Lori’s brother, Dan, joined us in Belize for about 2.5 weeks around the holidays. We spent the first half of that time in Belize and the last half backpacking around Guatemala, visiting Livingston and the Rio Dulce, the brightly colored pools of Semuc Champey, and lastly, Antigua — once the Spanish Empire’s colonial capital of Central America.
PHOTOGRAPHY NOTE: I lightened my load and left my primary camera (Nikon D300s) behind this time, only taking my iPhone 4 and Lori’s Canon Elph 110hs along for the trip. The photos in this post are a combination of the iPhone and Elph…not too shabby for equipment that weighs about the same as a box of Altoids.
We took a long mini bus ride on New Years Day from Lanquin near Semuc Champey. Generally this route is highly frequented by a variety of shuttles and buses, but for travel on New Years Day, not so much. We tried to arrange something weeks in advance through our guesthouse near Semuc Champey, but they basically told us nothing was running. Lori called around to a few companies in Lanquin and found one that was indeed planning to do the trip on New Years Day, so we booked, no problem.
We booked directly through the company Aventuras Turisticas, and despite not having glowing reviews online, we found them to be absolutely fine for our purposes. The driver drove as safe as can be expected over rough terrain, didn’t take any unnecessary risks and got us to our destination on time, all for cheaper than their competitors (who hadn’t planned on going on that day anyway) — what more can you ask for?
On the day before we left Lanquin, our guesthouse notified us that, indeed, they did have a shuttle running that day. However, there’s was much more expensive and ended up being packed. Ours had about seven passengers (in a 10 passenger van), so we were pretty comfortable. The only drawback was the two very hungover girls who boarded at Zephyr Lodge and passed the eight or so hours sleeping (fine by us) or puking sort of out the window (not so good…). As Zephyr is widely considered the party hostel of the area, I was just thankful that we didn’t get more from that classy establishment on this particular post-festivities morning.
We arrived in Antigua in late afternoon, just in time to catch some of the celebrations still going on in the city center. Those festivities will be the topic of a future posting.
After enjoying watching Guatemalans blow up their central square, we headed to Cafe Sky at the eastern end of 6a Calle Oriente. With such an anglophone name, I suppose it shouldn’t have come as such a shock to see the place jam packed with mostly tourists and ex-pats, but it was a bit of a surprise given that we hadn’t seen many non-Guatemalan-looking people up til that point. Regardless, the beer was cold and the view was very nice.
That night we ate at El Papaturro, an awesome Salvadoran restaurant. The food was delicious, our waiter was incredibly friendly and jovial and the place had a nice atmosphere. Oh, and I got have an entire liter bottle of Gallo beer all to myself…well, ok, I may have shared a little.
We stayed at Casa Amarilla (Yellow House) for three nights and were very happy with our stay. The guesthouse is a bit removed from the action, but in a nice way. It’s not too far from Parque Central (maybe a leisurely 10 minute stroll) and located in a quiet neighborhood. The place is clean and tidy and offers rooms on the ground floor and cabins and rooms on the roof terrace.
We had read from reviews that the rooms upstairs (on the rooftop) were preferable to the rooms on the first floor, but they were all full at the time of booking. However, given that all of the bathroom facilities are shared (no en suite here) and all on the ground floor, there was at least one advantage to not being upstairs.
Cerro de la Cruz & Volcán de Agua
This was Lori’s third time to Antigua and Dan’s and my first. Lori even spent six weeks living in Antigua on a field studies grant in grad school. As such, Lori was able to play tour guide and show us all of her favorite spots around town.
One of her favorite places was Cerro de la Cruz which she used to run up regularly (yes, RUN…for FUN…she’s a bit crazy like that). I couldn’t argue with the view though.
Catedral de San José
The cathedral on the Parque Central was an unexpected treat. I was expected yet another majestic Spanish colonial structure along the lines of the Catedral de Santo Domingo in Cuzco, but Catedral de San Jose drove home the reason why structures in Antigua are only one or two stories at most: Earthquakes!
Earthquakes have played an integral role in the history of Antigua, most notably the 1717 earthquake which destroyed over 3,000 buildings and the 1773 Santa Marta earthquakes, which finally forced the Spanish to move the capital to its present-day location in the expansive Valley of the Shrine. Catedral de San Jose was one of the most notable casualties of the 1773 earthquakes. The cathedral was so big that one of the largely undamaged side chapels is still in use today as one of the city’s main places of worship. The rest of the cathedral, particularly the nave, weren’t so fortunate.
