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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Monday, January 25, 2016

ROAD TRIP: Antigua, Guatemala


Breakfast in the Rotterdam dining room aboard Holland America's Veendam. We elect to eat there given the later departure of our tour (11am) as well as the overall quality of the food served there.

Palacio del Ayuntamiento
Departure from ship promptly at 11 on one of some six busses headed up over the foothills to the inland UNESCO Heritage city of Antigua, one of the most historic cities in Central America. The scene is chaotic until we're actually aboard our bus. The rest of our party is told to load onto a separate one, and we rendezvous again once we reach Antigua. 

Driver is Alex. Guide is Ferrrrnando, with a deliberate (and tongue in cheek) trilling of the Rs. His commentary on the way is interesting and informative, relating both the ancient MesoAmerican importance of Guatemala, as well as more recent history including the causes and impact of the country's relatively recent civil war. He assures us as we made our way inland, that Guatemalans are moving on and looking towards the future.

It's a beautiful drive, first through the flat lowlands abutting the Pacific then low hills and up into the Sierra Madre proper. Unfortunately the day is hazy with low lying clouds preventing us from seeing the summits of any of the volcanoes surrounding the historic cities of Viejo Ciudad and Antigua. 

Volcan de Agua
(We find out later, a good portion of the haze was what is called "vog". Common on Hawaii's Big Island, vog is short for volcanic fog, a combination of natural cloud cover/fog and the smoke from an active volcano...in this case Volcan de Fuego: Volcano of Fire. It was dense, obscuring the tops of the three volcanos surrounding Antigua, though the sharply rising bases of the mountains gave a sense of scale and power.)

As we arrive in town, I am astounded at Alex's skill in maneuvering the full-sized tourist bus through the tight streets and intersections of old town Antigua. He deftly passes signs and other vehicles with at-times only inches to spare. I worry at one point when he comes nose to nose with an aggressive three wheel taxi, but Alex backs off and allows the taxi to pass rather than squashing it like a bug on the bus' front grill.

We disembark at the Jade Museum and store just after 12:30. Fernando tells us we need to be back at the same spot by 4pm for the return to the ship, which gives us roughly three and a half hours to explore the town. With six people in our group we do the customary milling about for a few moments before deciding on a direction. We turn right on Calle Quartero (4th Street) and head west for the Plaza Central.

Two things will immediately catch your attention in your first few minutes in Antigua. One is the architecture, a beautiful and old worldly classicism which evokes the city's history in a real and tactile fashion. 

The second is he constant assault of street merchants who aggressively want to sell you tchotchkes, toys, fake jade, fabrics or jewelry, often in combinations of all the above. It's an unavoidable aspect of your visit, and you become accustomed to the constant need to firmly say no, though that deters only about half of the people who are mostly women and who will continue to offer you their wares, tailing you down the streets as they do so.

But the true character of Antigua is found, as in many Latin American cities, behind the walls of the buildings. Entering shops, restaurants or exhibits you find beautiful courtyards, serene retreats from the maddening din of the street. Here you can pause, wander about and shop, eat or drink coffee in a quiet and friendly environment.
We found such courtyards at the Antigua Gallery of Art, The Museo Choco, and several other spots along our walk.

The Central Plaza is, plainly speaking, a madhouse -- or at least was on the day we visited the town. We were there on a Saturday, which might explain the chaos, and found the park at the middle of the plaza was chock full of tourists, local visitors, the omnipresent street hawkers, and children playing. The only real reason to visit the Plaza is to see some of the astounding and historic architecture of the buildings lining the outer edge, and we found that it is best to spend your time on the side streets instead of in the main square.

Arco de Santa Catalina
Inside the Mercado
One of the necessary viewings in the city is the famous Arco de Santa Catalina which nicely frames the street and surrounding buildings, a bit of history kept in good repair by the five star hotel which now occupies the facilities. A walk up Calle del Arco is a pleasant and representative experience, and if you have limited time in the city it's the one thing I'd most strongly recommend. We shopped at one of the little mercados, buying several items -- table runner, large fabric bag and other things -- at reasonable prices.

Mime's the word
Dodging the street hawkers and a very popular street mime (who attracted a sizable crowd), we ducked into the Bistrot Bourbon for a quick lunch of paninis, beer, and what is my official Guatemalan Martini. Intriguingly enough the martini was a mixture of Stoli vodka with Cinzano vermouth -- a combination I'm certainly going to investigate further upon my return home.

Antigua strikes me as an historic adventure worthy of a visit, but the traveler needs to be aware of the continual assault from the hawkers, some very aggressive, and the crowded nature of weekends in the city. Otherwise it's a place with a lot to offer, and any student of Guatemalan history will certainly want to have a look at one very important center.

Must sees: 
Ruins of La Iglesia Concepcion Convento 
Catedral de San Jose
Walk up Calle del Arco
Lake Atitlan

Guatemala is a beautiful country, and the people warm and inviting. We were unable to get to several areas which merit discovery (Tikal, Lake Atitlan, the Caribbean coast), and are saving them for a future visit. 

As we return to the ship, Guide Fernando conveys the heartfelt belief that Guatemala's message to the world is "Yes, we know we had problems, but we're better now. Please come back, we have a lot to share."

It would seem to be a good idea.

Catedral de San Jose

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