Antigua

… Jeff packing at our Antigua hotel, not bad for $24…

Our Canadian friends were also traveling to Antigua and we offered them a ride.  It was fun to chat along as we drove through the mountains.  We were not sure what to expect so far as lodging was concerned.  After all, we were arriving on New Year’s Eve without reservations.  Surprisingly we were able to find accommodation at a cute boutique style hotel (above).  It was quite a bit pricier than the hostels we had been staying at, but in the scheme of things, not to bad.  I believe that we paid $24 for a double.  That comes out to $12 each for a nice room on the last day of the year.  We had heard that Antigua was a “happening” spot on New Years and by the day-time crowds, I was beginning to believe it.

… travel friends at the town square in Antigua, Guatemala…

We agreed to meet team Canada in the town square (above), get lunch and then do some exploring.  Antiqua is a colonial style town built in European fashion.  Aside from the local inhabitants, you might think you were in Spain or Portugal (photo below).  The centerpiece is the town square where there are always crowds of tourists and locals, vendors selling their wares and a beautiful fountain and gardens.  I didn’t take too many photos of the square – an error that I remedied on a later visit (and I’ll provide a link to that page once its made).  We took some photos, enjoyed a little sunshine and watched the children play.  The weather was noticeably warmer here than in Panajachel and we enjoyed a chance to get a little Vitamin D.

I noticed signs everywhere advertising Spanish lessons.  It seems that you can take lessons for 4 hours a day for about $100 to $150 per week.  This includes lodging and 3 meals a day.  In other words, you can live in Antigua taking Spanish lessons each day for about US $400-600 per month.  Not a bad way to take an “extended” holiday.

I found some nice book stores facing the town square that included all sorts of tourist guide books, maps and a small pocket-sized Spanish-English dictionary.  I would come to rely on this little yellow book throughout my time in Central America.  Despite any lack of schooling in language while on this trip I was still able to learn quite a bit of Spanish just by being exposed to non-English speaking people.  If you wanted or needed something, you had better find a way to communicate it.  With a dictionary, you can at least make rudimentary phrases to get your point across.

 

Heading back to the hotel to shower up before dinner and the festivities that were sure to follow, I came across the Coca-Cola truck offloading to a restaurant.  It seems that security in Guatemala comes at the end of a 12 gauge shotgun.  These guys weren’t even carrying cash but considering the street howitzer that the guard was carrying, you have to imagine that even soda trucks get hijacked here.

As we had talked to more and more people throughout the day we heard about the massive festivities that usually occur in the town square.  Antigua, like so many other “romantic” cities around the world, especially those with a low-cost of living, has attracted a large expat community.  We met many American, British and Australian retired people who had move here and made it their home.  They explained to us that the town square becomes an ad hoc party of champagne, beer and a lot of fireworks and singing.  We agreed that after dinner we would make our way there.

Earlier in the week when we crossed the border into Guatemala one of the first things we did was to stop and have lunch.  We pulled into an outdoor cafe and tried some of the local cuisine.  The food was quite different in Guatemala than in Mexico; a lot of carne asada dishes (barbecued and flavored steak strips) served in tortillas with lime and salsa verde (green sauce).  The meat in Guatemala was seasoned very well and I really enjoyed the taste of the Guatemalan cooking.  We found a wonderful little restaurant near the town square and ate until we could barely walk.

After dinner as we returned to our hotel and entered the courtyard of our hotel we encountered a group of 7 or 8 Swedish travelers who invited us over for a glass of wine.  It seems that this group are employees of International Red Cross and were set to travel to Palestine to learn to speak Arabic.  There are quite a few immigrants to Sweden from the Middle East and Red Cross wanted some of their employees to know how to speak the language.  But, due to the Intifada unrest in the territories, the group was instead sent to Guatemala to learn Spanish.  So, these folks were living here in Antigua for a few months learning Spanish.  Yes, you read that correctly; an extended vacation at full salary.  America doesn’t even compare to Scandinavia for employee benefits, vacation time and school reimbursement.

Our short “drop by for a drink” turned into a small party that eventually worked its way to our room.  We laughed and talked about travel, home countries and Guatemala.  The group was surprised when they found that my mother’s mom’s family comes from Sweden.  They were familiar with the area and we talked a bit about “the home country.”  As always, Jeff entertained the crowd and had everyone laughing.  The photo below captures well his personality well; he’s telling a funny story or anecdote and everyone is enjoying and laughing along.

