Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Guatemala Journey: La Antigua - December 4 - 8, 2015

Our next stop was La Antigua, a destination for almost everyone who travels to Guatemala. And for good reason: it is a lovely town with a well developed tourist infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, tour companies, etc.). La Antigua's current status is a testament to the positive effects of a tourist-based economy. Here's a short history of the town: 
  • 1543: Span established Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan (City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala) as the third capital site of the colony which spread from modern-day Chiapas to Costa Rica (bad things happened to capitals one and two) 
  • 1543 - 1776: Spain (read: its indigenous subjects) built lovely homes, government buildings, churches and convents; universities and hospitals were established; it was a good time to be in Ciudad de Santiago;
  • 1776: after a series of devastating earthquakes the capital was moved to present-day Guatemala City and the majority of the population began to leave, taking parts of buildings with them to build Guate - but not everyone leaves;
  • 19th century: the coffee boom somewhat revives the town, now known as La Antigua Guatemala (Old Guatemala);
  • 1979: UNESCO designates La Antigua as a World Heritage Site and restoration begins in earnest
  • Today: La Antigua is a testament to the "build it and they will come" principle:

El Arco: A Bridge From One Convent
Building To Another -
To Shield The Nuns From Civilian View

A La Antigua Street Scene

And Another Street Scene

There are more ruins to see in La Antigua than most tourists can remember (at least more than these tourists can remember). We spent our energy/attention on:

          El Paseo de Los Museos (the Museums Promenade) at the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. The hotel looks beautiful and beyond our travel budget. Happily for lower-budget travelers the hotel was built into the ruins of a Dominican church and convent and the Santo Thomas de Aquino college and was apparently required to grant public access (for a fee) to a portion of its grounds and to host several small museums. It was well worth our time.

Modern Day Pilgrim

Rows of Burial Chambers

Among the Ruins: A Destination Wedding Venue

A Favorite: A Chocolate Store!

          Walking Tour:  We also hired a tour guide to take us on a walking tour. It turned out that the usual walking tour itinerary spends a lot of time at the Paseo de Los Museos which we had already seen, so our guide had to come up with some additional things to visit. He did an admirable job of showing us through the other public spaces and the many other ruins in town.

City Hall
And More . . . 


As with other day tours we have taken, the most interesting part of our day was hearing our guide's personal story and his take on present-day Guatemala. Our guide, whose English was quite good, had studied to become an attorney but had decided that life as a tourist guide would be safer (and who knows - possibly more lucrative). He told the story of a judge he knew, who had received a telephone call explaining that "bad things" would happen to his children if he failed to reach a certain conclusion in a case. Our guide didn't tell us what the judge decided to do . . . but we would not be surprised to hear that justice was not well served. His story put life in Guatemala in perspective for us.

A not-unexpected part of the tour was a visit to the Jade Museum where (surprise) we were given the opportunity to purchase jade jewelry. The tour was more interesting and the sales pitch less cringe-worthy than we expected. We actually learned a bit about jade: Jade was more highly prized by the Maya aristocracy than gold. And, apparently "jade" can either be jadeite or nephrite and Guatemala is one of the few sources of jadeite. 

Jade Museum

We still didn't buy any - but that had more to do with our budget than with the quality of the jewelry offered for sale.

          Christmas Prep:  And of course the best part of any trip is the unexpected. We happened upon two very different Christmas season parades. 

The first parade represented the more commercial aspects of the season:

The Requisite Beauty Queens

And Cartoon Characters

The second was a religious procession, with acolytes carrying statuary:

The Crowd

The Ladies' Auxiliary

The Band

And The Generator . . . ?

But not all unexpected things are necessarily good. 

          Travel Has Its Risks: We attended the annual (every December 7) Quema del Diablo (The Burning of the Devil) ceremony. The devil's effigy is burned in order to eliminate evil spirits and make way for the Christmas holidays. Not all the evil spirits were expunged apparently.

