For another sample of modern-day Antiguan life, once you’re done with the market head over to the bus station just behind it. I’ve written elsewhere about the colourful so-called chicken buses, and if you’re interested in seeing and photographing some, this is the place to do it. And what a lively spot! Rows of buses are lined up waiting to leave for various destinations, with the ayudante or conductor of each calling out the destination for the benefit of those passengers who cannot read. Around the edges hawkers on small food stalls call out their wares, enticing travellers with tempting food for their journey. Watch out – buses are coming and going all the time, and reversing in and out of their parking spaces; the drivers will pay scant attention to you. You don’t want to be hit by one while grabbing yet another colourful photo, great though these photo opportunities might be.
I have read elsewhere on VT that this area of the city could be a bit unsafe, especially for females there alone, but I have to say that I didn’t feel threatened at any point, even when Chris and I separated to take photos in different parts of the parking area. Obviously you need to keep your wits about you and in particular look out for pickpockets if caught up in a crowd waiting to board a bus, but I certainly don’t have any qualms about recommending a visit here, even if you have no need or intention of actually catching a bus!
There are quite a few companies dotted around the city offering tours, and you’ll probably be approached by young men touting for business in and around the Parque Central. The tours offered seem to be much the same everywhere – coffee plantations, local villages, canopy zip-lining, volcano hikes. I had read good reviews of the tours offered by Antigua Tours, run by an American ex-pat, Elizabeth Bell, who has lived here since the late 1960s, so we chose to book a tour of nearby local villages with them and were not disappointed. Their tours typically take small groups of between four and eight people, but on the afternoon we went there were just the two of us, so we got a personal tour for the price of a group one - $35 per person. The tour took us to three villages, all rather different (see my Off the Beaten Path tips) and lasted about two and a half hours (it is advertised as three but I think having only two of us made it a little quicker). Our guide, Victor, spoke good English and was very informative. Having been born in the first of the villages he had lots to tell us about growing up in the area and about how local people live outside the city.
Tours start outside the company’s office (see below) and we returned to the same spot, although Victor did offer to drop us at our hotel if we preferred.
The three villages are marked on the map on the Gringo’s Guide website. Note that confusingly north is at the bottom on this map!
Casa Popenoe, Popenoe house, is a restored colonial mansion which we visited on the Elizabeth Bell tour. Here you can get a look into domestic life in the colonial era. The house was built in 1634 by a supreme court judge originally from Spain. Over the years it was abandoned and fell into disrepair, until finally in 1932, it was bought and restored by Doctor Wilson Popenoe, a United Fruit Company scientist.
The house was restored to its former glory and filled with antique furniture and art. Every detail has been restored.
It is occupied by two of Dr. Popenoe's daughters but open for tours.
Museo de Arte Colonial houses some impressive sculptures of saints and painting by leading artists of the colonial era.
Just off the parque Central is this museum of the art treasures of Antigua. Sadly, the lovely but poorly equiped building is home to many beautiful examples of Antigua's past. It rained heavily on the day we visited and the humidity was high. There is no climate control here and the artwork is suffering.
To our dismay, a roof leak was falling directly onto a lovely wooden statue!
When American schoolbuses reach their expiration date, they are driven to Guatemala. There, they enter heaven: they get painted with fantastic designs and drive through gorgeous landscapes. When I showed someone a picture, he said "This bus is bad*$$."
You encounter the buses throughout the country, but especially around Guatemala City and Antigua. I never got to ride on the buses, however. I always ended up on the slightly upscale minibuses.
This hotel has won several awards – being dubbed as the best hotel in the whole of Central America. Aside from being a wonderful hotel with amazing grounds and scenery, the family that owns the hotel finances the restoration of the precious archeological structures on which the hotel is built.
The Convento Santo Domingo was the largest monastery in Antigua founded in 1542 and destroyed by mid-eighteenth century earthquakes. The historical site which had been pillaged for construction materials was purchased by the rich Castañeda family that created the current 5-star resort and museums. I read that entry costs about $5 (?), but when I was there I think my entrance fee was included in my tour (?). I did not even notice the entrance desk when I was there.
And the Castañeda family has done a great job at restoration --- the place is basically a botanical garden that you can enter for free. There are even these humongous colorful parrots in the gardens, and trellises with unbelievably beautiful hanging flowers.
And for guests, you can eat on the tables outside and enjoy the view of the distant volcano.
Weddings are held here and are expensive (about US$150,000 according to my guide), and I did get to see the reception area which had a very nice center table topped by artistically hanged curtains (I don’t know how else to describe it). Apparently, there is another hill/mountain which is also part of the hotel complex which is another favorite reception area for events.
The restaurant looks great and if I had time I would have eaten there. But my guide brought me through this tunnel-like museum – where they even have a video of the Mayor of Antigua talking about the city (I actually saw the lovely secretary of the current mayor eating lunch at the Municipal House). It is interesting though to have an underground tunnel here in Guatemala because there are earthquakes here…and actually you can see on the tunnel floor some cracks possibly from earthquakes.
Overall, the family who owns this place has done such a great job and truly a hotel worthy of its awards. Antigua also has other great hotels, some of them small boutique hotels which is near to everything. So, you really won’t run out of choices as to where to stay (different budgets), but this hotel is one you have to visit even if you don’t stay there.
