Exploring Guatemala – Antigua

Monday night, just as we were settling down for an early night, reception phoned to say that our pickup to the airport had been moved back an hour to 6.45 am.   We argued – as our ticket says we have to be there two hours in advance of our fight (at 8.00 am) but they said, no point, the airport doesn’t open until 6.45am anyway.   So, reluctantly, we gave in and accept the new departure time.

Tuesday morning and we were down in reception early – checked out – and then waited to be picked up.   And, of course, they were late so we are getting rather anxious as the clock ticks towards 7.  Finally two vehicles turned up for us!   So we jumped in one quickly and headed to the airport. 

On arrival we had to queue up for a physical bag search before being allowed into the building.  Then to check in which was smooth and efficient before we went through the next level of security into the departure gates area.  What we didn’t realise was that there were no facilities air side so we missed out on the opportunity to get coffee or a snack.  Oh well…..never mind……

The small propeller plane flew in, passengers disembarked, and we watched their bags being manually off-loaded.  Then the guy went off and came back with a new trolley and we were close enough to identify our bags being put into the tail of the plane – so at least we know they are coming with us LOL.

Our plane

Finally we boarded and were surprised by how nice it was…..   We took off about five minutes late and then there was a stewardess service giving us complimentary Pringles, chocolate biscuits and a soft drink.  Not exactly a healthy breakfast but we were surprised to this on a one hour domestic flight.   

On the plane

As we headed towards Guatemala City the topography changed dramatically and we are flying over stunning green mountain ranges as far as the eye can see – and then the city came into focus below – and it is huge!

Mountainous terrain Guatemala City

We landed safely, entered the terminal and, straight away, we came across our driver.  He had been sent from the hotel to pick us up.    We weren’t sure what to do about collecting bags but everyone was just standing around so we did too….and then the bags came through a hole in the wall and were handed out.   Great service – we were in the taxi less than 15 minutes after landing.   The most bizarre view of the day was having to go to the side of the road to let the small plane pass us on the street!

Plane in the street

We drove through Guatemala City – surprised by the huge amount of industrialisation and wondered where all the workers lived – and crawled through endless traffic jams.   We finally cleared the suburbs and headed into the mountains but the traffic didn’t abate at all – just crawling along slowly.  We were lucky that our taxi driver was quite aggressive otherwise I think we would still be stuck in the city LOL.

The roads increasingly got steeper – and sharper – and hairpin bends with large drops to one side became the norm.   And of course the trucks struggled with the inclines so the traffic moved even slower……   Finally, after almost two hours on the road, we arrived into the cobbled streets of the ancient city of Antigua.    We were very happy that they let us check into our room early at our hotel – Convento Santa Catalina – which is over 400 years old and attached to the famous arch right in the centre of the City.

Hotel Convento entrance Hotel Convento 2 Hotel Convento 3 Hotel Convento Famous arch

We unpacked and decided to chill for a little while – after all it was still only 11.30 am.   We turned on the TV in our room to catch the first news item which was about the blockade at Tikal.  What?!?   Mayan workers were blockading the entrance to the national park in protest at their poor wages – and no-one was being allowed in or out, so people were missing flights, tours, stuck in hotels etc etc.    Wow – thank you Tikal Jungle Lodge for tipping us the wink and getting us moved out to Flores a day early – we certainly dodged a bullet there!    As an aside we think they should reconsider their entry pricing structure as we paid Q200 (£20) to enter – Gringo prices – but Guatemalans only pay Q20 (£2).  If Guatemalans can afford to stay in the hotels and do tours they can afford to pay more to get in – just saying!

Early afternoon we headed out to wander the city – and dodged all the hawkers selling everything from Mayan handicrafts; original artworks; materials; jewellery; musical instruments; fruit etc etc etc….   And spoke to a few of the licensed tour guides who were hanging around the central square area to get a better feel for what was on offer.    We then found a little Bistro and had a lovely sandwich lunch before heading back to the hotel.   Our first impression of Antigua is just WOW as it nestles in the valley beneath three active volcanoes.

Antigua 1 Antigua 2 Antigua 3 Antigua 4 Antigua 6 Antigua 7 Antigua 9 Antigua 10 Antigua 11 Antigua 12 Antigua 13 Antigua 14 Antigua 5

In the evening we went out again looking for a place to eat – was a bit surprised to come across a London Pub and both an Indian and a Chinese restaurant.    But we wanted authentic so went into a local restaurant which specialised in BBQ food – I had the chicken off the grill while Richard indulged in the fresh fish dish.   It was all very tasty and we had a lovely time.  

Antigua 8 Dinner in Antigua 1 Dinner in Antigua 2

Wandering back to our hotel we came across Fridas Bar which was in memory of Frida Kohl a famous Mexican feminist who was renowned for her native art and brutally frank self-portraits.    So we had a nightcap before returning to the hotel.

Fridas 1

Wednesday morning and we were up early and headed into town enjoying the coolness of the mountain air – was so nice not to be ‘glowing’ constantly LOL.  We found a lovely coffee shop selling pastries so that was breakfast sorted and we were surprised to see one of the volcanoes spit out some ash.    Just amazing….

