Spanish Colonial Charm in Antigua: The Journey Part 9
"I LOVE ANTIGUA!" That is all...
No, seriously, I love Anitgua. It is such a fabulous city. There is such a blend of cultures here. Antigua is surrounded by volcanoes with which it has also had a tumultuous history. A city with 46,000 people, Antigua is located in the central highlands of Guatemala.
Antigua was the third capital of Guatemala going back to the days of the Kingdom of Guatemala which included most of northern Central America. The Kingdom of Guatemala included the current countries of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Antigua was founded in 1543. Almost 500 years of history has given Antigua an original character unlike anywhere else. Volcanoes and earthquakes have consistently ravaged Antigua during that time often destroying parts of the city.
Many buildings have been abandoned due to such destruction but many others were rebuilt or repaired along the way. This constant destruction and rebuilding has brought about the current landscape of Antigua. A blend of old and new, religious and secular, native and foreign, destinguishes all of Antigua through architecture, food, religion, and culture. The destruction is also the reason Antigua is no longer the capital of Guatemala.
The cobblestone streets in Antigua make for a bumpy ride but the character of those streets completely fits in the structure of the city. It is part of the charm and character of Antigua. To remove the streets for a more modern paving style would completely change the quaint feel of Antigua. The word Antigua means "old" and it is fitting. There are buildings dating back to the 1500's in Antigua. Many of the oldest buildings are churches or religiously significant buildings.
Antigua has a very long history with the Catholic faith. The Fransiscan monks were the first people to move into the current location of Antigua. Many churches, cathedrals, convents, and hospitals have been built throughout Antigua's history. Most of those are still standing today, or at least portions them. Earthquakes have destroyed many over the years.
The church considered the most important to the residents of Anitgua, and probably all of Central America, is Iglesia de San Francisco (also known as San Francisco El Grande) which has the shrine of Santo Hermano Pedro Bentancur. Santo Hermano Pedro is the first saint of Guiatemala and Central America. He is supposed to have performed miracles on the sick and afflicted. Inside the museum are the crutches of those he helped to heal along with many letters and gifts of appreciation for such healings. Santo Hermano Pedro also built a hospital and church in Antigua. the museum, church, and ruins of Iglesia de San Francisco are available f tour for a small fee of Q7.00 (under $1 USD). It is definitely worth the time to tour. You can explore the ruins of the damaged portions of the church ranging back to the 1500's. Although I am not a Catholic, I find the history interesting and the architecture outstanding. I love to touch and feel stones, brick, and structures that were built by the hands of others almost 500 years ago. There is a spiritual connection to the past to be able to feel and touch those structures.
I spent hours here wandering throughout the ruins and museum of Iglesia de San Francisco. I sat and admired the majestic views of the volcanoes towering over the entire city. Going on top of the structures give you a great view of the ruins below combined with the beauty of the landscape to give you an appreciation of why they chose to build Antigua here. It is beautiful. This is the perfect setting but the costs have been high over the years because of the same beauty.
Wandering around Antigua you can view different structures every few blocks. I recommend starting in the Town Square or Plaza which has the Central Park of Antigua. Here you will find the plaza surrounded by the Town Hall, Captain General Palace, and the Cathedral of Saint James San Jose Parish. The park also contains flowering gardens, trees, and a beautiful fountain. This is the center of activity in Antigua and host to many local activities.
Unfortunately this is also the favorite hangout of the local homeless, impoverished, and scammers. You will find many people throughout Antigua begging for money. It is unfortunate but there are many that are scamming tourists for handouts. Along with the beggars you will also find a large number of people selling tourist goods. Some can be pushy and most will offer you the "special price." Of course, everyone is offered the special price which makes it just the "price." Most are trying to get the maximum from tourists so be sure to protect yourself when buying and get a reasonable price for such products is you choose to buy.
The same goes for taxis in Antigua. The Town Plaza is where you will find many taxi drivers. The prices can be severely unfair so make sure to get the best price. I found that negotiating with multiple drivers at the same time got me the best taxi rates. What one person will drive you for is not what others are willing to take. I have gotten the rate down as much as 80% from the original cost. As with many items or services in Central America, the price is negotiable and to keep from getting "ripped off" you need to negotiate the price. Make surenot to haggle to hard that the vendor loses money in the deal. They depend on tourism and tourists for their living.
