Monday, March 14, 2011

Guatemala - Antigua

Our first real destination in Guatemala is the well known (and somewhat touristy) town of Antigua de Guatemala, which means ancient or old Guatemala. This UNESCO World Cultural Heritage is at the foot of Volcán de Agua (3976m) and at 1533 meters (5000ft) above sea level at roughly the same altitude as Davos in Switzerland or Reno in the USA.

Antigua street with the massive
"Agua" Vulcano in the background
As we mentioned in our previous post, we came to Antigua with the primary goal to take a break (vacation) from our busy time over the past few weeks and also get acquainted with Latin America. So we took the easy option to get there from Guatemala City.

So this entailed first taking the 10 minute hotel shuttle bus back to the airport and then the ultra posh tourist shuttle van to Antigua - another 45 minutes. If you now ask why we didn't go there yesterday when we arrived in the county... You have got a good point. Since Guatemala City (or simply Guate as the locals call it) was a big disappointment, we would not have missed anything by going straight there... Oh well!

However, on the bus to Antigua we met Lou, an English woman who has been living in Latin America for ages and works as a tour guide now in Central America for 15 years (she just dropped some customers off at the airport). She had lots of great tips for both C & S America, so this was well worth "waiting" the extra day to meet her.

Cars, horses, and cobblestone streets.
Typical sights in Antigua
Our shuttle bus dropped us at the front door of the hotel that Lou recommended... This is almost too easy. The place was full but next door had a choice of rooms so we take it for a night and then head out to explore Antigua.

The town is quite small with cobblestone streets and that can easily be navigated on foot. After an hour or so, we had walked from one end to the other, while also checking out other accommodation options. We would stay at least 5 days, so we wanted the best bed in town (within a certain budget, of course).

Monday's are so quiet,
even street sellers are bored
Coming from an empty Guate we were hoping that Antigua would be a bit livelier. But no no, the streets were almost as deserted as we found them to be in Guate on our first day. The bright and colorful walls of buildings and shops that line the streets were mainly bolted shut. Most of the wooden doors had a collection of locks adorning them like jewelry. Are the owners so paranoid or just being safe?  So now we are wondering who are they protecting against since there are so few people walking about. Is this another ghost town? Where are the Guatemalans? Even some of the hotels that we wanted to look at had nobody at the reception (or simply a shut wooden door below the hotel's sign).

Local woman near a church
It turns out that Mondays (when we arrived) is the Antiguan day of rest. We had the luck to arrive in Guate when everybody was in Antigua to play, and then arrived in Antigua when everybody returned to Guate and the town is shut down to recover from the weekend tourist party! Fortunately, the town came back to life on Tuesday. Behind all these wooden doors, there were lots of shops which miraculously opened up the next day. The already beautiful street scenery is even nicer when there are people and activity.

Group of Mayan women
having fun
Most hotels in Antigua are family residences that either rent out some rooms or have been converted into a guest house. Most retain their original charm which means only a handful of rooms surrounded around an inner courtyard and often shared bathrooms. We changed on the second day to a place with only 8 rooms, but all en-suite. The place is quite funny, the front door is locked 24 hours a day, and guests are not given a key and have to ring the bell when they want to get inside. This means that it is really protected well as the owners see everyone who enters. They also don't speak any English; yet, there are lots of signs that say what a guest can and cannot do... The signs are in perfect English too!
Parque Central at dusk

On weekends, the streets get
somewhat busier.
The famous nun's "Arch"
Actually, almost no-one seems to be speaking English here, even less than in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Patrick thinks it's just a facade to promote the many Spanish schools here, but he's wrong. This is Latin America and everybody speaks Spanish, also the Gringos (foreigners). To his surprise, the other foreigners (Caucasian, Asian, and Latino) at the guest house greet him with "Hola" and "Buenos dias" instead of the "Hi" that is so common in Asia.

"Helado" salesman near
Parque Central
We are actually glad that English is not really used here, this will definitely provide extra incentive to learn to speak Spanish, not that we need much of additional motivation. Before you know it, we start Blogging en Espanol :-)

Interesting fountain in
Antigua's Parque Central
Many small encounters and observations reminded us that Latin America is going to be very different to other cultures and regions that both of us are accustomed to. Asia, Europe, North America (and Africa for Julane) are very familiar to us and it takes quite a bit to make us raise our eyebrows there. But here, we feel like fish out of water. Culture shock may be what some people would call it. We prefer to name it: a new adventure...and so far we are loving it. The reason we came to this part of the world is to explore, learn, and enjoy.

