Detour to Antigua, Guatemala

All good things must end, which alas included our stay in San Pedro la Laguna. Finally the day came when we had to start making our way toward our next volunteer gig. And we couldn’t stay with our new buddy Rene any longer, because he had a friend coming to town. So we said goodbye to our wonderful host and headed out to spend a few days in the city of Antigua before going back to Guatemala City to fly to Ecuador.

"Chicken Buses" in Guatemala
Sunrises in San Pedro and Antigua, Guatemala January 7-10th, 2022

This, at last, was going to be the day that we took a ride on one of those fabled “chicken buses”, an experience unique to Latin America. We hauled our bags up the hill to the town square, where there was supposed to be such a conveyance leaving at 8:00 a.m.. But when we got there, we talked to a British gentleman named Stuart, a seasoned traveler who had been waiting for the same bus, and he informed us that he’d been told by the locals that its trip was cancelled on this particular morning — one of the drawbacks of the chicken buses is that they keep rather erratic schedules. So after waiting until about 8:30 to verify that this was the case, we dashed back down the hill to secure alternative transportation to Antigua.

That turned out to be a shuttle van, which according to the tour company’s website, would leave at 9:00 and cost 20 dollars per person. Not nearly as economical as the chicken bus, which would have been about 5 dollars per person. But we had few other options at the moment. As it turned out, the shuttle left at 9:30. And the cost was only 12 dollars per person. And huzzah, there were a couple of seats available — the van turned out to be rather packed, but not entirely uncomfortable. So, making only a pit stop at a truck stop for refreshments and a bathroom, we arrived in Antigua just before noon.

Our 3 story bunks at the Tropicana Hostel

Tropicana Hostel, where we would spend 4 nights, was only a short walk from our drop-off point; and like the city of Antigua itself, it had its charms, but didn’t quite measure up to its billing. We were bivouacked in rickety bunks three-high, with Dennis on the bottom, Kimberly in the middle, and another fellow on top who tossed and turned quite a bit. There was a locker over each bunk for storing valuables, but they were so flimsy they could have been broken open with a toothpick.

There was a twenty-something party vibe to the whole place, which featured not one but two bars. And although the boozing stopped at 10:00, the noise in the hallway might carry on longer. The noise in the street outside our window might go on all night.

 above photos taken on January 7th in Antiqua, Guatemala - featuring Santa Catalina Arch and Iglesia de la Merced

There was a nice little courtyard for dining, that also included a couple of hammocks and a laundry facility — as in a place for hand-washing your clothes. Which is better than you get in most places in Latin America, where laundromats are virtually nonexistent. While having our breakfast here one morning, we were approached by a couple of young women from Germany who wanted to introduce themselves because they recognized us from Instagram. How cool is that!

Our biggest complaint about Tropicana Hostel was that there were no facilities for storing or preparing food. We just had to resort mostly to uncooked, canned, or packaged ingredients, and we joked that we could write a cookbook on how to “cook” food with no heat. There was a kitchen but it was off-limits to guests. The staff there would prepare meals for purchase, and despite the advertising claims, the prices weren’t that enticing. While there was a pot of free coffee always available, we couldn’t even make hot water for tea or oatmeal. Instead, we’d have to ask a staff person (who spoke no English) to do it for us in their microwave. Every. Single. Time. They were always obliging, but still, what a hassle.

above photos taken at the Tropicana Hostel in Antiqua, Guatemala

On the roof was a small exercise area, and on our first morning, Kimberly found it to be an excellent place to do pre-dawn yoga and at the same time snap photos of the sunrise — which was greatly enhanced by a volcano spewing its fumes. But then a staff-type individual informed her that the spot was off-limits until later in the day. Yep, an incredible view that could be a major selling point for the hostel. And they exclude guests from it. (They’re probably just afraid someone will steal booze from the bar nearby.)

Still, the staff were overall quite accommodating and helpful. When we learned, on rather short notice, that we’d need a COVID test before we entered Ecuador (even though we’re both triply poked), they arranged for someone to come to the hostel to administer the test for us on about an hour’s notice. And at a lower cost (about $75 each) than we would have paid had we gone out to a clinic. And when the time came for us to leave at the end of our stay, they arranged a ride for us to Guatemala City. (Maybe they were just eager to be rid of us.)

They also arranged what sounded like an amazing tour: an overnight camping hike to the top of a volcano where you can get a close-up view of not only smoke but lava from Volcan Fuego. They even provide meals and, at a nominal cost, winter gear, since it gets quite cold up there. We seriously considered signing up for one of these tours, but ultimately decided we weren’t up for it at the moment.

