After leaving Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, we continued down the west coast of Central America and arrived at Port Quetzal in Guatemala. Our plan was to spend the day in Antiqua, a 1.5 hour bus ride, due North. Once again, we booked the transfer through Cunard, not wanting to risk independent transportation, and we are still applauding ourselves for this stellar choice. It is the Wednesday before Easter, all the kids are out of school, and the roadways were packed with holiday makers on the move. Our bus got back well past the “all board” deadline due to snarled traffic, and it was such a relief to see Queen Victoria waiting patiently for us.
We had a great day, but before I get into it, here’s a bit of history…
The Mayans have lived in Guatemala continuously for thousands of years. Despite the catastrophe of the Spanish Conquest in 1523, their society, languages, and traditions remain largely intact. And, they continue to form the vast majority here. That is truly remarkable given the odds. Thousands perished under the Spanish sword. But, that was insignificant compared to the murderous waves of smallpox, typhus, plague, and measles that the Spanish were kind enough to bring with them. There are plenty of well preserved ancient archeological sites in this country, but none were close enough for us to visit today. Bummer.
Under Spanish rule, Antigua was the capital of Guatemala from 1543 until a cataclysmic earthquake destroyed the city in 1773. Earthquakes have always been a part of life here, but this one was just too devastating to recover from and the residents were forced to abandon the city. Prior to that, there were numerous churches, a university (built in 1676), a printing press (founded in 1660) and a population of over 50,000. The capital was moved to Guatemala City, 40 miles away.
Antiqua slowly repopulated in the late 1800’s. Although, little was done to prevent further collapse of the main buildings until around 1970 when their historical value was finally appreciated and preservation efforts got off the ground. Another huge earthquake in 1976, was a painful setback in restoration efforts. In 1979, Antigua became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which brought much needed funding and a sharp increase in tourism. The natural setting is magnificent. There are 3 volcanos surrounding the city, each about 12,000 feet high. One is active, and it emits a column of ash with a threatening rumble on occasion to remind everyone of who the boss is. The other two are sleeping, peacefully, for now…
When we arrived in Port Quetzal, it was already a stifling 93 degrees. Most countries we’ve visited have strong populations centered on the coastline. Not here. The highlands are the preferred place to live, because it is much cooler. Antigua has an evaluation of 4,500 feet. It was 80 degrees with low humidity when we arrived. Perfect.
We started our exploration at the Jade Museum. Jade was not discovered in modern Guatemala until 1998, when a fierce storm hit Central America and scores of floods and landslides exposed old veins and washed jade into river beds. Local prospectors picked up the precious scraps, which found their way into Guatemalan jewelry shops and, eventually, into the hands of flabbergasted geologists. They were shocked by the range of colors, which is addition to the common black and green, came in white, red, blue, and purple.
The glassy, hard, often translucent rocks occur at only a few known sites around the world. The ancient Mayans considered jade to be more valuable than gold and silver, and their kings often went to their graves with jade suits, rings, and necklaces. The living had their teeth inlaid with the colored gems. This discovery has given a much needed boost to the Guatemalan economy. I contributed today, twice, within a half hour of getting off the bus.
Next, we wandered into the main square where kids of all ages were getting ready for the Easter pageant at La Merced Church. What a wonderful time to be here! The air was sparkly with good cheer. Girls dressed in white to represent Mary where soaking in the adoration of their extended families. Boys had their shoes shined to a glossy sparkle before the big event, and one precious little boy, cocooned in deep purple stole the show.
We were completely absorbed in the festive atmosphere while picking our way cautiously over the potholed cobblestone streets. The mixed bag of restored and crumbling Spanish structures was a feast for the eyes.
But, as gorgeous as the architecture was, it could not compare to the hundreds of vividly dressed Mayan women laden with handicrafts as they drifted through the streets or sat in the plazas. The ones on foot, methodically zeroed in on every sightseer with brazen determination. They were respectful, soft spoken, and relentless in their pursuit of a sale. I really admire their staying power, but after being intercepted and pursued by 22 different sellers in 15 minutes, politeness became a challenge.
The police presence was ubiquitous. The “tourist police” looked like regular cops with hand guns, spoke english fluently and interacted proactively with visitors. The “military police” did not engage, were dressed to intimate in camouflage, and carried machine guns. I asked permission before snapping a photo. Apparently, gang violence in Guatemala City is widespread and the government wants to make sure it doesn’t fan out to Antigua. Their presence helps keep the muggings in check too. The all-mighty tourist dollar is paramount here and the city is a gem. I’m glad they are being proactive in keeping it that way.
Our last stop before hopping on the bus was a quick segue into the lobby of a cloistered hotel at the back of an gloomy courtyard. It was well worth taking a peek. Check out the amazing garden…
Next Event, Transiting the Panama Canal!