On the ride from Semuc to Antigua I struck up a conversation with an American girl, which went like this:
“Oh cool, another American.”
“You’re from Boston, too? No way!!”
“The South Shore? Are you fucking with me?”
“Wow. Scituate. [The small town adjacent to mine.] Small world, huh?”
We drove for ten hours and passed through Guatemala’s capital city. Most stores on the outskirts of Guatemala City were autoshops or hardware stops. It could’ve been the outskirts of NY, but it was much dirtier and smokier. We shared the rush hour traffic with colectivo buses decked out like Transformers crossed with fighter planes. Our driver warned us to close the windows so passersby wouldn’t snatch our things.
Only an hour from the city is Antigua, a small city of ruined colonial splendor situated between three volcanoes that rise like green pillars to support the clouds. An earthquake centuries ago destroyed many of the structures here- ruined churches (the Spanish really liked to build churches) fill the town. Whereas all the towns I’d visited before had been ramshackle, but Antigua’s cobblestone streets are lined with colorful houses with fresh paint and healthy window plants. All the windows are still barred, but as often as not the iron is decorative as well.
Antigua’s money comes from tourism, and the Guatemalan government takes security seriously. Armed police stand at intersections around the central plaza. At night pickup trucks patrol the streets with actual machine guns mounted on top. At first this was a little unnerving (what kind of pickpockets warrant that sort of firepower?) but the psychological effect of such a display of force can be effective by itself, as an Israeli soldier explained to me over a glass of Mezcal.
I stayed in the southwest part of town (Antigua is only about 15×15 blocks, so everything is very walkable.) Within two blocks of my hostel were multiple trendy bars. “No Se” is the coolest, featuring three bars in one, a dark interior and Russian bartenders. It would’ve fit right in in Brooklyn, except the drinks were $2 and the candles far more ambitious than NYC fire inspector killjoys would ever permit.
I read a New York Times “36 Hours in Antigua” piece that suggests different sights, museums, and restaurants to visit. I began my morning by going to the coffee shop that the travel writer had described in 2013 as “charming and little-known”. There was a crowd of filthy backpackers spilling out the door, all waiting to get their $4.25 lattes and preventing me from doing the same. I forsook the NYT guide and stopped into a French cafe offering $2.50 lattes and delicious crepes.
After finishing my crepe I walked a few blocks over to Iglesia San Francisco to visit the tomb of Saint Joseph Betancur- the first saint of Central America. Per the poster of Jesus’ written wishes, I refrained from photographing, Instagramming, or Snapchatting inside the sepulchre. Faceswapping death masks is probably bad luck, anyway.
There were plenty of other pilgrims visiting and praying. The church itself was an impressive edifice, like a small cathedral. Interspersed among the various holy relics one would expect to find were cheap-looking posters of Jesus- the sort of overblown images witb sunbeams, baby blue eyes, and luscious brown locks. The sort you find in Internet memes, or for sale in a bodega for $5.
The posters might seem gawdy compared to the august carvings and muted decorations Americans and Europeans are used to seeing in churches, but to me it was another indication of the more accessible, more personal nature of Catholic faith in Guatemala. All over I’ve seen trucks with “Jesus, confio en ti” (Jesus, I trust you) written across the windshield. Local businesses have posters on their walls professing the owner’s faith and asking for Christ’s blessing for prosperity and to guard the owner’s heart against greed.
I reflected a little more on the nature of faith and interior decorating, but I hadn’t quite sated my saintly tomb-visiting itch, so I walked across town to a five star hotel built out of an old monastary. It featured elaborate gardens with macaws, a modern/ancient art gallery, and a chocolate museum.
I tried to take some tomb selfies, but the low tunnel ceilings prevented me from achieving a flattering composition. The art gallery displayed Mayan relics alongside modern reinterpretations. The modern takes were often weird, but sometimes cool. I certainly had never seen a similar exhibit before. There was also a gallery with the work of local artists, some of which I quite liked.
Once I saw enough art I found a trendy cafe offering iced coffee. Its hand drawn chalkboard menu, pricey smoothies, and chill vibe would also have been perfectly at home in Cambridge or Brooklyn.
I strolled the picturesque streets some more, making sure to visit the emblematic yellow arch of Antigua. But I hadn’t come to Antigua just to sip lattes and snap selfies. I found a pair of English girls hobbling through the streets clutching their legs. Clearly they had just climbed Volcan Acatenango, and I asked them where I could find a guide to take me up the mountain.
After some haggling, I found the second-cheapest guide in town and arranged for food, camping equipment, and all other necessaries for the two day expedition- all for about $30. I reconfigured my bags from “urban tourist” to “mountain climber,” ate a bunch of carbs, and set three alarms for morning.