Somewhere someone wrote that if you liked Chiapas you will love Guatemala, and that is exactly our experience. We left San Cristobal, where we enjoyed about five more days with our friends there and prepared for the trek into Guatemala, and drove south for about four hours to the border. Chaos ensued. The Mexican side is barely one lane through a market to the border itself, so crazy on Friday, Market Day, to be impassable and in essence closed to any border traffic. By the time we got to the border itself, had our tires sprayed with pesticide and did the necessary paperwork it had started to pour rain. So the crossing itself and the subsequent drive into Guatemala was wet, muddy and a little short on charm.
The road south into the mountains was certainly dramatic as it slid through a narrow gap following the twists of a river and was subject to more than a few landslides and slow moving traffic as pickup trucks full of rain soaked locals crept up the road as well.
We continued on to the first big town in Guatemala, Huehuetenango, where we found a camping spot at the bottom of the steepest road Dan the Van will ever descend and struggle up valiantly in the morning. Without our usual help from ‘Mrs. Garmin’ and her GPS information we had a full tour of the city in search of an ATM, but finally headed south toward Antigua with sufficient Quetzals to continue on to Antigua.
This stretch of road is notorious because it rises to over 10,000 feet in elevation and is full of twists and turns, but fortunately the government has recently completed a really beautiful four-lane highway to take away the struggle and the pain. It took us over the steepest portions with ease and finally by Lake Atitlan in the distance to where we turned off for Antigua. Even the trip into town was difficult as a religious procession was in progress and we were diverted numerous times until finally reaching the sanctuary of the Tourist Police, who furnish an area of their headquarters compound for campers, free of any charges.
Now you have to understand what makes Antigua such a unique city in all of Latin America. The Spanish established three regional capitals in their early colonial period: What has become Mexico City for Mexico, what has become Lima, Peru for South America, and Antigua for all of Central America, an area which extended from the Yucatan in today’s Mexico all the way to Panama to the south. Antigua is different because its colonial architecture was never subsumed and devoured by the likes of a Mexico City, now with a population somewhere around 22 million people. There are only about 58,000 people living in Antigua, and the city is still dominated by three powerful volcanoes close by, one of which chose to erupt the other night.
Antigua remained the colonial capital of Central America until three rather disastrous earthquakes, each about 20 years apart, led the government to move the capital from Antigua to what is now Guatemala City in 1775 after the worst of the quakes had destroyed a significant part of almost all of the grand buildings that fill Antigua. And like San Miguel de Allende in northern Mexico, Antigua then became a virtual ghost town for two hundred years until it was declared a National Monument by the Guatemalan government in 1944 and UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1979. Parts of the grand buildings were restored–the central basilica of the Cathedral though almost none of its associated structures which totaled more than a city block, most of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, many of the smaller churches, convents and cloisters, and certainly the original residences, most of which were only one story. But much remains in ruin today with enormous fragments of arches, pillars and entire walls thrown about, lending an atmosphere of nostalgia and romance that is the equivalent of that found in Rome, if on a smaller scale.
In addition, much of what lends completeness to the sense of the colonial past is the residences themselves. Most in the central part of town were built in colonial times (we are sitting in a restaurant right now built in 1549 which was originally the residence of the Captain General and Governor of Central America) and they are on a scale befitting their occupants. Their longest dimensions are not across the front but in their depth. Almost all, even the humblest ‘tienda’ or small shop, has living quarters and a courtyard or beautiful garden beyond its street side room. And the grander residences often contain a labyrinth of rooms, gardens and quiet courtyards.
Antigua is particularly famous for its religious processions and ceremonies, most especially for those that lead up to and include Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Dave was here in 1989 and the scent of incense filled the air for the entire week. What we were diverted from coming into town and later witnessed in the evening was that same procession. It had begun at a church on the far north of town at 10 AM and then spent the day and the evening wending its way through town and most especially by the Cathedral, and then back to the church from which it originated by 11PM. Thirteen hours of young boys and girls carrying ‘floats’ weighing hundreds and hundreds of pounds through the streets accompanied by two brass bands and numerous young boys swinging incense burners in celebration of, on this Sunday, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary and the Virgin of Dolores in her splendor. Just another Sunday during Lent in Antigua.
What drew us to Antigua on this particular date was the return of Dave’s brother Dick to spend a week with his daughter Katie building a home for a Guatemalan family about 45 minutes outside of Antigua through a program called House to Home and similar to Habitat for Humanity. It was great to see Katie after years and Dick again after almost a year. The work they are doing here is arduous but makes such a life changing experience for the Guatemalan family.
We were also able to enjoy a further treat when our friends in Santa Fe, Margeaux and Joan, connected us with old friends of theirs now living in Antigua. Carlotta and Ana have been here a long time; in fact, Ana spent a good part of her childhood in the same wonderful house they have restored and enjoy today. It was built in the 1500’s, is directly behind the Cathedral and is just breathtakingly lovely.
The same might be said of Ana and Carlotta. We so enjoyed our few hours with them and wish so much we could have connected with them earlier. They are absolutely fascinating artists, both.
We leave Antigua tomorrow and will head off to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan to spend some time there and to meet up again with our new friends Claudia and Uwe from Germany who have been traveling now for three years across North and Central America and are headed for South America soon. Then we will go on to the Rio Dulce and the Mayan ruins at Tikal and then into Belize and to the Caribbean before turning north and moving back into Mexico. Life on the road is grand!