Volcanic activity

We then wandered to the central plaza and hired an English-speaking guide David for a three and half hour walking tour.   Historic buildings – often rebuilt and remodelled many times due to devastating earthquake damage – hence the decision in 1776 to relocate the colonial capital of South America from Antigua to Guatemala City.   This place has it all –  a stunning history particularly around the Mayans adopting Catholicism;   the Spanish invasion;  wonderful architecture; and traditions dating back centuries particularly the use of the locally-crafted colourful cloth and Jade which is found naturally in this area. Fascinating….  Interesting fact – Mayan children are often born with a cleft palate due to the lack of Vitamin A in their diet.

Tour 3 Tour 4 Tour 5 Tour 6 Tour 7 Tour 8 Tour 9 Tour 10 Tour 11 Tour 12 Tour 13 Tour 14 Tour 15 Tour 16 Tour 17 Tour 18 Tour 19 Tour 20 Tour 1

After resting up back in our hotel we went back out and hired a tuktuk to take us out of the cobbled streets and up to Cerro de la Cruz where there is a view over the city.  We weren’t sure we would actually make it up the steep inclines and wondered whether we should have got a proper taxi….but we made it without having to get out and push LOL.   Finally we arrived – and OMG what a view!

In the Tuk Tuk Afternoon views 2 Afternoon views Afternoon views 4 Afternoon views 3 Afternoon views 6 Afternoon views 5 Heading back down

Back down to the city we found another bistro and had a sandwich lunch and a couple of cold ones before walking to a local bar to meet Paul, Fiona, Celeste, Lincoln and Poppy – from Gone Walkabout one of our boating neighbours in the Rio – who are in Antigua doing a Spanish course.    We had a few drinks and it was great fun to see them all again – Poppy apparently missed me sooooo much LOL.   Here are a few shots when we were playing with the selfie stick!   We said fond farewell to them – promising to go to Poppy’s fifth birthday celebration just before we leave Guatemala.  

Fiona and Celeste Jan and Poppy

We then went for a late dinner at a small intimate restaurant.   Richard thoroughly enjoyed his steak but my food was bland and unedible … never mind… the wine was lovely!   We were surprised we were locked in the restaurant when it was time to leave – and then we had to knock on the bolted front door of our hotel to be let in.  This was only 10 pm but the whole City had gone to bed!

Dinner in Antigua 3 Dinner in Antigua 4

Thursday morning and we were up very early – time to get back to Morphie.   While we were away we had been tracking the formation of Hurricane Earl and were relieved that it did not do a direct hit on Guatemala although, sadly, there are reports of damage in Belize.  So, for Guatemala, just a rain event but that can mean mudslides and traffic disruption so we had fingers crossed for the bus trip back!   After enjoying a good breakfast overlooked by angels in the Convento we packed up, checked out, and got into our shared collectivo (eg minibus).

Hotel Angels

We went around the City picking up backpackers until the minibus was full to the gunnels with luggage loaded on the roof – then finally we departed for Guatemala City.  The traffic was bad….the pollution was worse…and we just kept on going.   The overall impression of Guatemala City and its suburbs is an underlying threat of violence – most customers are served through steel bars;  shops / offices / gated communities have heavily armed private security guards;  armed police and army are everywhere doing roadblocks;  wealthy houses live behind huge walls topped with glass and razor wire and solid steel gates.  And, of course, don’t forget the drugs and gangs….who often leave body parts in the street as a warning to others….      

Finally just before 11 we arrived at the Litegua Bus Station for our transfer.  We got our seat allocations; got our bags tagged and loaded onto the coach; and then we queued up to get on board.  Everyone got patted down by the gun-toting security guard – we think he was checking for weapons – and then we got on and found lovely spacious Pullman seats.  

At 11.35 we departed on time and started to make our way out of the city through the heavy traffic.  Then about half an hour later we unexpectedly pulled into another Litegua garage and were told to get off.  So we got off – the bags were transferred to another coach – and we boarded this one instead.   And, of course, this coach is not as comfortable, the seats are smaller and harder and less room all round.  Sigh….   We took off again and headed out away from the city through the mountains – enjoying the sights of the countryside all surrounded by lush green jungle.    But against this beautiful scenic backdrop is the poorest housing we have ever seen –  just blocks or wood shacks with tin roofs – no electricity or water with the rivers supplying their needs.    And rubbish is strewn everywhere along the road and into the river.   Shacks perch precariously on top of cliffs and although some are shored up many are just crumbling limestone walls…  But, despite the hardships, Guatemalans are some of the friendliest and happiest people we’ve ever met.  They have nothing.  But the kids are always playing and laughing – there is often girlie hair braiding groups sitting around – and they all look clean and well fed.

Anyway….after a torturous trip with just one 15 minute stop to grab food…. 11 hours later we arrived back on Morphie via Fronteras gripping an emergency box of fried chicken to go with the cold beers we left in the fridge.  Just what the doctor ordered….  

This morning, Friday, and we’ve just listened to the cruisers net and I’m blogging while Richard is putting the kettle on.   We have had a wonderful trip and really glad that we took the opportunity to see some of the sights of Guatemala – but it is time to shake off the holiday mode and get back into work mode – Morphie is due to come out of the water on Monday morning, so lots to do.   

Bye for now