Antigua, Guatemala: Ringing in 2011, Colonial Style
Antigua, Guatemala was the first colonial town I had been to since Cusco, Peru. I was stoked to be back. Seeing the familiar cobblestone streets, colorful architecture, wide open plazas and sprawling cathedrals all backdropped by a seemingly endless blue sky made me incredibly happy. Although there’s no denying the terrible atrocities committed by the Conquistadors, you have to admit that they certainly had a knack for building charming towns.
Like Cusco, Antigua was surrounded by mountains. To the south was Volcan Agua which occasionally burped out a puff of dust and smoke. North of town was a hill which you could climb and get a great view of the surroundings. There were two more volcanoes on the west which led you to wonder if there was any flat land in the whole of Guatemala. Antigua, keeping true to its colonial roots, had short and square buildings laid out in a neat grid that extended the length of the town. As I later found out after getting lost for a good 30 minutes running in circles, streets looked exceedingly similar, especially at night.
Antigua has a bit of a sad history. It was once the hub of Central America but because of violent earthquakes, the Spanish decided to move the capital to Guatemala City. Although the people were ordered to leave, the town was never fully abandoned. But neglect and time took its toll and many of the cathedrals and buildings fell into various states of disrepair. Antigua’s main cathedral is nothing more than walls and supporting arches: the roofs collapsed ages ago and all that lies above now is the clear blue sky. Closer to god without a roof? Maybe.
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If there is a god, he certainly wasn’t watching over me on our night bus from Flores. After Caye Caulker, Emily, Jen, their friend Gail, and I cut through St. Ignacio, crossed the border back into Flores and then onto a night bus to Guatemala City. The night bus we took was one of the worst I’ve ever been on.
I should have known better than to sit in the back row, directly in front of the bathroom, but I was stoked get any seat because we booked so late. I learned, to my horror, that reclining my seat and opening the door to the bathroom were mutually exclusive events: each time someone wanted to use the bathroom, I had to adjust my seat to the full-upright position. To add insult to injury, every time I was the lucky recipient to a whiff of urine that seemed to linger far longer in the air than physically possible.
Throughout the night I grumbled and clenched my jaw at how much this sucked. But what could I do? Tell some poor Guatemalan lady that she couldn’t piss cause I wanted to sleep? Traveling teaches you a lot of things about life, sucking it up and dealing with things is a big one.
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Fortunately, things only improved from there. Like Flores, the essential ingredient to the good times I had in Antigua was the awesome people I met.
While I was in Belize faffing about, Eoin and Caoimhe were at Lake Atitlan taking some Spanish lessons. We had planned on meeting up but I still had to find them. As we pulled into Antigua from Panajachel, I found the two of them in a travel agency right across the street. Funny how things work when backpacking. It was great to see some familiar faces, especially since we had such a great time in Flores.
At my hostel, Jungle Party, a crew of new faces quickly formed as well:
- Amelia – A cute Seattle girl who had traveled through Europe before coming to Central America. She had been in at Jungle Party for a week or so when I arrived and was planning on staying for a while after. I joked that she was “that girl” who stayed far too long at one hostel.
- Ricardo – Otherwise known as “Dick Danger”, this smooth cat from Switzerland was a great drinking partner. Him and I toured around Antigua and I also happened to be his bunk mate. There was always some sort of shenanigans between him, Bryan and Foster.
- Bryan and Foster – Two chilled out guys from LA and NYC, these two were down to party like Ricardo. The four of us often spent our afternoons racking up our bar tabs. I think Bryan won the award for customer of the month.
- Femke – Hailing from Switzerland, Femke was always a good laugh and had an envy-worthy pair of Ray Bans aviators. She had the most awesome name and I can’t count the number of times I said it, just for the hell of it.
- Ruz – A hilarious, bald guy from England, Ruz had a very interesting view of the world. He’d entertain us with theories on the most random shit, such as the numerous potential uses for my Guatemalan flute that no one could play. He also had a penchant for sticking soda can tabs on his forehead and seeing how long and how many he could fit.
- Rebecca – A Canadian living/working in Costa Rica, she always had some ridiculous story involving copious amounts of alcohol, possible blacking out and most likely getting lost. She also traveled with her portable hookah which was AWESOME.
Jungle Party Hostel, to be perfectly honest, really did not live up to its name. For whatever reason, it was about half full and the place was pretty dead at night. Antigua had a few bars but most places closed at midnight which led to a somewhat disappointing experience.
That all changed New Year’s Eve. Guatemalans streamed in from every corner of the country and the streets were absolutely packed to the brim with people, cars and motobikes. Ricardo and I headed to the supermarket to stock up on rum and coke and found a seething swarm of people; think Costco on a Saturday x100. Alcohol was flying off the shelves and I saw one guy with what must have been nearly 100 Coca Cola cans.
We headed back to the hostel to pre-party and soon went out full-steam ahead. One drink turned into two, two into four, four into eight. Pretty soon I was off my face, in the square watching the fireworks going off at midnight. I got separated from the group and figured the logical thing would be to head back to the hostel.
When I returned, I saw an absolute rager. Jungle Party had finally lived up to its name. People were streaming in from the streets drawn in by the blasting music and hordes of people. The area that normally held bean bags and chairs had turned into a dance floor packed with people like sardines. Booze was lying around everywhere and even the staff was full on partying. I jumped in, chugged the remaining bottle of champagne we had bought and leapt into the crowd of people.
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It was great. New Year’s Eve in a foreign country, partying with other backpackers was something I had never experienced before. I find that celebrating it home often turns out to be over-hyped and disappointing. But NYE in Antigua, Guatemala was something else. That night, in that place, was exactly where I wanted to be in the world.
Sadly, New Year’s Eve meant my trip was nearly over. It’s always a race against time on short trips and I was nearing the finish line. New Year’s day we shook off our hangovers and milled around town.
The next morning, I found myself on a shuttle to Guatemala City airport. Central America had come and gone once again and all I had now were memories, photos, and a couple of souvenirs.
Until next time.
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A couple more pictures from Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano, and Lake Atitlan.