May 15th, 2009

We’re on our Way

Antigua, Guatemala

This is it! The day we leave for Guatemala is finally here. This is a day I have dreamed about and planned for since the day I went home from my first trip here, two years ago. People look at me strangely when I tell them about how I fell in love with Guatemala on that first trip – but that was my inspiration for organizing this trip – I just had to get my friends here to see what a fascinating country this is.

My husband Gerry and I left with our friend, Joanne, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, this morning. Our flight to Miami was delayed because of birds (egrets) feeding in the grass next to the runway. The pilot was not willing to risk their being sucked into the engines so we had to pull off the runway and wait for some unfortunate person to come and try to scare them off…believe me it was hilarious to watch him driving around in the mud and water trying to get those birds to go elsewhere (they just circled around him and landed again!) It was not hilarious to watch the minutes tick by on our watches: We had a 35 minute connection in Miami, and minute by minute as we waited for the birds to move, that layover was being eaten up! The birds did eventually tire of playing with the guy in the truck and we took off for Miami – flying “low” according to the pilot so we could fly faster and make up the lost time…which we did!

The highlight of the flight was the pilot instructing us to look out the right side of the plane as there were blue whales breaching down below us. Of course, we couldn’t see that – but it certainly helped keep up the “nature” theme we had established for the flight! We arrived in Miami with just barely 20 minutes until the flight to Guatemala City was scheduled to take off! Unfortunately our route through the airport took us through all of that infernal construction, so we arrived at the gate exhausted from walking as fast as we could and with literally a minute to spare. The boarding area was already closed, but apparently they were waiting for us…whew!

Our flight was uneventful, and Gerry was really impressed with the food! We landed at the (new to me) airport in Guatemala City.  Another long walk to get to immigration and customs, but other than having to fill out a yet another form because of the swine flu scare, it all went smoothly.

Upon leaving customs we easily found Joanne’s friends Mike and Anita, with whom she was spending the night in Guatemala City and our driver from Viaventure to take us to Antigua. The weather was lovely, cool but not at all cold and though it was cloudy and we saw rain drops from time to time, it was just so great to be here that nothing was going to dampen our enthusiasm.

Our driver, Ricardo, was great! We mostly spoke Spanish (although his English was perfect) and we had an enjoyable ride getting to know each other and learning all kinds of interesting things about Guatemala during the 45 minute ride. At one point, as we were coming down out of the mountains, the road was very steep and curvy. My husband was a white as a sheet and Ricardo was deftly driving at what seemed to be a pretty high speed. Poor Gerry! He thought we were on a two way road – and since we were hurtling down the mountain in the left-hand lane – he was sure that his life was about to end!

I was oblivious because I knew we were on a four lane highway and the lanes going in the opposite direction were just obscured behind the trees! We arrived here in Antigua at about 2:30 in the afternoon (two hour time change from Puerto Rico) – and checked into the hotel, tired and ready for a nap. But you know how hard it is to stay in a hotel room when a new place beckons right outside the door – so in less than 10 minutes we were up and on our way to the bank to change money and get an initial look-see.

Our hotel, La Aurora, is just 2 blocks from the Parque Central (Central Park or main square) – making us extremely well located for getting around the city. We took a two hour stroll around the area – going up to La Merced Church and past the hotel where Jill F. and I stayed two years ago. We walked under the Santa Catalina arch and visited a couple of craft stores – getting an idea of what is available and what the prices are (I am waiting to shop until we get to Chichicastenango). The weather is cloudy and again there were rain drops intermittently so we could get only the barest suggestion of the volcanoes. We finally went back to the hotel and took a nap.

About 7:00 we were out again and on our way to dinner. We decided to go to La Posada de Don Rodrigo – a restaurant in a tourist hotel, and touristy or not, the food was good. There was a group playing the marimba during dinner and a dance performance. It was a lovely evening and all our fellow dinners were cheerful and relaxed, too. The service was excellent! We tried some new things – Cerveza Gallo – the local favorite, and a michelada (beer and something akin to Bloody Mary mix) which was quite good and refreshing. Our steak and sausages were served with rice, black beans (pureed), white cheese and tortillas. I also got amarillos (fried ripe plantains).  A very good meal. We were asleep by 9:30 pm.

May 16th, 2009

The Day Starts Early

Antigua, Guatemala

It’s 4:30 am on a Saturday morning in Antigua – and we’re both awake. (Of course, in Puerto Rico, it is 6:30 am already – which is our normal getting up time.) We try to fight it and go back to sleep but by 5:00 am we’re dressed and out the door to take photos of Antigua in the early dawn. The light is beautiful and we really see a lovely sleeping town, with volcanoes swathed in clouds, the sun just beginning to rise and only the earliest risers out on the street (almost no one!). We walked for about 2 hours – making it all the way to the market to watch it being set up. It was wild by the time we left – everyone scurrying about setting up their stalls, fruits and vegetables being unloaded (I saw some of the biggest carrots and papayas I have even seen in my life!). Lots of people – but not as many as there will be by mid-morning!

Gerry got some great shots of huge sides of beef being unloaded from the back of a truck. Despite the fact that we were OBVIOUSLY the only people there who were not local, we got a lot of smiles (and some good pictures). We picked up a very “simpático” pooch (I should say he adopted us) and he kept us company for the entire walk until we returned to the Central Park and Gerry forbade him to follow us any further.

