Sunday, May 15, 2011

6) Antigua


One thing I liked most about Xela during those first weeks of class was the lack of tourists, the few that were there were fellow Spanish students. Actually, I was one of few foreigners that stayed in town for the Chirstmas holiday (which, by the way, didn't feel anything like Christmas: cold and cloudy yet somewhat culturally rich yet lonely yet the sweetest fireworks I've ever experienced in my life yet I am in Guatemala and I miss my family yet is it really Christmas?). However, after I returned from my walk in Nebaj (that actually rhymes since Nebaj is pronounced 'Nebok'. Ha, 'a walk in Nebaj', a bit of Spanglish poetry for ya), an uncomfortably large number of gringos suddenly appeared in Xela, more than ever before. A feeling deep within told me it was time to leave and begin my travels through Guatemala. Antigua was my first stop. Those of you who have been to Antigua know that it is probably the most touristy city in Guatemala. One friend even commented that it was irrational for me to flee tourists by heading to Antigua. Regardless, I left Xela and I liked Antigua, so there.

Antigua is a beautiful, old city nestled between a few spectacular volcanoes. It a city rich in diversity: a mix of wealthy Guatemalans, tourists from every country, Mayan influence, and the local Guatemalans (who just seem to blended in). The many cobblestone streets create a nostalgic feel, yet they are hard to walk on and extremely rough in any vehicle. The streets are lined by colorful, interconnected, and aesthetically pleasing (for lack of better  words) concrete buildings which are home to hotels, hostels, houses, art galleries, souvenir shops, and a variety of great restaurants.  I had the best Arabic food I've ever tasted in all my years of Arabic food consumption, who'da thunk? I also discovered a little placed called Cafe de Miel where they make some mighty tasty crepes. You should stop by and give 'em a try. I also highly recommend grabbing a drink at Cafe No Se. A very unique, but pleasant place to chill with an adult beverage in hand (please, only have 1 or 2 of said beverages, 3 at the most, for I shall not be responsible for encouraging excessive adult beverage consumption).

After getting settled, I was able to connect with Pablo, my buddy from the Nabaj trip just a week before. We had a great few days of hanging out and visiting all the local hot spots. Pablo is extremely friendly and well respected, so we would bump into people he knew wherever we went. Some people just have that charisma, that spark. I am still trying to figure out how I can be like that, but my introvertedness keeps a tight leash on my extroverterity. Ah well, I am who I am. Anyway, one night we went out for dinner at a place with a nice, relaxed atmosphere. We were eating and talking about the bad old days when who else but the infamous Captain America walked in in a T-shirt and pajama pants (please see my "Nebaj to Todos Santos" post if you need background on my history with Cpt America). They were probably Captain America pj's, but I couldn't tell. Deep thought: I have heard that Chuck Norris wears Superman underwaer, but I bet it's actually Captain America underwaer after meeting the real deal. We could not believe our eyes! We thought he'd left the country, but no, still sticking around like a fly on a turd, like a bad burp that keeps coming back, like a zit on your butt, get the point. When he walked by we quickly looked away, hoping he wouldn't notice us. Fortunately, Captain America was no match for such masters of disguise. He passed by oblivious and we burst out laughing. We had just evaded one of the most powerful superheros known to man, and for that I am proud. Fortunate for us, he was with a group of travelers from his hostel, so he was a bit distracted. Not only that, but there was also a dutch gal he was intently focused on, attempting to woo her with his stories of heroism and adventure and fish surgery. We were separated by a small wall, but we kept peeking around to see if he had noticed us. It was quite the fun game we played, kind of like teenage girls trying to get as close as possible to their new heart throb without being noticed. After a while, we lost interest and he passed en route to hang out at the bar. We went unnoticed in plain sight for quite some time. Eventually, he saw us and stopped by to say hello. Our cover was blown, but after some dull and awkward conversation he returned to chat it up with the Dutch apple of his eye. When we said our goodbyes I thought that would be the last I would hear of our friend. Of course, I was dead wrong. There is more to our superhero story, but you will have to stay tuned as the saga continues.

Although Antigua is quite charming and aesthetically pleasing, it is definitely the most expensive place I have found in Guatemala. If you are traveling on a budget, it takes a bit more effort  to find reasonably priced accommodation and food. I was able find a few meals for $2-3 US, but it's pretty easy to spend $10+ at most of the restaurants. That may not seem like much to you, but when you are trying to travel on less than $20-30 a day (including food, lodging, transportation, and activities), you don't have much wiggle room after half your cash in gone on a sandwich. I did, however, find a few reasonably priced places to stay on the northwest end of town: International Mochilero, Casa Jacaranda, and Casa Amarillo (didn't actually stay here) are all withing spitting distance of each other. FYI: Mochelero was the best deal because it had a kitchen, wireless internet, and descent dorm.

