After escaping the cats’ clutches, the four of us (two middle aged moms and two 11 year old daughters on an adventure) made our way to the Miami airport. Guatemala, here we come! This time flying standby went off without a hitch.
Within a few hours we found ourselves in Guatemala City. All flights into Guatemala City land at La Aurora International Airport (airport code GUA), which is located about 16 miles (25km) from Antigua.
Before leaving the Guatemala City airport we exchanged a few dollars for quetzals (the current exchange rate is Q7.7 to $1). Don’t exchange too much, because the rates aren’t as favorable at the airport as they will be at the bank in Antigua. (You will need your passport to exchange money at the banks). Also, ATMs (el cajero autimatico) and vendors who accept credit cards are plentiful in Antigua, so you do not need to carry a lot of cash.
Handy tip: Carry a little notepad with the approximate quetzal to dollar exchange conversion written down, so you don’t get confused about the cost of something when negotiating with vendors, booking your room or paying for transportation or a tour.
Fun fact: The quetzal is the name of the currency used in Guatemala and, also, the national bird of Guatemala. In ancient Mayan culture, the tail feathers of this gorgeous bird were exchanged as currency.
To get to Antigua from Guatemala City, you have choices – catch a shuttle (known as a collectivo because it waits until it’s collected enough passengers before departing) for $10 per passenger (just walk outside and it’s to your right) or negotiate with cabbies (both accept U.S. dollars). If you are arriving at night, to be on the safe side, you would be wise to have your hotel arrange for a taxi to pick you up.
This is the type of shuttle that will transport you from Guatemala City airport to Antigua.
As soon as we stepped outside of the airport, a very friendly man approached us waving his badge and telling us all about how he can get us to Antigua (they all know that’s where you are headed!) in his taxi for $40. The collectivo would cost us the same, but subject us to countless stops to drop off the other passengers. We began following the happy, engaging, guy toward the cab while offering to give him $30 to take us – kind of a buy 3, get one free deal!
He rapidly agreed. (When traveling with multiple people on a budget, take advantage of your numbers to get lower per person pricing). I was happy – the fellow seemed trustworthy, we’d get to Antigua more quickly and more comfortably by taxi than by collectivo, and we saved $10. Susan seemed a bit apprehensive, though.
Our happy taxi man led us to “his” cab and introduce us to someone who he said would be our driver. Oh. Wait. Ummm. Well, ok. We figured out that the badge waving cheery guy was the middle man. Susan was relieved:
“Did you smell his breath?” (referring to badge waver).
“Nope,” I replied (secretly sniffing mine).
“Huh, he smelled like alcohol. I’m glad we aren’t going with him!” She exclaimed.
“Me, too!” (shoving flask back into bag).
And, off we went.
Antigua, here we come!
We hit a lot of traffic, but finally made it to Casa Cristina where we had hoped to stay. Unfortunately, because our arrival had been delayed a day, they no longer had rooms that would fit four of us. That’s okay, though! Antigua is full of budget accommodations! Fortunately, we packed light so meandering the streets in search of housing was no big deal. We even did a little shopping.
Just around the corner we found a lovely hotel, the Posada Don Diego, that had room for us and a cute courtyard to boot!
The two really great things about Posada Don Diego are that it is nestled behind a delicious breakfast cafe and is directly across the street from La Merced, a massive and well-known yellow church in Antigua. When we would get disoriented after walking around town, we could always find our way back to the hotel by simply asking, “Donde esta La Merced?” You don’t need to understand Spanish, just go the way the person points and ask the same question on each corner! Soon enough, you’ll be back at Posada Don Diego!
After dropping our bags in the room, we ventured out to explore Antigua. A few blocks away we came upon these stunning carpets decorating the cobblestone street.
As we pondered their meaning and purpose, we suddenly heard a crowd approaching to our left.
It was a parade! We had arrived in Antigua at the beginning of Lent. The parade is part of the celebrations that occur every weekend in Antigua until Easter. The week before Easter, Semana Santa, is especially festive in Antigua. Part of the tradition is the creation of beautiful sawdust carpets (alfombras) made with flowers of all kind and colored wood shavings that adorn the different streets. Their formation clearly required such elaborate effort that I thought the artistic carpets would be avoided by the processioners and remain untouched. However, despite their beauty, they serve the practical purpose of cushioning the feet of those bearing the massive floats, and are destroyed as the parade passes through. The sawdust carpets can stretch for blocks. One in Guatemala City received the Guinness World Record for longest sawdust carpet in the world at 6,600 feet, that’s over a mile!
One of the benefits of being in Antigua during the Lent festivities leading up to Easter is the food! I will admit, I am not a big fan of the typical Guatemalan dish – usually some form of black beans, white rice, corn tortillas and chicken or beef. Breakfast is the same, but substitute the chicken or beef with scrambled eggs and fried plantains. It’s pretty bland fare. Guatemalan food is nothing like the spicy, flavorful yumminess found in Mexico. But, during festivals the street vendors are abundant and you’ll find a huge variety of interesting concoctions to tempt your taste buds.
Even if there are no festivities to attract hot food vendors, purveyors of fresh fruits, fruit juices or nuts can be found on nearly every corner or the market in Antigua.
Susan and I loved the radish and cucumbers covered in chili powder! I suggest you watch a local order first and then get the same. You’d be surprised how good some odd combinations can be!
The girls were huge fans of the licuados.
Day two of our adventure in Guatemala slowly came to an end, but not without a final stroll through the market by La Merced. Weaving is such a huge part of the culture in the highland areas of Guatemala, including Antigua. So, of course, no trip to Antigua would be complete without a hair weaving!
The girls loved their fancy new follicles and Susan and I were very happy to support the hard working local community. Earning money is often a whole family effort in Guatemala. Here, the young mom who did the braiding was assisted by her son (who surprised Avery by holding her head!) while toting a baby on her back. Throughout Guatemala, we would see countless examples of the determination and industrious nature of its people.
Good night for now! Tomorrow we are going to visit the nuts! Stay tuned.