Having never touched down on Central American soil before, I boarded the shared shuttle departing Guatemala City’s airport this past February with an expectation-less mind.
I wish I could clamor up my high horse and say I did this out of pure openmindedness. That I’m the sort of traveler who doesn’t believe in stereotyping a region or its people. But the reality is that I’m opportunistic.
You see the only reason I was even in Guatemala in the first place was because two weeks prior I saw an opportunity to route my Miami-bound flight through Guatemala City for an extra $50. So I tapped BOOK NOW! before subsequently deciding froufrou cocktails at the beach were a superior alternative to reading up on the country – leaving me as ignorant as the fetus currently growing in my close friend’s tummy.
The only travel prep I did participate in was a hasty google search on outdoor activities that resulted in another BOOK NOW! click. One that would eventually involve the ascendance of a 13,000ft volcano.
Then it was straight back to my overly sweet mojito.
So there I sat. Expectation-less as the van rumbled over uneven roads, passing the dilapidated neighborhoods lining the way to Antigua.
La Antigua Guatemala
The harried lanes converged into a gridded scheme of cobblestone as the hour began winding down. Stark, ramshackle buildings gave way to multicolored edifices. Flame vines swooped down from rooftops in a tangle of orange blossoms. Fountains sat poised throughout courtyards and plazas.
As I emerged from the vehicle, it felt as though I had faltered into an artist’s canvas. The stuccoed walls enveloped me in an explosion of color with the low-lying Baroque architecture showing off its Christian influences in every church, monastery, and statue – all of which lay centered beneath a ring of volcanoes and hovering gray skies that only heightened its beauty.
In a drawl as slow as the pre-Easter processionals that marched throughout Antigua’s streets, the days unfolded in an unremitting pattern as I roamed those same calles and avenidas from end to end – retrieving any historical or cultural knowledge I could snag along the way.
Soon my head filled with tales of destructive fires, mudslides, floods, earthquakes, and eruptions; hours were spent making chocolate in the way of the Mayans (sacrificial blood not included); and chants of Arriba! Abajo! Al Centro! Al Dentro! could be heard over the sound of clanking beer bottles.
From the outside it appeared Antigua had it all.
But each ensuing day brought forth the stripping of one layer after the other – until the city’s undercurrent ultimately revealed itself.
Beneath the Surface of Antigua
The enticement I first felt faded as the days progressed onward.
The real Antigua was masked over with a glamor. One of exquisite beauty – but a glamor nonetheless. The beautiful buildings had begun blending together in a string of hotels, International restaurants, and tourism offices. Restored dwellings housed over 75 Spanish schools catering to foreigners while market stalls and gift shops outnumbered local tiendas – with the cost proving to be twice as high as alternative places in Guatemala.
Aside from the city’s established grid system (which is the only surviving trademark from the 16th century) and the well-known monuments leftover from colonial times, it often became hard to discern what was real. Were these true architectural ruins or a newer structure built to resemble the old Antigua? Does that restaurant cater to Guatemalans or is it designed to lure in tourists with its so-called ‘authentic’ tostadas? Why does everyone keep addressing me in English?
In a place where expats seemed to outstrip Antiguans, there I was. Just another gringo floating in a diluted sea of even more gringos – until I awoke with the startling realization that my only cultural encounter had come from attending a local mass that in actuality turned out to be a funeral. Because that kind of stuff just happens to me.
So I made a concerted effort to do what I do best – defy years of “stranger danger” lectures by reaching out to, well…strangers. In this case, the Guatemalan kind. Not the pack of muscled Australians I’d been eyeing in the way of someone who’d been not-so-purposefully celibate since October.
In Search of Local Interaction
I muddled my way through conversations with those I crossed paths with – often intermingling Spanish nouns with English verbs and vice versa.
A simple hola to the woman interlacing textiles on the corner.
A como estas to the man garnishing a pouch of mangoes with cayenne, a stoic expression etched onto his well-weathered face.
A what the f*** to the 7 year old who whacked me across the stomach for not buying his offered pack of gum.
Returning to the place where I’d learned the history of chocolate only a few days prior, I sought out my teacher to see if he’d had the baby he and his wife were expecting. Seems his first child was already causing problems with its late arrival. We chatted, mostly in English as he enjoyed the practice, and I inquired about recommendations for lunch, stopping him when he began rattling off the same list of usual suspects I’d heard time and again.
“Ahhh claro, you want the real places….give me some paper”
Information on these off-the-beaten path places are listed at the end of this post
Full on pork (yes pork – not rice, beans, or tostadas) I entered Antigua’s Parque Central, stopping to speak with a shoeshine as he hunkered down on the curb for a brief rest. Peering below the black cap hanging low over his brows, I noticed he was older than the other shoeshines I’d seen around. With a small comprehension of each other’s language, we discussed the businessmen and other middle-class Guatemalans whose shoes he’d been brightening for years. His clientele sometimes extended to visiting tourists. He chortled as his gaze cast downwards and caught my big toe peeping from beneath the slight hole in my TOM’s. Muttering something I couldn’t quite catch, I was forced to assume he was remarking on the fact that I clearly wasn’t one of those tourists.
Getting out of Antigua
As the sun thrust shadows over the city on its descent beneath the horizon, I indulged in a beer at a nearby bar. It was one of those establishments where rowdy hostel guests merge with locals – one set pre-drinking for the night ahead and the other ordering one for the road.
That’s where I met Tania. She leaned towards me as hair the color of Guatemala’s own cacao beans whisked across her face and conspiratorially whispered, “Want to see the real Antigua?”
