticipated deification in historical academia was that he only possessed a Diploma of Music. He was a complete fruit-loop, and all of the sheep had well and truly migrated from the top paddock. However, he was nice enough to chat with (listen to), and he did help me with the fruit salad order. I waited for a break in his self-congratulatory monologue and quickly escaped from the cafe, wishing him well in his lifetime aim of lecturing at a university somewhere in the world. Ren has always said I attract fruit-loops – I think it’s because I’m a good listener. Apparently he had tried to tell his story to an “arrogant American” a few minutes before I walked in, who’d told him in no uncertain terms that if there were undiscovered constellations, a PhD student would have already discovered them. It’s a hard one – do you speak your mind or just politely listen to the fruit-loops of the world?

I hurried back to the hotel and settled in our room, writing postcards and catching up on travel notes while Ren slept. She needed as much energy as she could muster to get through our travel to Mexico City the following day. Huge firework blasts rocked Antigua and its surrounding areas during the day, night and early morning – at times it felt like we were under attack.

Ren didn’t leave the room all day, and I only ventured out to get supplies. Our fingers were crossed that she would be able to get through the long eight hours of travel ahead of us the next day.

After saying goodbye to our homestay hosts, we caught a minibus from San Jorge to Antigua, our final stop in the central Guatemalan Highlands.

The drive out of the Lake Atitlan area was beautiful, and we hadn’t been able to appreciate any of it on our late night drive into Panajachel a few days ago. It was a beautiful but scary drive, as we could clearly see how mad and reckless the Guatemalan ‘chicken bus’ drivers were on the winding and steep road. It made me very nervous when we were overtaken by a chicken bus, because it was usually on a blind corner! They drive as if they wouldn’t brake or stop for anyone in their path, but in reality they braked and stopped for everyone who hailed them, wherever on the road they were. It was quite heart-attack inducing stuff watching our driver trying to predict their erratic movements and trying to avoid hitting them when they braked suddenly. I eventually went into self-preservation mode by putting my headphones on and disappearing into my blog writing. We stopped at a viewing point for one last look at the three volcanoes that ringed the lake, and then we left the area.

On the way we stopped at the large indigenous K'iche Maya town Chichicastenango (known as ‘Chi Chi’), which is about 2000m above sea level. Chichicastenango is famous for a market where the best of handicrafts from all over Guatemala are supposed to be sold, including popular local foods and produce. Market days are Thursdays and Sundays, and it’s the largest open air market in Guatemala. Unfortunately, we were there on a Saturday, and while the atmosphere wasn’t as impressive as I’d heard it was on market day, it was still an interesting market to walk through for the produce section alone. Even though there was a huge variety of goods for sale, I had expected a larger prepared food section, but again, that might be a market day thing. I especially enjoyed watching the women standing over the hot comals (flat round cast-iron surface heated by an open flame) making tortillas, as I had a whole new appreciation for the skills required to hand make tortillas (after finding out at our homestay how difficult a task it is). The female hawkers were happy to have their shops and produce photographed but didn’t want their faces in it – that’s fair enough really.

We also visited the 400 year old Santo Tomas Church, where Catholic and Maya rituals took place side by side. On the church steps, people were praying in a traditional way by burning copal (traditional incense) and chanting, while inside there were more catholic rituals of candles and flowers for the souls of the departed. They prayed to the saints as well as to the lords of all the natural forces, and Maya and Catholic iconography were combined in a way that was bizarre to my ‘brought-up catholic’ mind. I found out later that the church had been built on a Maya temple and the steps leading up to the church were part of the original temple platform.

There was a similar but smaller (and more unassuming) church on the other end of the market called Capilla del Calvario, which provided a beautiful view of Santo Thomas over the market streets.

We then walked through the town and its back streets. We were in the commercial part of Chichicastenango and I was very interested in the many dusty stores trading in large sacks of corn- there were so many colours and varieties on sale. I didn’t hear much Spanish spoken around the town, and I assumed the language we heard was K'iche. All the indigenous tribes we visited in both Chiapas (Mexico) and this part of Guatemala had retained their sense of distinct identity, probably largely because of their rural isolation.

We eventually walked back to our minibus to continue our journey to Antigua. Chichicastenango was an interesting experience. While I don’t know if Chichicastenango’s reputation of being home to one of the most spectacular and traditional markets in the Americas is valid, I thought it was an interesting market to visit.

