6-11 February 2017. This is the view from the upstairs courtyard of our guesthouse. In Antigua it’s impossible to escape the volcanoes. Not that we would want to. A clear day is a chance to savor their looming blue beauty.
Our guesthouse is about a ten-minute walk from the town centre. We have a private room and bathroom, and the use of a shared kitchen where we make breakfast and sometimes lunches for the day. We rejoice in having a toaster: we’ve just spent three months in Mexico and toast is not a thing there, so there were no toasters in the places we rented even though we could buy bread.
Most mornings we enjoy sweet conversation with a young American family: parents, a toddler, and new baby. They are in Guatemala studying Spanish and our breakfast conversation in English is a pleasure for us all. I’m determined to make friends with the shy little girl, and by the fifth day have managed to break the ice. I’m always impressed by parents travelling with young families, by their courage and vision, and by their willingness to live outside of the box.
The layout of the guesthouse is in many ways typical of the Spanish style; the street-side is not more than a wall with a metal entrance door, often big enough for a car to be driven in and enclosed behind the solid barricade. In this case the door opens to a sitting room with space for motorbike parking.
There are a couple of staircases up to our rooms on the first floor, and to the courtyard with a large lovely swing seat where I sit and swing, writing, reading, and gazing at the volcano. There’s a third entrance and staircase to the family’s private quarters, and rich décor everywhere I look.
It’s not fancy, just a home that’s comfortable enough with all we need.
We go looking for the market. It’s busy in the streets all around it. People selling fruits and vegetables from the curb, shoppers coming and going, hawkers calling out their wares, and the smells of earthy life arising all around. We walk by the market several times on Alameda de Santa Lucia Street
and on one occasion dive into the narrow alleyways of stalls selling shoes and clothing. It is always something of a disappointment to me to see the ubiquitous presence of cheap western-style clothing for sale in the markets of developing countries – tight leggings, t-shirts with banal sayings or the manufacturer’s logo, shirts and shorts and jeans and tight skirts. All of it is practical, I understand that, but none of it has any soul, none of it is grounded in tradition. So I walk quickly by, not inspired to linger, let alone to photograph.
Then one day we explore further and find the food. The rich colours and aromas of the fruits and vegetables entice me. And here I am also drawn by the age-old tradition of market day, and the camaraderie between the vendors, a community unto itself borne of decades of continuity.
I try surreptitiously to take a photo of one of the stallholders, but it’s quite dark in the market and I miss the opportunity because my camera is on the wrong settings. As I keep fiddling with the camera, she and her friends close by become aware of me and start laughing because of the attention.
Then suddenly it’s too much, and in her shyness she hides smiling behind a bunch of greens. And that’s the shot I get. We all laugh together, a sweet moment of human connection that has no need of a common language.
We really never contemplate travelling in Guatemala by the notorious Central American chicken buses. It can be a dangerous proposition whether from bandit attacks, failing mechanics, or reckless drivers lacking frontal lobes. Any one of these three things can lead to disaster. Apart from that you get nowhere quickly and these old school buses are unfailingly cramped and uncomfortable. It seems too high a price to pay for this particular experience of local colour
We travel from Mexico to San Pedro La Laguna, and from San Pedro to Antigua by private van. It’s expensive, and slow because of the narrow winding roads, but it is definitely faster and more comfortable than a chicken bus. Still I want something of the experience so we ask at a local travel agency where we can get a bus to a nearby village. We’re given the information we need and told that the journey shouldn’t be longer than about twenty minutes. That sounds just about right.
The central bus terminal in Antigua is behind the market. The buses, dozens of them, shout their bold colours to the world, labeled with their destinations, and prayers to Jesus, and other religious statements. There is little resemblance to the North American school buses that they once were.
There is constant movement as buses come and go. We ask around and are told where to wait on the street for the bus to San Felipe. Still considered a separate village it is really more like an outer suburb of Antigua. People are milling around as we wait, coming and going, though it is not crowded. Don takes out the exact fare for us and replaces his wallet in a zipped pocket in his jacket. The fare is not much more than a few cents. Eventually the bus arrives. We climb aboard, and almost immediately it takes off again.
We’ve not been gone more than a few seconds when Don jumps up in alarm. His wallet is gone! Damn! We race to the front of the bus urging the driver to stop, which he does, eventually. We race back to the bus stop but of course the wallet is not there. So we flag down a tuk tuk and go back to the guesthouse. Don makes all the necessary calls to cancel credit and bank cards, and when it is done we decide that we still want to ride that darn chicken bus! We go back to the bus stop and wait some more. When the bus arrives we are both disappointed to see that it is yellow, just like the school buses. We were hoping for something more exotic, but at least we are finally on our way.
Apart from the colourful religious decoration,
I feel as if I’ve gone back to my school days and am riding the bus to school on those hard narrow tightly-packed benches, not in North America, but in Australia, though the exterior of the buses in Australia is quite different, and they are never yellow.
There’s not a lot to see in San Felipe, or perhaps closer to the truth is we don’t have much energy for exploring, so after a quick look at the yellow church
we catch the same bus back to Antigua.
Of course it’s not the same as a true long-distance chicken bus experience where the passengers are crammed in like chickens in a crate, and often enough are also travelling with live chickens, and where drivers race each other around blind curves on narrow roads, and your bags may or may not fly off the roof, but I’m happy enough with just dipping my toes in the water.
Most days walking into town along 5th Avenue North we notice the tall locked metal gates barring the way into an open space. The space is surrounded by high stone walls, all that remains of a building destroyed by earthquakes hundreds of years ago. Peering through the bars of the gates we see the Holy Week floats, or andas, that bear statues depicting the last days of Christ, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. During Easter Week, or Semana Santa these enormous floats are carried through the streets in solemn procession by hundreds of purple-robed men and black-robed women. They walk over “carpets” of flowers, taking turns to carry the statues to various churches throughout the town. It is apparently one of the world’s most spectacular religious ceremonies.
Unfortunately we are not in Antigua for Semana Santa, but walking by one day we notice the gates are open so we go inside. There are several men repairing and refreshing the statues.
We are free to wander, and are lucky to have come by at that moment. About the time we are ready to leave they lock up and once more all that’s possible is to peer through the black iron bars of the gates.
We are astonished by what we see. There must be about fifteen floats, each showing a different part of the Christ story. The biggest is eighteen metres long and requires 100 men to carry it.
One fine day we take a tour of some of the villages close by Antigua,
driving through gentle mountainous countryside.
We have a chance to explore Cuidad Vieja from the narrow streets,
to the even narrower alleyways
to the town square,
to the magnificent white church and plaza.
In San Pedro Las Huertas we are impressed by the bold colour and beautiful Baroque details of the church.
We find women doing laundry at the communal lavadero,
and, naturally, people hanging out in the town square.
We did what we could in Antigua. As I mentioned in a previous post it was painful for me to walk, and we were travel-weary – yes, that happens, even to us! But Antigua is worth seeing. It has that grounded feel of older towns built in colonial days, with it’s cobbled streets, narrow sidewalks, and unpretentious and earthy domestic architecture. The feeling is one of simpler times. There are also some grand Spanish Baroque buildings, great restaurants, and lovely people, all surrounded by spectacular scenery.
This is the final post about Guatemala.
Women of Guatemala – a series of vignettes
Earthquake City – Antigua, Guatemala
Next post: Either a new article about travelling the Nile River, or one about our new home, or the first post about Cuba.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.