Antigua is a “can’t miss” stop on anyone’s route through Guatemala. It is a beautiful colonial city, known for its crumbling churches and towering volcanoes, both being somewhat related. Antigua has paid the price for its beautiful skyline with various earthquakes throughout the second millennia. Like other colonial cities in Latin America, Antigua’s streets are lined with single story buildings roofed with clay tile shingles and pastel colored facades. Its charm attracts wealthy tourists both domestic and international, which in turn attracts business. Antigua is packed with high end restaurants, fancy hotels, and clean little markets where you can buy Kashi, something I doubt you could find anywhere else in the country. The presence of all this wealth puts Antigua in stark contrast with the rest of Guatemala. Although on the surface it may not feel as authentic as a small mountain village, it is Guatemala none the less, and without having to go to too much trouble, we were able to discover plenty of authenticity throughout the city.
The first day we arrived in Antigua was a Friday, which was not unintentional. Every Friday during Lent, throughout Latin America and the rest of the Catholic world, a procession is held, for which Antigua is world renowned. Being far from pious I didn’t have much of an initial understanding of the custom, but a few weeks into Lent I quickly learned. In Antigua, as in every other city we visited, the crowd wears purple. The parade makes its way through thick clouds of incense making stops at different stations where a prayer is held. Previous processions we had seen involved floats of either Jesus or Mary being carried by teams of about 6 while Antigua’s ornate wood carved floats required teams of 24 or 36! Marching right behind the float was a 46 piece marching band dressed in tuxedos. This was definitely a bigger scale than what we had seen before. What we also heard was unique in Antigua was their alfombras. Teams spend all day designing these 25 foot by 6 foot works of art that are laid out in the street along the path of the parade. They are made out of died hay, saw dust or flowers and look as if they could have taken months to prepare. I imagine because we were a couple weeks early, we only got a glimpse of what these magnificent works of art could be, but to get a better idea click on this link to see a google image search.
One of the major perks to Antigua is their tourist police station. For us this was huge. They allow anyone to camp on their premises for free. Usually when we visit cities we either need to camp far from downtown or hole up in a hostel far away from our van. This was the best of both worlds. However, when we ran into friends of ours who had been there for three weeks while taking Spanish classes we got the feeling from some of the police that they had overstayed their welcome. Not long after we left we learned that the tourist police station now officially limits anyone’s stay to a maximum of three days. Fellow travelers can thank Stefan and Swatjie at kontauer.com.
Although riddled throughout town are high end markets selling all kinds of imported goods, just a few blocks away is their Mercado municipal where we were able to buy a papaya the size of Jill’s leg for about $1. The market was awesome, not only was it as cheap as the markets we had been to previously in Guatemala but the variety of goods they had was enormous in comparison. We also took advantage of some of the western amenities when we had our first bagel since the states. Think Dunken Donuts but even more cake like. We found a more positive experience at a bar on the north side of town that actually served Mezcal. Since the only liquor we seem to be able to find in the rest of the country is a rum drink called Quetzalteca, Mezcal was a godsend.
Antigua, like many other beautiful colonial cities we had found previously, was rampant with tourists. But what made Antigua fun for us was that we felt we were able to either avoid or take advantage at our leisure. The most important thing was that we were able to stay in our van and cook cheap food we bought at the market. This way we could rationalize wasting a few dollars at the bar on expensive imported Mezcal. I have a tendency to devalue cities like Antigua when compared to the authentic small mountain village. But within the context of our current travel it comes as a perfect respite. We were able to enjoy a few of the comforts of home while never leaving some of the newer luxuries we have grown to love.