Antigua. I’ve heard about this travellers Mecca for years; stories of arrival and love upon first glance, a planned week turning into several months, and dreams of past memories of their beloved second home…
We didn’t quite get it.
I mean, Antigua is an absolutely beautiful city, the wonderful colonial architecture, churches, ruins and cobbled streets, there is plenty here to love. However, beyond the initial pleasure to the eyes, it doesn’t take long to see that it’s become just another tourist spot. While Guatemalan cuisine has little to offer in the big picture, it was difficult finding a restaurant that served anything local. Don’t get me wrong, if McDonald's, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Subway, and other fine American establishments are your thing, you won’t need to wander far.
I should have preceded all that with a disclaimer stating that we didn’t get out and explore the outskirts of town, such as the famed overnight Acatenango Volcano trek or some of the smaller surrounding villages that are supposed to be quite quaint. For the first time in several weeks, our place had a strong internet connection, so I took advantage of this and got to work learning Wordpress to get an update on with the website. That, and our place also had a pool - so for the first time of the trip, we could finally swim.
Aside from the typical touristic parts of town, there were some really fantastic sights. Cerro de la Cruz for example, only a short walk from the edge of town, it offers an absolutely stunning view of the city below, and while it would have been beyond magical for sunset photos, locals suggest not going past dark. Once the police go home at the end of the day, it’s a very dangerous place to be; especially for a gringo carrying a bunch of camera gear.
Speaking of gringos, one thing that draws travellers in for the long-term here is the abundance of inexpensive Spanish lessons. Kylee, having spent a little time in the past studying the language, decided to take a quick crash course to refresh her memory. A school just down the street from us, Ixchel, offered 20 hours (over a week) for $165US; seeing such an incredible deal, she couldn’t turn it down. As a bonus while on her first day, upon learning where Kylee was from, the teacher said she had another student from Edmonton. That being a coincidence in itself, it turns out Tyson actually works for the same company I did back home and though we hadn’t worked together, we shared many mutual friends. So, of course, we had to celebrate.
Now while I might dump on tourist restaurants and shops often on this blog, having a nice little expat pub to down a few refreshments at the end of a day is never a bad thing. Many hours one night were spent in the tiny little Irish bar known as the “Snug”, and yes, being an Irish bar, they did have Guinness; however, it was in a can and far too out of our budget. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll break budget for a nice Guinness occasionally, but it’s gotta be on tap. Although we were a little sore the following morning from the festivities, several days prior was a little more intense.
What I love about Latin America, is their somewhat lack of safety concerns. Case in point: fireworks. We don’t often do late nights these days, but seeing as we were welcoming in 2018, we definitely needed to do it Guatemalan style. With only a ten minute walk from our place to the town centre, we were feeling the deep thuds in our chests after only a few blocks. The displays might not be as elaborate as they are back home, but they’re certainly more personal. There is no safety zone, you are free to walk right up and put your face over the white phosphorous erupting from the cannons on the street - but nobody is actually that stupid. Sure, if something tipped over there may be a little bit of chaos, but it doesn’t seem to affect the locals. Long after the roughly twenty-minute display had completed and the crowds began to disperse, children were still running down the sidewalks setting off firecrackers and Roman candles as if they were toys, with no parents to be seen. Quite a different world down here, but the children are far from living a sheltered upbringing.
Now as much as I suggested earlier that a quality food scene was all but non-existent in Antigua, with a little bit of effort, quality eats are still definitely available. The cheapest and easiest snacks we came across was in the Parque la Merced, which is essentially a park filled with street carts that begins mid-late afternoon and continues well into the evening. Visiting this spot a few times, our favourite snack was a crispy tortilla topped with avocado, lettuce, pickled beet salad, cheese and a boiled egg; and while this combination may sound a little odd, it was absolutely delicious! Another day, knowing that bus stations are usually a (somewhat) safe bet for some cheap and tasty eats. This time was no different. We wandered the stalls of produce sellers, clothing, belts, tools and whatever else you might find at a pawn shop back home. Following our eyes and noses for the telltale sign of grilling meat, we eventually came across a tiny stall behind everything with a few drunk men - at 11 am - and a woman serving up grilled pork chops, rice and tortillas for around $4 including a couple of beers.
Finally, on our last full day in town, after Kylee’s final class, we went for a “fancy” lunch at one of the best local restaurants in town. Now by no means was it actually fancy, but it was pricier than we typically pay for a meal. Ricón Típico is a no-fuss straight to the point meat and potatoes joint; you order your type of meat - Kylee chicken, me chorizo - and you wait for everything to arrive. While waiting the short few minutes we sit in awe watching one of the young cooks handle the chickens roasting in the wood-fired rotisserie, baby potatoes laying on the bottom soaking up the dripping fat. A few more minutes pass and two massive plates arrive, both stacked with meat, Kylee’s mounded with the roasted potatoes, mine with a fresh potato salad, and both with more than enough pickled cabbage and tortillas than one could finish in a sitting.
So don’t be mislead by the original remarks in this post, Antigua is a beautifully comfortable place to settle down in for a while. We were just focused on a few things that kept us from exploring the city properly. The next time we pass through - and there definitely will be a next time - we look forward to really digging in and exploring what this town has to offer.