Antigua and Lake Atitlan

Antigua


Cities I’ve resided in for a month or more: KC, LA, SF, Houston, Charlotte Amalie – USVI, the bustling metropolis of O’Fallon/Winfield – Missouri, and Antigua – Guatemala.

Antigua is currently #1 on my list of places to potentially settle for a bit. The only potential downside I can come up with is that living there might *too easy*. Such problems to have. I had my Spanish school, coffee shop, gym, taco place, laundry, and local pub all within a two block stretch. Did I mention the year-round perfect weather? If my friends in the End of All Roads crew hadn’t come and wanted to ride into El Salvador together, I might still be there.

Shuana and I made it into town about sunset, and got set up by our host in a very nice AirBnb. He recommended a place called La Fonda de la Calle Real for some delicious local cuisine. Our place was about a mile out of the town center, so we were thrilled to see Uber back in operation (no Uber in Tulum or Belize). Although once we rode into town I realized parking was pretty easy. I was expecting something more like San Miguel de Allende – which is San Francisco-level parking difficulty.

We liked this place so much we went back another time. Shauna really loved her chicken soup with onions – which might be the quintessential Guatemalan food item.

Traditional Guatemalan cooking ingredients and spices

I got the stuffed chiles – very tasty.
Cilantro chicken soup – served with lime and chili powder

The next day we explored the town, and went on a coffee plantation tour in the afternoon. Next to San Miguel de Allende, I’d say Antigua is the prettiest old colonial town I’ve seen on the trip. The nice thing for me though is Antigua is much more spread out, easier to park, not as crowded. Probably my favorite thing about Antigua was the temperature – after spending over a month in the steamy Oaxaca Coast, Chiapas jungle, and Yucatan. At 5000 feet, Antigua is roughly 25 degrees cooler than it would be at sea level. I immediately felt a spring in my step walking down the street w/o having to worry that any energy expenditure would get me all sweaty.

Note: these pics are taken over several days – and timelines may be confused all over the place. I was in Antigua so long the days blur together a bit.

These guys seem like the Guatemalan equivalent of lawn gnomes

Similar to San Miguel – many buildings in Antigua were in ruins 100 years ago. A few have been left that way – as tourist attractions I assume. But most are now lovingly restored. They do an incredible job of keeping the buildings looking 200+ years old. Antigua was capital of the Spanish world in Central America for a couple hundred years, then leveled by an earthquake in 1773. Antigua was rebuilt, but the Spanish moved their capital to present day Guatemala City – which is probably what spared the city from being plowed over to make room for newer buildings. According to my Spanish teacher, pre WWII you could buy a ruined mansion in Antigua Centro for $100 or so – which would now go for $2 million US or more.

Many houses are of this Spanish colonial style with an inner courtyard. In the past they were stately villas – now they could be hotels, many stores, even a McDonalds – which is about the nicest McDs I’ve ever seen (not pictured).

Inside this ruined building you can see floats they’re preparing for Semana Santa

Pictures don’t really do justice to how much the volcanoes tower over the city.

This has to be one of those lions created by someone whos never seen a lion. And even at that it’s impressively off base.
Ushuaia! It just needs LA.

Life giver

The coffee tour was a nice way to get a bird’s eye view of the city, learn about how coffee is made, and taste some delicious coffee.

No idea what’s going on here

That night (ok it may be a different night – but close enough!) we had a delicious steak dinner that was expensive by Guatemala standards, but still plenty cheap by LA standards. I think it was about $80 for two people.

Not a bad view from dinner – yes that’s a live volcano erupting

Lake Atitlan


Rather than having to get up at 6am for a group tour from Antigua, we decided to drive and do our own Lake Atitlan tour. After some fun google maps detours, including one that had locals staring at us until we realized the road we were on was impassible, we found our way to Panajachel – the jumping off point from the south side of the lake. You could drive to the villages on the north side but it would take countless hours – as the roads are very bumpy and mountainous (basically you’re descending into the bowl of volcanoes that rings the lake).

