After hitchhiking around Mexico I was relieved to get to Antigua. Not only had I heard wonderful things about it from Brayan and Ale, but it meant I could chill for a couple of days, do laundry, shower, and actually be in civilization and out of the jungle.
The part of Central America that I had chosen to repeat was the intense jungle part that had driven me to think about leaving for Europe. I seemed to have temporarily forgotten the effect that environment had on me the first time around, but by the end of the second round it was back in full force. It is just not the climate in which I thrive. Add to that the stress of mediating between my travel companions and you’ll start to get an idea of why I agreed to jump on a bus once we crossed the Guatemalan border. I was ready to be done and in Antigua.
Antigua was the breath of fresh air I needed, literally and figuratively. At 1500 m elevation, the town is hot and sunny during the day and chilly at night. I was relieved to break out my jeans and not be constantly sweaty. I say that Antigua was a return to civilization, but it is a small, old world version of civilization. The town is no more than 10 blocks in any direction, its streets are all cobblestone so if you’re not careful you will trip over the rogue stone or your own feet, and it’s composed entirely of colonial buildings and ruins left over from the devastating 1773 earthquake. Overall it looks like a little Europe injected into a Central American town. Despite its small size, Antigua is surprisingly easy to get lost in. Streets and buildings mysteriously look the same, and when following around locals and not paying attention it’s even harder to find your way on your own. I think all of this contributes to its charm.
When I arrived in Antigua I had no idea how long I would stay. Five days, maybe. A week at most. I had other places I wanted to see and thought I would use Antigua as my launching point. It was 10 days before I finally tore myself away to Lake Atitlan. In those 10 days I discovered so much more about Antigua than just its curb appeal.
Hidden within its delightful exterior is everything I missed about home. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ll describe my first Monday in town. Before that day I had just seen the nightlife of Antigua (which is so great it could warrant its own post), so I woke up determined to explore this place. I met up with Brayan, who graciously offered to be my tour guide for the day. Our first stop was at his favorite cafe for a coffee that actually tasted like coffee followed by a French bakery to sample a couple delectable croissants. Off to a good start. We wove through the streets past colorful houses and half-dilapidated churches that may never be restored to their original splendor. These wounded buildings created a sad yet somehow magical setting. Even destruction is beautiful in Antigua. We ascended a hill on the north edge of town, up a concrete path in the middle of a forest that reminded me of Mount Sutro in San Francisco, to the Cerro de la Cruz. From here I could see all of Antigua in the valley below. Such a pretty little colonial mountain town. Back down, we browsed an artisan market before going to Rincon Tipico for lunch. This no frills traditional Guatemalan restaurant only has four things on the menu per day, but it may as well have one – 30Q for some of the best pollo asado, guacamole, and roasted potatoes I’ve ever had. After walking off the food coma for a bit we ran into the hostel pub crawl. We followed the 10Q beers around from rooftop bar to rooftop bar. Feeling happy, we kept the party going at San Simon, my new favorite bar that makes some of the most inventive delicious cocktails I’ve ever had. The night ended with pizza and a movie on the couch.
Sounds pretty normal right? A little wandering through beautiful scenery mixed with enjoying good food and drinks, it was like any good Saturday in San Francisco. The only difference between that description and my typical San Francisco description is fun times with good people. Except that wasn’t missing at all. Everyone I met and hung out with that day and all previous and subsequent days in Antigua were people I wanted to spend more time with. So good places, good food, good drinks, good people – good Antigua.
Days like this became the norm over the next week and a half. It didn’t take long for the possibility of staying to come up. People would ask how long I was in town and I answered that I didn’t know. They all liked that response. It was clear early on that I could have a life here. But I wasn’t ready just yet to commit to that, so I ran away to the lake to think about the wonderful world that I had just encountered.