Antigua has at least 30 historic churches within it's small city limits, some are in great condition while others are simply piles of rubble. If you get a chance, I highly recommend taking a walk through the hotel Casa Santo Domingo. From what I understand, this was an ancient church 'complex' that occuped an entire city block that has since been excavated by archaeologists and restored into an uber fancy hotel. In fact, it has been awarded the best hotel in Guatemala for a number of years running. It is a dichotomy in and of itself: ancient church ruins meet bedrooms for the rich. The basic room starts at $300 US and goes up from there. Stay 3 nights at Santa Domingo or travel comfortably throughout Guatemala for a month or more??? Yeah, that's a tough decision.

Just to get out of the city for a day, I took a trip to Volcan Pacaya, another one of Guatemala's active volcanoes. Until recently, tourists could walk right up to flowing rivers of lava. However, since the most recent eruption the lava now flows beneath the surface of the lava field. Regardless, I thought it would be cool to check it out. Two things I did not consider: the volcano is a 2 hour van ride from Antigua (that is, without construction) and you have to pay a park fee on top of the guide fees., I should have known that $5 for any half day trip must be too good to be true. Even before we opened the doors of the van at the trail head, we were met by nearly 15 men on horseback enthusiastically offering/begging us to rent their horse for the 'difficult' ascent. And, before all us gringos had exited the van, another 15 or so little boys appeared from between the legs of the horses, kindly begging us to rent a walking stick for the arduous journey ahead. A few tourists were suckered into renting the walking sticks, but no one chose to summit via horseback. Tourism can be a good thing, bringing economic stimulation to an area that was otherwise lacking. However, I find it extremely saddening when I see the negative effects of tourism. Here is a prime example: not only does it change the people for the worse, turning rural families into annoying horse and stick rental agencies, but it also ruins the experience for the tourist/traveler. I'm sure I will be expanding on this point later in my writings. Enough for now, though.

After leaving the parking lot, I expected we would hike in peace up to the crater. Boy, was I wrong! Apparently, the horse rental business is quite slow these days because the guys became extremely annoying and persistent. They followed us as we began to hike at an extremely uncomfortable proximity. I was walking in the back of the pack and I could feel a horse breathing down my neck. I looked back to see his hooves landing only inches from my heels. Now, I am usually comfortable around horses, but this was too close for comfort amidst the chaos. The rider was too busy trying to stay ahead of the other horses, oblivious to that fact that I was nearly being trampled by his Hooves of Death. I quickly decided to quicken my step and let someone else have their achilles tendon severed. If that wasn't enough pestering, a few of our horsey friends would ride ahead or next to us yelling "Taxi! Taxi!" Then they would laugh and say something like "Pretty lady need taxi for walk. So difficult and you so pretty. Ha ha ha." This was not shaping up to be a fun trip. Eventually, we summited in peace and then dropped down into the crater. I wish I could have seen the lava flowing freely, but I think it's better underground as a few of our Australian friends may have fallen in. Nothing against Aussies, it's just that those on this trek weren't the exactly the sharpest sticks in the bunch, and I worry about their personal safety. I will say, though, that it was still cool hiking across a lava field.

We reached a vantage point with a spectacular view of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua. I was able to take some beautiful photos and enjoy the sunset. There is now a large hole in the crater you can climb down into, they called it a natural sauna. It was extremely hot and some even roasted marshmallows by the glowing embers of sauna's walls, but I didn't stay too long since I knew not what kind of toxic fumes I was breathing. The best part of the trip was decent. We basically ran down the mountain of black ash in the dark. A few folks happened to bring their headlamps, but I did not get the memo. There was just enough moonlight to see the trail and dodge the tree silhouettes as they passed by. Yeah, that was cool.

I then left Antigua and spent 2 incredible weeks on the southern beaches of Guatemala. Upon my return, I spent a night at the Earthlodge. Earthlodge, as you might have guessed, is a very hippy, green, Eco-friendly, vegetarian type place. Although I don't exactly fit that mold, I quite enjoyed my time there. The food was good, the people were chill, and the setting was beautiful as it overlooks Antigua and its volcanoes.

There are 3 highlights I would like mention from the 20+ hours spent here: The first is the cornhole tournament. What is cornhole, you ask? That is exactly what I thought. It's a similar concept as horse shoes or bocce ball, except that there are 2 wooden box platforms about 25 feet apart, each with a 6 inch hole cut in the top surface. You toss beanbags, very similar in method and order as horse shoes. If you land one on the platform, it counts as 1 point. If you make one through the hole, it counts as 3. For official rules and regs, you can visit the American Cornhole Association's website, They were having their annual cornhole tournament at Earthlodge, so this was probably the best day of the year to be there. Lots of people and lots of fun. It actually got quite competetive, as some of teams were seasoned "cornholers". My teammate and I put up a good fight, but we just couldn't compete with the pros.

