The rattle of our taxi bumping on the cobblestones street welcomed us back to La Antigua, Guatemala, the closest to a “vacation home” Jack and I have ever known. We rumbled past Spanish colonial houses stuccoed in fading Mediterranean colors of ocher and wine, lemon and sky. Centuries-old flower boxes bloomed magenta with bougainvillea behind antique iron grills. Purple banners and buntings fluttered in the breeze, marking the six-week celebration of cuaresma (Lent). As we rolled past the church of La Merced – one of more than twenty historic churches in the old town – clanging bells tolled the hour, as they mark almost every hour here.
Jack and I have never been time-share or vacation-home types. We prefer to spend our travel time and dollars seeing the world, every trip a smorgasbord of new experience, a new pin on the map. But sometimes it feels as though we dart from place to place, feeling the press of time, not wanting to miss a single temple or mountain lake; wanting to visit every village, study every room in every museum, roam though every market.
In Antigua, we allow ourselves the exception of familiarity. We wake to the sounds of church bells and mourning doves and sip locally grown coffee in the courtyard of The Cloister, a 17th century colonial home, now a seven-room bed-and-breakfast where we always stay.
Antigua was once the jewel of colonial Spain, serving as the Central American capital city from 1543 until 1776. The government moved to Ciudad Nueva – today’s
Guatemala City – after Antigua was devastated by an earthquake. For centuries before the Spanish came, this land was part of the great Maya civilization that carved fantastic cities out of the jungle and developed the new world’s first system of writing, a mysterious hieroglyphic script that is still being unraveled.
Today’s Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a mile square city of restored colonial houses, cobblestones streets and historic churches, where Maya women still practice their ancient textile arts and a fervent Catholic community stages one of the of the most exuberant Lent and Holy Week celebrations in the world. A cottage industry of Spanish schools provides one-on-one instruction at bargain prices. It’s a place where Ladino and Maya cultures intertwine and where tourists find both welcome and comfortable accommodation.
I first discovered Antigua in 1999 when Jack and I came here to study Spanish. We stayed for three weeks that time, drilling Spanish verbs in a garden classroom where ripe avocados plopped like pinecones on the tin roof of our open front cubicle. After school we practiced our Spanish by bargaining for textiles in the market and sipping cold coffee drinks in a centuries-old courtyard café where the waitresses ever so gently corrected our pronunciation. Evenings were dedicated to homework in front of the corner fireplace in our favorite room.
We kept coming back three or flours times a year, drawn by the south-of-the-border pace, the lovely mountain views of the three volcanoes that ring the city, and the almost year-round spring weather. On weekends we visited museums and Maya village markets and the ruins of ancient Maya cities. Twice we were invited to participate in cleansing and healing ceremonies led by modern Maya shamen.
Perhaps I could use a healing ceremony now myself. My Spanish fell by the wayside after my stroke, and Jack and I stopped coming to Antigua for several years. In 2006 we returned for a few days before touring Maya archaeological sites in the Petén rainforest of Northeastern Guatemala. It felt like coming home. My Spanish is rusty from disuse and washed-out brain connections but a few “holas,” “gracias’s,” and “por favors” go a long way in a gentle town that loves its students.
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Some of my favorite things to do in Antigua:
Antigua Cultural and Walking Tour by Elizabeth Bell
Markets: Saturday Textiles Markets at Santa Catalina Ruins and at La Fuente
Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace
Evocative ruins of Las Capuchinas Convent
Casa Popenoe (Popenoe House)
Sit in Parque Central by the Fountain
Café Condesa 5 Avenida Note No. 4
Epicuire Restaurante, Café & Delia 3a Ave. Norte No. 11 B
Restaurante Mediterrane 6 Calle Poniente
Rastaurane Da Vinci
Restaurant Hector Castro 1 Calle Poniente No. 9 A
6 Ave. Norte:
La Luna – Handmade papers
6 Calle Oriente:
Kueros & Mucho Mas – Leather goods with Textiles
Mico– Toy shop
El Telar Loom Tree, Modern textiles 5a Ave. Sur # 7,
Casa de Artes, Arts, Crafts & Antiques 4 Ave. Sur No. 11
Antigua Guatemala: The City and Its Heritage by Elizabeth Bell.
Travelers’ Tales Central America by Larry Habegger and Natanya Pearlman, Eds.
Guatemala Rainbow by Gianni Vecchiato. A stunning photographic tribute to the culture, daily life, festivals and textile arts of Guatemala featuring 150 color photographs.
Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube The history of the Maya dynasties, encompassing biographies of 152 kings and queens, as gleaned from recently deciphered hieroglyphs. It’s an unusual, rewarding book, illustrated in color and black-and-white.
Breaking the Maya Code by Michael Coe. A broadly considered history. Michael Coe chronicles the centuries-long search for the “rosetta stone” of the Mayan language, a search which received an enormous boost in 1952 when Yuri Knorosov successfully translated the Dresden Codex, a Mayan bark-paper text. The book also includes an extensive discussion of Maya studies and political activism in the wake of Knorosov’s discovery.
Fiction: Hummingbird House by Patricia Henley.