Colonial Charms of Antigua, Guatemala

We rattle onto the rough cobbled streets at the northern entrance to Antigua as dawn begins to grey up. The six-hour United red-eye from San Francisco to Guatemala City has left us bleary and fuzzy headed—we should have our heads examined for taking a red-eye (but, truly, the exigencies of modern airline scheduling made it the only way). We are immediately embraced by the serene colonial charm of Antigua—muted and vibrant stucco colors of rust, ochre, gold, amber and rose emerging from gray in the rising daylight; wrought iron window grills, balconies, street lights and benches gracing the avenues. Imposing restored walled villas sit cheek by jowl with half-ruined churches, convents and monasteries, themselves tucked next to low-slung tile-roofed “fixer” mesons, just awaiting attention; the canopied greenery, meandering walkways and multiple fountains of the Plaza Central, the town locus found in almost all Latin American cities. The streets are almost deserted (it’s early) but our driver, Erwin, says that Antigua is generally “muy calma” anyway. He wends us through the regular, gridded streets, and we pull up at the dark green puerta of the Meson Panza Verde, set in the middle of an understated, elegant block near the edge of town, just at 7 am.

Panza Verde’s small, lovely courtyard is deserted, and filled with the scent of fresh pine whose dark-green needles fill the foyer floor. A young man-Jaime-emerges and, communicating in our limited Spanish, we learn that our suite, Number 7, is occupied, but that we can take room 3 to have a nap and freshen. Mid-morning we emerge, refreshed and curious, to take in the atmosphere of the inn—two small courtyards, with luxuriant tropical vegetation, musical tinkling fountains, stone Mayan artifacts and lovely large terra-cotta ollas dotted about. Fragrant roses abound, and jasmine and bougainvillea cascade off black iron railings and rustic stone walls. A cute miniscule bar opens just off the foyer, and leads to the lovely dome-ceilinged main dining room—brick and stucco walls, colonial style furniture with elegant and colorful locally-loomed table linens, and eclectic original art.

We set out north for a couple hours walking tour of the city. At the Plaza Central (or Plaza Mayor) we find the Café Condessa, set back in a fountained colonial courtyard, and have a late breakfast of Huevos Guatemaltecas, salsa, unctuous black beans with crema, and, for me, the local beer—Gallo—bitter, cold and crisp. We then meander around the plaza, taking wonderful, historic central vista of the intricate stone colonnade of the Palacio de Ayuntamiento, the regular arcaded façade of the Palacio de Los Capitanes Generals, and the elaborate, many-tiered stone and stucco Catedral de San Jose, all of which form a fascinating 360 degree sweep around the main square. Westward several blocks, we find the Mercado Central, where nearby smallholders come to sell fruits and vegetables, and other stalls purvey everything from shoes and clothes to auto parts. Adjacent is the Mercado de Artesanias, vending all types of local handicrafts, which we will browse more thoroughly on a return walk.

Antigua sits in the base of a mountain bowl, surrounded by lush, jungle-covered knolls, and, to the south, the steep variegated slopes of the Volcanos Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego (still active) which loom dramatically over the town. Volcan de Aqua is closest, and dominates the skyline as it comes in and out of view with parting and reforming tufted clouds. Fuego sends a thin trail of wispy smoke into the air.

Founded in 1543, Antigua was the first planned city in the Americas, and the second capital of Guatemala (the first, 7 km up the flank of Volcan Aqua, was destroyed when the volcano loosed a flow of mud and water in 1541). Laid out in a specific north-south grid, Antigua, then the center of power in Central America, grew over the next 200 years to boast dozens of churches, convents, & monasteries of all the major religious orders, wealthy palaces and imposing civic buildings. A series of earthquakes in the mid 1700’s, with a massive quake in 1775, substantially destroyed the city, and the capital was moved to Guatemala City. Antigua remained virtually deserted ‘til around 1830, and then over the next 150 years very slow re-building resulted in the eclectic combination of restored buildings and church ruins which exists today. In 1979 UNESCO declared Antigua a World Heritage Site. As such, both demolition and building/restoration are controlled, with the result of a lovely, harmonious colonial-feeling city—low to the ground, synchronized color palette, carved wood, iron or painted wood signage, and a wonderfully welcome absence of neon, billboards or wall posters. The ornate civic buildings in the town center form a sort of central core, and the multitude of multi-hued houses and facades, and church and convent ruins cascade outward several blocks in all directions. Four churches still function—the small chapel in the Cathedral, La Merced in the north, the chapel in the San Francisco El Grande compound, and San Pedro Apostal. San Jose El Viejo, near the Panza Verde, looks much like a Mayan ruin.

