Written by Andariega on 22 Aug, 2005
These ruins are within a few blocks of each other, northwest of the plaza.
Also known as Santa Catalina, this convent was built in 1609 to address a lack of housing for local nuns. In 1693, an arch was built over the street, connecting the…Read More
These ruins are within a few blocks of each other, northwest of the plaza.
Also known as Santa Catalina, this convent was built in 1609 to address a lack of housing for local nuns. In 1693, an arch was built over the street, connecting the convent to the church, so the nuns could honor their vow not to be seen in public. In 1697, the convent reached its maximum occupancy of 110 nuns. It was abandoned, like most other establishments in town, in 1773. In 1775, it was turned into housing. The arch was restored in 1853 and again in the 20th century.
Today part of the church and the cloister walls stand in ruin. The arch still exists and is probably Antigua's most famous landmark. We read that the convent is open to the public; but the church and the arch are not. We could not find the entrance.
La Merced, the first monastery of Antigua, was built in 1548. The present church was built in 1767 by the architect Juan de Dios Estrada who, taking into consideration the local seismic activity, designed a structure with short proportion, thick walls and a sturdy facade. The church survived all the earthquakes up to the second earthquake in 1773 when it sustained moderate damage and was abandoned. It was restored in 1853; damaged some in 1976 and promptly fixed. The convent was destroyed by the 1773 quake.
One of the few old churches still standing in town, La Merced is also the easiest to recognize. It is yellow and its facade is decorated with swirling and frilly white designs in a technique known as ataurique. It is open daily from 7 am to noon and again from 3 pm to 8 pm. The convent, still in ruins, houses the largest fountain in Antigua. It is open daily from 9am to 6pm. Admission is Q3 (US$ .37).
San Jeronimo was built as a school in 1739. It was completed in 1759 but because of red tape, was closed two years later. The king gave orders to tear it down. He was ignored and in 1765, it became the Real Aduana (Royal Custom House). It was abandoned in 1773.
San Jeronimo is a pleasant place to spend a few hours, with its fountain and grassy areas. Mostly in ruins, the kitchen, a small chapel from the 18th century, and the front of the school remain standing.
It is open daily 8am to 5pm and admission is Q30 (US$3.75) for foreigners.
La Compañia de Jesus
This school was started in 1607 and the church was inaugurated in1626. A new church was started in 1689 but because of earthquake damage was not inaugurated until 1698. It was seriously damaged in 1751 and restored in 1755, but was abandoned in 1767 when the Jesuits were kicked out of Hispanic America. It was badly damaged in 1773 along with the rest of Antigua. During the 1800s, it was a textile factory until the roof and cupola collapsed. In 1912, a market was set up here until the 1976 quake caused even more damage. In 1978, it was partially restored. During its heyday, La Compañia de Jesus consisted of the school, the church, a convent, a library, a hospital and fruit orchards.
The front of the church is still standing where some original, and some recreated, fresco work can be seen. Restoration work is now being done by a Spanish company. The church is not accessible to the public but the convent is open daily from 9am to 6pm. No admission is charged.
Written by Andariega on 20 Aug, 2005
Planning to visit the Valhalla Macadamia Farm, we decided to make a morning of it and see some nearby villages. Although we went first to the farm, backtracked to Ciudad Vieja, turned around again to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, on to Santa Catarina Barahona and…Read More
Planning to visit the Valhalla Macadamia Farm, we decided to make a morning of it and see some nearby villages. Although we went first to the farm, backtracked to Ciudad Vieja, turned around again to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, on to Santa Catarina Barahona and turned around one more time heading back through San Antonio and ciudad Vieja, it makes much more sense to make the loop - Ciudad Vieja, San Antonio, Santa Catarina, San Miguel de las Dueñas, Valhalla and back to Ciudad Vieja. By car this was an interesting half-day outing. It is also easily done by bus, but much more time consuming. Walking is also a possibility as distances are short: Antigua to Ciudad Vieja - 5km; Ciudad Vieja to San Antonio - 3km; San Antonio to Santa Catarina - less than 1km.
