Although some may think we are constantly on holiday, we still do like to get away from the boat and water life for a break and to enjoy the comforts of hotel pampering for a while. Rob’s birthday is always a good excuse as we are often yard bound for hurricane season, so we booked ourselves a week in the cool of the mountains to visit Antigua, said to be one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala.
The Litegua bus company run several classes of bus and we caught the 0800 Premier Plus from the Rio Dulce to Guatemala City last Monday. A tuk-tuk from the marina cost us 1.50 GBP, the bus was exactly on time and the tickets right through to Antigua cost 12.50 GBP each. The bus was air-conditioned, comfortable and run efficiently. We stopped at a roadside restaurant area about 2 hours from the Rio and I went for the local options enjoying 2 crisp rolls filled with minced chicken, topped with a mild sauce and cheese. All for 12 Q or 1 pound 20 pence. A film was shown in Spanish but on the return journey we had to endure 3 dire films, all about men beating the hell out of one another. Just outside Guat City we changed onto a smaller bus but our luggage came with us to the main Bus Station in Zona 1. We arrived at just after 1400 and the connection to Antigua was a minibus at 1435 so I had enough time to exchange my receipt at the desk inside for a proper bus ticket for the final leg.
By 1545 we were in Antigua and already impressed with the cobbled streets and beautiful old colonial buildings. Several guides offered us free advice on how to find our hotel, El Meson de Maria but it was only a 5 minute walk from the main square. As we passed the classy restaurants and bars we began planning our week, mainly focussed around what we wanted to consume, given the lack of good restaurants in Fronteras!
The hotel was excellent and we would definitely stay there again. It wasn’t too expensive, included breakfast and beverages in the evening and was in a great location for all the museums, bars and restaurants. There were sitting areas all around the hotel and a roof terrace with views over the 3 volcanoes. Breakfast was served in the courtyard to the sound of the fountain and our room was comfortable and clean.
The shower was interesting though. A blue ceramic pipe stuck out from the wall but didn’t have a showerhead, so you got a lot of water at once. The shower tray was a good foot deep, so it was almost a bath as well. Half of the ceiling was glass, making it very romantic being able to see the stars whilst you showered.
Around the hotel were charming old items, such as the oven where breakfast was laid out, an old barber’s chair and framed textiles. It only rained once but most of the walkways are under cover and the hotel had umbrellas to loan when we went out in the evening. On our return we helped ourselves to hot chocolate and coffee with a cake, sitting in the courtyard or roof terrace.
For breakfast we had fruit juices, coffee, fresh melon, pineapple, papaya and watermelon balls that someone must have spent hours carving out with one of those devices Lakeland sell. Then a choice of fried or scrambled eggs with plantain, black bean puree and cheese. 2 warm bread rolls with butter and jam came with it and the final option was a plate-sized waffle with maple syrup. It was all delicious but the same every day and with a French bakery on the corner by the hotel, we opted to buy breakfast there one morning instead.
Apart from visiting the many museums and shops, the main event was eating. As it was Rob’s birthday we had a couple of mojitos before dinner, at 5 pounds each. Prices in Antigua are definitely not what we are used to but it is a tourist destination with tourist prices. Next we found Escobar, a trendy steak house near the hotel. The sirloin and fillet were delicious, the service was great and the décor was smart. Every restaurant had candles on the tables and many served excellent food. The steak meal with wine was less than 40 pounds, so still good value. Another night we went to Café Teatro where they do a swiss cheese fondue costing 15 pounds for 2 people. It came with bread and potatoes to dunk in the cheese sauce and the waitress scrapped off the burnt cheese from the bottom of the fondue dish for us to finish off.
Another night we went to Hector’s, the top rated restaurant in Antigua. We were told you had to queue in the evenings but at 1830 only 2 of the 12 tables were taken so we had no issues. The chicken stuffed with leeks with a mushroom sauce served on herby mashed potatoes was delicious and again, less than 40 pounds for us both. It is a small place though so getting there early is best.
Ice-cream parlours, chocolate shops and street sellers with nuts and fruit also tempted us during our stay. Luna de Miel is another top restaurant, serving crepes and coffee in a roof top terrace. We only had time for iced coffee so sadly didn’t get to taste their savoury and sweet pancakes.
