Monday, 23rd August - Antigua, Guatemala
It takes 4/5 hours to get to Antigua, Guatemala. The transfer is in a minibus, so it's a bit of a squeeze, with about 12 of us plus luggage. Thankfully a few passengers get off at Guatemala city, after approx 3 hours. Antigua is only one hour from there. I chat with three lovely Irish girls, who are holidaying for 6 weeks. They have all just completed PhD's or changing careers, or both! Two of them are psychology students and one an engineer, very bright girls. They have already been to Guatemala and are heading home Wednesday, so they give me some tips on places to visit, which is cool.
We arrive into the old colonial town around 7pm. The girls have booked a hostel, but I am looking for a hotel. The minibus drops me off at the main square, in front of the cathedral. I had chatted to an English school teacher and his American girlfriend. They are both teachers, working in Venezuala, said he was disillusioned with teaching in the UK. I bid them farewell and head off in the direction of a hotel we passed on the bus.
I call in at Hotel D'Leyenda, a small boutique hotel, just off the main square. The owner, Carmen Maria gives me a good deal, so I upgrade yet again, and book in for 4 nights. The hotel has not long opened, beautifully designed, tastefully decorated and pure luxury, I love it !!
Carmen Maria recommends a traditional restaurant, Las Palmas,a few blocks from the hotel. I head straight there, order a 'plato tipico' which is steak, rice, salsa verde, peppers, guacamole and tortillas. This becomes my staple diet for the next week or so, it is delish!! Las Palmas restaurant is all candlelit, very romantic, I love it. There is a family group and one couple, so I don't feel too conspicuous dining alone. I should be getting used to it by now. It's fine actually, I find that you get very attentive service when you dine alone, not sure if the waiters are being sympathetic or just efficient.
Tuesday, 24th August
Breakfast at hotel D'Leyenda is served on the little rooftop terrace, overlooking the volcano that lies at the perimeter of the city. The view is stunning. There is a hot-tub which looks quite inviting, I might be tempted to try that out later. I venture out to explore the city. Antigua used to be called Santiago and was the capital city, centuries ago. The town was damaged in the 1700s by an earthquake and the residents abandoned it for Guatemala City. The buildings are beautiful, colourful and mostly only one floor, because of the threat of earthquakes. The whitewashed cathedral de Santiago,dominates one side of the square, damaged by earthquakes over the years, it still has amazing sculpures of the 12 apostles above the main door. Inside a crypt, the remains of Bernal Dias del Castillo, a historian of the Spanish conquest, are buried. On the other side of the square, Palacio de los Capitanes stands proudly, parallel to parque central. The stately building was once the government building for all of Central America, but now houses the tourist office, the national police and some government departmental offices. Opposite to this is another Palace, Palacio del Ayuntamiento, the City Hall and Museum of Santiago, it was once a jail, perhaps quite appropriate that it now houses the City Hall where all the government meetings take place !! The far end of the square has equally impressive colonial buildings, home to a plethora of tour agencies, coffee shops and banks. The centre of the square has an interesting fountain with mermaids spouting water from their breasts, I am guessing this has some 'spiritual' or Mayan significance, but it did shock me at first. Gardens surround the fountain, shaded by tall trees shading locals and tourists alike from the heat of the morning sunshine.
This time of year is the rainy season, June-November sees bright mornings until early afternoon, when the clouds gather on top of the three volcanoes that surround the city and then the heavens open. It can rain for hours, so it is best to get stuff done early in the day. The streets are cobbled and are built in a specific way so that the water runs down them like a river, so it gets kinda tricky trying to negotiate the slippery cobbles....it's much safer to be indoors, shopping in the markets, or dining in the fantastic restaurants. Antigua is the gastro capital of Guatemala and the shopping capital from what I can see. It is perhaps not the most authentic Guatemalan city, but I love it all the same.
I have no agenda today other than strolling around enjoying the atmosphere. I have fun practising my Spanish at the market and asking about tours to the surrounding area.