La Casa del Jade
The day before I went to Antigua, I met an American tourist who said she did not like her Antigua tour because they brought her to museums and then a jade store where she felt pressured to buy. In China, I did visit a jade store and there may be that “feeling like you have to buy”, but if you say “NO” several times, they get the message, hehehe…
But I was glad my guide brought me to this store because I wanted to buy something for my wife. I believe there are about 2-3 major jade stores though, but I only went to the La Casa del Jade. It is not just a store but also a museum and a place where they teach you about the jade business.
The store itself is in a historical house from 1527 called the “ELJAULON” (a place for planting corn) which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1976. The Jade store was founded here Gerald Leech in 1977, and he aim to restore this building continues.
The Mayans saw jade as the Stone of Eternity, the Stone from the sky or as the Stone symbol for Eternal Love – jade being considered more valuable than gold. Jade was sometimes placed in a person’s mouth at death, so that when the spirit is leaving, it takes that piece of jade as a passport to heaven (I heard stories of corn being placed as well in the mouth at death).
Guatemala (along with Burma and Russia) has lots of JADEITE which is the preferred of jades, compared to the NEPHRITE which had a waxy texture. JADEITE has a very bright and lustrous polish.
I was met by the saleslady “Mercedes” who showed me the different kinds of jade (there’s the green, and there are also other colors like white, purple and even black). She showed me how a Mayan mask was being made all with jade, although the original mask she said had only the “earrings” as real jade. Real jade can be differentiated from the fake one by scratching with a knife.
So, I went to their showroom and looked for a suitable necklace for my wife who likes “big stones”. A lot were small pieces of jade, but finally I did find one necklace with nice heavy circular orbs of BLACK JADE pearls alternating with tinier gold orbs. Awesome.
It may be pricey from hundreds to thousands of dollars, but they do have discounts and when they give you a price, that is what you pay and there is no more tax. I paid with American Express.
The Cloisters of La Merced were abandoned after repeated earthquake damage. Today you can visit for a small fee. The Cloister has one of the best preserved fountains of all the church ruins of Antigua
Casa Popenoe is a beautiful example of a 17th century Antigueno home. It has been restored and many of the items owned by Don Luis de las Infantas Mendoza, who built it in 1636, have been placed in the rooms. Damaged badly by the earthquake of 1773, restoration efforts were not undertaken until 1929 after it was purchased by Americans William and Dorothy Popenoe who spared no expense or patience to restore the home to its orginal splendor. The home is still owned by the family and members still come here to live during parts of the year.
Of special interest are the music room with many antique instruments, the kitchen which includes antique Antiguan ceramics, and the pigeon house on the roof. They also have their own laundry sinks, similar to the ones in the Plaza de la Union outside the Iglesia de Santa Clara. The grounds are well maintained and beautifully landscaped. Be sure to ask for a guide who can better explain the significance of some of the items in the home and the history of the families.
These are the women that you see all over the place. They're selling all kind of arts and crafts like beautiful coloured blankets, wooden bracelets, coconut rings, tiny puppets and all more. And they carry it all around on their heads!
It's kind of difficult to shoot their picture as they all want money for it! I even have one picture where a girl has her hands on her eyes because I didn't pay her any money. Once you buy somehting from them they probably will approve...
This building on the Parque Central is to the right when facing the Cathedral. It was once the governmental center of all of Central America. Walk along the stately double arcaded facade for a lovely view of the plaza and the cathedral. Today the building houses the local government agencies.
This is one of Antigua's most ornate and largest churches. Its still widely used today (although the Cloisters are in ruin), and is one of the central points for Santa Semana celebrations. The original church was built on this site in the mid 1500's, but was rebuilt many tiems due to earthquake damage. The present structure dates from 1767.
Located on the southwest corner of town, the cemeterio is an interested look into Guatemalan culture. Many families have crypts that are ornately decorated and have the family surname prominently displayed. All of these individual structures are painted white, including the main church within the cemetery walls. Many have interesting sculptures and other ornamentation. Towards the southwest corner is a series of walls within which those families who cannot afford their own crypts can place their dead. Wallplates identify the deceased and many of these include interesting designs and decorations. Families pay an annual rent to house bodies in the walls. Failure to pay the rent results in removal of the body and a vacancy for another “renter”.
We were escorted around the cemetery by one of the groundskeepers who gave us an impromptu tour explaining the details of the cemetery including showing us a burlap bag with the remains of an “evicted renter”. Nice… There have been cases of muggings within the cemetery so you can either request an escort at the tourism office (Palacio de Ayuntamiento on the Parque Central) or at the main office of the cemetery immediately to the right as you enter the grounds.
This shop has been producing typical Antiguan sweets since 1872, offering a variety of goods made from milk, condensed milk, coconut, almonds, marzapan, guyava, sesame seeds and more, packaging your selections in boxes. Experiencing these tastes is a must do. If you have no idea what to order, do as I did: give the lady your price and have her make the selections for you.
Built in 1558, the Palacio de los Capitanes dominates the landscape on the soutside of the Parque Central, taking up the entire block on the south side of 5a Calle Poniente. From the time of its inception it was the Spanish governmental seat of a large portion of Central America until 1773 when it was damaged in the earthquake.
Today the Palacio houses the offices of Inguat, the Guatemalan tourist authority, the national police, and the seat of the department of Sacatepequez.
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An incredible atmosphere transports you to the colonial era, we provide everything that needs...more