When it neared midnight we worked our way out to the town square (Park Central) and watched the “party” as it unfolded.  Everywhere, people were drinking champagne and beer (and tequila and rum) and lighting off fireworks.  Safety standards were completely out and skyrockets - large skyrockets - were fired into the crowd.  The entire scene was a bit like a war zone.  All of the people stood around the outside of the square, along its periphery; no one stood inside the park and we soon learned why.  The park was a “free fire zone,” a bit of a “no man’s land.”  Anyone who ventured into this area risked a massive rocket attack.  As some brave souls gained more and more confidence after drinking more and more rum, they would run (as fast as they could) across the park.  As quickly as they began, lighters sparked up and within seconds dozens of skyrockets were fired at them; some missed close, some streaked by and some exploded near the brave soul who was running.  The crowd cheered and applauded their bravery; most made it successfully to the applause and back slapping of friends on the other side.  On top of all of this commotion was a constant barrage of rockets into the sky, cherry bombs in the streets and strings of firecrackers.  The entire square was soon full of smoke and the ground was littered with plastic cups and beer bottles.

It was a fun party that peaked at midnight as thousands of fireworks were set off.  When we returned to the hotel we found the back right window of the Blazer was smashed.  I had left a lawn chair in the back and someone used the sounds of the revelry to break the window and steal the chair.  Aside from the bit of crime, it was quite a fun evening.


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Chichicastenango

One of the main attractions near Panjachel is the great market at Chichicastenango.  It is a short drive and only happens on Sunday.  Luckily for us, we were in town on a Sunday and had a free day to make the trip.  We met our Canadian friends for breakfast and then made the drive.

The central meeting point at the market is the staircase in front of the cathedral (above).  We agreed if we split up that we would meet back here at noon and then headed out to see the sights of the market.  The market is not catered to tourists, it is an actual trading market where many of the local people come to buy and sell animals, food and clothing.  Because the population here has such a high percentage of indigenous (Indian) people, the market has become popular with many tourists who want to see the locals in an undisturbed environment.  Over the years as tourists have come to see the market it has adapted to the demand for tourist items and I found some nice silver jewelry and other marketable items that were geared towards the tourist demand.

I was quite interested to watch the local people as they bought and sold items (above) and used my meager Spanish to ask about prices and to find out their business was going.  The people were quite friendly and I heard many of them speaking their local indigenous language; it sounded to me like one of the languages of the Native Americans of my own country.

I tried some of the local cooked potatoes and bread and had some local matte.  I added a bit of sugar and it was warm and made for a nice contrast to the lovely local bread.  I didn’t try any of the local fruit but there was quite a variety considering the high altitude of this place.

The colors of the local clothing is bright and I enjoyed looking at all of the different colors and patterns of cloth.  The local people dressed in all manner of bright clothing and were selling blankets with beautiful designs.  As I walked around the market I did see quite a few tourists, many from Australia, US & Canada and Europe.  The whole market had a very “laid back” feel about it and I really enjoyed shopping and sightseeing there.


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Lago de Atitlan

One of the most popular activities at Panajachel and Lake Atitlan is to take a ferry around to different parts of the lake for day trips, hiking and overall exploration.  I went out early in the morning to the Panajachel boat docks and checked out the schedule.  Many boats left in the morning and a few in the afternoon to different locations; I selected Santiago Atitlan on the southern shore as my destination.  My LP tour guidebook listed all sorts of interesting activities there; a small museum, local dancers in traditional costumes and a much slower and more “authentic” town life than one finds in the “party town” of Panajachel.

Along the shores of the lake families sat on blankets and snacked on packed meals.  It was a bit chilly and overcast but that didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the people.  The water made a mellow lapping sound on the shore and the mood was quite tranquil and quiet.  When the boat man called for passengers to board I hopped on board the small boat that made use of plastic lawn chairs for the passengers.  Some of the local girls offered their services as hair braiders and a few passengers took the opportunity to have their hair braided with some colorful ribbons.

As we neared the far side of the lake I could see the twin peaks of Volcan Toliman and Atitlan as we cleared the harbor near Santiago.  There were quite a few “villa” style houses with huge yards that were decorated in Asian style, gardeners tending and watering plants, huge houses with big decks and viewing porches and small boats tied up at private docks.  It seemed as though many of the rich of Guatemala keep their holiday homes here.

As we pulled into the dock I could see the vendors lining up to pitch their wares to the passengers.  Some travelers from Santiago were staging to board our boat to return (or travel to) Panajachel.  After the boat tied up I made my way on shore.

I was immediately surrounded by several children who all wanted me to buy their sweets, colorful knick-knacks and all sorts of other trinkets.  I did buy a powdered sugar pastry that reminded me of a belgian waffle; it was quite nice and I bought two more for my “tag-alongs.”  I made my way into town and browsed around through the village enjoying the sights and sounds of the place.  Unfortunately my camera battery died and I did not get any photos at the museum or the town square.

Once I climbed up a ways I could see out over the town with a commanding view of the volcanos nearby and the beautiful lake.  It was quite chilly and I was glad that I brought a light jacket.  Along the sides of the hill I saw all sorts of farming activities and I was amazed that the people could grow food on such steep slopes.  Most of the local people didn’t seem to mind me walking along the paths that cut between their houses.  I suppose that their indifference is from years of exposure to tourists.

Santiago was a wonderful place to visit, especially as a day trip from Panajachel.  If you are ever on Lake Atitlan, I certainly recommend it.


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