Day 3 (31 March) Los Angeles to Guatemala via Mexico City:
Today was a bit more relaxed in that we were able to sleep in a bit before heading to the airport for our flight to Mexico City with a connector on to Guatemala City.
We made a collective decision that AeroMexico is our airline of choice. The seats are wider and give more leg room, for every seat they have wonderful entertainment consoles with new release movies (and a slew of other things) for every preference, and the windows have a push button system for tinting the glass. I had never seen anything like the windows. Instead of either getting blasted by the sun or shutting the plastic blind, you can choose the level of tint you want on the glass and they fade to what you dialed up. We were also fed a sandwich and sides, free of charge, on both flights, even our second connector to Guatemala City, which was quite short.
We had a wonderful layover in Mexico City, where we spent about four hours. We took in a museum in the airport that celebrated the contemporary art of Mexico’s indigenous people. Many art forms, including music, dance, painting, and sculpture were covered, but I donned my reading glasses to get a close-up look at all of the wonderfully diverse types of needle work represented: embroidery, weaving, crewel, etc.
As we wondered through the food area, we got our first taste of a third world hustler, trying to entice us with their various meats on tortillas. After checking out our other options, we went back to the enterprising gentleman, and he set us up with an amazing family meal of half a dozen shredded or cubed meats cooked in various ways. Included were glasses of rosa de Jamaica, a local drink made from brewing rose hips, creating a juice-type drink. He also brought us an assortment of hot sauces, the most aggressive of which literally made everything go numb from my lips to my esophagus. After polishing off all the delicious fare, we decided that getting hustled is not always a bad thing.
In typical third world style, our flight still did not have a gate listed 25 minutes before we were supposed to depart. But every board in the terminal still had our departure listed as “on time.” Even when our gate was finally announced and a departure time of half an hour after our scheduled departure was listed, they still had us listed as “on time.” A quick call to my brother to appraise him of our delayed status elicited a laugh and the comment that it was close enough for Central America.
My brother and his wife picked us up at the airport and brought us to our hotel, the Clarion Suites. We spent a bit of time chatting, getting some basic advice (such as do not even brush your teeth in the water, let alone drink it), and hashing out plans for tomorrow. It was decided that we would drive to Antigua, the former colonial capital of Guatemala and a city that is now a World Heritage Site.
Day 4 (1 April) Antigua:
Today we didn’t get going until about 10:30, as we were all quite tired after our late night. Dave and Charm picked us up at our hotel and we headed out of town for Antigua. Our journey was uneventful, and soon we pulled into a wonderfully quaint town of small, colorful buildings and roughly cobbled streets.
We easily found street-side parking in the main part of town and began to stroll through this lovely town that just demands to be explored on foot. Initially, we began where every small town adventure should, in the main town square. The park was a combination social hall and mobile market, with craftswomen hawking their wares while their fellow countrymen and women relaxed and chatted together on benches and on the grass.
From the main square, we headed down one of the streets most often seen in pictures due to its imposing yellow arch which stands tall over the street. After the obligatory pictures, we stopped by one of Dave’s favorite spots, a traditional Guatemalan sweet shop, where we were able to view a huge selection of treats common to the area, all of which were displayed with pride in cases that would normally be used to showcase jewelry in the United States. Dave purchased us each one of his favorites: a jellied berry rolled in sugar. They were a bit of a fascination, as they still had the pits inside. Sweets sampled, we began our exploration of the many lovely things Antigua has to offer.
Over the course of the day we visited a number of churches, some just ruined shells and some still in use today. The main cathedral in Antigua is now on the main square and is a very fine representation of the local Catholic churches. Architecturally, its lines are a combination of arched doors and windows set in solid square buildings. However the buildings are by no means simple, as they are enhanced with sculptures and detail work that is very intricate, running down pillars, accenting doors and windows, and giving the otherwise solemn facades grace and artistic flair.
Even in the ruins one can see the artistry that has typified these structures through the centuries. Antigua’s historical main cathedral, on another location from the current one, is now a still impressive ruin. Under the buttressing arches, which no longer support a roof, one can still see in the walls that remain, examples of sculpted column bases and heads, faded yet still lovely detailed painted themes, and sweeping lines that must have lent a feeling of grandeur in the cathedral’s 17th century heyday. Unfortunately, due to the country’s many severe earthquakes in the late 1600s and the early 1700s, the cathedral eventually reached a point where repairs could no longer stem the tide of the forces of nature upon a structure built far too grandly in an age of no rebar to reinforce its soaring heights. The historic structure was allowed to crumble and the new cathedral was built on the main square.