Ciudad Vieja, originally Santiago de los Caballeros, became Guatemala's second capital (after Iximchè and before Antigua) in 1527. Shortly after, in 1541, a huge mudslide destroyed the town. Almost nothing remains from that era. On the plaza is a beautiful church, some say it was built in 1534, making it the oldest in Central America, others say it was built in the 18th century. The locals we asked all agreed that it was old but none knew how old. Nowadays this is a traditional and busy town with not much else to see.
San Antonio Aguas Calientes is famous for its high-quality weaving, with intricate designs where both sides of the material look finished, making distinguishing front from back impossible. There are small stores all over this small town selling textiles. The plaza is the heart of the community and the main reason to visit. It has an interesting church, gardens with benches, a beautiful fountain of a woman with a pitcher, on old cross and a community laundry area. Across the street is a two-story building, fronted by an arcade of arches, housing government offices. Next-door is the bright pink textile market. Inside are stalls selling woven goods from all over Guatemala.
After an exhausting shopping spree, we sat to rest in the plaza. Soon we heard music, and then that music being echoed. By the doors to the church was a band of elderly musicians, apparently teaching a group of younger musicians a new song. We were then overcome by a smoky, spicy smell and quickly found the man with a copal branch burning. He was blessing the corners of the plaza and then headed off to the church. The bells rang calling worshipers, the music got louder; then everyone disappeared through the doors. As we were packing our new purchases into the car, we heard the sermon being broadcast over speakers. What surprised us was not that it was in the local language but that it was a woman preaching.
Santa Catarina Barahona is a small town virtually connected to San Antonio. Once again, the point of visiting town is to see the plaza. There is a monument commemorating Sancho de Barahona, a captain under don Pedro Alvarado, who founded the town in 1530. Later a church was built, which still stands and is in use, but is crumbling around the edges. In the middle of the plaza are a fountain and a basketball court. Across the street is a small government building and a makeshift video arcade.
Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm, besides growing and processing the nuts, donates saplings and equipment to small Guatemalan communities and teaches the villagers how to benefit, financially and ecologically, from the trees. Interesting tours of the grounds are offered, as are macadamia pancake breakfasts.
Written by Andariega on 10 Mar, 2005
We made various trips to neighboring towns from Panajachel. Our last day there we were planning to take the lancha (boat) to some of the lakeside communities not accessible by car, but unfortunately, a nasty wind (xocomil) kicked up and the few boats still operating…Read More
We made various trips to neighboring towns from Panajachel. Our last day there we were planning to take the lancha (boat) to some of the lakeside communities not accessible by car, but unfortunately, a nasty wind (xocomil) kicked up and the few boats still operating were full.
We left our hotel early Tuesday morning to go to the market in the town of Solalà. The weather was cold, and having no top on the Jeep, we weren’t sure if the trip was worth the suffering. About 5 or 10 minutes out of town, we turned into the town of San Jorge La Laguna. We had heard about this town perched on the edge of the cliff and wanted to take a quick look. We got out of the car and walked a short way. We were rewarded with a spectacular view of the lake. All doubts as to the worthiness of the outing were forgotten then and there. San Jorge La Laguna is known for its bodiless Maximòn (a very interesting Guatemalan idol), but we didn’t look for him.
Back on the road, it was just another 5 or 10 minutes to our destination. Traffic was heavy and the streets were packed with people heading to the market. We found a parking place and followed the crowd. Soon we were in the market. There were colorful displays of fresh fruits and vegetables, blankets, lots of plastic items, pots and pans… all kinds of things. The Solalà market caters to the locals; tourists do not enter the equation when deciding what is sold. We saw some unusual fruits but only ended up buying bananas.
The Solalà market is held on Tuesdays and Fridays and is famous for its sturdy bags made of wool. Many townspeople, including the men, still wear their traditional outfits.
San Antonio Palopò
After lunch one day, we followed the road that hugs the coast east of Pana. We first came to Santa Catarina Palopò, a small town just 5km from Pana. We stopped to walk around a bit. It was very peaceful. We later read of a shop where you can watch weaving, an art gallery, and hot springs. We somehow managed to miss all three. We did see the cute little church. The town is known for its reed mats and its blue, green, and yellow huipiles (blouses).