Atitlan is a gorgeous lake surrounded by volcanoes and a very popular tourist hangout with some expat communities. After some usual failed negotiating by me (ignore the first wave of touts and go to the public dock) we got our own private boat and driver. The private boat was more expensive, but may have still been worth since we were on a limited time frame and we never would have met our wonderfully sweet boat driver – Thomas. 

Our first stop was San Pedro – which we dubbed party town. A whole flock of people were drinking and making a ton of noise at one of the bar/restaurants. Eventually they all piled back on the party boat below and left. The town immediately got about 99% quieter.

Guy at the top was the King of Party Boat – complete with purple robe

We wandered around San Pedro for a bit and had some lunch at an Israeli-run place that had a bunch of people sitting around who looked like they hadn’t slept all night and were in “chill out” mode. Shuana and I both know the look.

If you’d like to live in a wedding cake – here’s your dream house
Sometimes I like to tease pushy vendors by telling them if something fits me I will buy it. Which I totally would. Here this woman has to help me remove a shirt that she still claims totally fits me.

After San Pedro, the boat took us to San Juan – which was our favorite stop – a very low key town with mostly Mayans. Apparently the thing to do here is grab a tuk tuk and go visit the various Mayan crafts and artisans. First stop was a weaving demonstration. I’ve never seen traditional weaving demonstrated to this level of detail, and was fascinated at the skill and ingenuity that goes into it. 


Like our boat driver, this woman also had the sweetest disposition. So much so that I still think about her months later. Maybe there’s something to growing up in a simple traditional lifestyle (never losing your innocence?) that leads to happiness.

I realize this issue is something of a 3rd rail so I want to make it clear I really have no idea what these people’s lives are actually like – from my 30k foot, 1st-world-privilege perspective. I know there are real hardships I will never have to bear – like availability of quality medical care. So before I step in something – I will just say this: I don’t envy the wealthy, not one bit. I have everything I could ever want that costs money. I envy people with kids – and on some level I envy people like the Mayans who grow up in a community where they know they will always be taken care of by family and friends. 

And yeah I know I’m fabulously wealthy by local standards here. Argh – enough whitesplaining. 

Guatemala has by far the most places where the women still wear traditional Mayan outfits. It was interesting watching the dresses and tops get heavier as we went from a hot to cool climate. Men ditched theirs a long time ago apparently. In El Salvador the govt murdered some 30k Mayans in 1932, so everyone ditched their traditional clothes.

Our next stop was a traditional honey maker where we were sold on the promise of honey beer! Apparently this honey is made by very small stingless bees – which I didn’t know existed. I guess they can exist only in a place with no bears to steal their honey.

While the honey was delicious. The honey beer was … not tasty.

Back to the boat for our 3rd stop.

Our trusty sailing vessel

Hemmingway?

Our next stop was San Marcos – which I can sum up in one word – HIPPIES! I found a bit odd the sight of traditional Mayans commingling with dreadlocked hippies with dozens of piercings and skin hanging out between various odd wraps of grungy sarong-y yoga outfits. I didn’t feel quite comfortable asking the hippies to pose in their native environment, so apparently this is the only pic I took of the town – which was quite lovely.

We rented a tuk tuk to go to the point outside San Marcos with a nice view. Mostly at this time of day the view becomes hazy and smokey though.

On the boat ride back to Panajachel we saw these weird buildings which make absolutely no sense in their environment. Someone’s fevered dream of a Miami-style condo complex?
Sunset over the lake

On the drive back, about 30 minutes outside Antigua we saw an area that looked about as close to a wild west brothel scene as I imagine you’re going to see in 2018. Women were walking between and standing in doorways with negligees and bustiers. Some women were also clearly of the “not born female” variety. I thought the scene was amazing. Shauna was nonplussed. 

We had seen  bit of this place on the way out and I wondered what the heck was going on. On the way back at night it was really rolling. I decided not to stop and take pictures or pull over and ask if it was safe for gringos 😉 Apparently prostitution is legal in Guatemala but “procuring” it is not. I have no idea what that means.

The next day Shuana had arranged a ride to the airport in Guatemala City with the world’s greatest Uber driver, Edgar, whom we met the night before. Edgar has wifi, water, snacks – and his car is amazing. Seriously, if you’re ever in Antigua look him up. The 2 hour ride to the airport was something like $25.

