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Antigua, Guatemala: Colonial Elegance and Lots to Do

Coming through the clouds, we saw a green and mountainous land, with a large (but low-to-the ground) metropolitan area: our first glimpse of Guatemala. The airport is extremely new and modern, and efficient. We had our bags in about fifteen minutes. Immediately outside the airport is a very unappealing strip of fast food joints (mostly US, including of all things a Chuck E Cheese) and car-related businesses, looks kind of like Cuernavaca.

CLI, the language school where we'll be taking classes for the next week, offered airport pickup, and the driver is waiting for us with a sign bearing our names. He shows us the school and then takes us around the corner to our home. Smooth and hassle-free, as pretty much our entire 18-day trip turns out to be. Our host, Carolina, is very gracious and lives in a bright blue home around a patio. The city seems very compact, unlike the sprawl of the capital.

The ancient colonial capital of Guatemala is a pleasant and compact town, easily walkable, and surrounded by mountains (including three active volcanoes). Now, during the rainy season, it's very green. But the rain, from what we've heard, is mostly in the afternoon and evening.

It's also very touristy, with many language schools, Internet cafes, bus tour vendors, and of course, markets selling both artisanal crafts of exquisite beauty and norteamericano junk (such as low-quality t-shirts). And yes, a couple of US fast-food chains have found their way here, including at least Burger King, Domino's, and McDonald's.

The scene is rather like Guanajuato, Mexico (another big language school destination)—but more laid back. Guanajuato's architecture is prettier, its street layout far more confusing, its pace more hectic, and its natural surroundings, while very beautiful, are less beautiful than Antigua's. A coffee plantation is a block from the family we're staying with and two blocks from the school, in a fancy neighborhood. Neighborhoods are very small here, and change rapidly.

Most of the downtown streets are paved in cobblestones, though on the outskirts, smooth, bikeable roads beckon. And in fact many people do use bikes, or scooters, or motorcycles, or get around in the tuk-tuks: taxis that are sort of a cross between a three-wheeled scooter and a golf cart, except they go a lot faster than golf carts. Others use the colorful but venerable and black-smoke-emitting fleet of school-bus-style public transit.

Much more so than on our last trip to Mexico, but still a small minority except in the market, we see women in traditional dress (called traje): vivid huipiles (embroidered blouses) and long skirts, of patterns that we'd normally would call clashing, but somehow on these Mayan women it seems to be just right. Also an amazing number of women carrying large parcels on their heads.

Antigua has at least two excellent chocolatiers: Chocotenango, with its high-end truffles in exotic flavors (including rosemary, thyme, cardamom), local owner, and very reasonable prices (most small truffles were 4 quetzales—about fifty cents). I had a cardamom and a seven-spice, and enjoyed both. Dina had an Elvis, which she described as like a Reese's, and a white chocolate mocha truffle.

But the chocolate shop I preferred was Tostaduria Antigua, Sixth Street West at Seventh Avenue South, an amazing little coffee bean shop that also sold very dark, rough artisenal chocolates as well as whole cacao beans. Owned and operated by an intense Norteamericano from Texas, this shop offered something very close to a pure chocolate experience. It's not for everyone, but I was utterly thrilled

Our other expedition that day, with a bunch of people from the language school, was an excursion via public bus to an animal research center cum zoo featuring assorted mostly local fish, lizards, frogs, toads, tarantulas—and, especially, snakes. We chose the Spanish-language tour (English was also an option) and our guide mostly talked about what they ate, which ones were good to eat, and how much time you had to get treatment before you died if you were bitten by some of the most poisonous snakes—in some cases, only a few minutes.

The format at the school, and seemingly at most of the hundreds of Spanish schools around the country, is one-to-one conversation for four hours. Since we're both around the same level of competency, we share a teacher, which not only saves us some money but also makes the lessons a whole lot easier, since we only have to do half as much talking as the other students.

