Our tour with Victor of Antigua Tours (see Things to Do tip) took us to three very different villages in the area, of which San Juan del Obispo was the first. This also happens to be where Victor was born and it was interesting visiting it with him.
The village lies to the south of the city, in the shadow of the Volcan de Agua. It is most famous for the palace of Guatemala's first bishop, Bishop Francisco Marroquin, who lived during the 16th century and was instrumental in the construction of Antigua as the nation’s new capital. The palace is now a convent, but visitors are admitted if they ring the bell at a sensible hour of the day, and from what I’ve read may be offered a tour by one of the nuns, although we were taken round by Victor. The building was destroyed in the 1970s by floods and restored with funding from UNESCO. As well as the convent it houses a small museum devoted to the life of Bishop Marroquin (pictures, furniture, mementoes), and the nuns host guests who want to experience a retreat in these peaceful surroundings. The most impressive “sight” here however is the small chapel, with its altar of real gold dating back to 1563. You can’t enter the chapel but can peer through the doorway. Photography is apparently forbidden but Victor encouraged me to grab one shot quickly, while no nuns were passing! (photo 2).
Leaving the convent we walked a little way up the hill and round to the right to arrive in front of the much larger village church (photo 3) which lies behind it. This also has an impressive 16th century gold altar but this one has been much restored and the gold is no longer the real thing. If you go up the steps next to the main door you will get a good view down into the church itself, and, looking outwards, of the plaza in front of it.
Leaving the church we walked full circle back to the front of the convent where we had parked, passing the school where Victor had studied and a couple of small local shops (photo 4). The overall atmosphere was peaceful, even a little sleepy. Then the quiet was interrupted by the sound of the church bells tolling, and we heard what seemed to be music approaching. It sounded like a parade and indeed it was, of a sort. Victor explained that this was a funeral, but that rather than being the mournful affair that you might have elsewhere, in Guatemala as in Mexico the people have little fear of death, and instead mark it with a celebration of the person’s life to mark their moving on into the next one.
With the sound of the musicians approaching we left the people to their commemoration and headed for the next village, San Pedro Huertas.
Directions A couple of miles north of the city – you can take a chicken bus from the bus terminal behind the market if not on a tour.
This was the second village that we visited on our tour with Victor. It doesn’t have anything as impressive as the bishop’s palace in San Juan del Obispo, but it does have a pretty colonial church and also offers a glimpse of village life. On first arriving in the main square it struck me as a livelier place than San Juan. Children were running around, old men relaxing on benches (photo 3), and women gossiping as they did their washing at the public laundry (photo 4). Outside the church a group of local musicians was playing and being videoed – maybe just for fun, or maybe as a promotion?
We didn’t go into the church as it was apparently closed, and Victor didn’t tell us much about it, but I did a bit of research on our return. The first church on this site was built in 1541 and dedicated to San Pedro (Saint Peter). It was simple in style, and was replaced with this more ornate Baroque church in 1672. Soon after, in February 1689, the town was hit by an earthquake which destroyed village homes and the church. It was rebuilt, and then again in March 1751 an earthquake hit the region and part of the church’s roof, its organ and choir were ruined.
Today the church is fully restored and functioning. It has the simple shape and squat tower of many others in the area, the better to withstand the instability of the land on which it stands. The facade is painted in a deep ochre which was very striking on the sunny day when we saw it (it faces west so an afternoon visit is best). It is decorated with stucco columns and niches with figures of saints (see photo 2 for a close-up).
As we left we found that this was not such a peaceful, happy spot as we had first thought. On the road to our left a group of people was gathered around a police car. Victor stopped a passer-by to ask what had happened and learnt that the police had shot dead a man who (they knew or suspected?) had been dealing drugs. He told us that drugs were too common a problem in the country and the police were trying to crack down but many innocent people had got caught up in it, including, sadly, his friend’s brother. A sobering note on which to leave such a pleasant village square.
Directions South west of the city, between it and Ciudad Vieja.
From San Pedro we drove through the old (that is the second) capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja to this, the final village on our route. It was interesting to see that the abandoned capital was still a lively place, but with little of the grand architecture that makes its successor so special. On the outskirts some new, rather affluent-looking properties had recently been built, but following a destructive mud-slide earlier in the year property prices in this usually highly desirable area had tumbled and many lay empty or were for sale by owners now desperate to leave. We saw some of the destruction for ourselves – great gashes in the fields, roads in the town damaged and crumbling, a house with its corner missing.
In San Antonio Agua Calientes we visited the house of a local Maya family, on the outskirts of the village. The Maya here came originally from the Lake Atitlàn area when the latter was colonised by the Spanish, and are therefore of a different group to others in the area. Their traditional costume is red rather than blue, and they work hard to keep their traditions alive, including weaving in the traditional patterns. The weaving here is considered to be among the best in the country.