I bump into Anna and Aisling, the Irish girls from the bus trip yesterday. Ella has started Spanish school today, so she's not with them. That's another attraction, there are hundreds of Spanish schools here. I would love to come back and study Spanish here, maybe that's a future holiday destination to improve my Spanish skills. The girls invite me to drinks this evening. Where we are meeting is only 10 minutes walk from my hotel, but I decide to get a taxi, because it is absolutely lashing down, pitch black and not a particularly safe place at night. The taxi guy wants the equivalent of £5, which is daylight robbery. I decide to walk, which wasn't the smartest idea, but I got there safely, if a bit drenched. It was a great evening. The pub is local to the girls' hostel, so they knew lots of people in there, which was fun, although not particularly Guatemalan!! The American owner ordered me a taxi home to my hotel, it was almost midnight, so there was no way I was gonna wander around alone at that time. My lovely taxi man waited until the night porter, Leonardo, opened the door and the wrought iron security gates, and saw me safely inside the hotel. Bless him!!
Wednesday, 25th August
The clouds have gathered early today, so breakfast was served downstairs in the lobby area. There are only 6 rooms in the hotel and only 2 other guests, a Spanish couple from Madrid, they are also having breakfast. Guatemalan coffee, fruit platter, fruit juice, bread and jam is served each day for breakfast, delicious!
I book a trip to Lake Atitlan, tomorrow, Thursday, which is 3 hours away and is supposed to be one of the prettiest lakes in the world. There is a town called Chichicastenango one hour from the lake and it has a market day Thursdays and Sundays, so I arrange to stop there for a few hours enroute. There are several towns around the lake but I opt to stay in Panajachel, the largest one. I also book a bus for Monday to take me to Rio Dulce, 7 hours to the east of the country. This will be my base for getting to Belize and the jungle region of the country.
I have a productive day seeing many of the historical sights in Antigua, despite the rain starting much earlier than normal, the heavens opened around 11am today. I escaped into an indoor market for a while, but I am not shopping, I will wait until I get to Mexico for souvenir shopping. I will leave all my clothes and medicines etc behind, so I can fill up my rucksack with souvenirs when I fly home from Mexico City in a few weeks. The textiles and ceramics here a beautiful, but I am convinced they will be just as pretty in Mexico.
After a traditional lunch in a lovely restaurant, the couple from my hotel are also lunching here, I continue my tour of the city. At the ruins of a old monestary, one guide gets really stroppy with me, when I decline his services. When I ask him what direction I should walk thru' the ruins, he just shrugs his shoulders and walks away!! Ha,ha, it was very funny, stupid man. The ruins were easy enough to walk round, and as he couldn't speak much English, what was the point. I bid him farewell as I was leaving, but he shrugged his shoulders again and turned away !! Ha ha !! After visiting the cathedral and several churches, I head for the final 'church' called Santo Domingo. It is detailed on one map but not in my guide book, so I have to ask for directions, but find it eventually. It turns out Santo Domingo is a 5 star hotel and NOT a church. Well it was a church, actually a monastery and a convent originally, but has now been transformed into this creative hotel, spa and museum complex. It is really tastefully done in stunning surroundings, another lovely venue to escape from the rains. The rain has been relentless today, the streets are flooded, even parts of the hotel are flooded. I have to wade through huge puddles to get to the part of the hotel that houses the museum complex. It is simply stunning, so it was well worth getting soaked for. The hotel and museum complex encompases a whole block of the city comprising a church, silver museum, modern art museum, Mayan culture museum, candle workshop and a textile workshop. I am sure I have missed half of what there is to see, and I spend almost two hours exploring the place.
I make enquiries about staying here. It is quite reasonably prices, around $150/night. OK so not in my budget range, but for a 5 star hotel, that is pretty good value. Mmmmm...maybe next time??
