For those of us who seemed to keep returning to Guatemala, Antigua is such a byword, a nonchalant commonplace place, that I forget five years ago I had never heard of it. Now, returning home, I speak of it to family and friends as if everyone from Mississippi to Montana has a firm grasp on this tiny colonial town in Guatemala, a country most people I’ve met can’t pinpoint on a map (nor could I before 2008).
On my last visit up north, I was haranguing my oldest brother to finally break free of the US borders and visit his “punk” little brother this year. I’ll be living in Antigua, and it’s a place he would enjoy, not too far out of conveniences and comforts but still close enough to traditional dress and the Latin American vibe. To my surprise, I got a call from him a couple of days later when he’d had little success finding a resort hotel and learned the city wasn’t near the beach. Obviously, my description of Antigua had been largely lacking.
As a result of this blunder, I’ve come to realize how often Antigua is mentioned in my conversations, emails, and blogs—the same way my family might discuss Plaquemine or Zachary on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, assuming there’s already some rudimentary knowledge. In truth, the former Central American capital is peeking up at a population of 40,000 and is probably most readily identified by its inclusion on packages of designer brands of roasted beans. It’s great, but perhaps there is little reason for Community Coffee-drinking Louisianans to know a damn thing about it.
So, I suppose the place to begin is where we are. Antigua is obviously located in Guatemala (Guatemala is the country just south of Mexico), but more specifically, it’s about one-and-a-half/two hour drive from the Pacific coast and roughly 40 miles west of Guatemala City. We are in the lower third of the country, nearing El Salvador, and Antigua is sunken into the Panchoy Valley at the foot of a massive dormant volcano called Agua in an area known as the Central Highlands. (Outside the gate of our apartment, the right-hand view follows 6th Avenida directly into the enormous waistband of Agua.)
While many on the backpacker trail, roughing it through Central America, consider Antigua a bit of Disneyland, a city that caters much too obligingly to tourists, I find it refreshing and real. It’s definitely a cultural melting pot of expat business owners, international volunteers, and commuting villagers. It’s largely void of global chains, disabled-friendly entrances, and air conditioning, yet safe enough to explore at night, kempt enough to find genuinely beautiful, and funky enough to still have chicken buses—packed to the emergency exits—belching their way through the streets.
Antigua, the city itself, is the former capital of Guatemala, abandoned in the early 1900s after an earthquake destroyed much of place. What’s left is a colonial town densely populated with the ruins of Spanish churches, restored and maintained buildings, fantastic plazas, and shaded promenades. There is a lazy Parque Central with a huge fountain where folks congregated for idleness. Cobblestone streets, a huge market, abounding pastels, coffee plantations, chocolate museums, as well as unique bars and hotels and restaurants…It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for Christ’s sake.
Beyond the city, there are active volcanoes to climb. Three hours north is Lake Atitlan, often cited as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. There is Earth Lodge, the guesthouse where we’ve lived for the last seven months, a lethargic land of hammocks, guacamole, vistas, and games. And further afield, for those who yearn for adventure, for moving, there is Tikal (Mayan ruins hidden in the jungle), Rio Dulce/Livingston (near the Caribbean and all that), and the Pacific Coast (for black sand beaches and surfing).
Also, for some, there is me, the punk little brother who has visited the outskirts of Tulsa (where the punk big brother lives) twice since moving abroad, who has been to Baton Rouge half a dozen times, to Texas (despite sticking out like a belt buckle in a yoga retreat), to Memphis, St. Louis, California, Oregon, and Utah. Around one million people who don’t know me visit Antigua every year. More or less, only my mother and mother-in-law come to see me. So, take this as a hint, a wink (www.kayak.com), and see you soon.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my mission was to explore the depths of one Central America's great tourist attractions and take from it what I could. These are thoughts on Antigua Guatemala.