There are many vendors located in the local market which is located on the west side of Antigua. This local market includes indoor and outdoor booths. The market is roughly 9 square blocks in size. Although many vendors within the market sell fresh produce and flowers the market includes a huge farmer's style market on one end where you can get some of the freshest, best tasting produce in the world. The prices here are amazing compared to prices in the United States for such goods.
If you need to purchase anything during your stay in Antigua, I suggest that you try the market first. You can get almost anything you will need from toothpaste to clothes to electronics. There are booths that sell clothes, shoes, belts, and toys. These aren't just souvenirs either! Want a cheap Nike sweatshirt or shoes? Look no further than the market.
I personally do not go shopping for items when I travel unless it is something I am lacking to get me through my journey. I like to travel with everything in one backpack because I find that traveling light makes my long-term travel easier. Carrying multiple backpacks is difficult and not to mention, HEAVY! So, I don't purchase a lot of stuff because I don't require a lot of stuff to travel.
I also recommend visitng the market for the experience. Wander around through the indoor and outdoor sections and get a feel for the local culture. Talk to some of the locals in the market. The locals here will give you all kinds of information and many are eager to learn about you and where you come from as well. I find many of the people tending to booths are more likely to talk if you make a purchase (even just a very small one). Start a conversation on whatever you just purchased, or about the market, or life in Antigua! Just get the courage to talk! The same goes for photos. Don't just walk up and snap pictures of them in the market working. It is considered rude. How would you feel if someone did it to you? Uncomfortable? Annoyed? Well, they are human beings too so respect their privacy as you would your own. I usually make a purchase and then ask politely if they mind if I take a photo. Most are accomodating but don't be offended if they decline. Many people in countries in Central America have lived under intense government scrutiny and they are very uneasy around cameras. Some will just invite you right over to take a photo without a purchase because they are proud of their handmade products, booths, and culture!
There are many other popular places within Antigua to visit for a great experience. You can talk a walking tour of the city or do the tour on you own. You can visit such remarkable places such as El Arco de Santa Catalina (pictured above), the Museo de Arte Colonial, Museo de Santa Semana, Monumento a Landivar, and of course the ChocoMuseo (Chocolate Museum) where you can make your own chocolate! There are so many attractions, sites, and activites when visitng Antigua that you could spend a few weeks here and not see and do everything Antigua has to offer.
If you are hungry there is also a huge variety of food available in Antigua. Of course the fast food chains have moved into Antigua's culture like a plague. The clown, king, bell, and others have made their prescence felt here. In fact, some of the fast food joints are nicer than any others like them in the world. The McDonald's here is like a religious temple to the Clown God Ron. This place seats probably 300 people with indoor and outdoor fountains, with a featured garden courtyard with a view of local ruins, and a McCafe that delivers deserts from their glass case to your table. The playland is larger than any other I have seen as are the dining rooms. Included in all of this is table service to remove any garbage and your trays once finished. It is like fine dining with all the drawbacks of McDonald's food. I frequented this establishment daily while in Antigua as it has the best WiFi in the entire city. I also frequented it for the old style deep-fried apple pies still being served here which are far better tasting than the crap we get un the United States! I am very opinionated about the presence of fast food restaurants throughout Guatemala and other Central American countries which will require a separate blog post to come soon.
Besides the virus of fast food joints there are plenty other eating establishments available in Antigua that have excellent food. Cuisine from around the world can be found in Antigua. If you want traditional Guatemalan food you can find many booths around the market that serve traditional food or head on over to Rincon Tipico for a wonderful traditional meal. The traditional Guatemalan (or Chapin) breakfast which consists of beans, fried eggs, fried plantains, and handmade tortillas.
If you are looking for something outside of traditional Guatemalan food you are in luck. Want French pasteries? What about some Asian or Indian food? Is Mediterranean or Italian what you palate requires? You are in luck! Looking for some Texas barbeque? Head over to Pappy's BBQ and get a whole menu of babrbequed goodies! Don't forget the beer!
Antigua has it all when it comes to food no matter your craving!
There are so many wonderful things about Antigua that I just can't include them all in one post. Next time I will tackle Holy Week in Guatemala which I got to experience and also my adventures hiking up Volcan Acatenango! Until then, get out and travel friends!