A February 2004 trip
to Antigua by lcampbell
Quote: In Part 6 of 7 of our month-long journey around Guatemala, we find the bright colors and interesting architecture of old Guatemala to more than make up for the overwhelming tourist population. Visiting museums and churches contrast sharply with our grueling climb of Volcano Pacaya.
The colonial buildings and churches of Antigua have been damaged and destroyed by earthquakes over the years. They were rebuilt, and the present-day buildings display individual touches of the era in which they were reconstructed. Also fascinating are the pieces that weren’t restored. There are entire city blocks made of the crumbled chunks of churches. Sometimes pieces still stand among the rubble, and other times only the church fronts have been restored or partially restored.
One of the highlights of my time in Antigua was taking a self-guided historical walking tour, which took me past many of these colonial structures, some containing museums of different sorts. I really loved the main town square, with its unique fountain of spouts of water coming out of women’s breasts.
While Antigua should not be missed in a visit to Guatemala, be sure that there will never be a lack of tourists. Prices at the colorful and nicely stocked artisan market are higher than in other parts of the country, and promises of "buen precio" are meaningless. The city streets are impeccably clean, but theft and begging are rampant.
Now that the downside is out of the way, let me stress again how beautiful and unforgettable Antigua is. Not previously mentioned are the volcanoes encircling the city, one of them erupting regularly while we were there. It was a nice dramatic touch! There are numerous companies in town offering excursions to climb a volcano, and there are plenty of other day trips from Antigua, making it a great base camp for excursions as well as a fine destination in itself.
Our favorite place to eat in Antigua was breakfast at Café Canela on 5a Calle Poniente. For US, a feast of eggs, beans, fried plantain, bread, coffee or tea (free refills) could be had with a smile. Or three pancakes, fruit, and coffee or tea for the same price.
There is no shortage of fantastic food choices in Antigua, but I imagine the names and ownership change too often to mention them here!
There are two markets on the west end of town, near the bus stop. One of them is a lively and colorful artisans market, and the other is for more practical household items and fruits/vegetables. The artisan market is where the tourists flock, to purchase intricate weavings, interesting carvings, comfy hammocks, and all sorts of other tourist trinkets. Promises of "buen precio" – good price – are constant, and not necessarily true. Bargaining is expected from all who shop.
All around the center town square are upscale shops and art galleries. Nim P’ot (5a Avenida Nte 29) is a great place to shop, with a great assortment of items as decent prices. Good prices on used books too!
This was a challenging route, which we were able to do without a hitch with some experience and luck. It was also the first time I had seen chickens on the chicken bus.
San Pedro to Panajachel by boat = 15Q pp (US)
Panajachel to Solola = 1.5Q pp
Solola to Encuentros = 1.5Q pp
Encuentros to Chimaltenango = 10Q pp
Chimaltenango to Antigua = 3Q pp
Antigua to Rio Dulce/El Estor:
Another long and arduous road.
Antigua to Guatemala City = 7am, 5Q pp, 1 hour
Guatemala City to Rio Dulce = 9am, 40Q pp (US), 6 hours
Rio Dulce to El Estor = 4pm, 10Q pp, 1.5 hours
Private or Shared Bath?
All rooms at Don Ismael have shared bath, but the ratio is good at two rooms per bathroom. I found the bath to be super clean with nice hot water in the shower and plenty of toilet paper. The soap and towel at the sink were a nice touch as well.
Don Ismael is by far the most pleasant and professional hotel that we stayed in while in Guatemala. We were treated with such hospitality and appreciation that I was immediately impressed. As we unloaded our bags in our room, we were brought towels and cold bottles of purified water. The rooms are located around a courtyard filled with plants and a trickling fountain. There are tables and chairs to relax at, both in the courtyard and on the roof terrace. The roof terrace has decent volcano views. One special touch was the candles placed one the stairs and around the hotel each evening.
Food and Other Amenities:
There is someone working in the kitchen in the mornings if you would like to order breakfast. Free coffee and tea (and a cookie!) are available in the morning. One free bottle of purified water is given to each guest each day, with free refills in the kitchen. Same-day laundry service is available for US$0.75 per pound, otherwise a sink and clothesline are available on the roof for guest use.
Don Ismael has a fantastic location halfway between the central plaza and the market/bus terminal. From the bus "terminal", walk northwest to 3a Calle Poniente. About 2 alleys west of Alameda de Santa Lucia, turn right. Don Ismael is at the end of the alley.
I was equally impressed with the security at Don Ismael. The main door to the street was always locked, but we never had to wait more than a few seconds to enter after ringing the bell. It was so nice to be recognized by face as well as by name. Nobody who isn’t supposed to be there will get inside the hotel. Don Ismael was the most secure hotel that we stayed at in Guatemala. I highly this hotel for single women.
Antigua is more expensive than the rest of Guatemala, but at $11.25 per night (double), Casa de Don Ismael is a HUGE bargain in my opinion. Fills up fast!
