In Central America/ Travel

Why It’s Impossible not to Love Antigua, Guatemala

We came into Antigua after a five-hour shuttle ride from El Tunco, El Salvador that included the obligatory bureaucratic wait at the Salvadoran-Guatemalan border. Inevitably Melanie and I were some of the last to be dropped off at our hotels, bouncing along the Antiguan cobblestones as fellow travelers were left to their respective hostels. Some of course hadn’t bothered to reserve anything in advance. I’m all for the carpe diem, impromptu spirit when it comes to travel, but not when it screws with my eating schedule.

Those minor inconveniences aside, our excitement was beyond description to finally be in Antigua, Guatemala.

“A Living Relic”

A skyline view of Antigua, Guatemala

We were immediately floored by Quinta de las Flores from the moment we stepped off the quiet street and through the wooden gate into the hotel lobby. However our stomachs demanded sustenance, so we paused our admiration to head out for a quick meal. The friendly gentleman at the front desk recommended that we take a cab, a general precaution we had met across most of Central America. Quinta de las Flores is just a kilometer away from the central plaza, but experience has told us that locals always prefer their guests play it safe among new surroundings. We obliged his offer to take a cab, but by the next day we were walking around at night without the slightest concern to our safety.

Antigua is a living relic of colonial America. The living aspect is that not everyone is there to be romanticized by the architecture and charm. Some, Guatemalans for example, are there to party. Loud and all through the night. They’re exhausted after working their jobs in Guatemala City an hour away and looking for their own escape. We saw that juxtaposition our first night in an establishment that surely plays as a modest pizza restaurant by day, but by the late hour, it had turned into a club with its heavy bass music ricocheting down the block. Great to blow off steam, but very much not my scene. That’s not meant to be a snobby jab. To the contrary, we were doing everyone a favor as our presence would have brought down the “cool” factor an appreciable amount.

Instead, we found our way to a perfectly acceptable restaurant for a quick bite and called it an early night. After all, we knew we’d be walking day and night for our next few days in Antigua.

Becoming UNESCO

Some of the many ruins in Antigua, Guatemala

Our first morning started with breakfast at our hotel’s open-air dining space overlooking their impressively maintained garden. With no clouds to mar the view, we could easily see the surrounding volcanoes — namely Volcán de Agua. It’s a treat to see now, but half a millennium ago it destroyed Antigua — then the capital of Guatemala. The conquistadors worked from scratch by moving Antigua five miles further away and settled the present-day city in 1543. Earthquakes then had their turn with Antigua during the 18th Century, creating many of the ruins that now draw tourists from all over the globe and made it a UNESCO Heritage Site.

We were joined at breakfast by a rather curious individual. Curious in how her initial friendly demeanor somehow slipped into a conversation about how she partly endorsed the recent Charlie Hebdo attack against the French.

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” she started where she probably, no, definitely should have stopped. “But those French had it coming.” Her once warm presence took a harsh turn to cold, like an aggravated father dangerously jerking the wheel rather than miss his exit. Except this lady’s exit was somewhere in Looney Tunes land.

“They’re snooty. It’s terrible, but this will take them down a peg.”

Not wanting to start our first day in Antigua with a thing, Melanie and I were left uncomfortably gritting our teeth until we could somehow seamlessly squeeze our way out of the conversation. Luckily travel always gives you an out from an unwanted conversation, because anyone — even someone as atrocious as a human being who could endorse a terrorist attack as payback for snobbery — can understand that travelers need to keep moving and explore their new destination. Thankfully we managed to escape our unfortunate breakfast encounter and start our meandering around Antigua.

“Shopping List of Artifacts”

La Merced Church in Antigua, Guatemala

There are more buildings, churches and ruins to see in Antigua than worth noting. To do so would resemble a shopping list of artifacts and I don’t enjoy traveling with a checklist. Besides, after a full day of walking, the sight of 17th Century architecture barely raises an eyebrow. Only after returning to the States, where so much of our best architecture has been destroyed to ensure everyone and their two kids will have a space to park, could I truly appreciate the efforts that have gone into preserving Antigua, and Antiguans rightfully take great pride in their accomplishment.

The churches stand in various states of functionality and disrepair. La Merced is an especially popular church with worshippers attending service throughout the day and tourists flocking to quietly take in the moment for themselves. I personally enjoyed gallivanting through the Church and Convent of Capuchins and sneaking into the Santo Domingo Monastery, the latter of which also serves as one of the more popular hotels in the region nowadays.