For now, we are still in the phase where we notice the small things that are strangely unfamiliar to us (we somewhat lost that "what?!?" exclamation in Asia after so many years there). We probably will also lose that in this part of the world after a while. But for now we want to share our "What the...?!".

The one thing we noticed first was the level of security in Guatemala. The 24 hour locked door at our guest house is just a mild example. There are numerous armed guards here, all armed with heavy-duty guns (we are not gun experts, but they sure look ominous). Banks, shops, ATM machines, hotel entrances... Most employ an armed guard. In Guate, we stayed next door to the Westin Hotel where literally a whole army was blocking the entrance and all the streets leading to the hotel also (probably some "big shot" was staying there).

Security guards are
Simple grocery stores and pharmacies have hardcore iron bars shielding the products and staff. They look like prison cells. All this security is a strong reminder that there is a lot more crime in this part of the world. We were most surprised when we noticed a bodyguard of an ordinary (almost sloppy) looking Guatemalan. He was closely followed by an armed guard with a pump action gun. At first we thought he was being closely tailed by the police because he was a well known thief in the area, but then we saw that he was actually being protected instead! Check out the photos below:

Iron bars at the pharmacy...
and the grocery...
even the ATM is behind bars!!

The guy in the red jacket has his
own body guard...
Now waiting for him outside
the local bakery
Food is rich and delicious, but not really suitable if you are on a weight loss diet. Especially a low carb diet would be tough to follow here. Corn tortillas, re-fried beans, platanos, rice, and avocado are served as side dishes with most meals. Bakeries are everywhere and lure customers in with the scent of fresh pastries and bread. Meat is covered in rich and creamy sauces. And huge portions of pasta dishes are served at many local food outlets.

Delicious and rich, the food is
sooo good here.
Thankfully, we lost some weight in Asia before coming here, now we just have to try not to gain it back again.
We like to eat at local eateries that are not crowded with foreigners. One such place was “Los Nazarenos” where Mama-san is both the waitress and the chef. The food tasted wonderful and probably just like she cooks it for her family, although the meat was suitable to replace shoe soles...perhaps the way to exercise the jaw muscles in this part of the world!?

We ordered a Mojito to go along with our dinner, we had to wait for a very long time and it finally came after we finished eating. This was the most "creative" Mojito we have ever tasted. Instead of spearmint she used finely chopped parsley, the soda water was actually a grapefruit soda (similar to Fresca in the US) and the liquor was a kind of gin (definitely not Rum). We laugh and later told her about the spearmint vs. parsley mistake... She shrugged her shoulders and gave us a big smile. She was improvising with her available kitchen ingredients and we did notice a surplus of chopped parsley adorning our dinner plates too!

Julane at  "Mama's" restaurant
We could tell that she was trying hard to make a cozy place for travelers. Her place was cheerfully (with the essence of kitsch) decorated and she really made an effort to attract more guests, but we were the only ones there for the entire time. After dinner, she asked us to stay a bit longer and play cards or a board game; and, she even brought out a chess board to try and lure us to stay longer and drink more of her parsley mojitos perhaps...!?

We are positively surprised that people are extremely and genuinely friendly and honest. Especially at small stores and the local markets, we soon realized that people don't try to overcharge us just because we are foreigners. In Asia, this is so common, especially the Chinese and Vietnamese who seem to think that foreigners need to pay at least double the local price (you can't fully blame the people for that; both countries had official foreign price policies in their communist pasts).

Fruit at the Saturday market
We are of course not 100% sure that we are not overcharged, but .80 cents for 1.5kg (3 lbs) of fresh strawberries seems like a reasonable price. When we ask for the price of goods, we mostly receive an immediate answer, this is always a good sign. Someone that is hesitating to name a price is likely thinking about how much they should over charge us (this was sooo obvious particularly in Vietnam). And of course, we can also understand (a bit of eavesdropping) when the locals ask the prices of goods first. One exception though seems to be handicrafts and other souvenirs. During our stroll through the Saturday market, we were told 2-3 times of what we think it should be, but remember this is Antigua: Tourist Mecca of Guatemala.

Check out the video below, Julane filmed some scenes of the market.

It's time for us to leave easy going Antigua behind and move on after a delicious and restful week. Our next destination will be Panajachel on Lake Atitlán.