Back on the road, heading out of town, we saw signs for various hotels but not the hotels themselves. They must have been hidden behind the large walls that run along much of this road. The mountains in this area are terraced and heavily planted with produce and, judging by the smell, mostly onions, although we saw plants of all shapes and sizes.
After another 5km, we entered San Antonio Palopò. We parked on the soccer field. Below us were women washing onions in the lake, on the horizon were the majestic volcanoes, and behind us, up the hill, was the town and its beautiful church.
Written by evilchris on 11 Sep, 2004
Like most travelers on la ruta maya, the colors and pageantry that I associated with the Mayan culture and its history compelled me to make Guatemala the main stop on my travels through Central America. The 22 language sub-groups that make up the Mayans…Read More
Like most travelers on la ruta maya, the colors and pageantry that I associated with the Mayan culture and its history compelled me to make Guatemala the main stop on my travels through Central America. The 22 language sub-groups that make up the Mayans in Guatemala have survived 300 years of Spanish occupation, followed by uprisings, coups, countercoups, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies that continued up through the 1990s. Any butcher’s bill that had to be paid during these violent times was normally paid in great part by the Mayans. Through sheer determination, their identity and traditions have remained stubbornly intact – albeit with their populations decimated. Between the official end of the civil war (1996) and today, the Mayans seem to have been transformed from Enemies of the State into a big tourism draw – at least to an outside observer. But, at least three-quarters of the nation’s population is still below the poverty line, which presumably includes the Mayans, and the Modern World continues to encroach upon the Mayans in every aspect of their existence. During my travel there, I saw how Mayans dealt with the changing world going on around them, and how it affected my own travel. What I experienced ranged from the overwhelmingly positive to the downright disturbing.
The juxtaposition between the Mayans and Lake Atitlán’s Gringo interlopers is an interesting one, particularly those Gringos hanging out in San Pedro. The Mayans are very religious, traditional and conservative (evangelical Christianity and Catholic missionaries have a strong presence all around the Lake), and the focus of most Gringo residents seems to be anything but conservative. In all fairness, those tourists with more bacchanalian pursuits in mind pretty much kept their activities hidden from plain sight, and I saw an apparent peaceful co-existence between the two groups. Granted, there were always a handful of Gringo revelers that could be found stumbling around in the wee hours of the morning, but this was really no different from the Mayan men who would gather at certain tiendas at all hours and drink Quetzalteca until stupefaction set in. (Followed by a nap on the pavement.)
Those Mayans that made a living off of tourists (tienda or comedor owners, hostel operators, etc.) were quite friendly, and more than happy to make money off of ex-pats and tourists. And those locals that did not make money off tourists seemed to go about their business oblivious to them. It was no surprise that the younger generation had fewer hang-ups about tourists than their parents. While the young machos may have monopolized the hustling tourists for tips (or as they pronounced it: "teeps") in return for dragging them to a language school or hotel, the young girls who sold baked goods such as pan de banan proved that the boys certainly did not have the market cornered on "motivated salesmanship". Never shy, the girls are impossible to miss as they buzz around the main thoroughfares of San Pedro in their traditional traje with a basket balanced on their head. If you sit long enough in one place, one of them will eventually find you. They are hard-nosed negotiators, dauntless and charming, and rarely take "No" for an answer.
The story was the same at the mercado in San Pedro, where I went to buy a flashlight. It was only my third day in Central America, and my negotiating skills (and math skills, apparently) were so poor, that the young brother-sister duo running the stand gave me more change than the price we had agreed upon. Apparently, I had negotiated the price in the wrong direction once they threw batteries into the discussion. (I was flustered, OKAY?) I guess they felt I would need every Quetzal I could get, as I would undoubtedly starve to death if I continued negotiating in a similarly poor fashion for my next few meals.
