Last week when I started this blog, I chose La Antigua, Guatemala for reasons like the town’s beauty, the incredible kindness and warmth of its people, the sights and smells of its streets, the food, and lastly, the town’s quaint “colonialness.” Its beauty is made greater by the fact that Guatemala has got to be one of the easiest countries to travel to in Latin America. I’m talking from experience here. A few days before my wife’s birthday, I was still trying to figure out what to give my wife for her birthday and it occurred to me that we really hadn’t been out of the country together since I married her in 2000. I know, I know, but hey! There have been payments on student loans, car payments, school fees for my daughter, the cost of gas, food and the list goes on and on and on. Times are tough. Anyway, I digress. The fact was that her birthday had caught me completely off guard so I needed to play catch up before the big day.
Antigua was an obvious choice as I had already been there for Easter a few years earlier and I had been totally blown away. I KNEW I had to share a little of this place with my wife and daughter. The only problem was that I decided to arrange everything on 2 days notice which, anywhere else, would have been a hassle. Not so in Guatemala. US-citizens only need a valid US passport to enter the country. My wife, on the other hand, being a US resident, needed a special visa. When I found out about this, I completely freaked because I had already brought the three tickets. Luckily for me, she was able to get her traveler’s visa the day before the actual flight. The folks at the Guatemalan Consulate were extremely kind and professional. I will always be grateful for the manner in which they helped me out in my time of need. Needless to say, I haven’t share this small detail with my wife so if you see her and she mentions I’m a great travel planner, just go along with her.
Having resolved the potentially catastrophic visa issue, all that was now needed was actually getting there. After a smooth 2½ hour flight aboard a TACA airliner, we arrived in La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City and from there it was a 1 to 1½ drive to Antigua. That drive was probably the only negative on the whole trip. Traffic was just murder. To be completely fair, the ride was during rush hour, while it was raining and in a capital city so, depending on how you see it, it might not have been such a bad thing. Either way, once we started nearing the city, our spirits started rising. We were all ready to start the weekend. There seemed to be some kind of convention in town and the place was packed with people making merry. There was music everywhere. By this time it was already around 9pm and we were famished.
We arrived at “El Meson de Maria”, a nice and relatively small inn, unpacked and headed out the door in search of food. Dinner that first night was at “La Fonda de la Calle Real”. This was right across the street from our hotel so it was incredibly convenient. Again, we did well without prior planning. It was exactly what we were looking for: great local food. The place was packed (always a good sign for a restaurant, I think) but we managed a table. The menu items were hard to make out as the plates are in local names, as is to be expected, but that was not an issue as the waitress was very patient. I cannot recall the exact dishes but I do remember they were tasty and that the prices were very reasonable. I also remember the restaurant having an excellent atmosphere and colonial decor. I would not hesitate going back. Please keep in mind that this restaurant offers great local fare. If you do not like trying different food, I would suggest sticking to Pizza Hut or “El Pollo Campero” which is a national fast food chicken place.
After dinner, around 10 or 10:30pm ,we took a walk around the town square to take in some of the night scenery but made it back to the hotel before too long as we were all beat. I have to say that El Meson de Maria was not our first choice for hotel and that we only stayed there as everything else was booked. But, even though we did not properly plan for this trip, we were in for a treat, once more. We stayed on the first floor right next to the courtyard. The room was decent in size and the hotel itself feels like you’re inside a museum, which I thought was really cool. I remember seeing an old stove and some antique furnishings in the lobby and entrance to the courtyard. Anyway, we made it to our room and managed to settle down to a good night’s sleep after a hot shower. On the following day, we had the included-breakfast which, while not out of this world, was convenient. The staff was amazingly friendly and attentive to anything we might have needed. Also nice about this hotel is the fact that it is centrally located making everything within walking distance. As soon as we were done with breakfast, we headed out for a walking tour of the surrounding areas.
Antigua has many places of interest that are worth visiting. The market areas, convents, monasteries, churches, plaza, Volcan de Agua, etc. are but a few. Since we were only there for the weekend, and I hadn’t done proper planning, we chose to visit those sites that were within walking distance from the hotel. Case in point, all the areas we went to were within a 5-block radius from the hotel. Places we particularly enjoyed were Mercado de Artesanias, the Arco de Santa Catalina, El Convento de las Capuchinas, the Parque Central, Cathedral, and adjacent areas. The Mercado de Artesanias (Artesanal Market) was a special treat as it was not only properly stocked with all kinds of knick-knacks for tourists but also had very useful things the locals use on a daily basis. We especially enjoyed all the colorful fabrics on display. Oranges, yellows, blues, and purples provided for a visual feast and the prices can’t be beat. Right next door to the market is the Arco de Santa Catalina (St. Catherine’s Arch). It’s a must see for picture taking. The Convento de las Capuchinas (Convent of the Capuchin Nuns) was a beautifully preserved convent from the 1700’s. We originally thought we would walk the grounds but thought better of it and paid for the tour. There are tour guides that, for a nominal fee, will give you a very interesting tour of the convent. Definitely worth it. Plus, without it, you may be able to take nice pictures but you won’t really know the rich history of the place. Lastly, like any other Spanish colonial town, life revolves around the center square, or Parque Central. It is surrounded on three sides with nice sights worth taking in. The Cathedral flanks it on the east and is a definite must-see when visiting Antigua just because of the history involved and the amazing architecture. Truly inspiring. On the other two sides, the impressive view is completed by the Palacio del Ayuntamiento and the Palacio de los Capitanes. These are also worthy of picture-taking. Truth be told, anything with the Volcan de Agua in the background is guaranteed to be an awesome picture.
Before we knew it, it was time to come back to Miami. As you know, all good things must come to an end and our time here was no exception. The important thing was that the mission had been accomplished. My wife loved her birthday gift and we were able to forget the woes of big city life for the weekend. Student loans, car payments, and the like evaporated and we were on top of the world for two days. In the end, we were able to leave with the same ease we had arrived. Only, this time I hadn’t expected anything differently.