Saturday is the main market day, and streets brim with a mixture of people—Mayan village women in their various local costumes arrive heads toting bundles of goods to sell on the streets. In the market, some men are also in traditional dress, and there are occasional rough brown-cowled monks. Local Antiguans are mostly in modern dress, but their slab faces, flat foreheads and noses establish many as clearly Mayan. Pushcarts sell fresh fruit and juices, roasted corn, grilled sausages, helados and more. Small aromatic grill stands, with a table or two, vend tostadas, pupusas, tacos and tortas, along with sodas, beer and liquados—blended fruit juices, ice and milk or yogurt. The smells are wonderful, but the wares too dangerous for gringo bellies.

The market itself is almost doubled in size from mid-week, and extra packed and frenetic (close attention to cameras, wallets, purses, etc) as we push and twist through. The flower section is brimming with blooms of all types in a riot of colors. Tropical fruits—guavas, manzanitas, pinas, several colors and sizes of plantains & bananas, papayas and melons overflow baskets spread on the ground around the traditionally-garbed viejas. The butchery section displays rosy steaks, chops and roasts, necklaces of sausages and chorizos, bright yellow chickens, feathered game fowl, hanging rabbits and ranks of tiny quail. These kinds of markets always make us wish we were staying in a place with a way we could cook.

We criss-cross the town’s grid seeing more sights and window shopping. The Convento Las Capuchinas—the largest and best-preserved of the historical convents is fascinating—a large fountained courtyard surrounded by huge columns; gardens, chapel, refectory and the unique circular dormitory tower with nuns’ cells arrayed around the edge. Below is a donut shaped (like being IN a donut) underground room which some claim was a torture chamber, but whose fantastic acoustics would have one guess at a place for chanting and singing. The Arco de Catalina, imposing covered bridge over 5a Avendida Norte had the original purpose of connection two halves of the Convent of Santa Catalina after that institution expanded across the street—only a few walls of the convent remain otherwise.

Casa Popenoe is a preserved colonial mansion dating from 1634 which gives a telling view into Latin American home life 2-300 years ago.
A 10 minute tuk-tuk ride (3 wheeled, covered motorcycle taxi—exactly as we’ve ridden in Bangkok) uphill to the village of San Juan del Obispo provides a panoramic view of the bowl-valley which cradles Antigua—ridge hills running in a circle west around the north, with the three dramatic volcanoes towering over the south.

Save for our first day, which was coolish with a sky full of dramatic clouds, the weather has been sunny and warm, with quite cool nights. Sunday dawns again clear and cool, and will rise, we know to mid-70’s midday. We’ve inquired of the locals and found that there will be a special mass and procession celebrating the 420th anniversary of the Virgin del Rosario today. We arrive at the Plaza to a packed park, mass just finishing on the platform in front of the cathedral—the Cardinal of Guatemala himself officiating. To the left of the altar stands the effigy of the Virgin, double life size and resplendent on the enormous catafalque on which she will be paraded about town. An intensely colorful scene, there are many clerics, countless acolytes in different medieval-feeling uniforms holding enormous gilt-edged banners, a gaggle of nuns and small knot of cowled monks, and dozens of white-robed altar boys. Hundreds of local men in dark suits and women in white dresses and white lace mantillas, who, 50 or so at a time, will take turns shouldering the Virgin’s barge, mill about awaiting the commencement of the procession. The town band forms up and sets off; several religious societies come to order, heralds high and march off. Finally, the first group of bearers shoulder the huge wooden barge and, swaying slowly back and forth and side to side in tiny steps manage to maneuver it around, back it into the church entrance, and inch it down the dozen steps to the street, then sway-step in cadenced unison around facing the direction of travel, and set forth. Each crew will carry for a couple of blocks, another group will change out, and the groups will rotate through the entire procession. The most amazing thing is the announcement that the virgin would process around and through Antigua and return to the Cathedral at 7 pm—7 hours! That evening, as we wander up to the plaza just before 8 pm, the now floodlit virgin is just making the final turn into the front of the cathedral. The enthusiastic throng cheers, she makes a slow, stately sway-step 360 degree pirouette in front of the steps, and comes to rest as an colossal fireworks display explodes off the top of the cathedral—it must last a full five minutes, starburst after rainbow starburst lighting the plaza and the crowd. Her bearers take shoulder one last time, and she caterpillar-crawls up the steps and into the cathedral to completion of her journey. No-one tops the Catholics for pomp and ceremony. What a spectacular ending to a charming 4-day visit to one of the lovelies places in Latin America.