Between all this eating we did try to walk a few calories off by walking around the sights. Jeff told us about an app called GPSMyCity and I downloaded a map of Antigua listing the museums and attractions with some information about each one. There were ‘must sees’ to do and we covered them all in 3 days, booking an extra night at the hotel just to ensure we did them justice. The climate was also a refreshing change and an escape from the heat and humidity of the Rio. To actually need a long sleeved top and nightwear was a novelty.
We visited the textile museum where a young lady demonstrated how they make the colourful cloth on a simple loom. Each area of the country has their own pattern and mothers pass on the skills to their daughters. Men sometimes make cloth but the women do the majority of the work. The quantity of cloth on sale was staggering and results in wallets, bags, scarves and notebooks as well as clothing. Prices are always negotiable and the sellers enjoy the bartering process, more than we do I imagine.
One morning we walked east a few blocks to find the Casa Santa Domingo, a 5 star hotel in the grounds of an old monastery. It houses several small museums, all well worth the 4.80 GBP fee. The grounds are well cared for, as are the macaws living there but the silver museum left us feeling how obscene all the religious silver crowns and banners were, given how much poverty there was. Was it really necessary for the priests to dress so opulently?
Apart from the silver, there are Colonial, Archaeology, Pre-Columbian Art and Modern Glass, Sacatepequez Art and Popular Handcrafts and Pharmacy Museums. They are attractively presented and located close to one another around the promenade.
The final museums we went into was empty but for us. One was off the main city square and housed old books and information about early printing in the town from 1660. The other was a Jade museum and shop. There were a few other museums in town, including the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales housing military exhibits but we felt we had seen enough. Apart from the Chocolate museum near our hotel of course. They have a café and run a school where you can take a class on making truffles or bars of chocolate. Their shop sells lovely combinations of chocolate with a variety of added ingredients. Not cheap though.
As we walked around town we found many of the sights recommended by the guide. The Tanque La Union and adjoining park, the cemetery to the west of town and the huge craft shop all gave us a few interesting hours and photo opportunities. The cemetery was all white with family buildings housing the coffins of the deceased and room for the next in line. If you feel like a rest, horse drawn carriages can take you around the main attractions instead. You can also people watch for hours from a bench in the shady central park, a busy place for tourists and vendors. Several spas offer relaxing massages and you can take tours on horseback into the mountains, or just take a car to coffee plantations.
We also saw several fast food outlets, almost hidden because their signs are so small and bland, presumably a planning restriction as the city is part of a UNESCO Heritage Site. McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Subway all have branches in Antigua together with lots of fried chicken and taco stalls. We only saw a couple of Spanish language schools and are glad we took our classes in San Pedro. It is also much cheaper there, for accommodation and eating out.
Although I crept out of our room one night around 0300 to see if I could see any lava flowing, I didn’t. Countless tourist offices run walking tours to the volcanoes but we declined, having plenty to do in the town. The lava report online also said there wasn’t any lava flow, so we were out of luck this time. The surrounding hills are beautiful and the town nestles down between them, surely a risky place to have your capital city. It was destroyed so many times by earthquakes and lava and re-built but finally they decided to re-locate their capital to Guatemala City in the 18th Century.
We wanted to spend at least a night in the capital and getting a shuttle bus for 7.50 GBP each to our next hotel seemed a good plan. The shuttles leave for the airport regularly but we arranged to take the 1100 one as it gave us plenty of time for breakfast and vacating the room. The driver picked up 8 people and 6 were dropped at the airport but he took us directly to the Meraki Hotel near the Oakland Shopping Mall. It is a small, modern hotel with a café for the included breakfast. The mall is about a 10 minute walk and full of modern clothes and shoe shops plus fast food outlets.
Closer to the hotel is a lovely mall, mainly with good restaurants and bars. We opted for a great Italian called ‘Calula’. I had a starter of mozzarella and tomato salad followed by superb ricotta cheese ravioli with a lime butter sauce and Rob had chorizo then tuna. With wine the bill was 60 pounds and it came stuck onto a cocktail glass full of candyfloss, something different!
Unfortunately our room faced the road and being a Friday night it remained busy and noisy into the early hours so we didn’t sleep that well. Our taxi arrived at 0800 and cost 5 pounds to take us to the Litegua Bus Station for our return journey, this time all on the same bus. We arrived in Fronteras by 1530 and got a tuk-tuk back to Nana Juana where Beyzano was waiting for us, hot but the same as always. We loved Antigua and would have been happy to spend a lot longer there but it is still good to be home!