Tours like this, which take you to places near but not in town, seem to be a primary reason for visiting Antigua. Other than that, the atmosphere is pleasant and worth a day or two, but beyond that there just isn’t much in the way of activity to maintain your interest.

above photos taken on January 8th in Antiqua, Guatemala - featuring Caoba Farms and Palacio de los Capitanes

The city’s full name is Antigua Guatemala, meaning old (“antique”) Guatemala. And that sums up the visual take rather well. The town has quite a bit of well-preserved colonial architecture, as well as some imposing ruins. The former capital of Guatemala, Antigua was founded over 500 years ago. There is a classic feel at every turn, virtually screaming UNESCO World heritage site — which in fact it is. The cobblestone streets are enticing to look at at and even walk on, though drivers are not particularly fond of the bumpy ride.

Most of the houses and buildings are only one story, with the exceptions usually being the antique churches and official buildings, some of which have been repurposed as museums. The best known postcard image is the Santa Catalina Arch, constructed above the street in the Seventeenth Century. It originally served as a discreet passageway for nuns between a convent and a school, allowing them access to and fro without having to mingle with the laity.

above photos taken January 9th in Antiqua, Guatemala

We didn’t run the gamut of the museums in town, but the two we did drop into were quite impressive. And free. One of these was the Palacio de los Capitanes, which was completed in 1764 and renovated in 1890. In the courtyard is an assortment of Mayan sculpture; and other native artifacts are located in some of the galleries surrounding the courtyard. But other galleries are full of church relics. And it seems eerily appropriate that the remnants of indigenous culture are surrounded, and guarded, as it were, by tokens of an institution that was instrumental in suppressing and subjugating it. In any case, we found the courtyard intriguing enough that we returned to it another day with our sketchbooks to try our hand at drawing some of the sculptures.

Another incredibly cool place was the Casa Santa Domingo, which was built as a monastery in the Seventeenth Century. (Religion, as you might gather, has played a huge role in the history of Antigua.) But it’s now a world class hotel that also features 6 museums and 2 art galleries. Even if you don’t want to splurge on admission to these museums, it’s quite an experience just to walk through the hotel buildings, which have quite a few artifacts on public display, and stroll about the grounds, which have beautifully integrated ancient ruins into a modern luxury lodging and event center. We even discreetly wandered into some function rooms that may have been intended to be off limits, but nobody stopped us. And we could feel, at the same time, the serenity and quiet of the monastic life that once filled these halls, and the warmth and comfort of the contemporary hospitality industry at its finest. Crumbling walls and state of the art facilities seamlessly blended.

Two of our strolls that we enjoyed most actually took us a bit out of town. One was to Caoba Farms, which raises organic produce as well as chickens and butterflies. It was on a Saturday, so there was a special event with a band playing and activities for kiddies. The Farm also has yoga classes, which caused Kimberly’s ears to perk up; but the scheduling didn’t quite work out. (She did, however, attend a yoga class at a center in town, and really loved it.)

Volcano Fuego as seen from Cerro de La Cruz at Sunrise

On another day, we arose at 5:30 in the morning to hike up a steep hill to Cerro de La Cruz where we could watch the sun rise over the city. And more important, to watch it rise over Volcano Fuego as it vented steam for tourists and locals alike.

Naturally, Antigua also had its share of local color in the form of street vendors and artisans. A couple of times, we spotted a hat vendor carrying an enormous stack of hats on his head, reminding of times Dennis did something similar in our theatrical production of the story The Hatseller and the Monkey. (Guess who was the monkey.) And one particular bazaar for folk arts and crafts really wowed us with its astoundingly varied display of masks, and its selections of items made of cloth featuring the unique patterns and color combinations of various indigenous tribes of Guatemala.

above photos taken January 10th in Antiqua, Guatemala - featuring artifacts and scenes from Casa Santa Domingo

And, like virtually any city in Guatemala, there was a mercado that boasted what seemed likes miles of stalls proffering everything from food to shoes to bicycles. We went there a couple of times to pick up produce. Actually, the second time, Dennis went alone. And whom should he run into there but Stuart, our British bus stop buddy — who reported that he had continued waiting at the stop in San Pedro, despite being told the bus was not coming, and in fact it showed up about an hour later. Dang, our one good chance to catch a chicken bus, and we missed it by such a slim margin.

We’d been advised, however, not to take the chicken buses into Guatemala City, because they dump you in rather sketchy neighborhoods. So we’d have to settle for a shuttle arranged by the hostel.

Jan. 7-10, 2022

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