Wednesday morning, our instructor, Siria gave us a break from the routine and took us on the bus to Azotea, a real highlight so far. This coffee plantation, botanical garden, music and culture museum, located in the nearby pueblo of Jocotenango, offered very informative signage about coffee cultivation and processing, as well as excellent Spanish-language guided tours of both the coffee exhibits and those on Mayan music, dances, customs and culture.

Among the things I learned:

  • Pre-Columbian Mayan instruments included conch shells, ceramic ocarinas, wood/animal skin drums of various sorts, a rattle made of the jawbone and teeth of horse, and turtle shells played by striking them with deer antler (among many others)
  • Post-Columbus, Mayans adapted many European instruments to indigenous materials—including a double-reed instrument that looks like a recorder but sounds like a Balkan bagpipe—and adopted many others as is
  • The same coffee bean will taste very different depending on the number of minutes roasted
  • Good plantations harvest their coffee cherries by hand, picking only the ripe ones and returning to the same trees several times over the four- or five-month harvest season
  • Vietnam is now the third-largest coffee producer, but like Brazil, it grows primarily low-quality, sun-grown, industrially mass-harvested coffee; Guatemala is seventh, and its shade-grown, hand-harvested beans are considered excellent (though the samples they gave after the tour didn't impress either of us)
  • Tea-drinking Japan is the second-largest importer of Guatemalan coffee, after the U.S.
  • Mayans fly round kites several feet in diameter, for the Day of the Dead

Paseo de los Museos, also known as Casa Santo Domingo, is a fascinating place to spend a few hours—a place where five cultures from three different eras rub shoulders. Entering from the Third Street side, you first step into the lobby and grounds of a very upscale hotel (rooms start at US $235 per night and go up to more than twice that. The lovely outdoor lobby contains several stands of flame-red parrots, as well as elegant landscaping.

Further on, the museum complex consists of five small museums, most of them just one or two galleries—plus a number of relics scattered around from its past as the Convent of Santo Domingo and the College of Saint Thomas Aquinas—including burial crypts, a painting of the Last Supper, and pieces of the main church including the altar.

Throughout, nearly all the information is bilingual (Spanish/English), and for the most part, the English translations are quite decent. And the grounds are magnificent: restful even during the construction that was taking place during our visit.

For me, the most interesting part was the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and Modern Glass, which juxtaposed similar images in ancient pottery and modern, mostly European, glass arts. So, for example, a single display case would contain a thousand-year-old Mayan or Olmec artifact in the form of a jaguar or a human face, and an abstract glasswork from Sweden or the Czech Republic with a similar overall shape and a very different interpretation of the same motif. Amazingly, in the entire collection, I thought all but two pieces (a couple of large and hideous glass urns from France, I'm guessing 19th century) astonishingly beautiful, and the contrast worked very well.

There was also an archeological museum with some very nice pre-Columbian pieces. It was one of the smallest, taking only about ten or fifteen minutes to view.

The Colonial museum related to the Spanish conquest and occupation: intricate silver work, one wall of beautiful ancient paintings that reminded me of 15th-century Italian religious art, and various objects of wood, stone, and cloth. To me, it was the least interesting of the five.

Rotating exhibits fill two other halls. During our stay, one of the exhibits was a series of charcoal drawings of Guatemalan street scenes, and the other was some very unmemorable modern art. Through that hall and through another courtyard, the Sacatepequez Arts and Popular Handcrafts Museum is well worth a visit, with its highly informative exhibits on Guatemalan culture, both Maya and Meztizo, including one of the most stunning huipiles I've ever seen. The exhibits cover everything form kite flying to typical kitchens.

And finally, the Pharmacy Museum is simply a window into the typical appearance of a local pharmacy in the closing days of the 19th century.

Admission: 40 quetzales. Open until 6 pm.