Despite the bravado-filled countenance of these young entrepreneurs, a little one-on-one conversation with any of them revealed kindness, innocence, and intellectual curiosity beneath. The boys, no matter how young, always insisted that I treat them as much like equals possible, even when they were a fraction of my height. This required, for example, that I reciprocate a ridiculously firm handshake or high-five them in front of their compañeros, which never failed to impress, I’m sure. On my walk back from Tzununá, one of the young boys that I met as we both waited for a ride was full of pride to tell me about his full-time construction job after he had asked me about my own profession (this from a 13-year old boy). From both boys and girls, there were always questions about family and school – two things they could directly relate to. (Place-names and geography were too abstract.) One game two of the "pan de banan" girls loved to play with me was to let me try and read Tzutuhil vocabulary aloud from their Spanish as a Second Language textbooks. Nearly every word I spoke (read: mangled) was met with tittering that built up through suppressed giggles to doubled-over guffaws. I suppose I must have sounded like a drunken Bushman with Turrets Syndrome, so maybe the laughter was well deserved.
While the Gringos and the Mayans co-exist peacefully in San Pedro, it is not always the case in other parts of Guatemala. With the growth of tourism, countless Mayan entrepreneurs have risen to the occasion in chasing the tourist dollar. Markets selling traditional clothing are booming in such towns as Panajachel, Antigua, Todos Santos, and Quetzaltenango. Development of the tourist industry is far enough along for organized bus tours to come visit these market places on excursions operated by the more established tour operators based in Guatemala City or Antigua. While Mayans are comfortable with our bizarre appearance (particularly if there is a tidy profit involved), an incident occurred during my stay where the stiff competition of the midday market, the skewed perceptions Mayans had of foreigners, and the disregard of tourists for local customs built up into an hysteria with deadly consequences in nearby Todos Santos Cuchumatan.
Every traveler I met in Guatemala loved explaining the Golden Rule of interacting with the natives: Do Not Photograph Mayans Without Permission. I received some half-baked explanations about "losing a piece of their soul" from some awful hippies I met which I found hard to swallow. What was clear was that many Mayans are nervous around the camera because they do not understand the intention. Naturally, many of them lose their fear if a "teep" is negotiated in advance, but it is strongly advisable to not shoot first and ask questions later. Sadly, that spring, a group of Japanese tourists visiting Todos Santos did not heed this advice (or perhaps they were never told). I read conflicting reports in the various local papers and from travelers who were in Todos Santos at the time of the incident, but what is known is that a group of Japanese tourists apparently disembarked from their tour bus, whipped out their cameras and started snapping pictures with impunity.
It will probably never be clear what exactly sparked the violence. Maybe it was the high-pressure competition of the market that day, or the rumors that had been circulating then about kidnappers were stealing children. Perhaps it was the fact that one or two of the Japanese tourists were dressed all in black, but in the end, one woman working in the market snapped – and accused one photographer of trying to steal her child. The hysteria quickly built up, and an angry crowd began stoning the bus, the Japanese tourists and the brave tour guide (a Guatemalan) who had tried to intervene. The crowd ended up stoning one tourist and the guide to death. To amplify the horror further, some men in the crowd then set the tour guide’s corpse on fire. The police arrived too late to save the victims, but they did arrest a number of suspects. Looking at the picture in the paper of the six somber Amerindian men, standing there handcuffed together, wearing their traditional traje (in Todos Santos, this consists of wonderful red pantaloons and a hat), I had little understanding of how this could have happened.
It is clear to me now, is that if you wish to travel on your own as a backpacker "amongst the locals", you should be armed with at least a rudimentary understanding of the customs when there is a huge cultural gap. Any cultural understanding you have will only enrich your experiences, and this knowledge can clearly have far more important value. A willingness to accept and act on this is a key aspect of traveling off the beaten path.
San Pedro can be considered relatively remote in comparison to Panajachel or Antigua. When you compare infrastructure, number of Internet connections, or number of gift shops, this is certainly the case. But because San Pedro does have a fairly constant stream of day visitors…Read More
San Pedro can be considered relatively remote in comparison to Panajachel or Antigua. When you compare infrastructure, number of Internet connections, or number of gift shops, this is certainly the case. But because San Pedro does have a fairly constant stream of day visitors and backpackers, I felt compelled to explore the rest of the villages around the lake on foot. It was a welcome break from the backpacking "scene" as well as a great opportunity to interact with the locals without being pressured into buying something.
