The Merced in Antigua. . .
Far too late, I am finally throwing together a mini-account of my Guatemala trip. The last year has been somewhat messy, hence the lack of blogging. For some reason Guatemala was hard to write about (perhaps because I did amazingly little while there) leading to my blog getting stuck in Haiti. Anyway, I need to write something about Guatemala before I can move on to the more interesting subject of Havana.
Mostly I spent my time in Guatemala simply hanging around Antigua, working on my laptop, enjoying the excellent cafes and restaurants (a contrast to the Dominican Republic and Haiti), breathing in the charming atmosphere of controlled colonial decay, tasting the local food, occasionally browsing the cigar merchants and attempting to cultivate an appreciation of their wares, and vaguely plotting my next move. Excitement was mostly of the minor variety. I was hugely entertained in a café by a churchy looking man, attached to some charity group building houses for Guatemalans, caught searching for porn on his laptop. His discrete corner seat failed to provide the anticipated protection when a member of his group seated at another table returned from the toilet by an unexpectedly circuitous route. The poor man’s loud protestations that his computer must have contracted some mysterious virus only drew attention to his distressing condition. That incident probably made my week. So as you can see my time in Guatemala was underutilized.
The Plaza in Antigua. . .
Of course I also sampled the local rum. A little more on that latter, but for now I’ll antagonize many of my rum-loving readers by mentioning that I did not especially care for Ron Zacapa. When I first tried Zacapa, in Santo Domingo, I found it incredible stuff. Somehow though it became less interesting each time I drank it. Zacapa is a unique rum, but for me perhaps it ultimately lacks the requisite edge. So while Antigua does cafés far better than Port-au-Prince, it was disappointing that none of them served Barbancourt. As seems to be the case in most rum-producing countries, the range of imported rums available in Guatemala is limited. Bacardi is all over the place, and you often see Flor de Caña (from neighboring Nicaragua), but beyond that the selection is poor. The one joint in Antigua that described itself as a ‘rum bar’ sold exactly the same selection of local rums as every other bar or café in town. Maybe they earned the title ‘rum bar’ by selling the stuff in larger quantities than their competitors, but since they seemed to have no customers besides myself I have my doubts.
Given the lackluster rum options, it was no surprise that my future travel plans eventually crystallized over steak, chips and a Pisco Sour in a French bistro with a tempting cocktail menu. The Ramos Gin Fizz that preceded the meal was a disaster (I knew when ordering it was likely to be a mistake), but the Pisco Sour was delicious, and a welcome change from rum. As I sipped its thick bodied grapeyness, it suddenly became clear to me that after seeking the ultimate Daiquiri and Mojito in Havana, I should head to Lima and forage for the perfect Pisco Sour. While rum was all very well and good, it alone could not sustain a man – and certainly not a man as spiritously ambitious as myself. To guard against rashness, I finished the meal by meditating with a Zacapa and a cigar, but by the time I swapped the warmth of the restaurant for the cool mountain air my mind was made up.
Antigua was charming. Many travelers criticize the town for being overpriced and overly touristified. No doubt it is touristy, but tourists descend on Antigua for good reason, and in any case are joined by plenty of well-heeled refugees from Guatemala City. The place has beautiful architecture, the strict regulations on advertising signage preserve the pleasant historical ambiance, the climate is pleasantly cool (particularly for an arrival from the sticky Caribbean), and there is some excellent food to be had.
I particularly liked an officially nameless hole-in-the-wall French place that everyone seemed to call Hector’s. After discovering it I ended up there at least a couple of times a week. It seemed to pitch itself to the solo diner who doesn’t mind being a little flexible, offering a choice of several delicious meals each night, and a wine list of the ‘whatever happens to be open when you wander in’ variety. You practically eat in the kitchen, with the restaurant having maybe a half dozen bar seats overlooking the stove, plus three or four little tables. The very personable Hector Castro (a hyperactive Guatemalan-British guy) made the place: introducing guests to each other, pouring wine or hammering out a rough-and-ready cocktail, then rushing back to the stove just in time to prevent disaster engulfing everyone’s dinner. It was always entertaining and the food was great. The roast duck with roasted grapes was particularly good, as was the Beef Bourguignon with fried potatoes. Another good French place was Bistro Cinq, though the execution of their impressive cocktail list was rather hit-and-miss.