But first I was trying to figure out how to dry my clothes in the world’s most confusing device ever – this combo washer/dryer. 

Almost none of these translate to anything that makes sense. Furthermore if you screw up it will happily start washing your clothes that you just want to dry.
Helpful!
Notice the lock icon. Please can I just have my clothes? My friend needs to get to the airport. I promise I won’t burn myself. The real irony is after hours, and not letting me even open the door, this thing still didn’t come close to drying my clothes – which proceeded to get all sour-rotten in my hot car.

And that was that – we said our goodbyes from 3 weeks of fun.

Goodbye volcano!
Goodbye Ol’ Ironsides, I’ll miss you most of all.

Antigua solo


Finally free! I can do what I want, eat dodgy street food, blare my cheesy trance music that no one likes, sleep until 11. So I decided to take a picture of this:

Good to know Antigua has the boot. I guess I’d rather that than them take my front plate. Semana Santa (Holy Week = week before Easter) was approaching and the parking cops were getting serious. For background, Semana Santa is a big deal pretty much everywhere in the Catholic world, and Antigua has one of the biggest in the world. Not just the week either, for a month leading up to it weekends get crazier and crazier.

My friend Ande was on his way in a week, and then the End of All Roads guys were coming through a week after that, so I decided to chill in Antigua for a while and take Spanish classes. I wandered around a bit and for some reason felt the need to punish myself for the second time on the trip. Why I didn’t eat Pollo Campanero which was just across the street I couldn’t tell you. Burger King seems to have some kind of siren spell on me.

I also found and signed up for a Spanish school, Tecun Uman – which came recommended by a couple people. Apparently Tecun Uman is the original Mayan name of Antigua. Cool. Then I signed up for the mellow volcano hike (not the 2-day 5k’ heel-buster) and I even found a pub that would have the NCAA games on – which Ande wanted to see. Awesome productive day! Time for beer at my new local pub.

The next day – Sunday – I met up about midday for our volcano hike. The town was so packed it took us a good hour just to get across and then out of town. And Semana Santa was still 3 weekends away. The 3-hour hike was beautiful and not hard on my heel at all – as the soil was soft and going up is easy. The next day I paid for it though – limping around. I realized I just can’t do a two day massive hike right now. I also officially canceled my hiking/photo trip to Patagonia – which broke my heart. Maybe I’ll get to go in the future.

On the hike up we were followed by a few guides with horses – who would be happy to let you ride them for a fee of course. They kept looking at me drenched in sweat and offering me the horse. Sorry guys – I just look like I’m going to die but I rarely actually do.
Not only did this guy luck out not having to drag my bulk to the top – he got chocolate chip cookies – and then followed me around the whole rest of the time we were at the top
Almost at the top some expats opened a Lava Store that repatriates all profit back to the locals who lost everything in the last eruption. I bought a few pretty cool trinkets.

Attempting to roast marshmallows in the volcanic heat. I saw how long it was taking others and just ate my marshmallows cold. I have failed the marshmallow test – just as I know I would have if I were given it as a kid.

(For reference since I can’t put links in captions – Marshmallow Test. But seriously, why should I sit there and torture myself looking at the marshmallow in front of me – for one more marshmallow? Better to just eat it immediately and get on with my life. Now offer me a whole bag if I wait and I’ll think about. I have a hot take theory that the marshmallow test really measures willingness to please authority.)

The sun went down when we were on top. Glad I brought a light for the hike down in the dark even though it wasn’t mentioned.

The next day I started Spanish classes at 8am. The classes are actually held in the restaurant next door to the school. Not a bad view from the rooftop dining area. Did I mention it’s about 72 degrees every day? Yes I might have mentioned that already.

The classes run from 8-12, then the school has an optional excursion or activity every day from 2-4. This day we learned how they make the Alfombras – also called carpets – out of various colored grains and other bio-degradable stuff. These are laid out on the street during Semana Santa and can take 12 hours or more to create, but only a couple seconds to disintegrate when the processions marches over them.