(prices quoted above is early 2004 rate based on an exchange rate of $1US=8Q)
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 28, 2005
Casa de Don Ismael
We had come to see the music museum. What an interesting place! The guided tour was excellent – our guide spoke Spanish, but she did so very slowly and clearly, so that even my Spanish-challenged husband could understand the entire presentation. I think that tours in English are available depending on which guide is working that day.
The museum is a collection of pre-conquest Mayan musical instruments as well as more modern ones. There was a video and photos and other items on display. What I found surprising was the museum’s claim that the mirimba was invented in Guatemala. This museum was nicely laid out.
Beyond the music museum, we were surprised to find that there were many other features of Casa Kojom. These hadn’t been described in our guidebook, so it was a great bonus.
There was a exhibit dedicated to Maximón – a very interesting god, so to speak. My Lonely Planet described Maximón as "a combination of Mayan gods, Pedro de Alvarado (the fierce conquerer of Guatemala), and the biblical Judas." Huh. Wait a minute…. How did that happen? OK, my guidebook didn’t tell me how this combination god came about, but it does say that in many areas of Guatemala, Maximón is worshipped, given offerings and asked for blessings. Offerings often include scarves, cigarettes, and rum. What kind of god is this? Well, really, it is still a mystery to me. Maybe someday I can return to figure it out.
There was also a room with displays depicting traditional Mayan life and a textile display. There are reconstructions of a traditional home with tools, and clothing, and that sort of thing.
Casa Kojom also had a nature trail, horse stables, and a restaurant.
Finally, last but not least, was a working coffee farm. We took a tour of the coffee area, followed by free samples in a nicely stocked gift shop. The caffeine boost was just what we needed before our now less-confusing trek back to town.
Entrance fee (including guided tours) = Q25, or US$3.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 28, 2005
Attraction | "Casa de Tejido Antiguo (Clothing Museum)"
Traditional clothing for women includes a handwoven huipil (blouse), a corte (skirt) made of a piece of cloth 7-10 yards long and wrapped around the body, a tocoyal (head-covering, often very elaborate), and a faja (sash) which is placed around the waste in folds, so as to make pockets. Women usually carry a tzut, or sort of all-purpose cloth, which I have seen used as a pad for the head (when carrying loads on top of their heads) or as a baby sling.
Men wear calzones (trousers) and leather sandles, as well as a woven shirt and sometimes a straw hat.
Each community of Mayan people is said to have their own special weave that is used to identify them. There were perhaps 500 different clothings (and 22 different Mayan languages).
The museum had women doing a weaving demonstration, using a backstrap loom. There was also a couple pedal/foot looms, which I was surprised to learn were traditionally operated by men.
I also learned that it can take as long as 7 months to make one of the intricate hand-woven huipiles.
This is a great place to learn about weaving before heading to the market to make purchases. Perhaps the guide or weaver can point out what to look for in a high quality weaving, or for signs of a lower quality product. There are also some books, postcards, and other souvenirs. I found this to be a nice museum, not too expensive, with a great guide.
Entrance fee = Q5, or US$0.50
Museo Casa del Tejido Antiguo (Clothing Museum)
1a. Calle Poniente # 51
When we showed up the next morning at 5:50am for the tour, we were dismayed to discover that there were 25 people on the tour! I guess this was not to be a low-impact excursion. We were to be herded up the mountain in a pack.
The bus took us to the park entrance, where we had another unpleasant surprise. Apparently, the 25Q (US$3) National Park entrance fee was not included in our tour price.
The hike started out mellow, as a stroll in the woods with many breaks for the guide to point inconsequential sights, more as a filler, it seemed, than anything else. One highlight was a stop at an overlook of three other volcanos: Fuego, Agua, and Aguacatan. Fuego was erupting at the time, and the steam and ash cloud rising up from the summit were impressive. It made me think that perhaps I was hanging out at the wrong volcano.
Farther along the hike, we got our first glimpse of Pacaya. The top was shrouded in clouds, and I remembered our viewless volcano climb of the previous week. I desperately hoped that this climb would not end the same way. "Please clear, please clear," I thought.
Directly around us was clear, however, and the landscape was captivating. An immense hardened lava flow wrapped around the base of Pacaya, devoid of any life, but looking alive with movement itself because of its lines and texture.
At last we got to the final stretch – an incredibly steep and ashy climb. As we ascended, we seemed to slide one step back for every two steps forward. The loose ash was hard on the ankles, and the elevation gain was hard on the lungs. But the worst part by far was the wind. Lower down, we hadn’t felt any wind, but now it was relentless. And the higher we climbed the worse it got. Our eyes were watering, our noses were dripping, and our faces were stinging from being hit with flying sand and pebbles.
Just below the summit, we stopped for a snack behind some large rocks. During the brief respite from the wind, I could feel the heat from the volcano radiating up through the rocks. The warmth was a welcome contrast to the biting wind.
