Thursday, July 28, 2011

Antigua, Guatemala

In late May, D and I went on a trip with a bunch of college friends to Central America. I've been delinquent about posting trip notes, so I've probably forgotten some stuff, but I'm going to try to remember as much as I can.

The eight of us set out from SFO on Thursday night. We transferred through San Salvador early the next morning (the airport was nicer than I expected) and then arrived in Guatemala City around 9:30am. It took a few minutes for us to get oriented, find an ATM, and find a shuttle driver, but eventually we were on our way to Antigua via shuttle bus. The fixed price was quite reasonable; 10 USD per person for an hour-long drive.

The Guatemalan quetzal seems to be pegged to the US dollar in the high 7s, but a lot of locals would use 8 to do calculations, so it turned out not to be a bad thing to have brought some US cash.

We arrived in Antigua before noon and checked into our hotel, the Posada de Don Rodrigo. It was located centrally and was quite nice, with a couple of courtyards, traditional decor, helpful staff, and even some free internet terminals (and very weak free wi-fi).

After we got settled in we headed out for lunch. We decided on Fondo del Calle Real, which was recommended by several tourbooks as having good traditional Guatemalan food. I ordered a combo plate which came with a pupusa, chili relleno, fresh cheese, beans, plaintains, rice, and salad. It was pretty good; I especially liked the plaintains and the pupusa. Others ordered various meat stews which they did not like as much. So much for tour books.

For dessert we picked up some chocolate bread from Dona Luisa Xicotencatl bakery, and then hung out munching on it in the Parque Central; a cute square bordered by a cathedral and lots of shops, with some benches and fountains.

Later we visited the Cathedral de Santiago, a ruined church from the 1770s. It was rather peaceful walking around inside the high walls with no ceilings.

For dinner, we ate at our hotel, which was pretty pricey by Guatemalan standards, but the food was better than at lunch.

The next day we were up bright and early for our Lake Atitlan tour. We were picked up by our driver and driven several hours to one of the villages bordering the lake, where we met our tour guide, Lee Beal.

Lee and his wife Elaine fed us some delicious tropical fruits (the mangoes were especially tasty) and then hooked us up with some kayaks so we could explore the lake.

We kayaked for about an hour, and then got cleaned up and proceeded onward by boat. We stopped in the village of Santiago first for some lunch (delicious fried chicken plates for about 5 USD) and then to hunt down the current home of Maximon, a local Mayan god. Maximon is a very interesting kind of god; his worshippers offer him cigarettes, alcohol, and money, in addition to prayers, and his effigy appears to smoke continuously. I didn't take a photo because it would have cost us 10 quetzels, but I did find this photo online:

We got back on the boat in order to get to a smaller, more peaceful village named San Juan. There we visited a women's weaving cooperative where we were given a weaving demonstration.

The quality of the material and the work were quite good, so many of us bought souvenirs to take home. I myself bought a large shawl which was dyed in bright blues, greens, and purples.

From there it was another short boat ride and then a 30-45 hike back to Lee's place, where we were picked up by our van driver and taken back to Antigua.

For dinner we decided against trying to find more Guatemalan food; instead we ate at a panini place called Tartine's. We had a much better experience there than at either of the restaurants we'd eaten at the previous day; there was a nice roof deck and the food was tasty. Some of the neighboring tables seemed to be annoyed that we were talking and laughing, and kept looking at us oddly (they were all couples), but the staff were perfectly nice so we didn't let that ruin our evening.

For dessert, we returned to Fondo del Calle Real to try "traditional Guatemalan desserts". We ordered four of five of them, and they were all terrible. Sigh.

On our last day in Antigua, we had a late afternoon flight to Flores, so we decided to fit in a Pacaya volcano hike in the morning. Unfortunately the volcano had just erupted the previous year and no actual lava flow had been visible since then, but it was a good workout and we certainly saw a lot of ash and could feel the pockets of hot air near the top of the volcano.

On the way down we ran into this cow, which was very much not amused by us. Our guide Jose finally chased it away with a stick so we could proceed.

As we were walking down, I noticed that an older Asian man was wearing a baseball cap with a Taiwan flag on it, so I asked him in Chinese if he was from Taiwan. He said he was but had been living in Guatemala for over 20 years. We had a nice chat (later he discovered D and I spoke Taiwanese and he was even more excited) and at the bottom he ran to his car to get us some pineapple cakes. I was quite amused.

We got back to Antigua in plenty of time to shower, pack, and check out, and even had time to grab a proper lunch before heading to the airport. Again we went with the non-local food; we had some sandwiches and pasta at Dona Luisa Xicotencatl, the place we'd been buying bread from, as it was just down the street from our hotel.

After checking in for our short flight, we sat around playing games for awhile, and then headed to our gate. There we were informed that our flight would be delayed 1.5 hours, but we were immediately given vouchers for free meals, which turned out to include our choice of sandwich, drink, and dessert. I was quite impressed with TACA's handling of the situation, actually.

Nevertheless, when we finally arrived in Flores, we were quite exhausted, so we were happy to see the shuttle driver from Casa de Don David (our lodge in El Remate) was still there waiting for us. Upon arrival David immediately showed us to our rooms and told us we could figure out registration at breakfast. Nice.

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