Ancient Antigua

Friday 15 to Monday 18 May

We flew from Nicaragua and picked up a rental car and drove directly to Antigua. Guatemala City is not on the recommended tourist list.

The drive took us on the Pan American highway and was relatively easy once we sorted out Google’s inability to recognise how intersections work.

Finding the hotel in a maze of one way streets is always fun and I have become quite adept at navigating Bruce around in ever decreasing circles as we home in the exact location of the hotel.

Antigua is the ancient capital of Guatemala, but it was abandoned in 1772 after a massive earthquake destroyed much of it and killed many of its citizens. The new Guatemala City is about 45km to the east.

The most famous image of Antigua is the beautiful arch Arco de Santa Catalina, on the Calle de Arco (Arch Street). Our hotel was in the former convent of Santa Catalina, and the arch had been built so the nuns that lived there could cross the street without being seen.

Antigua reminded me of Trinidad in Cuba, cobble stoned streets and brightly coloured single story buildings. However the infrastructure here is far better and most of the well walked streets have concrete sidewalks which are certainly easier on the legs than the cobblestones.

The Parque Central has the old cathedral on one side and some lovely colonnaded buildings on the other three sides. These were a great place to stop and watch when a burst of thunder became a drenching downpour.

The rain stopped as quickly as it started and a band set up to play in the colonnade, refreshing the air with the music.

The cathedral is now small, one chapel was rebuilt after the earthquake. The rest of the cathedral and convent is a shell that is interesting to visit.

We found other ‘shells’ of buildings such as the Convento Santo Domingo which is now a hotel, an open air church, a candle and pottery craft centre, a modern/ancient art gallery and a number of museums. The central courtyard of the convent had been restored and has a lovely fountain in it. The hotel is of the upmarket variety with lush gardens and a number of macaws sitting on their assigned perches.

There are many shopping opportunities in Antigua, and the local ladies, in very colourful national dress, constantly ply their trade, asking again and again for you to buy.

We climbed to Cerro de la Santa Cruz, the cross that stands on a hill on the outskirts of Antigua, for a wonerful view over the city. To my surprise the hill was covered with eucalypts. They seem to be a popular tree because they grow quickly.

We also visited the San Francisco El Grande church. We weren’t allowed to take photos in the church, however it appears to be a somewhat sacred place, with the tomb of Guatemala’s most revered saint, San Pedro de Betancourt, known for his charitable work helping the poor. We were entertained by a Franciscan monk of grand proportions, sitting under a tree waiting for something.

There were many churches to visit and rather like the cathedrals of Europe and the Mosques of Central Asia, they tend to merge into a single vision.

Not, however was the Tanque de la Union, a delightful elongated park with a pond and an arch at one end.

We returned to the Central Park to find a demonstration in progress. Guatemala is holding general elections in September and there are calls for the current President Otto Perez Molina to resign over corruption scandals.

We visited the La Merced church on Sunday. A lot of young people were running around in white dresses for the girls and white suits for the boys. I have to assume it was a First Communion event. Mass was in progress and the front of the church seemed busy with people wandering in and out of the church or simply lingering. There were some stalls out the front selling typical Guatemalan fast food of tacos and fresh fruit and ice cream. There were also ladies immediately in front, selling more church oriented items including bags of off-cuts of the hosts.

When we wandered past the next day (Monday), the stalls had gone, there were no crowds.

Parque Central was clearly a place to gather on Sunday. Street vendors had toys for children, like a spongy dinosaur, which bounced along behind some coathanger wire, and a tiny papaer parasol. Women in local dress were there, not to sell, but to enjoy the day.

We are in coffee-land. Every country in Central America produces ‘the best coffee in the region’, so one of the delights of travelling here is identifying the best cafes. Antigua was no exception, and as we often found, the coffee shops are a nice place to meet other people and watch the world.

It was here in Antigua that I got news that my Uncle Paul, mum’s younger brother, had died.  That was a sad day for me, as he was the larrikin uncle to us young children and also my inspiration to travel. He died on mum and dad’s wedding anniversary.

Vale Paul Smith, 1929-2015.