From San Pedro, I left on foot on the road leading out of town that followed the shoreline, heading clockwise around Lago de Atitlán. (Rough Guide Central America has a good overview map of the Lake, which shows all the towns I visited.) The road takes you up a hill, giving you a fine view of both the west harbor at San Pedro, and the coffee fields and marshlands of the next town over, San Juan la Laguna (see attached photos). San Juan is a sleepy little town. What plays the role of a downtown gives evidence only of neglect. The streets were empty when I walked through town, and the locals (also Tzutuhil Maya) were definitely less used to foreigners in their midst in comparison to Panajachel or San Pedro. This did not stop one proprietor from inviting me into his comedor for my first (and last) shot of Quetzalteca and a beer chaser, where we communicated in broken Spanish and sign language. (Spanish was not his first language either, so we were both handicapped.)
While continuing onto the next town around the lake – San Pablo la Laguna – I passed an organized soccer match. This was not sandlot ball, but a proper match, and I recognized the home team in their bright red uniforms. I was coincidentally on the lake during the European Championships, so the infectious enthusiasm amongst European expats caught on amongst the already football-mad Central Americans fairly easily. Past the well-groomed football pitch, there is an usually large hill in the flatlands along the lake. This hill has no name I could find on any map, but it is crowned with an 8-foot white crucifix and a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. A quick hike to the top afforded yet another spectacular view of my surroundings. A number of prayers from the previous New year’s Eve and remnants of devotional candles were scattered around the base of the statue. I was on my own up there, so I took in this view of the lake, the surrounding villages, and a bird’s-eye view of the football match in private.
San Marcos, the next town over, is itself is one of the larger towns on the lake. There are a number of hotels (less than Panajachel, for sure), and the center of town was bustling with activity. The tienda where I bought a fresh water supply did not blink an eye at me. The road out of San Marcos (continuing clockwise around the lake) put me on the northwestern shore of the lake. The road gets narrower, and at many points is just above the water. Here, I found a number of large lakefront homes high walls that ran along the road. It was apparent that homes were owned not only by wealthy Guatemalans but a few gringo expatriates as well. (A giant wooden peace symbol on the garage door of one home sort of tipped me off to this.)
This road leads to the village of Tzununá, and was the only paved road in the village from what I could see. Apart from this were a number of footpaths, which doubled as calles as was the case with most of the villages on the lake. Tzununá is reachable by launch, so there are a couple of restaurants and "holistic" (read: hippie-run) hotels here. I imagine it is probably a very peaceful place to stay: there was no traffic here, and the town was enveloped in flowers and green foliage, with very little of the litter (la basura) which plagued other villages around the lake. I stopped for a quick (and inexpensive) lunch of lake fish and pleasant conversation with the owner of one of the roadside restaurants in the village.
After Tzununá, the dirt trail then heads up through Jaibalito to Santa Cruz. It definitely had a remote feeling, and the blatant stares I received from every local (I am a 6’2" caucasian guy with a sunburn) reminded me that I was very much out of my element. After yet another refresca at yet another tienda, I walked back down to the main road. Along the way, I hooked up with a few Mayan boys on their way to their construction job in San Pedro. Once reaching the road, they took me to an unmarked "bus stop" where we waited for the unofficial "bus service" to arrive. Our ride announced its arrival with a squeal of well-worn brakes. It was a beat-to-hell Nissan 4x4 pick-up truck with rusty steel frame soldered onto the flatbed. The fleet for this "bus service" was made up of such vehicles. I expect they could squeeze 8-12 (Mayan-sized) people in the flatbed, and a seat in the flatbed cost Q 3.50. The trip promised to be fast, judging by the way the driver took corners, but the regularly scheduled afternoon downpour started just as we were taking on more passengers in San Juan. The co-pilot who collected the money passed a dirty tarp back, and we all grabbed onto an edge and held it down for the high-speed, hear-stopping dash to the to San Pedro, which seemed to take an eternity.
