The most uncomfortable chicken bus in the world finally made its way into the central terminal in Guatemala City and I was rushed with a sense of uneasiness. My trip thus far has sent me on a whirlwind of bus rides and short stays in capital cities. Guate looks appealing, but I need a change of pace. No big cities today. I casually scan the passing buses for destinations that seem off the beaten path. With my eyes surveying from left to right it’s impossible to miss the sound of one promoter singing out his destinations as he hangs from the door of his bright blue and white bus. “San Juan, Antigua, Antigua! San Juan, Antigua, Antigua!” Antigua? Sounds great. One of the oldest functioning Spanish colonial cities nestled in between the overpowering arms of three surrounding volcanoes. The city is a growing tourist destination, but I would be a fool not to take the time to check it out. I’m too far from home to let any opportunity pass me by.
Day 20 (Jun. 23):
The bus throws me out in the center of Antigua and I spend the next 45 minutes walking blindly through the cobblestone streets looking for an adequate place to drop my bags for a few days. At this point, all I really require is a cheap rate and reliable Wi-Fi; not too much to ask. Working my way towards the main plaza I finally stumble upon a little hole in the wall with a wooden sign displaying “Hotel Santiago” that soothingly sways in the cool afternoon breeze. For $20 per night, I gladly take the keys and walk to my room. After long days on the road there is no better feeling than that moment when you forfeit to exhaustion and drop your bags to the floor knowing that you don’t have to travel for a few days. Standing free of the burden of that giant red pack I perform what has become my favorite check-in ritual: the release of a large sigh of relief while I plummet face first into the inviting bed. After a quick rejuvenation process- shower, change clothes, brief nap- my sense of adventure encourages me to head out into the town in search of some quality photos. As soon as I step onto the cobblestone street I’m wrapped in the timeless aura of the Spanish colonial town.
Like an endless fireworks display, your senses are flooded by the eternal loud rumbles and explosions elicited by the Volcanoes Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango as they remind their guests who is in control of this world. When the sun sets the display becomes visual as flares and puffs of smoke light up the darkening sky. I gradually wander my way through the narrow alleys of Antigua only to discover a dirt path that eventually spits me out at Cerro de la Cruz with a bird’s eye view of the entire town. As I sit perched atop Cerro de la Cruz I can finally understand why locals consider these beasts of nature that stand guard at the city limits as godly beings. At any moment the 3 man army can retake control of the city with a simple release of its fury. Gazing at these powerful volcanoes, I find a reassuring peacefulness. They appear so calm and serene on the surface, but inside they are churning and waiting to display their power. The scene is a humbling reminder of our place in this world.
From Cerro de la Cruz travelers, lovers, and lost souls are given the opportunity to reconnect with the city- with a time long gone- while the spirit of Santiago peacefully watches over their shoulders. It’s a feeling of safety up here. Tourists gather on the hill for a must-have photo opportunity while others use the space for relaxation and self-reflection. Sitting high above the chaos of the day-to-day you can see Antigua in its rawest form; a small city embroiled in a long history whose tales resonate through every ally and every building. Stepping off of the hill my feet make contact with those cobblestone streets and I am brought face to face with the city’s tumultuous history. Staring down the long Avenidas your vision is overwhelmed by images of early colonial lifestyle. Rustic stone masonry lays the ground work for each of the building fronts that line the streets. Hand painted ceramic signs are delicately plastered above the doorways to inform passers-by of the shop names. The streets here have a dreamlike effect on my sense of perception as I walk through dragging my hands across the scarred surfaces of the ruined architecture. Spanish colonialism, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the tourist boom. The streets of Antigua exude feelings of life in the wake of such violence. It’s in the work of the local women and children who proudly patrol the sidewalks in their brightly colored, hand-woven fabrics. It’s in the commotion of the central plaza that acts as the primary hub for all community activity. Families gather there to watch the diverse street performers during the day and couples crowd the park benches to openly display their affection in the evening. For me, it’s easy to get lost in Antigua’s timeless sense of community pride.