Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Antigua, Guatamala - Who'd of thought it?

Santa Catalina Arch
Antigua is a small colonial city sitting some 1600metres above sea level. The streets are cobbled and narrow. The buildings bright and single storey. Many beautifully restored, others with peeling paint and crumbling plasterwork which equates to rustic charm. The December days that we have been here have been clear and bright – The sun burning into you in the open but leaving the shaded areas pleasant. The combination of height, season, location and ambiance seem to make our skin tingle slightly. It is really quite lovely. Surrounding the city are three volcanoes – Agua, Fuego and Acatenango and these give an interesting backdrop to the town. The night we arrived Fuego was spitting larva from its crater and the orange glow of molten rock lit the top of the mountain above the city. Something that happens pretty often.

Volcan de Agua from Cerro de la Cruzl
Nick, the American guy we met in the last place has traveled with us to Antigua and is hoping to find bar work. But, unlike him, we have only Christmas to worry about so after taking up residence in a little apartment we are renting for a week we go to the supermarket. Here, in the vegetable section, we find ourselves chatting to Casandra and Robert, a retired couple (her Guatemalan and him American) who respond to my cheeky tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they invite us to dinner by asking us over to their house that evening. All literally in under 100 words. The house is beautiful. Big colonial place, heavy double gates set in the walls that open up to a parking area and lovely inner courtyard, festooned with plants and babbling fountain. We get the tour and the story of the renovation. We laugh and joke and after a very pleasant evening wander home through the deserted streets.

Typical Calle in Antigua
Antigua is a bustling place. With lots of churches (some in ruin) and charming streets to wander around. There is a huge market that you get lost in selling everything you can imagine. Many of the locals wearing traditional dress which is just how it is rather than something to impress the tourists. The next day we were at a view point that overlooks the city and the nearest volcano – impressive. Here we talk to two guys – who are having a reunion after 30 years. One was the record holder for the longest run on a treadmill and does extreme running races. Lovely couple of guys who suggest we go have a drink then take us to lunch. Very nice but makes me wonder what sort of vibe we are giving off because we are being treated to so many meals – desperation, pheromones or just good company?

We are spending time getting to know the city and its foibles but the highlight of the next day is a further invite from Casandra and Rob who take us to Angeline. A super swanky restaurant in the city centre. We travel on a budget so this would be way outside our normal level of expenditure. However, they insist it will be their treat so we gladly accept. The matter of paying is (rightly so) put out of mind and our attention turned to the company.

We have been fortunate enough, in our lives, to have enjoyed meals in many exceptional restaurants. Some notable for their clientele, their celebrity chef or their opulence. Others, where the food was simple, the location novel or was served from a stall at the side of the road. This, however, was pretty impressive. Distressed walls in large courtyard setting of a fine colonial property. Impeccable service where we each had our own waiter who collectively placed our respective meals with choreographed timing upon the nod of the ‘Service Manager’. Introductions to the ingredients and cooking styles of our meals, which were exceptional in taste and presentation. Good wine, homemade cocktails of vermouth and champagne and a fine port to finish.

What a treat. Thank you most generous hosts. Perhaps we will trawl around vegetable sections of supermarkets more often in our future travels.

Christmas Eve. Still feeling the effects of the previous evening we start Christmas in a ‘pay it forward’ mood. Since we are having a cooked breakfast we invite a single traveler in another room to join us. Then as we walk through the streets looking at art galleries and interesting buildings, Rachel gives some small monetary offerings to the more needy looking beggars or homeless looking people we come across.

Museo del Hermano Pedro
In Guatemala the Christmas thing tends to centre on Christmas Eve and Christmas day is more for doing little. We had heard that there would be fireworks going off so after a late dinner we walk to the centre and watch some of the evening service in the large and spectacular church of El Merced that was packed to the rafters with the faithful – TV screens around the walls providing video close ups for all. We take a drink in a bar and a few more minutes watching another mass at the Cathedral then wander home to the sound of occasional bangs and hisses of distant fireworks – not worth mentioning we thought!

12.05am Rachel wakes me. We have been asleep for 30 minutes or so. Drawn to our bed through lack of any huge celebrations anywhere. And now it’s almost impossible to hear one another. The city has come to life and everyone is letting off rockets, bangers, Catherine wheels and firecrackers. We drag ourselves to the street in front where our neighbours gambol about among the various incendiaries with gay abandon. The sky around ablaze with bursts of colour. Bah! Too tired to do much more than stand there for a while before, amazingly, falling back to sleep.

Nick, Richard and Chris - Christmas day vodka's
It’s Christmas day. No presents, cards, origami trees or tinsel this year. But we we are cooking Chrismas dinner for Nick (who now has a job, apartment and scatter cushions), Richard , the guy who owns our apartment and is an ex-network producer – Frazier being one of his projects and Mike his sort of employee/companion.  Space is tight in our place so we cook most of it in our apart before Richard drives us up to his place in the mountains. We cook chicken with onions, spices, pigs in blankets, carrots, sprouts and mange tout. There are sweet potatoes cooked with honey and roast potatoes. In addition there are various starters, cheeses and chocolates. The wine and vodka runs freely, conversations are interesting it's a great way to spend the day with views over two volcanoes and the green valleys below.

Volcan Agua and Fuego smoking in background
Our final day in Antigua and we are walking up Pacaya. A volcano about an hour away on a bus. We are doing it with a group because its just easier to get there than the convoluted buses and the cost is only 6.5 pounds anyway. So the walk up is pretty steep on a dusty  slope that winds through trees and is shared by pack pony's taking the less able or inclined up to the top. The route is straightforward so the guide is not really needed but he does come in useful at the end when we needed to find our bus again. Once we cleared the trees and arrive on a flat plain and the clouds that had swathed us in white mist going up are suddenly being whipped away. Tantalising glimpses of peaks and valleys soon become clear vistas of extraordinary beauty. Guatemala has certainly got it going on. From our peak we can see Volcan de Fuego smouldering away and sending smoke up. We can see two or three other volcanoes from our view point and in the other direction Lago Amatitlan glitters blue and lovely below us.

We have bought marshmallows with us to cook over the hot air vents that have opened up in the larva fields around us. Its cool and being as we have a big bag that Nick White was in charge of everyone in our group end up have Marshmallows to eat.

On the Pacaya lava field
After a last look at the magnificent view we head down, catch our bus to Antigua have a curry for lunch and say goodbye to Nic and this lovely city. In conclusion: Antigua is a must see place and another place we would definitely come back to. It can be expensive but we had our own kitchen and if you eat away from the obvious tourist areas it is much cheaper. Well done Antigua!



  1. A list of must see places would be good on ADDucation - maybe in exchange for a link to rachis of course...

  2. Hi Chris and Rachel. It's Dave, one of the two guys you met on the hill overlooking Antigua. We're hanging out in Flores for the turn of the New Year. So glad you enjoyed Antigua; it truly is a splendid little city.
    And I would suggest that you both are good company. Great personalities with curious minds. That's why everyone wants to hang out with you.
    It was fabulous meeting you, and I hope our paths cross again in our future travels.