Sky shows through the ceiling of a portion of the original nave.
Dan supporting one of the massive felled columns. We thought of offering him a hand but quickly realized that he was just pretending…
In the chapel of the kings where the revered blackened Christ is hidden.
Other Colonial Sites & Ruins
While Antigua is an exceptionally livable, charming, well-preserved and maintained city (after all, it is a UNESCO world heritage site), it also offers a number of colonial ruins worth a visit. Some ruins have even been creatively incorporated into later construction, like Antigua’s famous Santa Catalina arch, which use to be a prominent section of a large convent, allowing cloistered nuns to cross one of the city’s main streets without risking interaction with the outside world.
La Merced Church is probably Antigua’s busiest and most iconic house of worship, with its bright yellow exterior and intricate facade.
Finding an Old Home
As I said earlier, Lori lived in Antigua for 6 weeks in 2009, conducting work associated with her graduate studies. She lived in a boarding house for young women from rural communities who attended secondary school in Antigua. We knew that the owner of the house had since sold and moved away, but Lori wanted to check up on the old house anyway.
We managed to find the place, which has been bought and repurposed as a hostel (Hostal 25). We met the new proprietor, Igor, and got to have a look around. Lori gave us the grand tour which was a fun treat given that we really didn’t expect to get to have a look around, certainly if the place had been turned into a private residence.
Lori always thought the place would make a fine guesthouse, and sure enough, the new owner has done a great job with the place. Lori spoke with Igor for a while and we eventually talked about the possibility of returning and staying here for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in April.
Antigua, itself, is a fantastic place to spend any length of time. The climate is mild, sunny and dry, people are extraordinarily friendly for a place that receives the number of tourists that Antigua does (though I’m sure conversing in Spanish is a factor in the degree of hospitality they extend to foreigners), the area is full of culture and history, and its just a mind-blowingly beautiful place.
Unfortunately, Lori was bed-ridden with a pretty nasty bug during our last full day in Antigua. She was sleeping a lot and had a moderately high fever, so I ended up taking her to a nearby private clinic for a consult and some meds.
Fortunately, I haven’t had to seek medical care much in my life while traveling, but when I have I’ve almost always been impressed by the quality of care and knowledge and professionalism of the physicians. Hence, going to these places makes me both very happy and very angry — Happy, because I/we generally are able to walk right in, even in the late evening, and almost immediately are sent in to see a friendly, caring and thorough physician who isn’t trying to rush you out the door at low cost (Lori’s entire cost was $29 for the medical consult at the clinic and $26 for prescription meds) — and Angry because this would never happen quite like this in the States.
I think it’s worth mentioning that we do indeed have overseas health insurance, but it’s a high deductible plan, so we did not invoke it on this particular visit…we didn’t need to. But can you imagine, walking right into a doctor’s office with no appointment, asking to see a doctor, immediately being led into a consultation room, and leaving less than 30 minutes later with a diagnoses and prescription for about the price of a U.S. copay with no insurance involved? Ha!
Earlier that day, while Lori was sleeping soundly in our room (I came back to check on her every hour or two) Dan and I explored the city on our own, having coffee (well, Dan had a beer) at a little cafe off of the Parque Central, before later heading to one of the most magical places I’ve been in a while…
Nope, not this place (above). THIS PLACE! (below):
Holy moly! After five months in Belize I had forgotten that Bavarian restaurants existed. Not only does one exist in Antigua, but its legit. And I mean LEGIT. It’s got some of the best German beers you can get your hands on, does sausage a half a dozen different ways with fresh pretzels and sauces, and the setting is pretty nuts. For a moment, I thought I had died and gone to heaven — certainly not a bad way to spend eternity, if you ask me…
Oh, by the way, the place does have a name (besides heaven): Jardin Bavaria on 7a Ave Norte.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Who eats German food in Guatemala!? Well, uh, ME (i.e. someone who’s been eating Central American food for the past several months and can’t turn down the mouthwatering taste and smell of Brats and baked dough tied in a knot. But honestly, I think anyone with that appreciation would find this place worth a visit.
I couldn’t leave you with those tasty, mouthwatering photos of perfection, now could I? No way. Instead, I’ll leave you with this lovely pic of my brother-in-law (Dan, you can thank me later):