I’d started to feel a bit unwell on the drive into Antigua, but I wrote it off as tiredness due to not sleeping well at the homestay. And it was so lovely to enter the city limits of Antigua again that I tried to ignore the warning signs that all wasn’t well. The joy of recognition hit us as we got closer to the areas we’d got to know so well on our last visit. We were back at Posada Los Bucaros in Antigua (the original hotel this time, not the overflow building we were allocated to last time), and it was really good to be back.

It occurred to me that we must have been getting used to altitude, as Antigua (at 1500m) was the lowest elevation we’d been at since San Cristobal (at 2000m). I’d fallen in love with Antigua on our first visit here just over three weeks ago, and that feeling was totally confirmed on the return trip. It was lovely to be back in a beautiful city with its old world narrow cobbled streets, tree-shaded parks, local markets and old colonial architecture.

We had two days in Antigua before moving onto the third leg of our trip in Mexico City. We’d initially decided to climb Volcan Pacaya, but wisely decided to skip that activity and spend the afternoon revisiting favourite places, and then use our last day to buy souvenirs and see anything we’d missed on our first stay.

We’d started thinking of the next part of our journey too, and a vital part of that preparation was getting our clothes washed. We were down to only one clean outfit each… so while Andrew went off to get our laundry done, I had a quick nap to get rid of what I thought was travel tiredness.

In between the routines we both have for getting ourselves organised, I posted our Chichen Itza blog which we’d edited and picked photos for while travelling on our long minibus trips. Our plan to keep on top of blog posts (by publishing each blog within five days of experiencing a place) was most certainly starting to slip. However, we were at least still managing to keep on top of our writing. 😊

We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening out walking. We started at Iglesia La Merced, but we couldn’t go in as there was a wedding in progress, so we walked past all the stalls that had set up around the church and on to Arco de Santa Catalina. I just loved the squat little yellow arch and spent time taking more photos of it, even though it was a hazy afternoon and Volcan Agua wasn’t very clear in the distance.

We then made our way to Parque Central. It was a Saturday and full of local families and tourists enjoying the park, with live music and food vendors. We were happy to see the beautiful fountain was full of water and in operation, as it had been undergoing cleaning and restoration the last time we were here. The slightly risque mermaid fountain was eye catching. I’d heard a tale that the fountain was in honour of the indigenous women who acted as wet nurses to Spanish children, but given the original fountain was constructed in 1738, I doubt they were designing anything in honour of indigenous people back then.

We walked around the whole park and listened to music. By now it was dusk, so we walked back to the arch to take some photos with its lights on. We stumbled upon the bride and groom from the wedding at La Merced posing near the arch, so of course we stopped and took some photos for my ‘weddings around the world album’. 😊

We were finally able to go into La Merced (we had been thwarted by locked doors, masses and a wedding on our previous attempts) and explore the very old interior of this gorgeous church. As we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for our final group dinner, I started realising that something was wrong. I’d lost my appetite, which almost never ever happens! I still thought it would pass when I got to the restaurant and saw and smelt the food.

We met as a group for one last time, and Fabian gave us little farewell gifts of munecas quitapenas (Guatemalan worry dolls). The little traditional Maya outfitted dolls are supposed to take away your worries and are a favourite Guatemalan souvenir. Legend has it that each night you should tell one of the dolls a sorrow and then put it under your pillow. In the morning, you throw the doll out and with it your sorrow should also disappear. As with most kinds of wishes, the sorrow revealed to the doll has to remain a secret. It was a lovely gesture and parting gift from a group leader who did a wonderful job navigating us from Playa del Carmen in Mexico, though Yucatan and Chiapas States and back across the border into Guatemala.

I managed to sit through dinner, but I couldn’t stand the thought of eating anything. I’d ordered a vegetable soup but didn’t touch it. My bottle of coke was my friend. I can’t even remember where we went for dinner, so it’s a good thing Andrew was paying attention. We said a genuinely sad goodbye to the group (and were happy to know we would be seeing Logan in Mexico City) and then made our way up to our room to crash. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be leaving the room again for another 36 hours. It had become apparent that I had picked up a nasty stomach bug. I spent the whole of that night and the next day either rolling around the bed groaning, or in a restless sleep.

