Party All Day in Antigua, Guatemala
I started this blog in May 2011, right before a 3 month trip through Chiapas and Guatemala. My original plan was to do a big circle, including Honduras and Belize, and then return to central Mexico through the Yucatan. This didn’t happen; I liked Chiapas and Guatemala so much that I didn’t go any further than Antigua, Guatemala, which also happens to be Guatemala’s number one tourist destination.
I look over my blog, which is supposed to be about Mexico, and see blogs about Guatemala: Lake Atitlán, Xela, Chichicastenango, Laguna de Chicabal, the border, the Highlands in general, and the ever-fascinating San Simon. Yes, I totally loved Guatemala and although I spent 2-3 weeks each in several of those places, I feel like I just scratched the surface. This brings up the ever-difficult question – do I go back next summer, go somewhere new (some scuba diving in Honduras wouldn’t be too bad), or visit much-neglected friends and family?
This story about Antigua will probably be my last post on Guatemala, until of course my next trip down there. If you are planning a trip or are just curious, leave me a comment! I’d love to hear what you think of my blog, if you have a different opinion of these places, or need more specific advice.
Antigua means old, and yes it’s old: cobblestone streets, restored colonial architecture, and massive ruined churches. Also old are the majority of gringo tourists (nothing wrong with that, of course). What is new about old Guate are the businesses that serve these old folks – restaurants, spas, souvenir shops – all quite overpriced when compared to the rest of the country, but cheap when compared with the US, Canada, Europe, or wherever these people are from. Maybe you are like me and prefer less polished places, but I must admit that finding a bagel shop was a dream come true for me.
Antigua reminds me of San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) in terms of atmosphere – really beautiful, very well restored, and full of these boring old folks. No, I’m not being fair – I don’t know if they are boring or not because I haven’t partied with them yet. But I do know that established, safe tourism causes a city to change, really for the better overall, I’m sure. But there are big differences between Antigua and places like Xela, which does have its tourists but still has a raw feel to it. (Just to be obvious, I totally loved Xela).
Antigua is completely flat and laid out in a perfect grid with very wide streets. It is surrounded by 3 volcanoes which make good reference points and better scenery. Latin American colonial cities are always beautiful and are all somewhat alike, so I find myself comparing each one I visit. Cuenca in Ecuador is still my favorite, but for atmosphere and good people I love San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico.
Tasteful restorations aside, the most striking buildings are the destroyed and still-crumbling old churches located on almost every corner, relics from massive earthquakes in 1717 and 1773 that destroyed the city and caused the capital to be moved to Guatemala City. That’s why the place is called Antigua Guatemala – old Guatemala, the old capitol.
I got to go inside one that was being restored. I just wandered in and the construction workers waved at me. It had been a prison until about 5 years ago, so they were trying to make it look less like a prison and more like a monastery. Too bad – if you look at it in terms of a prison, it is pretty damn creepy.
So Antigua is nice but I wasn’t really looking for nice. If you want the grit and sensory-overload of “real” Latin America, Antigua definitely isn’t the place. Or is it?
My fears of being bored in Antigua disappeared around noon my first day there. I woke up early and jogged through one whole side of town for an hour. Then I took my guitar to Parque Central where I ran into a bunch of locals hanging out. One had a guitar, and a few strums turned into a full-out jam session with a crowd of watchers. When the crowd thinned the wine and rum bottles left their hiding places and we partied.
Cesar, the best guitarist of the group, was from Guatemala City and was traveling north. He hadn’t made it very far yet. He invited me to play with him at his bar gig later in the week. As cool as these guys were, I stuck to my plan to leave the next day, back to Lake Atitlan. I had reached the last week of my vacation and big decisions had to be made. North to the amazing ruins of Tikal? South to the coast? Or just right to the lake, which was on my way back and where I knew I would be happy.
Like in most places, you can pay more and sleep in a crowded dorm room in a hostel, but as usual I found plenty of cheap hotels. The one I chose was called Posada la Quinta and it was 50Q (about 6 dollars) for a room with a private bathroom.
I meet a lot of travelers who unconditionally distrust the hustlers on the street in touristy places like Antigua who offer to help you find a cheap hotel. If you speak the language and have an idea of what you want to pay, why not? I visited two or three hotels that had terrible rooms for 50Q. Then I met one of those dudes, I told him I wanted one for that price, and he took me to a clean, good one. Hustlers are your friends if you don’t let them hustle you.