Vegetable stand in Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Antigua, Guatemala

The Camino Real Antigua in Antigua, Guatemala is a lovely resort and a relaxing place to stay, but I hardly had that on my mind early the morning I was to meet my new guide, Rafael, and say good bye to Manual, the driver/substitute who was still hoping to guide me though three more countries. I was having breakfast in the inner courtyard and enjoying the lush setting, the friendly staff, and my Guatemalan coffee when Manual peeked his head around the corner. I invited him to join me for coffee and something to eat. On time, Rafael arrived, professional and full of apologies for the disaster in El Salvador. He had to drop everything, fly to Guatemala city, hire a driver with a car, and spend many hours on the road to meet me at 8 am today.

I said good bye to Manual, who had to drive back alone to El Salvador. I had no idea if Moises, my original guide, paid him or not, but I gave him enough money for gas to get home and for his efforts during a long day of travel. After all, he had gotten me safely across the border in the middle of the night. In all my travels I had never encountered such a problem with a guide, but this would become a chain reaction (more on this later).

Volcano over Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Volcano over Antigua, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I was ready to focus on Antigua, a city founded in the early 16th century by the Spanish. Antigua is surrounded by three volcanos and was destroyed by an eruption in 1773. Today it is a restored tourist town. It is clean and safe to visit, with shopping and restaurants.

Rafael and I left my resort on the outskirts of the old city and walked the cobblestone streets to a café in the central plaza to meet my local guide. As we were sitting with our cappuccinos, I was facing the plaza and Manual walked by—it was like a ghost had appeared! My mind raced back to yesterday. The next minute I was being introduced to the local guide from Antigua. We left the café and began our walking tour and I focused on learning the history of what had once been the most important city in Central America.

The plaza square is surrounded on four sides by Spanish-style buildings, former colonial government buildings, the San Francisco Cathedral, and the palace. As I walked up the steps of the Cathedral, I turned and looked at the three volcanos not far away, and then one began erupting, with the smoke and ash bellowing out. It was a good sign for me to get back on track for hiking and the good adventure that would lay ahead.

We walked from the plaza though several other cobblestone streets to La Merced Church and the ruins of Capuchinas Convent. There were a few visitors here, but not many; still, the locals were waiting in hopes of selling their wares and textiles. The Mayans, dating back to several thousand years ago, were not interested in gold, but the green jade stone was the most valued to them and still is considered special. It is common in this area to see men and women with a jade tooth. To them, this makes for a beautiful smile.

Rafael, along with our Guatemalan driver, Horia (he liked to be called George), and I left Antigua and spent the day driving though the country. We stopped on the way for a lunch of Guatemalan tortillas, made that morning from ground corn, ground up limestone and water, black and yellow with our choice of fillings.

As we were driving along, we were making good progress until we had a flat tire. George pulled over by the side of the road in a good place with open fields next to a vegetable stand. A young girl was tending the stand, sitting busily doing bead work. It was a usual very hot day and Rafael and I stood waiting and walking back and forth in front of the stand.  Most of the fruits and vegetables were familiar to me, and I mentioned that the watermelon were beautiful. Rafael said, “No, those are not watermelon; that is squash.” George quickly replaced the tire and we were soon on the road again.

We arrived at Hotel Santo Tomas in the center of old Chichicastenango late in the day. Rafael and I walked around the hilly Mayan town for a while until dark. We found a restaurant in the central plaza for a light dinner. I had a day of adjusting to a new guide, practicing Spanish and learning about the people, the culture, and the country of Guatemala.

(posted May 23, 2017)