I mutely nodded.
“Then get the hell out of Antigua”
The Outskirts of La Antigua Guatemala
The next morning I arose with the intention of doing just that – getting the hell out as Tania so succinctly put it.
Problem was I hadn’t a clue where to get out to.
I had heard the names of outlying villages in passing. Even more importantly I had heard the names of areas to avoid in passing. Though now I couldn’t recall the town designations. I was just pretty sure they encompassed the word San and even less sure there was a Juan or Luis thrown in.
I needed reinforcements. But mustering up enough enthusiasm to board a tour bus brimming with hungover backpackers felt beyond me. I’d never been much a tour person in the first place but I’m also one of those types who doesn’t relish the notion of being robbed at gunpoint – a not entirely uncommon practice in Guatemala.
So I entered the nearest tourism office and came out 35 dollars lighter – with a bike and 2 Guatemalans in tow.
I lucked out in choosing (or rather randomly happening upon) the tour operator that I did. Mainly because GT Adventures offered a private bicycle ride through the towns and villages lying off the Guatemalan Gringo Trail.
The only downside was the whole getting-on-a-bike thing. Those who remember my incident in Bali know that I don’t “do” bikes. Mainly because of personal reasons.
Or rather awkwardly clumsy ones.
While the morning ride wasn’t devoid of comical (to people who are NOT me) mishaps, getting the chance to observe the cultural nuances of local life helped me understand Antigua on a wider level.
Glimpses of Everyday Life
I cycled over rugged roads for the next 4 hours with each motion forward not only increasing my awareness of the bruise forming on my groin, but also allowing me to bear witness to everyday Guatemalan life.
Schoolchildren played organized games within the confines of church plazas. Their teachers monitoring every shout and movement.
Women socialized as they rhythmically scrubbed clothing in the basins of communal laundry wells.
Recycled US school buses were decorated and utilized for local transportation. They breezed through the unlaned roads, narrowly avoiding the errant pedestrian.
Only for it to slip further down and get caught in the spokes of my bike 30 minutes later. Thus ruining the sweater along with breaking off a vital piece of the bicycle. Because like I said earlier – this kind of stuff just happens to me.
So I leaned against a wall as my guide rode to some undisclosed location in search of a replacement part.
Quizzical looks were aimed towards me as I slid down to take a seat on the curb. Most noticeably was the man mirroring my position across the way. His eyes bore into mine as he lifted his forearms in a continuous motion, sharpening the machetes gripped within his palms.
Nervously fidgeting and not even remotely trying to keep my cool, I asked the other guide if this was a normal occurrence. Turns out it was as they were kitchen knives. Not machetes as my overactive imagination insisted. Some locals make money by peddling their sharpening services to kitchens around the neighborhood – not unsimilar to the shoeshine I’d met earlier. Only if he slips up the consequence of getting polish on his hands is less detrimental than that of severing a finger.
One bicycle fix later, we continued on toward what I was told would be the best (and cheapest) tostada around. Having grown up in the region, my guide knew a woman who prepared them in the traditional way, i.e., not using the fancy equipment found in Antigua’s restaurant kitchens. So we perched on the sidewalk by her stall – which was really only a small table on the outskirts of a communal laundry basin – to wait as she dolloped layers of beans, guacamole, and salsa onto a tortilla.
I bit in as an announcement rang out from speakers sitting atop a passing van. A woman ran from her home, enthusiastically flagging it down. With my mouth not entirely clear of food, I inquired as to what she was doing. My guide said this was how residents bought and sold gas. I nodded in understanding. As if this were a normal, everyday occurrence for me.
These small, seemingly insignificant moments are what I remember most from my time in Antigua.
While I wasn’t there long enough to fully immerse myself in Guatemalan life, being able to catch these cultural glimpses helped round out my experience and I walked away with an open-mind and an understanding that what you see on the surface, isn’t always reality.
With these thoughts swirling in my head, I washed down my tostada with the village water I’d bought in the tiny tienda down the road.
Only it wasn’t exactly in the packaging I was used to. Score one more point for Guatemala…
For a more cultural experience apart from your typical tourist attractions try out the below:
- Rincon Tipico: Best for lunch with its incredible pork dishes. Serves traditional Guatemalan food and filled with locals.
- El Mercador: The local farmers’ market behind the bus terminal. Sells fresh food and has street stalls (some say it can make you sick but I felt fine and so did many others I know who went).
- La Canche: Good and cheap typical Guatemalan food. Google it – I couldn’t find a website!
- The Terrace Hostel Bar: Ok so this is a weird one because it’s a hostel – but there is a rooftop bar with amazing views of Antigua’s volcanoes and I met a lot of locals in the place (Guatemalan locals – not just expats!).
- Experience Guatemala Tours: This company goes to outlying towns and villages to show you the real way Guatemalans live. The best part is that 100% of the profits go directly to local schools. I sadly found out about this company on my last day in Antigua so was unable to partake in a tour.
- GT Adventures: this is the bike tour I took.
- Stay With a Host Family: You can walk into any Spanish school in Anitgua (there are over 75 within a 10 x 10 block radius!) and ask to be placed with a family. Typical rates are weekly. This is also the perfect opportunity to practice your Spanish.
- Outlying Towns and Villages: Ciudad Vieja, San Antonio Aguas Callientes, San Pedro Las Huertas, San Gaspar Vivar, San Juan del Obispo, and many more.
How do you immerse yourself in local life when you travel? Let me know in the comments below!
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