By 7:45 we were having breakfast (I was starving) and ready for another nap (that’s where Gerry is right now). Today we plan to take the “hike” up to the cross – even though it is cloudy, and looks like it will rain, I don’t think that is an activity that the rest of our group will want to do. We expect to see the rest of the group and officially start our adventure this afternoon.

We left the hotel about 9:45am to go do the climb up the Cerro de la Cruz. It was sort of sprinkling but not cold…yet. We asked several official-looking people where to find the correct police station to get the escort up the hill, but we got conflicting instructions and even some blank looks. Since it had started to sprinkle harder, we thought we might abandon the idea so we went to the Tourism Office which is right in the same street as our hotel. There, they told us we could walk to another point and meet the escort on their way up the hill. It was past 10:00am by now, so too late to get to the station, but we decided to give the rendezvous point a try (it was just a couple of blocks away).

Meanwhile, the weather is going all through the spectrum: it’s warm, we take off the sweaters; it starts to rain, we cover our heads; it stops raining but now it’s cold so we put the sweaters back on…then start over again. By the time we get to the rendezvous point we’re standing, sheltered from the rain, waiting for a walking group (that’s what I remembered from two years ago). They came in a truck! Yeah! That walk up the hill is strenuous!

We drove a curvy road to the top. I was comfortable in the cab with the two officers and two college students. Poor Gerry rode in the back of the pick-up (in the rain). At the top we had 20 minutes to look at and take pictures of the view. It was raining – but we did our best to try and get some pictures. Much of the majesty of the view was obscured by fog around the edges of the city. In the rain, 20 minutes seemed like forever so we walked back to the truck – but then the rain stopped! So we hung out, talking and taking pictures. Gerry started up a conversation with one of the college girls – this was their last day in Guatemala, having been there studying for the semester (they said their courses were too easy…).

After a while we got tired of waiting for the college girls to be ready to go so we decided to walk back down on the path. Midway down it started to really rain – our only salvation were the trees of the forest that kept off some of the downpour. Once out of the forest, there was really no hope of staying dry – but (light bulb on please!) we have our nifty $1.00 Coleman ponchos so we get them out and put them over our heads, backpacks, cameras and all – and though we look ridiculous – Gerry is bright red and I am bright blue – we’re dry and able to keep on walking. Mostly because walking in the rain is not really all THAT fun, we take advantage of a sign advertising a Museum and we go in.

There was a lot of activity in the place which it seems is some sort of cultural center, but we paid for and decided to visit the museum…museums really because there are several interconnected museums on a walk through the remains of an old university building and convent. It was great! We were actually entering the Casa Santo Domingo from the end of the museum walk! We got to see the museum of crafts of the area – very interesting! There were exhibits on ceramics and, of course, textiles and iron working, but our favorite was the “globos” or what we think of as balloons. These balloons were like miniature hot air balloons (the kind people fly in) made out of tissue paper and wire. At the base they would suspend a stick that was wrapped with a rag doused with some sort of gas. Apparently they would light the gas on fire and release the balloon into the air. It sounded so interesting and the pictures were fascinating. Something I would love to try or at least see in real life.

The museum tour continued through a beautiful gallery of contemporary art, and then into a wonderful gallery where Mayan artifacts were shown side-by-side with modern pieces in glass (Lalique, Costa Boda and other big international glass houses.) The legends explained the significance of various animals and symbols for the Maya (the English translations were very rough).

The museums give out into the gardens and the ruins of an old convent, now the Casa Santo Domingo Hotel which is stunningly beautiful. I have no idea what it costs to stay there – but for sure, a walk through the hotel is a must! We decided to eat lunch in the restaurant so that we could just sit and enjoy the place a little longer. Fantastic meal! Not Guatemalan really in any way – but delicious and different. Gerry had agnolotti with three cheeses in a really excellent sauce (we don’t remember the ingredients) with a steak on the side (good thing too because the portions were quite small).

My plate was sea bass with a green pea sauce, a (single) scallop (the menu did say “viera” singular) and a single ravioli made with squid ink and filled with a red pepper puree. Everything was great and we really did fill up despite how small the portions seemed.

After lunch we left the hotel and walked outside. Now the sun was out and it was hot again (off go the sweaters). Walking along casually enjoying the warm sunshine and being in Antigua, I suddenly hear Gerry gasp audibly! What??? Off to the left, the volcano has appeared from behind the clouds and it is spectacular. We spend quite a bit of time trying to get some good photos of it, but I really wonder if any picture can prepare someone for seeing the real thing – right there – and so huge!

We wandered back to our hotel to try to get a nap in before the arrival of all our friends. I made the mistake of reading for a while so that I had just barely drifted off when Gerry announced “They’re here!”

It was great to greet everyone – especially Fran and John who we had not seen in at least a year! Joanne we had dropped of the day before in Guatemala City and we had actually seen Juanita and Marshall just recently in San Juan, but it was exciting to have the group all together after all the anticipation! They were tired, just as we had been the day before, so Gerry took them out for a quick money change before they came back to the hotel to rest.

By 6:00 pm everyone was ready to go out, so we got dressed for dinner and decided to take a walk before our 7:00 reservation. The walk took us down to the Parque Central – volcanos visible now, and then up to La Merced church. We were all hungry – so we headed to the restaurant “La Fonda de la Calle Real” where our table was ready. We had a nice dinner – some people ate “pepián“, a traditional dish made with chicken and potatoes and some of us had something called “suban iq” – a dish with chicken, pork and beef in a special sauce. Tasty – but filling after soup – and all that proved too much for us to be able to enjoy our dessert:  a very sweet “mole” topping fried bananas. After dinner, to bed, I was ready!

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