Returning to Antigua after a week away, our Spanish much improved, we started our day along 4a Calle Oriente (4th Street West), Antigua's version of Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue, near the Casa Santo Domingo. High-end galleries and shops line much of the street, offering silver, jade, fine art, and of course, textiles.

To start, we walked into Central America Art Gallery, at the corner of 1st Avenue North.

As we entered, we thought this would be the typical one or two rooms—but it filled an entire Colonial-era mansion, and room after room of imaginative and innovative postmodern painting, mosaic, sculpture, and mixed media from several dozen different artists opened up before us. This collection was considerably larger than several of the museums we toured in Guatemala; a U.S. client who happened to be there called it "the best art gallery in all of Central America." Prices in U.S. dollars ranged from a few hundred to many thousands.

Another gallery that we liked, almost as large and with quite a strong collection of artists throughout the Americas was La Antigua Galeria de Arte.

We hadn't planned on going to Jades S.A., nearby at #34, in part because the brochure emphasized the showroom and not the museum. But we glanced in the doorway and something convinced us to stop. A guide provided an excellent tour of the jade museum (our choice, Spanish or English), which discussed its geologic properties, the modern discovery of pre-Columbian jade mines by the U.S. archeologist couple who own the museum, and its uses by the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec—including wonderful replicas of pre-Columbian artifacts, sometimes including photos of the original, and explanations of individual pieces in English or Spanish, while overall explanations were bilingual.

We also got to see the workshop where jade is polished, as well as pictures of visiting dignitaries including Bill Clinton. Photos were allowed in both the museum and workshop.

And the showroom is magnificent! Elegantly designed settings in silver and gold, integrating a wide range of semiprecious stones, catering to Northern tastes. Most pieces were several hundred dollars, but many of the earrings and pendants were much cheaper. We got a pair of jade/silver earrings and a simple carved pendant for $35 total. Note: there also two smaller Jades S.A. shops on 4a Calle, closer to the park. You want the main location, at #34

The Casa de Jade also has a museum: smaller, focused much more on Olmec, but containing better displays of more interesting pieces.

The same courtyard contains a nice little cultural center with a guided exhibit on Mayan life.

Two more stores we visited (among many choices) on 4a: Angelina, featuring very unusual beds, couches, tables and chairs made of wood left largely in its original tree shapes—plus an odd assemblage of building columns, antique swords, and other curiosities—and El Quinto Sol, which had quite a bit of semiprecious stone jewelry, at lower prices and in a more bohemian setting than the high-end shops across the street.

Another worthy destination is in a different neighborhood, all the way down 1a Calle to the Museo Casa del Tejido Antigua (Textile Museum), another absolute must in any visit to Antigua. We've now seen quite a number of exhibits on Mayan textiles of different villages, but I'd say this was the strongest collection. Again, we were taken around by a knowledgeable guide, in our choice of languages. Many different pueblos are represented, each with its own stunning colors and intricate (often nature-themed) designs that can take months of handwork to complete a single piece. This collection offered more attention to men's dress and culture than most. The signage, however, was ludicrous. Some of it felt like it had been adopted from some Spanish colonial governor's writing on the attributes of his subjects, and felt quite racist.

Founded by a native weaver who has toured the U.S. giving backstrap loom classes and lectures , the museum contains about eight display galleries, and about as much space devoted to selling the work of local weavers, two of whom were actually working in our visit, including the man who'd sold us our tickets. While weaving is usually the job of women and girls (starting as young as five in some pueblos), in at least some villages, men weave as well.

Admission is a huge bargain at 5 quetzales (60 cents), and an extra 25 quetzales to use a camera.

Beyond the city limits, many wonderful destinations await as well. I'll be writing separately about the organic macadamia plantation at Valhalla, as well as the amazing Pacaya volcano.

Shel Horowitz has written about travel experiences from meeting with peace activists in Israel to cooking in Mexico to getting around Los Angeles by bus. He is the editor of Global Travel Review and the author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook and six other books.

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