I forget the name of the best place I found for Guatemalan food, but it was located about three blocks north of the Merced. Rather than having a printed menu it was the type of place that simply prepared a variety of food and sold it in vaguely buffet style.
I made a few forays out of Antigua: climbing Pacaya Volcano, taking a day trip on Lake Atitlan, spending a couple of days in Flores seeing the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and exploring Guatemala City. Really though I did not do much. I should probably have gone across to Mexico, but somehow the weeks quickly flew past and it was time to head to Cuba. Safety concerns also put a slight damper on activity. While the hills around the town looked inviting territory for hiking, locals told me tourists who hiked through the countryside alone ran a real risk of getting robbed. The Coca-Cola delivery vans carried shotgun wielding guards, so possibly the advice was sound. Or possibly Antigua was just full of paranoid refugees from Guatemala City. Who was really to know?
Pacaya Volcano was an experience. An easy day trip from Antigua, it is well worth doing if you ever pass that way. You take a short hike through some forest, sticking close to a guide who follows an overly complicated trail; fences with hidden gaps, false forks, and other traps are all used to prevent guide fee dodgers from ever making it out of the woods. Above the forest you cross a short band of scrub, and then find yourself scrambling through a Mordor-like landscape of scoria. The guides do not take tourists right up to the summit of the volcano. Instead you go to an area on the slope below the main crater where glowing lava bubbles out of the ground and seeps down the mountain. Vaguely aware of safety, the guides certainly don’t allow themselves to stress about it. They use sticks to scoop up molten lava and light cigarettes, flick chunks of glowing lava around, and invite tourists to crouch right over the bubbling lava spring for photos. A couple of my group held back, but most went up close. Strangely, what seemed from a distance to be a thin and treacherous layer of cooled rock above the molten lava was solid and safe to walk on. Naturally you had to take care not to slip into the cracks – some of them quite large. The fierce red glow made being careful where you put your feet surprisingly easy to get the knack of.
Unfortunately my photos from Pacaya somehow disappeared from my computer when I reorganized things, along with other photos from Guatemala, so you’ll just have to imagine me crouching intrepidly over the lava.
Lake Atitlan was worth a look. The lake is almost impossibly picturesque: a deep volcanic crater lake, surrounded by a ring of high volcanic peaks. It is the type of scenery that you can easily imagine being dreamed up, but picturing it appearing through a fluke of nature is harder. Unfortunately, the worst type of tourist development takes the gloss off the place. The largest lakeside town, Panajachel, is overdeveloped and full of tacky shops and aggressive touts. San Pedro La Laguna, a smaller settlement on the far side of the lake, was more relaxed and laid back, but lacked the charm of Antigua. A different type of place I guess, and probably a good choice if you were after cheap Spanish classes and low living costs. The locals were friendly, and taking the ferry across the lake I got a couple of chances to practice my bad Spanish with elderly Mayan women. Unfortunately my lakeside Mojito was not good, with a spirulina glow reminiscent of something dredged from the lake itself. The boat trip back across the lake was nearly spoiled by a group of Israelis upset at paying the tourist price for their tickets. The Israelis refused to board the boat, meaning we didn’t have the numbers to leave. The standoff dragged on until I was in danger of missing my bus back to Antigua, so I offered to pay the difference for them. They turned down my offer and reluctantly got on the boat anyway. I just made the bus.
Flores was a slightly boring and touristy little town, with dull architecture and disappointing restaurants. Everywhere catered exclusively to tourists, and the arrival of the rainy season meant that many of the better looking places were closed. The town was saved somewhat though by its unique location – on a man made island in the middle of a lake.
