I took the advice of my hosts at the Villa de Antigua and signed on for a walking tour of Antigua Guatemala. And I’m glad I did. It made for an awesome second day experience of Antigua Guatemala.
On my first day I did the DIY tour of the points of interest immediately around the Parque Central, which was a great first start. I’m not so jaded that I’m not in awe of what is obviously a Spanish colonial architecture dream. But, of course, I had the barest clue of what I was looking at. There are no official plaques which more or less explain, for example, the significance or historical dates or the story of any given edifice or ruin, of which there are plenty.
Also, there’s the perennial Antigua Guatemala problem of finding your way to the sightseeing points of interest. I noticed a few other gringos scratching their heads over a tourist map and looking around like they were seeing the surface of the moon for the first time in their lives.
Okay, fellow gringo tourists, you need to eat the reality sandwich (tamale maybe?) and down the “facts of life” cup of java: there’s no way you can find your way around this town even if you are an Eagle Scout compass master or orienteering blue ribbon winner. Got some really great advice from Elizabeth Bell, who led a 3-hour tour, starting at the Parque Central fountain.
Her words of wisdom about finding your way around are the following: Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find a street address when you’re dealing with calle and avenida names that don’t correspond to the ones on your map. Instead, head in the general direction of your destination — church ruin, restaurant, travel agency, hair salon, fortune teller, whatever — and ask someone where the salon, church, bingo parlor etc. is. ”?Donde esta? whatever.” People will point you in the right direction. Many Antiguan Guatemalans are not even sure of their own addresses so don’t rely on your American/Canadian idea of “Where is 123 Main St.?” That is a mug’s game.
I highly recommend Elizabeth Bell’s tour. Although there are may accredited (by Inguat, the official Guatemala government-sanctioned tourist bureau) guides to be found in front of the large central cathedral, her’s is a more rounded and generally informative talk.
You don’t get just the history and dates and stories of constant earthquakes that shook foundations and sent columns and buildings toppling into rubble. You do get that, plus a mini remedial course on: anthropology (Maya cosmology; the idea that the world is going to end in December 2012 according to the Maya calendar is a goofy and just plain wrong gringo take on sophisticated Maya ciphering); economics (a huge portion of the Guatemalan economy relies on remittances, that is, Guatemalans working in North America who send or bring money back to their families living here); art history (the gentler aspects of 18th century Spanish religious statues in the main Cathedral, the ones designed to have their glass eyes make sympathetic contact with the faithful — try it. It works.); jade is for eternal life (wonderful story of how Montezuma gave Cortes an immense jade necklace to give to the Spanish King so that he would have eternal life; Cortes, taking this gesture as a pagan abomination, immediately set a death penalty for anyone cutting or shaping jade; oh those wacky conquerors.)