After an intense afternoon of cornholing, I needed some serious heat therapy relaxation, and was I in luck! Earthlodge has a temascal, the Mayan version of a sauna. Temascals are basically igloos made of rock or concrete or earth. A fire is lit below a layer of rocks to heat the hut. Igloo + hot rocks + water = sauna = me gusta mucho. Once you climb in, it only takes a few minutes to start sweating profusely. The temascals I had enjoyed on the Nebaj trip were built to hold 3 or 4 Mayan (or approximately 1.5 large gringos who can't sit up straight without getting black soot in their hair). The one at Earthlodge is awesome because it comfortably seats about 8-10 people of my size, and there is plenty of head room. I must have stayed in there for over an hour, only stepping out periodically to cool off and marvel at a spectacular starry night. I have decided that if and when I ever settle down somewhere, I am going to build myself a temascal. It will go great with my New Zealand inspired homemade claw foot bathtub hot tub.

After leaking all the toxins from my sweat glands as well as a cold shower, I found a lone chair at the edge of the property overlooking the city. I sat down to enjoy the stars and ponder life. But before the wheels of  thought could start turning, I was awestruck as I watched Volcan Fuego erupt. I knew Fuego was active, but I no idea it spewed massive amounts of molten lava from its crater on a regular basis, and I had no idea it was such a spectacular sight to see at night. The volcano must have been having some heartburn and indigestion because I watched it erupt at least 5 times in 45 minutes. Post temascal relaxation + bright, starry night + mountain top view + erupting volcano = a state of awe and wonder. As I close my eyes, it's as if I am back in that chair on that warm January night, I cannot help but smile. I have had moments like this at home, but these travel experiences are somehow different. These are the special moments that make life so rich, experiences make this journey so memorable. Not only do they confirm me in knowing that I am meant to be here, but they also create a thirst for more. I am having a hard time putting this into words...It's the special little moments that fuel my passion for travel. They are not the sole driving force, but they are an affirmation, if you will. They are like a cold soda or beer after a long day of hard work in the blistering sun. That's it! They are simply refreshing...refreshing moments and memories that quench my thirst yet leave me desiring more. It's a awesome dichotomy to find yourself in, I love this feeling, and I think that is what helps keep me trekking along on this walk into the unknown.

Wow, I feel like I just had an epiphany, like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I like this feeling. I see now why journaling/blogging is so important. I can think and ponder and chew over life's mysteries in my mind for hours upon hours and end up back where I began, but something special happens when I express myself in writing. I can't explain it, maybe I should write about it, eh? I never was much of a writer, but it must activate something subconsciously within. Weird.

Enough deep thoughts, let's talk about something shallow like money, or even better, the thievery of money. Yes, I was robbed, but in a very unexpected way. But, before we get to the gory details, I must mention my awesome debit account and just as awesome banker. One of my old travel buddies told me about the ATM Rebate Account from First Republic Bank. This account is so awesome because there are no ATM fees anywhere in the world! I could not believe it at first, it sounded too good to be true, but it's not. They actually pay for every ATM transaction fee, no matter where I am, no matter what ATM I use. This means that I don't have to carry a lot of cash while on the road. I figure I will save hundreds of dollars this year on ATM fees alone! Not only that, but Jill, my banker, has been so wonderful to work with. She is always cheerful and so willing to answer any questions. If you are interested in such an account, I would highly recommend contacting Jill at First Republic Bank of Portland. You will not be disappointed. Back to the thievery...

Antigua has a very beautiful central park with a fountain in the center surrounded by many beautiful trees. It is a great place to relax and watch people, especially at night when the trees are illuminated by Christmas lights. The park is surrounded by coffee shops, restaurants, government buildings, and ATMs. There are other ATMs in Antigua, but those around the central park are just so darn convenient. I had heard that I must be careful using these ATMs. I was to only use the ones from reputable banks because there had been an ongoing scam where some hackers had loaded software or debit card reading devices into one or more of these ATM machines. When an unsuspecting victim (me, for example) withdraws money from an account, the hacker program downloads the card number and PIN. From there the precious account information is sent down to Columbia where a partner in crime withdraws your daily limit from an ATM in Bogota. I was very careful which ATMs I used, but somehow they got my information. I did not check my debit account on a regular basis, but for some reason I looked at it just a few days after leaving Antigua. In just 3 days, they had stolen over $1,100 from my debit account. As soon as I noticed this, I immediately called Jill and told her what had happened. She froze my account and emailed all the necessary paperwork. I was a bit nervous that the cash was gone forever, but Jill told me everything would be alright. It took a few days, but the bank reimbursed the stolen cash. The worst part is that my debit card was useless, so I needed a new one. Luckily, Jill had outfitted me with a spare in case of emergencies (good work Jill), and I was able to access my account. She then had a new one made and rush delivered to Belize. When I say 'rush', I mean that it took over 2 weeks, but that's because the mail system down here is crap. Jill and First Republic Bank have been wonderful to work with and I would highly recommend this account to anyone, whether traveler or not. This is the first time that I have had anything significant stolen from me and it shook me up a bit, but it was actually more annoying than anything. On the bright side, at least some Columbian douchebag is having a good time with my hard earned cash. I'm glad I could support such a worthy cause. Maybe this person of undetermined gender is using it to better the world...yeah, whatever.

All that said, I really enjoyed Antigua. Be prepared for lots of tourists and lots of English, but it really is a beautiful little city. I would put it on my 'must see in Guatemala' list. It's definitely worth the stop, if even for only a few days.

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