Saturday, July 28, 2012

Antigua, Guatemala. It was time for a break..

View of the Volcano of Water, from the hotel terrace
I arrived in San Salvador 2 days ago, after sunset. San Salvador as a rough reputation, having been crowned Most Dangerous City in the world in 1992, at the end of the civil war which ravaged the country for 12 years. While Guatemala was no walk in the park security wise, I was under the impression El Salvador would be worse. But like I tell my Mom, due diligence goes a long way towards staying safe - this includes lots of reading and general travel experience. You can avoid risk by knowing where you are and where you are going, geographically and culturally, and by following simple guidelines that, in the end, only vary slightly from place to place.
The famous Arch in Antigua
When I arrived in Guatemala in early July, it had been a full year since I had started my trip. I needed a break, so I spent 3 weeks relaxing in and around Antigua, a beautiful small city at the foot of the Volcano of Water. I only played pool once. I spent most of my days there practicing guitar (bought one there for about $40) and conversing with other travelers. I made many contacts there, and got some recent information about traveling trough the rest of Central America. The geographical and cultural knowledge of your average hippie backpacker in Guatemala would put any NBC Olympic commentator to shame (obviously). I found myself discussing subtleties of language distribution in Central Asia, methods of crossing the Darién Gap overland, negotiation norms in Botswana, and other fascinating topics. You do also meet the occasional crazies as well, and there are some people for whom it is a total wonder that they made it as far as Antigua.
It was also super nice to be able to spend more than a day or two with the same people. In the past year, I've hadn't had a chance to spend much time getting to know people face to face, and although FB, Twitter, IM etc are really great tools for keeping in touch, there is nothing like having a conversation that lasts more than a week and making true friends in the process.

Kids in the small villages around the volcano
I didn't stay in Antigua for the whole three weeks - I had time to visit the villages around the city and the volcano - many of these villages are almost 100% Maya, and the locals do still wear the traditional dress and believe in the peculiar mix of pre-columbian, catholic religious, and conquistador legends which color the local customs. See Maximón.
I also took 20 hours of Spanish lessons, in a colonial building with a courtyard generously shadowed by a huge avocado tree. I figured I needed to brush up on that language before continuing on my journey South. Learning Spanish again has come at the expense of my ability to easily codeswitch to Italian from my other languages, but I am confident I will get that back too if I ever spend time in Italy again. My German, English and French are safe, however.

Lakeside lunch in San Pedro de la Laguna
I also got to spend a couple of days around Lake Atitlan, an aesthetic marvel of volcanic geomorphology. Aldous Huxley said : "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."
I climbed the San Pedro volcano along with a friend, and the view of the lake from the almost 10,000' summit was truly a wonder.

View from the summit of the San Pedro volcano

Although I don't have pictures good enough to post, one of the very best restaurants I've ever been to is in Antigua. Hector's, an unsigned affair near the Iglesia de la Merced, with its 6 tables and tiny kitchen, did not disappoint. Using French cooking techniques along with local ingredients and its own twist on traditional dishes, this little jewel of a restaurant with its perfect atmosphere and presentation made me come back for a second visit to celebrate my last evening in Antigua. It is worth going to Antigua just for a meal here. An equivalent meal in the US or Europe would run you at least $100/person, but here about $25 with wine and starters. 

The San Pedro volcano viewed from San Marcos, across Lake Atitlan

Anituga itself is sort of in a bubble - being a Unesco World Heritage site, and having so many Spanish schools, it is the safest city in Guatemala by a long shot. However, you don't have to go very far before encountering real danger - just the Volcano of Water, for example, is heavily discouraged to climbers - the locals say there is a 95% chance you will come back naked due to bandits, if you can even find your way up - or back down. I heard several stories of people being robbed on buses and public places, and even much worse - basically anyone putting resistance up to an armed robbery gets killed on the spot. But again, simple guidelines followed, you will get away shaken up but alive.

I promise to write about El Salvador very soon. I'm actually heading out to a pool room right now :)

Found this guy on the very summit of the San Pedro Volcano

Lake Atitlan, with view of the Indian's Head - can you see it?

View of Antigua and the Volcano of Water, from "The Cross"

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