Carolina welcomes visitors to her home who come to learn how the weaving is done, see her impressive collection of historic huipiles from various villages in the region, and of course to shop. She spoke good English and showed us several items, explaining the traditions behind the patterns. I wish now that I had bought something more substantial from her than the little oven glove that we chose for Chris’s mother, but only two days into our trip we had not yet determined what if anything we wanted to buy, nor where to buy it. So as we weren’t ready to buy, we didn’t like to take up too much of her time and raise expectations. Nevertheless it was lovely to see the fine work and to watch her and her daughter at work using the traditional back-strap or waist loom.
In the centre of town is another fine Baroque church, though without the bright colour of San Pedro Huertes, but again we didn’t go in.
Directions About 5 miles west of Antigua and served by chicken buses from the terminal behind the market if you prefer not to take a tour.
One of my favorite sights in Antigua Guatemala, the mustard and white Iglesia El Calvario, seems to be ignored by most visitors. This is likely due to the church's location well south of the city center. The interior of the long, narrow, and relatively unadorned Iglesia El Calvario contains a series of paintings of the stations of the cross. Inside the church grounds, there is a single specimen of a certain type of tree (unfortunately, I can't remember its name), said to have been planted by Saint Pedro de San Jose Betancourt. The brown and white flowers of this tree, which are said to have various medicinal purposes, are collected by locals who then use them to prepare traditional home remedies for a wide variety of ailments.
To get there, walk south of the park for two blocks, turn left onto 7ma Calle, then turn right onto Calle de los Pasos and follow the road past the Iglesia de San Francisco, past the Escuela de Cristo, and across the Rio Pensativo until you reach the entrance.
Even in Antigua's cool climate, you'll likely work up a sweat walking all the way down to San Cristóbal el Bajo. The large, attractive flower-filled plaza that sits in front of the church, and the pine-covered foothills the lie behind it, make the walk a worthwhile effort. To get there, head east a short ways from the Iglesia El Calvario, take the road that branches off to the right where this road forms a "Y", then turn onto the first road that leaves to the left and follow this for a few hundred yards until you reach the church.
Unfortunately, the ruins of the Los Remedios church seem to lie on private property and to be jealously guarded by a number of rather unfriendly-looking dogs, so you might not be able to get any closer to it than I did when I took this picture. You’ll pass this church on your way to Iglesia El Calvario; it’s on the left-hand side, just a short ways past the river.
The ruins of the Santa Isabel church are just that - ruins. It doesn't seem like anyone's done any work maintaining or restoring these neglected, truly "off the beaten path" ruins in a long time. The most interesting part of visiting the ruins of the Santa Isabel church is having the opportunity to see partially uncovered statues. The easiest way to get there is to backtrack from the San Cristóbal el Bajo church, heading north along an unimproved road that winds its way between poor neighborhoods and corn fields.
Just 18 kms from Antigua is San Andres Ixtapa. A town home to the cult of Maximon, housed in his own pagan chapel. People use to sprays the saint with alcohol from their mouth (thats why the statue is covered by a plastic bag), and put money, candles or cigars in the altar. This San Simon attracks a lots of ladino pilgrims unlike the other Maximons of Zunil or Santiago Atitlan.
Este pueblo localizado a 18 kms de Antigua, alberga la capilla pagana de San Simon o Maximon. La verdad no es un destino turistico, y por cierto no es muy agradable la visita, pero es interesante ver la forma en que los peregrinos, mayormente ladinos actuan. Es comun que la gente le escupa al santo aguardiente, por cierto por eso es que lo mantienen cubierto con un plastico. Ademas se flagelan delante de el, dejandole ofrendas de alcohol, cigarrillos o dinero. En el atrio de la capilla nos ofrecieron hacernos una limpia con alcohol, ademas de predecirnos el futuro y pedir por salud o dinero. A lo cual nos negamos muy educadamente. La verdad es una experiencia inquietante.
One feature of Antigua Guatemala that I found rather interesting is the fact that the town maintains permanent temples along the route used for religious processions. There are a handful of these nearly identical stations of the cross located along Calle de los Pasos, heading south from the Iglesia de San Francisco towards the Iglesia El Calvario.
The Escuela de Cristo Church, is a charming, if somewhat simple, church fronted by an attractive little plaza. It is located at the corner of Calle de los Pasos and Calle de Belen, three blocks south of the Iglesia de San Francisco.
The Bethlehem Hospital and Chapel, located one block east of the Escuela de Cristo church, merits a visit for the unique and attractive adornments that surround the church entrance.