The crowd thronging the streets surrounding the burning grounds was huge and more than once it occurred to us that the situation had the opportunity to become a two-inch story in the Sacramento Bee; something about dozens crushed in a stampede at a religious ceremony in Guatemala. Molly, who is height-challenged, saw nothing of the event, and Bryce saw this:

Something's Burning. Must Be The Devil.

While we were trapped in the total scrum that surrounded the event, someone with a very sharp blade sliced into Molly's purse (yes, she was stupid to take it to an event like this) and liberated her wallet. Happily she felt nothing even though she was clutching her purse very closely to her stomach - otherwise the very sharp blade may have sliced open her arm!

As violated as we felt when we discovered this theft - several hours later when we were back at the hotel (that's how clean the cut was) - we had a lovely experience the next morning that helped restore our faith in the people of La Antigua. There was a small clothing store with a sewing machine in view (we will alter the clothes for you!) at the door of our hotel. Molly took her purse there and asked the proprietor to do whatever he could to put her purse back together. When we returned after breakfast he had done a splendid job (she's still carrying the repaired purse) and refused to accept payment for his services because he was so upset about the theft. 

And of course, our banks have come through and covered us for our losses - so our story is one of fright and inconvenience rather than economic loss. Live and learn, but don't be disheartened. 

Travel Tips: (1) Always expect that you may end up in a hyper-crowded situation. Everyone knows that pick-pockets work crowds but as a traveler one doesn't always know what situations will be crowded. We didn't foresee the scrum that the devil burning event would become. Recently a sailing compatriot underestimated the density of the crowd in the Mexico City subway. So, every time you leave the hotel anticipate a pick-pocket encounter and leave at least one credit card in the safety deposit box at the desk. (2) A friend once had her purse snatched in Italy - sadly she was carrying her husband's wallet in the purse! They had no way to pay for a taxi back to their hotel and a long, hot walk without even a bottle of water ensued. With that situation in mind, we each carry money when we are traveling. Good plan - as far as it goes. What we had failed to think about (duh) was that though we were each carrying credit cards - we were carrying the same two cards. Thus we had to cancel both cards when Molly's wallet was stolen. Lucky for us a third card was left at the hotel - otherwise we would have been on a pure cash economy for the rest of our trip. Going forward Molly will carry card A and Bryce will carry card B and the other cards will be left behind. (3) Apparently debit cards on the Visa system can be used as credit cards - no pin number required. Molly's debit card was used to buy $15 worth of food at McDonalds - four times - before we cancelled the card.]

Yes, we would still go back to Antigua. Just not to the devil burning.

          Miscellaneous Stuff: For anyone planning a trip to La Antigua, here are some miscellaneous thoughts:
  • Tourist Shuttles: We traveled from Guate to La Antigua by tourist shuttle van. The shuttles that run between tourist destinations are more comfortable and correspondingly more expensive than the colorful "chicken buses" or other local buses that many Guatemalans use because a shuttle ticket guarantees the rider a seat. That said, if the shuttle is fully booked the seat may be a very small seat or a negotiated portion of a bench seat. Also, many shuttle routes begin very early in the morning in order for the van to return to home base before dark. We're talking 5:00 a.m. early. 
  • Private Transportation: We traveled from La Antigua to Lago Atitlán by private car (see above re: problems with shuttles). Many tour companies will be able to arrange a private car and driver if the shuttle doesn't meet your needs. Not all of the cars will be in great shape. We didn't ask about insurance.
  • Food: If in La Antigua don't miss Mamma's. Okay wine list and deliberate service - but great food. We ate there twice! 
  • Planning: If you're going to La Antigua, check out The Revue - an English language magazine about what's going on in Guatemala (really mostly in La Antigua). The magazine has a nice website
  • Hotel: Hotel Casa Rustica is clean and comfortable. Our room had a nice patio. Downtown La Antigua is noisy at night. Bring earplugs. There were guard dogs.

The Three-Legged Guard Dog

In sum, for those traveling after us: Have a good trip. Use the safety deposit box at your hotel. Eat at Mammas.  

Next we travel on to Lago Atitlán (Lake Atitlán) and find those people we went to high school and college with that didn't become civil servants! 

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