Written by lcampbell on 21 Oct, 2004
I lump the Spanish Schools and Hiking around Todos Santos together because the guided day hikes in the area are primarily lead by folks from the Spanish Schools. Actually, most activities – including movies, discussion groups, and field trips are organized by the Spanish…Read More
I lump the Spanish Schools and Hiking around Todos Santos together because the guided day hikes in the area are primarily lead by folks from the Spanish Schools. Actually, most activities – including movies, discussion groups, and field trips are organized by the Spanish Schools. So even if you do not want to sign up for Spanish Classes, the schools should be among your first stops in Todos Santos.
When I visited Todos Santos, there were three different Spanish Schools. I believe all three have approximately the same prices, which on one flyer was listed as $115 for one week room and board with a family, 5 days of (afternoons) Spanish lessons, plus hikes, movies, and other activities included. This seemed like a great price compared to other schools I had seen in Guatemala, and all of the students I met seemed happy with the program.
We went on one guided hike with one of the Spanish Schools. We met up with the group at 6:15am. at the main intersection in town (is obvious) where the buses stop. A must before hiking is to stop at one of the roadside booths to buy sweet bread and hot chocolate. Yes, hot chocolate. Todos Santos is high enough in the mountains that you will want plenty of blankets at night and plenty of hot beverages after the sun goes down, otherwise you will be one big tourist Popsicle.
After the small group assembled, we took the bus south about 15 to 20 minutes. After exiting the bus at a nondescript place along the highway, we headed directly uphill to some ceremonial caves. The caves themselves were rather anticlimactic, but I understand that they can be quite interesting if you encounter a ceremony taking place – interesting good or interesting bad, I can’t really say. I imagine it depends on how amenable the ceremony-givers are to intrusion. Despite the unremarkable caves, the landscape around the caves was very pretty, with jagged rocks and cliffs and a mirror pond where you wouldn’t expect one.
We descended back down to the road, crossed the road, and followed a path that lead down the valley about 1.5 hours all the way back to Todos Santos. Along the way, we observed the daily life of the mountain people, and even chatted with a few of them with the help of our guide. It was a great hike, and the price was excellent, at just 10 quetzales ($1.25 per person). There are usually different hikes each day. Sign up at the Spanish Schools the day before a hike.
I attended a discussion group, or conference as they called it, one evening at one of the Spanish Schools as well. The price was the same as the hikes ($1.25) and it was really really interesting. A local woman came to talk about what it was like for women in Todos Santos in the past, and what it is like now. She talked about men from the village going illegally to the United States with the help of an expensive "coyote." According to her, they go in order to earn money to send home, but once there, many have a hard time (with the language, with learning how to cook for themselves, with being lonely) and become alcoholics or find a new woman. They forget about their families in Todos Santos.
This woman was unusual because she had never married. She said that her father beat her mother (domestic violence is common here) and she knew how it affected the children, so she knew she never wanted to marry. She says there is some stigma with it.
She also spoke a little about the recent civil war, which brought her to tears. She talked about how entire families disappeared, and people were killed or vanished, including the father of her youngest daughter. Listening to her was very sad, frustrating, and angering. Others told me that the villagers in Todos Santos actually cooperated with the army and their community did not suffer much loss. Nearby Nebaj is said to have been nearly wiped out, and I can hardly imagine the violence and suffering that occurred there. Todos Santos suffered despite their cooperation, maybe because they didn’t so much side with the army as try to remain neutral, fearing torture and death, as well they should.
Now that you are thoroughly depressed, back to hiking. Besides the guiding hikes with the Spanish Schools, there are oodles of dirt roads and paths to follow all over the valleys and ridges surrounding Todos Santos. You can get recommendation from the Spanish Schools, Rebecca’s Place book store, or local people for unguided hikes (hike in Spanish is caminata).
One afternoon, we followed the road that our guesthouse (Casa Familiar) was on until we got to the top of the ridge, and discovered large trees, expansive views, grazing animals, and a friendly local woman. Wildflowers in yellow, red, pink, purple, and white greeted us around every bend. The heat from below gave way to a cool breeze, supplemented with sweet silence. The road dropped down the other side of the ridge to another small village, which can be hiked to as a long day hike, or possibly as an overnight trip.
