Well, here I am in Antigua Guatemala and it as softly beautiful as everyone promised it would be. I’m really happy with my room at the Villa de Antigua, just about five blocks south of the town’s Central Park (Parque Central), close to all the major sights. Got here last night after flying into La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. The Villa de Antigua hosts made sure their retainer taxi driver, Julio, was at the airport waiting for me holding up my name on a sheet of paper, written in bold letters: Nancy de Toronto. That made me feel like royalty. Although I arrived in prime city traffic, the trip to Antigua Guatemala only took a little over an hour at a cost of $30 CDN. Already a bargain price compared to the fare from any major North American airport into whatever city.
Everyone will tell you that the best first sighting of Antigua Guatemala is just at sunset and I was lucky enough to have that timing for my first glimpse of the city. The waning light kind of filtered out the modern touches, like electrical street wiring etc., and highlighted the cobblestone streets, so that the city looked the way it might have in the 17th century. Okay, the cars were still there, but it gives you an idea of how the place might have looked back in the day. Awesome. It really looked like a movie set for a Spanish colonial story. Where was Zorro?
When I got to the Villa de Antigua, a mix of Spanish colonial architecture and modern brightness, I was greeted by my Canadian hosts who showed me to a beautiful room with high rafters and a generous terrace. From there, in the fading light, I saw the sun setting over three volcanoes, one of which (Fuego) was still belching out a plume of smoke from its furnace insides. Spectacular.
Next morning, on the advice of the Villa hosts, I set off on a self-directed tour of the central part of the city. Parque Central is the staring point, they explained, and then pointed out the five sights that I might like to see on a first-morning walking orientation.
First, the park itself: Here I found the Fountain of the Sirens. This is a mermaid fountain, with the lovely one’s breasts pouring water into the fountain. Talk about a siren call! Since this is a tourist town, there were many tourists who were sitting on one of the many park benches, poring over Spanish homework (lots of Spanish language schools here) and Mayan women in classic dress selling weaving and jewelry. I resisted purchasing any shawls or necklaces (a personal guilty pleasure) and settled into a park bench while a boy of about 12 shined my dusty Toronto boots. I gave him an extra tip for putting up with my rudimentary Spanish. A patient and hard working boy for sure.
Next, following the orientation advice I had been given I went to see La Catedral (The Cathedral), which is located on the east side of the park. Built in the mid 16th century and destroyed by earth quakes in the 18th century, the restoration work gives you an idea of how magnificent and archiecturally prominent it must have been in it’s heyday.
Next, on the south side of the park, I had a look around the Palacio de los Capitanes (Palace of the Captains). It was from here that the Spanish, mostly through its military forces, ruled their Central American holdings. Walking the full length of the arcade that fronts the building gives you a sense of how the conquerors dominated through might and intimidated through architecture.
Next, on the north side of the park, I explored the Palacio del Ayuntamiento (City Hall). Also fronted by an arcade, its has a silhouette that is somewhat softer than the Palace of Captains, but is nevertheless an imposing formal colonial structure. In it’s prime, it was the tax office, jail and seat of other general administration, starting in the 17th century.
Next, I walked north on the 5th avenida (5th avenue), which frames the west side of the park. Here I found the iconic Arco de Santa Catalina (Arch of Santa Catalina) with its overhead span of the cobblestone street. Restored to its former glory the clock inside the arch chimed the quarter hour as I arrived to take it in.
Next, continuing north on the 5th avenida, I turned left (west) at the next intersection and got the full sight of the breath-taking La Merced Church. It’s a butter cup yellow with white frosting on towers and columns. Toured the inside and was able to imagine where the 16th century convent was located and then took a tour of the church, which still functions day-to-day for the faithful.
All of this was a great first step into historic Antigua Guatemala, but tomorrow, I’m taking a formal walking tour so I can get the real low down on these and about 10 other sights. But I’m not doing it in sandals. I’ve learned my lesson the first day. The cobblestone streets are murder on your feet. Socks and sturdy shoes tomorrow for sure.