After one last steep climb, we were at last at the summit. And... we were in the clouds. I felt the disappointment set in. I just was not having luck climbing volcanoes here in Guatemala. No views. I couldn’t see anything around me, including into the crater. But I could feel the heat from the crater and could smell the sharp sulfur odor, almost overpowering at times.
The wind at the summit was the most ferocious I had ever been in. I literally was knocked to the ground more than once. It was a bit scary with the steep dropoff into the crater, with no guardrails, of course. Dan tried to hold me up, but it was easier just to hug the ground. It was actually pretty comical. A huge group of people clinging to the ground, trying to stay just a bit longer in case the clouds might clear. There was also an abundance of a phenomena that I call "front butt." Looking back at the pictures, folks pants were being blown so full of air by the wind, and that combined with the front pants seams, made for what looked like a huge butt where their belly was supposed to be!
When we could stand the wind no longer, the guide led us down. But we went down a different way than we came up. He took us to a wide straight path that went almost directly down the mountain. He pulled us together and told us that there was only one way to go down – we would have to run. Run?! What?!
Then he demonstrated. With one large jump, he was 20 feet down the trail, and he kept run-jumping down to a flatter spot. He turned and motioned us to copy him – and whatever you do, he said, don’t try to stop! That is when people get hurt.
The more daring of us went first. Yippee! I cannot tell you how much fun this was. Who cares about having no view at the summit! Who cares that we were herded up the mountain en masse! Who cares! This was a blast!
I laughed and laughed all the way down, the wind pushing tears out of the corners of my eyes. I wanted to do it again! One by one, our group made it to the bottom of the run-jump ramp, each person with a huge grin hanging on their face.
The remaining hike out was mellow and pleasant. We looked back at Pacaya and saw that the summit cloud had cleared. Oh, well. We had our chance and were content to smile and chat with local folks coming up the mountain on family excursions.
I would say that the Pacaya hike was worth the price for the guide and bus ride, but that the guidebook was wrong. There were enough tourists, families, and security people on Pacaya that this trip seemed to be safe to do without a guide.
Price with Gran Jaguar = US$7 pp
Around the perimeter of the central park are many buildings of note. Directly to the south is the Palacio de los Capitanes, built in 1543. This building was the headquarters of the Spanish Colonial government. This is also the building that the INGUAT (Tourism) office is in – stop in to pick up a map that outlines a Historical Walking Tour.
To the east of the Palacio is the old University of San Carlos building, now the Museo de Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum). This museum has a good collection of colonial paintings. The entrance fee for this museum is 25Q (US$3), but entry is by donation on Sundays.
Directly east of the plaza is the Santiago Cathedral (1542). The church has been damaged and rebuilt many times. It is said to contain somewhere within the remains of Don Pedro de Alvarado, conquistador of Guatemala. Admission 2-3Q.
North of the plaza is the Palacio del Ayuntamiento, the current town hall. In addition to government offices, this building contains the Museo de Armas (Old Weapons Museum), and the Museo del Libro Antiguo (Antique Books Museum), admission 10Q (US$1.25) pp for each museum.
Scattered within a 5 block radius of the plaza are many more places of interest. There are numerous churches and convents: Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Capuchinas, just to name a few. There are also many sites of former churches, destroyed by earthquakes and either not rebuilt or only partially rebuilt. They are interesting in their own right - it is a great conflict to see big piles of rubble, with beautiful bits of statue or architectural embellishments sticking out of the mess.
On 5a Avenida, between 1a and 2a Calles, is the Arco de Santa Catarina. Arches are common architectural scenery in Antigua, but this one is massive and bright yellow. It was built in 1694 and has withstood each and every earthquake.
Going north through the arch, the Merced church cannot be missed. An interesting outcome of the earthquake/restoration/repeat process is that the buildings retain the original architectural aspects, but are finished off in the style of the period in which they are restored. The Merced was last rebuilt in the 1850s, and the baroque façade – white detail on yellow background – is unforgettable. Inside in somewhat unremarkable, save for the 27m fountain, said to be the largest in Central America. I welcomed the quiet cool escape from the hot busy street outside.
I did not visit Popenoe House, solely for the reason that I missed it on the list for some reason. Anyway, apparently this was a colonial mansion, destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, like most other buildings. In the mansion lived Don Luis de las Infantas Mendoza y Venegas – a royal official of Spain – and his family. It stayed in its ruined condition all the way until 1931, when it was given a full authentic restoration (by a man named Popenoe), with attention given to the details of how this royal family would have lived. Popenoe House is only open 2pm-4pm, every day except Sunday. Entrance fee = US$1.25
Check out my other journal entries on Clothing Museum (Casa del Tejico Antiguo) and Music Museum/Coffee plantation (Casa K’ojom).
There is no need to carry and food or water on this walking tour, as nourishment is never far away. There are shops of all sizes and shapes, internet access galore, and plenty of beggars and pickpockets thrown in to keep things interesting. One can spend 1-3 days exploring the streets of Antigua when combining it with shopping and eating – relax and wander, there is something interesting around every corner.
Port Angeles, Washington