Written by lcampbell on 28 Mar, 2005
Start the self-guided Historical Walking Tour at the town square. While I was intensely drawn to the beauty and activity buzz of all the town squares in Guatemala, Antigua’s plaza is especially impressive. The massive trees offer friendly shade, and combined with the…Read More
Start the self-guided Historical Walking Tour at the town square. While I was intensely drawn to the beauty and activity buzz of all the town squares in Guatemala, Antigua’s plaza is especially impressive. The massive trees offer friendly shade, and combined with the cold drinks and snacks sold by countless vendors, it is a prefect place to beat the heat. The cooling sounds of the local fountain almost distract you front the fact that the water is spouting out of the breasts of the female statue figures. Now add in the scenery of colonial architecture and massive volcanos rising in the distance, and you too will be in awe.
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.
The guidebook warned against climbing Pacaya without a guide. I got the impression that there were bandits around every corner, ready to jump out of the bushes at any time. So we signed up for a guided tour with Gran Jaguar.
When we showed…Read More
The guidebook warned against climbing Pacaya without a guide. I got the impression that there were bandits around every corner, ready to jump out of the bushes at any time. So we signed up for a guided tour with Gran Jaguar.
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
Written by lcampbell on 22 Jan, 2005
My first impression of San Marcos was not a good one. First, after being overcharged for our bus ride, we were also overcharged for our boat ride. The boat money collector blocked our way onto the dock until we paid what he demanded.…Read More
My first impression of San Marcos was not a good one. First, after being overcharged for our bus ride, we were also overcharged for our boat ride. The boat money collector blocked our way onto the dock until we paid what he demanded. Next, we were finding it difficult to find our way around. We were tired and frustrated and just wanted to find a clean and reasonably priced place to stay. Finally, I have a lingering image of a young boy, angry and stomping away from me when he didn’t feel I had given him enough money for "guiding" us to a hotel. We didn’t ask for his services, and he didn’t actually guide us anywhere but rather walked in front of us as we wandered around, pointing at signs we could read ourselves. We didn’t stay where we parted ways with him either. Ug.
My second impression of San Marcos was… yep, also not good. I hadn’t realized that San Marcos was not really a Guatemalan town. By that I mean that few Guatemalan people actually live there. The town is populated by expats from the world over, each of them running a hotel, restaurant, or a massage-yoga-meditation, or other holistic, place. The whole town is one big hippy yoga center.
Now, I’m all for alternative therapies and internal harmony, and I certainly want a balanced chakra, I mean, come on (what is a chakra, anyway?), but to stay in a town more like Boulder, Colorado, than a Guatemalan village is not what I came here for.
That said, there was certainly some good non-Guatemalan food to be had (at non-Guatemalan prices), and the view from San Marcos south is something to behold, when you are lucky enough for the atmosphere to be pollution-haze free.
The best spot in San Marcos to spend time was definitely the swimming spot on the far west side of town. There is a tiny beach and a small headland with plenty of rocky perches to catch some sun and read a book. There is also a short path on top leading to a great spot to cliff-jump into the fishing cove (at your own risk, of course!) The view from this point to the south is humbling. Massive volcanoes rise up, their height emphasized by the flatness of the lake.
Near the swimming point was a nice-looking café called Moonfish (unfortunately closed the day we were there). Just next to Moonfish Café was a guesthouse called Aaculaax (not in our guidebook). Aaculuux was full, but it looked like a great place with a more reasonable price (70 quetzales, US$9, for a double) than the other places in San Marcos. The owner does stained glass, and the place is funky and artsy, with a lot of character.
We ended up buying our own fruit, yogurt, and granola, which made for huge and cheap breakfast. There are a couple open-air stands that sell these items for good prices. The Piramides also had good food.
Here is a brief rundown of the hotels we looked at:
Hotel Paco Real - no double rooms
Hotel La Paz - one shabby double room
Piramides - full, but was recommended by a fellow traveler
Hotel Quetzal - looked good from outside, noticed it on far west side as we were leaving town
Hotel San Marcos - see separate entry
Written by lcampbell on 04 Aug, 2004
The monkey was gesturing at me. I swear he was. I looked over my shoulder. My husband was long gone down the trail, and there was nobody else around to see. I looked back at the monkey. He was doing…Read More
The monkey was gesturing at me. I swear he was. I looked over my shoulder. My husband was long gone down the trail, and there was nobody else around to see. I looked back at the monkey. He was doing it again! Sort of pointing at me, then flailing his arms above his head, then pointing at me again. What did it mean? Does he want me to come up for tea and bananas? Do I have something stuck in my teeth? What? This was surreal.