More than the buildings, Antigua is Antigua because of the tapestry of Mayan colors that permeate throughout the city. Miniature Costco-sized market places featured an astonishing amount of Mayan fabrics, music and artifacts. A shopper could get lost for hours.

After a while I began to wonder how much the Mayan people have been relegated to serving the tourist economy. Do they truly love what they do or is this all they can do? Lest we forget, Guatemala’s brutal 36-year Civil War that saw Mayan genocide is still a relatively fresh event having officially ended in 1996. This was one of the last satellite wars of the Cold War that saw the U.S. supporting yet another brutal anti-Communist power against the leftist guerrillas supported by the Soviet Union.

As if that wasn’t enough to fuel hatred of the U.S. Government, we gave them syphilis — SYPHILIS! During the Truman administration, doctors led these human-led experiments by infecting everyone from soldiers to prostitutes and mental patients with the sexually transmitted disease — without informed consent. The goal was to study the disease and its treatment and it resulted in 83 deaths. The U.S. finally formally apologized to Guatemala in 2010 via a joint statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius. President Obama also apologized to Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom. I can only imagine how that conversation went.

So I will.

“So, about that report saying we purposefully gave your countrymen syphilis. That’s messed up.”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“I mean, human-led experiments with a sexual transmitted disease? And at the same time Nazis were being tried for their fucked up experiments? Seriously, messed up stuff.”

“Yep. Messed up. Think we’ve got that covered.”

“So we’re, uh, going to go ahead and formally apologize for that.”

“And compensation for the families?”

“How about some M&Ms with the official seal of the President of the United States?”

The Civil War, too, continues to loom over the country. Guatemalans are still fighting to ensure some combatants see a trial. Former president Efraín Ríos Montt is currently facing genocide charges, the first former head of state to be prosecuted for such charges by his own judicial system. He had previously been found guilty, but the sentence was reversed and a new trial ordered due to alleged judicial anomalies. This is all on the heels of Otto Pérez Molina’s sudden resignation from the presidency and subsequent arrest following allegations of corruption. Indigenous groups have also accused Pérez of participating in the genocide during the civil war, presenting a letter to the United Nations in July of 2011.

As beautiful as Antigua is, it’s easy to see that justice has remained elusive for many.

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Parque Central in Antigua, Guatemala

In the midst of Guatemalan’s bloody modern history, there was a satirical voice that shed a different light on the country’s harsh realities. Miguel Ángel Asturias was a Guatemalan author who penned El Señor Presidente, a fictional account of life under a ruthless dictator not unlike what Guatemala has seen. The 1946 novel won Asturias the Nobel Prize and helped establish the foundation of Latin American literature.

A modestly sized museum at nearby Santo Domingo Del Cerro pays homage to the author’s prolific career. Casa Santo Domingo, the aforementioned monastery turned hotel, offers rides up to the scenic hill surrounded by contemporary art and fantastic views of Antigua below. The aptly named El Tenedor Del Cerro allows for a more open and remote dining experience than anything else available throughout Antigua. Not that Antigua is hurting for fine dining. The city of just 35,000 could rival any of the cosmopolitan capitals of the world.

“Impossible Not To Love”

Arco de Santa Catalina in Antigua, Guatemala

I was left with conflicted feelings when it was time to leave Antigua. Whereas my first days were filled with fantasies of relocation and making this walkable museum our next Latin American home, I left wondering if there’s just too much tourism in Antigua. Besides being popular to tourists, Antigua has become an international capital for budding linguists looking to perfect their Spanish abroad. It’s gained such a reputation that many now jokingly wonder if one can even perfect their Spanish in Antigua with so much English prevalent. Not to mention there seems to be a clear divide between tourism and locals, and I wonder if more could be done to offer Mayans other opportunities besides constantly competing with one another to sell the same thing for already meager prices.

Despite what issues remain in Antigua and throughout Guatemala, I ultimately felt it was impossible not to love this city. So few cities in this world are permitted to maintain their historic aesthetic with developers demanding more square footage that clash with the surrounding design or short-sighted planners making space for cars in a place so clearly made for people. Antigua stands out as a city that has maintained its historic charm and locals fight to keep it that way. In fact, putting a fresh coat of paint on the famous Arco de Catalina — the postcard image of Antigua — was one of the hotter issues of the day during our visit. Not to belittle that debate, but at least they’re arguing over paint and not a wrecking ball.

I now worry that perhaps I didn’t appreciate Antigua enough while I was there. If so, then that’s a regrettable mistake on my part. But at least I didn’t give anyone syphilis.

Disclaimer: Quinta de las Flores offered lodging for our stay. As always, all opinions are my own.

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