Andrew was a fabulous nurse… he made sure I kept hydrated, negotiated possible food items that I could eat to take my antibiotics (it turned out tropical fruit salads were the only thing my body would tolerate) and also went on solo expeditions to do some last minute shopping for Guatemalan coffee and postcards. I was so angry at myself for getting sick in a city I had really been looking forward to exploring again. However, as Andrew kept reminding me, it was the best possible day of the trip to get sick, as we had a free day and a nice hotel room. He was right... I was grateful for the comfortable room and large window with a beautiful view of the sky, garden courtyard and city for the time I was stuck in bed. We also had a view of the looming and beautiful Volcan Agua to the side of us, but I wasn’t in any mood to hang out on our small balcony that overlooked the central garden and pool (which was full of teenagers on a uni trip).

I was focussed on getting better for our international flight to Mexico, and I was so relieved that my body seemed to be responding to the rest and medication. On the plus side of being sick, Andrew also sorted and re-packed my pack for me. I was so grateful to have an orderly pack full of clean clothes… it always makes me feel better. That’s not odd is it? 😉

On reflection, I’m so glad that getting sick didn’t colour my feelings towards Antigua. I would love to return and spend a few weeks taking intensive Spanish classes in the mornings, and then wandering the city in the afternoons, eating street food and snacking on delicious tropical fruit.

For me the most pleasurable activity in Antigua had been walking. On our morning walks around the city there were no busloads of tourists, no vendors, no traffic – just the volcanoes looming through a quiet arch, over the quiet cobblestones, and over a lush sea of tiled roofs. I also loved the dramatic light here. It changed constantly, playing off the pastel coloured facades of the houses and buildings, and changing the view of Volcan Agua, which shifted from a moody blue in the early morning, to dark green in direct overhead light, to an almost purple at dusk.

Next we fly north to Mexico City in Distrito Federal Mexico.


24th June 2016
chichicastenango mercado

Guatemalan patterns
Glad you made it to Antigua from the lake in one piece, avoiding being hit by the wild chicken buses. I was on several where the drivers were swigging cane liquor out of the bottle, making them even more crazed than usual. So sorry, Ren, your tummy didn't avoid being hit by a bug, but how lovely that Andrew was so helpful. And Andrew, I'm with you--not much use in pointing out reality to those from other planets--doubtful we'll awaken them to our crueler reality. Love your photos of mercado merchandise!
25th June 2016
chichicastenango mercado

Re: Guatemalan patterns
Ah Tara I'm glad I didn't know about the drunk chicken bus drivers! What idiots. I escaped any tummy issues in India, so a 24 hour bug on this trip was ok I suppose...but it still annoyed me. I would love to know how the crazy people sniff out that Andrew's a good listener :) And thanks - Central American markets are so beautiful.
24th June 2016

Freak magnet
Fruit Loops I (Shelley) can sympathise, if there is one within a 1km radius they will come up and talk to me as I nod and smile while all the time taking a step back. Antigua sounds great and now is definitely on our list of places we want to visit.
25th June 2016

Re: Freak magnet
Haha Shelley, after the stories of the guy speaking Russian to your chest and the young Armenian priest, I started to realise that you attracted loonies too! I keep telling Andrew to stop making eye contact with the crazy people...I have even threatened to stop going grocery shopping with him (loonies love Coles on a Friday night!) :) Antigua is seriously lovely and we'd love to go back soon.
24th June 2016

Canadian Fruit-Loop
I find the problem with most fruit-loops is that they never shut up, and it's hard to disengage without being rude. I'm as interested as the next guy in an amusing story, but I do have my limits.
25th June 2016

Re: Canadian Fruit-Loop
Karen I'm usually Andrew's exit strategy when he gets trapped with a crazy person who won't stop talking :)
26th June 2016

Erratic mountain driving
This bus ride sounds like the one we had in Nepal. It was terrifying and the drop offs were steep if we went over. Good that you could put on your headphones and hide or become distracted. It breaks my heart that you got sick. I've spent many days in bed/bathroom as we've traveled. I'm very prone to food poisoning. I've had it so many times now that I rarely eat street food and I'm very cautious with all foods. Sounds like Andrew was a prince and he is right that it is good to have a comfortable place to be sick. It breaks my heart that you lost time in this beautiful city but you'll go back. With the fruit loops, just nod and move on.
27th June 2016

Re: Erratic mountain driving
Merry it didn't help that we had been told of the fatal accident stats of the chicken buses - by either plunging off the side of a mountain or in head-on collisions around blind corners. I'm getting better at distracting myself on road trips :) In hindsight, being sick for one day on this trip wasn't bad at all, but it felt like hell at the time. Already planning a trip back to Antigua when we visit the rest of Central America. :)

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