After my long-tailed possibly-insane friend lost interest in me, I wandered to the nearby ancient stone wall to find my hubby. I was amazed where I found him. He was in the largest plaza area that we had seen since starting our day-long exploration of Tikal National Park. Temple (Pyramid) I (44 meters) and Temple II (38 meters) stood on opposite sides of the Great Plaza. The flat grassy area in the middle served to highlight the steepness of the temple sides. To one side of the plaza was a covered excavated hole. Looking in, I saw a huge carved stone head. Wild, for sure!
In additions to Temples I and II, Tikal has hundreds of other structures both large and small to explore and climb. I read that originally there were over 4000 structures in the 16 square kilometer area. To make a loop around the entire area means a 10km walk at least, although one day is sufficient to see most of the site.
It is thought that this area was attractive to the Mayan people due to its location on a hill (and out of the low swamps surrounding it) and also because of the abundance of flint. Tikal was inhabited from approximately 700BC to maybe 1200-1500 AD. The disappearance of the Mayan people from Tikal, like most other ancient Mayan sites, is a mystery.
The late 1800s brought renewed interest in exploring this long-forgotten site. Numerous international archaeologists worked on excavating the area over the years, inspiring the Guatemalan government to protect the area. The 576 square miles of jungle, including the archaeological site, make up Tikal National Park. It is also a World Heritage Site.
While the pyramids in the Great Plaza cannot be climbed – due to a couple tourists falling to their deaths in recent years – there are two other large pyramids that can be. Temple V (58 meters) was impressive for its size as well as for the nearby group of howler monkeys. Temple IV, I believe, is the most often climbed. There are vendors with cold drinks at the base. The view from the top, looking over the jungle with the tops of the other pyramids sticking out, will not be soon forgotten. Temple III is also huge, at 55 meters, but is yet uncovered.
While most people congregated around the main large temples, there are plenty of quiet corners of Tikal to find some peace and solitude. One place that I especially enjoyed was Mundo Perdido, or Lost World. This is a perfect spot for journal writing or for a quiet lunch break.
I have already mentioned my monkey experiences at Tikal, but there is plenty of other animal life to be seen. The park is a birders paradise. The critters we saw most often were wild turkeys, and some obviously tourist-fed coatamundis. Please keep wildlife wild, and don’t feed them! It only leads to their demise.
Tikal is larger than I thought. Be prepared with good walking shoes and plenty of drinking water.
I did not find the food to be very good (plus it was very expensive) at Tikal, so I recommend bringing a lunch and snacks.
Gifts and film were also very expensive at Tikal – bring plenty of film, and save the shopping for Flores or Santa Elena.
Licensed guides are available near the steps to the museum. We did not use a guide, but I think it would be a very good experience, and not too costly. I do not know the price, but the price is per group, not per person, so the best approach to hiring a guide is to get some other people to go in with you and split the cost.
If you go without a guide, Lonely Planet recommends the book "Tikal – A Handbook of the Ancient Mayan Ruins" by William Coe, which is available at Tikal and in Flores.
How to get there
It is very convenient to hire a minibus to pick you up at your hotel for round-trip transport to and from Tikal. We did this and the price was US$5 per person. Because of the hotel pickup and dropoff (vs. walking to Santa Elena for public bus), the extensive hours of operation (vs. public bus), and the reasonable cost for the 1.5 hour ride (each way), we felt that this was a good choice for transportation. Any hotel clerk can arrange this for you.
Fees and staying overnight
Entrance Fee to Tikal National Park is US$6.25 per person. We also bought a map from the ranger for US$0.75, but I think our guidebook map would have been sufficient. Overnight accommodations are available at Tikal, but they fill up very fast. Make advance reservations. Campers will usually not have a problem getting a spot.