Unfortunately, the day I visited Tikal the park was preparing to host the president of Guatemala, who had decided the ruins would provide a dramatic backdrop from which to address the nation. The ruins were open, but things were rushed since tourists had to be out before El Presidente and his entourage arrived. Perhaps I should have gone back for a second look the next day, but I decided to hang around my hotel in Flores and get some work done, then take a wander around the town in the afternoon. Somehow, even though things at Tikal had been slightly rushed, I felt I’d seen everything.
Silly and unnecessary comparison time: personally I think Tikal is not in the same league as Angkor Wat. I am not sure quite why, but Angkor Wat demands that you really take your time. When visiting Cambodia I found a full dawn-to-dusk day at Angkor Wat was barely enough, and a couple of days after my initial visit I went out to explore some of the more distant temples. If I were to visit Cambodia again, I’d definitely take a second look at Angkor Wat too. My rushed tour of Tikal wasn’t quite enough, but it came pretty close. Part of the difference may be the more intricate artwork and decoration at Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat also has more lifelike and less stylized depictions of humans and gods, and perhaps that brings the site to life.
All that aside, Tikal is still pretty amazing. The place has an inhuman scale about it, with enormous quantities of material having been moved around to construct the massive courtyards and pyramids. There is something mathematically perfect about the place, like a complex error-free equation; everywhere you look are perfectly proportioned slabs slotted precisely together. Some of the most obvious clues showing how humans interacted with this odd world they constructed for themselves are unsettling, namely the ball courts, where teams competed to avoid (or win?) the dubious honor of being sacrificed. The place feels uninviting. But then you wander into the living quarters of some long-forgotten noble, and you imagine how this stone box set on an elongated pyramid would once have been colorfully painted, with wooden doors, decorated wall panels, woven mats on the floor, and servants who went home told their families what they had seen and heard while working up on the stone mound, and suddenly it becomes almost comfortable. The views across the jungle from the top of the pyramids are amazing. Of course I guess that when the complex was inhabited most of the jungle would not have been there, so getting a sense of the place as it really was is hard. I wasn’t there in the early morning so unfortunately I didn’t see any of the famous wildlife.
Straight after visiting Tikal, and before leaving Guatemala, I spent a couple of days in Guatemala City. My ever-efficient New Zealand bank had decided put a block on my credit card after a purchase in Haiti aroused their suspicion. Helpfully, the only way to resolve the issue was for me to travel back to New Zealand, leaving cash my only option for purchasing tickets to Cuba. This left me having to do a fair bit of running around town, since finding an ATM machine that would accept my card was not easy. Incidentally, my wanderings took me along the perimeter of the airport a couple of times, where it was odd to see an enormous number of Guatemalans out watching planes land and take off. Some of them looked like families there to see off relatives. Others looked like they came to the airport to daydream about life in the United States. A few looked like plane nuts.
After sorting out my ticket I visited the national museum. The museum had a good display of Mayan artifacts, but sadly the famous jade hall was closed for renovations. I seem to have a knack for dropping in on museums in far-flung places only to find their prize exhibits are not on display.
My most memorable moment in Guatemala City came just after I arrived back there from Flores. The flight from Flores disembarked at a small private terminal across the runway from the main international terminal. The terminal was in an industrial area with no real transport links and my hotel (also not far from the airport) had sent a driver to pick me up. A young English backpacker with a prosthetic leg looked to be having trouble finding transport out of the place so I asked if he wanted to be dropped off somewhere. He was headed for the main terminal so hopped in my car and off we went. It was evening rush hour though, and before long we were gridlocked in traffic, our 15 year old driver growing ever more impatient. Frustration was building, and only grew with the wailing of an ambulance siren, annoyingly close, and moving annoyingly slowly. Just as the ambulance weaved alongside, our driver realized we had struck lucky, hit the accelerator, and tucked us into the ambulance’s wake. It was a brilliant maneuver, and saw us speeding (relatively speaking) through the gridlock, the three of us in hysterics, the prosthetic-legged backpacker slapping the roof in celebration.