San Juan del Obispo Guatemala Palace of the Bishop

Yolkobsens just got back from a day trip outside of Antigua Guatemala and haven’t even stopped to slap off the chicken bus dust before sitting down to write about our visit to San Juan del Obispo Guatemala.

It’s about five kms straight up the highlands from Antigua Guatemala to this mountain town, which is most noted for the Palace of the Bishop.  Bishop Francisco Marroquin threw off his gilded, rising super star pursuits in Madrid and became the first Bishop of the Americas in 1534 and went on to build the church and cloister that dominates the central square.  He also made pretty neat digs for himself.  They don’t call it a palace for nuttin’.

More of this in a bit.  First, I want to say that when I got off the bus from a higher pueblo, Santa Maria de Jesus Guatemala, only a short downward trajectory to San Juan del Obispo Guatemala, I was pretty dizzy when I got out of the bus.  Turns out we had descended about 1,400 feet in four minutes.  Apparently, my whirlies were a normal response to sudden loss of altitude, as was the ear bends (kind of like when you get off an airplane; you have to wait for the pop).  If you go there and this happens to you, first know that you are not having a stroke, next take five deep breaths.  You might be left with a slight headache, but at least you won’t feel like you just got off a bad tilt-a-whirl carnie ride.

Along with the impressive Palace and museum, San Juan de Obispo Guatemala is also known for some tasty specialities.  Yolkobsens were lucky to land there during full harvest time for a fruit known as “nispero.”  It sort of looks like a little pear, but the inside is closer to apricot on the color wheel.  It tastes like a cross between a plum and, well, a pear.  They are generally harvested between November and December and this town is known for its “vino de nispero.”

Though called a vino, this is a non-alcohol fruit cordial served up prettily in wine bottles.  Each maker has his or her own recipe, some sweeter than others.  There were a couple of stands open that day offering free sample tastes.  We selected a less sweet variety that had more or less left the fruit character intact.  (Upon returning to Antigua Guatemala, Mr. Y immediately poured a splash of rum into a glass of the nispero vino and declared it a perfect cocktail after a long day trekking through highland pueblos and enjoying the hysterical rhythms of chicken buses.)

Next, we tried another San Juan del Obispo Guatemala specialty, the sweet-tooth addictive personality’s crack cocaine.  Yes.  I’m talking about chocolate.  Our favourite locally made chocolate outlet was Antigua (Guatemala) Chocolate, located in the 3rd Calle Oriente #6.  Here Nora, the shop’s chocolate chief-of-staff and expert, offered us samples of their fine handmade wares.  We chose the cardamom-infused circles that come four-to-a-pack.  By the way, Guatemala is the world’s leading producer of cardamom, mostly from the Copan area.

After a good lunch at the Cocina del Obispo, a restaurant near the main entrance on the road into San Juan del Obispo Guatemala, we set off for the Bishop’s Palace museum. (Mr. Y lucked out with his plate of chile rellenos; though you could tell they had been frozen and revived in hot oil, they were more than good).

The hours at the Bishop’s Palace museum are 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m. At 2 p.m. we rang the bell and the door was opened by a very compact and stern nun with a plastic basin in her hands.  I asked in my pigeon Spanish (actually, that’s an insult to pigeons) if we could tour the museum.  She replied in the affirmative, but said we must give a donation.  Yes, we assured her, we would be happy to do so.

We were then put into the kind presence of a young nun who gave us the tour of some parts of the palace and a view of a small chapel, little changed since the 16th century.  The main church opens at 6 p.m. so we were not able to visit it.  There’s a small sampling of 16th century religious art, mainly in the Baroque vein, on view in glass cases and some of the walls.  Overall, the place is softly beautiful, with lovely proportions and a breath-taking view of the surrounding valleys and highlands.  It was a clear day, so we could see Antigua Guatemala from there.

At the end, she brought us to a room where visitors could contribute further to the church and the museum by buying locally made specialties.  We bought from the petite sister with the big smile a pound of “Cafe San Juan (Guatemala),” which was made from beans grown in a plantation abut 2 miles away.  No doubt we will bless her and the finca for the beans at breakfast manana.


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