Dinner here seems like a good idea. If I can't afford to stay here, at least I can treat myself to a sandwich or something. It is still lashing down, so I order a lite snack to do me for the rest of the day. It is 7pm by the time I head back to my hotel and the rain is still coming down. I am so pleased that I am staying in such lovely accommodaton, there is nothing nicer than arriving home to a hot shower, complimentary coffee, TV and bed.
I explain to Carmen Maria that I would like to change my booking from Thursday to Sunday evening, as I am going to Lake Atitlan tomorrow for 3 nights. This is no problem and I can leave most of my luggage here, which is even better. I can take just my daypack to Panajachel.
Thursday, 26th August - Panajachel, Guatemala
My bus is due at 7.30am, the staff offer to serve me breakfast at 6.45am, how lovely. When the bus hasn't turned up by 7.45am, the receptionist calls the tour operator, Cesar. I had booked with one of the agents on the main square. Cesar turns up at the gate of the hotel. Many of the shops and hotels have wrought iron gates at their entrances, not sure if this is a security measure, or a design feature. Cesar apologises for the lateness of the tour guide and within 5 minutes I am on my way.
Twelve tourists are squashed into a small minibus. I sit next to two American men at the back of the minibus. We have a pleasant chat about travelling. These guys have travelled all over the world. They make my trip look very limited. Well not quite, but over the years, these guys have been to many countries. Steve, a university lecturer has written several books and both Stefen and Steve have travel blogs. They are going to Chichi just for the day, to explore the market. I am stopping here for 4 hours, then catching another minibus onto Panajachel.
The town of Chichi is nice, but the market stalls are all selling the same things, row after row of wooden crafts, textiles, jewellery and some food stalls. The town has a lovely atmosphere, but it is very very touristy. I visit two churches which have a mix of Mayan and Catholic characteristics to them. I watch some ladies performing what I am told are Mayan traditions of laying flowers, food and money on the floor of the church, in the aisle, and encircling the piles with lighted candles. They kneel and virtually place their chests to the floor in prayer. It is nice to escape from the choas of the market into the quiet of the church. Immediately as I emerged onto the steps of the church, I am bombarded by kids and women, trying to sell textiles, scarves, dolls, wooden flutes, you name it, they have bundles of a variety of products to sell.
At 2pm I hop into another minibus for the one hour trip to the lakeside town of Panajachel. I roll up to Hotel Mundos and negotiate a room for 60% of the advertised price. It is low season here, so it is relatively easy to get rooms at a discount.
The hotel has beautiful grounds, a swimming pool and comfortable rooms with all the amenities, but not overly luxurious. I wouldn't be happy if I was paying full price for a room here. Again the staff are all very friendly, which is a bonus.
4pm, the rains start, forming rivers running down the cobbled streets. Within 15 minutes the water is up to my ankles, there is no way to avoid getting soaked. Time for lunch/dinner. I head up the main street which is lined with tourist shops selling the same souvenirs I have just seen at Chichi market. These poor market vendors are crying out to me to 'come look, come buy'....they hurriedly cover their stalls with polythene or pack away what they can into boxes. It seems that even they are surprised by the speed of the downpour. I find shelter in a restaurant on the first floor, away from eager mobile market vendors.
The main attraction here is Lake Atitlan, whether it is staying at villages on the lake or doing a boat trip, I opt to stay here but book a boat trip to see three of the villages tomorrow morning. I had called into one agency and the guy wasn't around. A young couple, perhaps his kids, were sitting at his desk, I asked if they could help, but they couldn't. I pointed to the restaurant I was going to have dinner and said I would call back later. As I ordered by dinner, the tour agent came bounding towards me with the brochure for the boat trip. Bless him, you gotta admire his persistency. I booked and paid, there and then. He assured me I would have a fantastic day. '8.30am at the jetty, enjoy Senora Theresa, it is good, very good'.....'I hope so' I laugh back at him. The trip costs less than £10 but he is so enthusiastic and keen to get the business, it makes me wonder just how much money these guys make in a day, in a year. I am sure I could get a boat myself for much less, but something made me want to book it with this guy.