The funny thing is – I heard they were showing how to make carpet and I kept thinking some ingenious step was going to turn this pile of stuff into an actual carpet. I am a little slow sometimes.

On one of the tours I talked to a person from Quebec in Spanish because she had no English. A first!

One of the fun things about learning Spanish is the revelations and insights it provides into my own language. Sort of like traveling to another country for the first time. What’s the same, what’s different.

For example – in Spanish the way to say “I get sad” is “Me pongo triste” – which literally translates into “I put sadness upon myself”, or something like that. I wonder do you grow up thinking differently if you feel you put sadness upon yourself? Do you feel more in control of the situation? I have no idea, but it fascinates me to think about. 

Here’s another example I posted on FB:

In Spanish negative or positive sometimes affects verb conjugation – at least with commands (maybe others). “Do this” is conjugated differently than “Don’t do this”. I’m like alright – just another weird thing in Spanish that thankfully we don’t have to do in English.

Well not so fast.

Today we were going over past tense and I was trying to turn some sentences into English in my head. I was struggling with “No traje al regalo.” I was trying to turn traje, the past tense form of “bring” into “brought”. I did not brought the gift = no bueno. I no brought the gift = no bueno. But remove the “no” and “I brought the gift” is fine. Weirdness! Same works for give/gave.

I guess what’s happening is “brought” actually equals “did bring” and you can’t unbundle it? It’s very hard to work “brought” into a past tense negative – w/o resorting to something like “I have not brought the gift” – which has a different meaning and probably some silly name like subjunctive imperfect.

Another fun diversion at Spanish school was the Planet Earth documentary the local birds put on. 

The guy on top is great tailed grackle – which looks a lot like a US raven but with a long tail. The brown bird is a female checking out his action – which was impressive. First he would put some food in the bird bath, then fly off and watch as she and other females nibbled on it. Then he’d start chirping really loud to get their attention. For the finale he’d land near them and put on a dance that looked like some mini-version of the crazy puffed-up dance that birds of paradise do. Feed her, serenade her, then wow her with your dance moves. Notes were taken.

I didn’t get a good picture of the dance, but it looked like this:

I’ve definitely never seen a raven near me do that. Their version of impressing females seems to be to show off who can fly around with the biggest stick in their mouths – seriously.

My teacher told a story of how his uncle feeds the local pigeons so he can sell or eat them. When he wants to harvest them he soaks their food in rum so he can scoop them up when they just fall over drunk. Brilliant!

My awesome teacher Jorge. He always called me “Matthews”. It was so cute I never corrected him. I told him I liked to learn the theory so he taught me a bunch of weird conjugations like future conditional that I will never need, but were fun to learn.

Somehow I let my birthday slip, so after 3 weeks the school sang me Feliz Cumpleaños – which has like 2 extra verses than Happy Birthday. Also apparently it’s a tradition that everyone has to hug or shake hands with the birthday person. I was very touched.

Spanish school also came with a very cheap homestay. The food was pretty good and all my tchotchke viewing needs were certainly met. 

The bed was a little hard and the room was kind of dank though (and not in the good way). So I eventually moved to a cheap AirBnB about a mile outside of town. However the find of the homestay was meeting my new friend Sophie! She’s from Ireland but currently living and working in Germany as an automotive engineer. Cool!

Elegant, refined, stately … are not words I would use to describe Sophie. I figured out after a few times hanging out that she’s basically just a kid who never grew up. Although I’m not supposed to give away her secret. So don’t tell anyone.
Awww

Also with Sophie came her friend Vilma from Chile, but currently living in Norway. The two had apparently just met but were already peas in a pod. 

Children – do not emulate this behavior!
New friends!

We’ll hear more from Sophie in a bit. Here’s my local taco shop – quite tasty. They have the only shirts in Latin America that fit me. 

I also had a local gym and coffee shop nearby. I love the coffee shop even though it’s the kind of place where coffee nerds like to come in and ask details about when the coffee was roasted, the discuss the “personality” of the coffee. Just try it you nerds. You’re distracting me from dicking around on the internet while I procrastinate on my blog.