Like its ruined cathedral, a similar fate befell the town’s convent. It too must have been a very stunning complex in its day. However, it is still intact enough to allow visitors to see such things as the nuns’ personal cells, their baths, the kitchen, and the laundry fountain. Visitors can also walk along the upper level above the central courtyard. There is also a rather perplexing circular room, supported by a solid cylindrical central column and roofed in a lovely arching ceiling. None of us were sure what the purpose of the room was. It has a peace about it that made Dave and I surmise that perhaps it was a place for prayer and contemplation.
Even though its convent is gone, the town remains committed to its catholic foundations. Every year at Easter, townspeople participate in a parade of floats which they carry aloft for the considerable distance of more than 10 kilometers. On the floats are carvings of figures and places depicting the Passion of the Christ. During the night before the parade, townspeople cover the streets along the route in brightly colored sawdust. Atop the base layer intricate designs are laid down, with the help of wooden stencils, in a rainbow of other bright colors. These designs are a sort of offering, rather like the palm fronds laid down for the Savior to walk over. As those carrying the floats—a symbol of Christ carrying the cross—walk the parade route, the lovely sawdust designs scatter beneath their feet.
As you explore through the town you have the opportunity to see many elements very typical to Guatemala. I loved the pila, or outdoor laundry area. If you picture a covered portico along one side of a fountain, as you see in many European cities, you get an idea of what these are like. Under the portico and along a flat side of the fountain are a number of basins that are flat on the outside and then extend out in an arching curve, giving dimensions of about a foot and a half by two feet. Along the flat side there is a sort of built in stone washing board. The ladies put a bit of water in their basins and then suds up and scrub their clothes. To rinse, they get pails full of water out of the fountain. The laundry basins here no longer appear to be in use. Dave and Charm said they are not sure why, as it was a bustling place twenty years ago when they had their first posting in Guatemala. It seems like it would be such a social activity that laundry could actually be fun.
People in general are very social. Their houses are even somewhat open to the street. They have a wrought iron gate into an entry area; after going through this small hall, you come into the home’s central courtyard, which is open to the sky and has the home wrapping around it. You can see people going about their day in their courtyards.
Transportation is also very open. The largest mode of transport in the smaller towns is via mopeds. Carter laughed and called one the Guatemalan mini van after he saw one of these tiny conveyances transporting a dad with one child perched in front of him while mom held another child in between her and dad’s back. On mom’s back was a baby slung in a wrapping of woven Guatemalan cloth.
Cloth like the one used as a baby carrier is made by many local artisans who weave the fabric and then work magic on them with various embroidery techniques. There are also woodworkers, potters, and a number of other artists. Dave took us into an indoor market that was a sort of co-op of a wide variety of different artistic media. It was a great place to browse, but he recommended that we not buy, as the prices are aimed at high paying tourists and not open to negotiation. Negotiating prices is the accepted practice in most purchasing situations on the streets, but if a business has a fixed location, they are less likely to come down much. Since we are going to a local rural market tomorrow, he advised we wait to buy.
Our last stop of the day was a place where one definitely wants to buy. We went to the Choco Museo, a chocolate shop where they have a museum about all things chocolate and demonstrate how the cacao seeds become the basis for chocolate. They had excellent posters clearly illustrating the process of removing the outer shell, taking the white soft shell of the individual cacao seeds (traditionally done by sucking), and then separating away the seed’s skin. Once down to the bare seed, it is crushed to a pulpy powder which becomes the base ingredient for chocolate. Of course we had to wrap up our outing with the purchase of some of their product.
After concluding our time in Antigua, we went to Dave and Charm’s apartment for dinner and a sampling of peppers and sauces. I think all of the kids tried a bit, with Carter being the craziest and sticking a whole pepper in his mouth at one time.
We all crashed at the hotel (Carter with his mouth still numb) and prepared for our busy two day trip to Lake Atitlan and its environs over the next couple of days.