My pub was pretty fun except for some old guys who inevitably would want to start talking politics. “Well you know when the race wars start…” Dude. We were having a nice game of pool. Why?

Also making an appearance in Antigua – my old friends Bruno and Molly – from my plate rescuing adventure in San Miguel de Allende!

Ande Arrives!


I cut my first week of Spanish school short because one of my oldest friends – Ande, arrived from Florida. I picked him up at the Guatemala City airport. I could have had him take an Uber for $25 or so. But I wanted the experience of – “Who’d have ever thought when we were driving to high school together that I’d be picking you up in Guatemala City in my own car that I drove there?”

We had a great couple days in Antigua catching up and watching the NCAA tourney. 

Also, even though it was a very busy weekend leading up to Semana Santa, I still managed to find a sweet 3-bdrm Air Bnb for $88 a night or something. AirBnBs are weird – you never know what you’re going to get from the pics. I decided all of them should have a video like this, where you can virtually walk though the entire place:

I always wanted a house I can park in

Ande had work in Guatemala City the next week, so we decided to head to Guatemala City Saturday night instead of fighting the Sunday crowds in Antigua. We stayed in the upscale business district, which was basically deserted for Semana Santa.

Is this neighborhood safe? Oh look a fancy model kitchen!
Yeah I think we’re probably ok here

For some perspective though, here’s the best article I’ve read on the gang situation in this part of the world, and how it all works. 900 dead bus drivers in a city of 3 million people boggles the mind. Some of them are willing to risk death vs. paying $15/week protection – which really hits home how much poorer this part of the world is. This was from 2013, I only hope things are better now.

The highlight of Guatemala City was a massive and very tasty steak dinner.

End of All Roads Arrives!


After Ande left, I went back to Spanish class for a couple weeks until the Wednesday of Semana Santa. Basically Semana Santa is a 4.5 day weekend. Everyone gets off midday Wednesday until the next Monday. Antigua turns into a massive cluster of people. Naturally this is exactly when the End of All Roads guys managed to time their arrival. It’s too bad they didn’t get to see the normal mellow side of Antigua. 

Still, even showing up at the absolute busiest possible time – they were about to find a reasonable 4-bedroom AirBnb.

Dan and Bob fresh off the ride. I was actually sitting at this BBQ restaurant when Dan pulled right up out of the blue. Of course we all forgot to take any pics except this one.
The 3 BMW 850 touring bikes tended to create a spectacle. Wherever they went – bikers would come out of the woodwork.
That night we went out with Sophie and Vilma and painted the town a bit


Cool open air venue with a bunch of different bars and central entertainment area

Semana Santa


The next couple days were spent dodging Semana Santa processions and watching the town get even crazier.

Practicing for the Semana Santa processions – apparently people pay something like $80 to help carry the float for one block. There are 100s of floats and dozens of processions that go on for hours. So do the math – the church is absolutely raking it in.
Making the Alfombras. My biggest fear was stumbling into one of these and ruining it.
Highly-paid artisans at work

One of the parades at night

At one point I was trying to make my way across town to the End of All Road’s air bnb, I got stuck in a procession. It was like something out of a movie. I thought I was through it, then suddenly I was surrounded by and walking against the grain of 100s of men in black robes waving incense. It was completely surreal with only a few feet of visibility and hooded faces coming out of the smoke. I only wish I hadn’t been too freaked out to realize I should film this cool scene. Sigh.

We decided to leave on Saturday before the total craziness of Saturday night and trying to get out Sunday.

The next day we met up at the gas station by my place, and headed for El Salvador.

Goodbye Antigua – I suspect I will be back.

5 comments

  1. Wow, Matt, what amazing travels and times with friends. I so love reading all about your days and nights, and the photos bring it all to life! ❤️

  2. Ditto for me, Matt. You’ve opened up a whole new world for us with your colorful narration and marvelous photos. Bravo!

  3. Matt – I had an incredible time with you. I’m so glad we have been able to share so many experiences in life. This was another that forever stand out for me. Wish I could have followed you the rest of the way. Look forward to future adventures!!!

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