Guatemala Getaway

by Kris & Marsha Thoemke

LIKE IT WAS STARING back at us, Volcan de Agua, an inactive but impressive volcano, dominated the horizon as we looked south from the veranda outside our room. But it was Pacaya to the east and Volcan de Fuego to the west, two very active volcanoes that we hoped to see if the tropical mountain clouds would clear away. On our first night in Antigua, the fast moving clouds first obscured then cleared to allow us a few glimpses of the rich red lava flowing down the slopes of Pacaya. Volcan de Fuego didn’t show itself until the next morning when we saw it belch ash and stream into the sky.

Not a bad start to our three night getaway considering we hadn’t left the veranda outside our room at Casa Madeleine, a six room Bed & Breakfast in the Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala. Antigua, the third capital of the Spanish conquistadors, was founded in 1543 and served as the Spanish capital of the region until 1717 when an earthquake destroyed much of the city. The buildings may have been damaged and the Spanish relocated to the present day Guatemala City, but Antigua was far from gone.

Those that stayed behind rebuilt Antigua and the city became an important regional center. Today, tourists will find a rich mix of ancient ruins, colonial Spanish architecture and a few modern buildings giving the walled city its well-deserved reputation as one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Americas.

Leave your southwest Florida home in the morning, fly non-stop from Fort Lauderdale to Guatemala city and then take a one hour shuttle right to Antigua. You will be strolling the streets by mid afternoon. If you are looking for an exotic and romantic 3-5 day affordable getaway, where the lodging and meals are reasonably priced, with many opportunities to shop for locally made goods, this is where you want to be.

Car rentals are available but it is easier to have your hotel arrange transportation to and from Antigua. Once there, it’s a leisurely 20 minute walk from one end of town to the other. If it starts to rain or your are too laden with what you’ve bought, a cab ride is only $2-$4 US dollars.

Get to know the city with a walking tour. Antigua Tours & Travel offers a three hour overview of the town for $20 US. The tour provides a comprehensive overview of the city, its history and culture and the numerous and ongoing restoration activities. It includes a stop for refreshments and a visit to Jades, S.A., a combination museum and jade factory. Afterwards, if you want to explore the ruins and other historic buildings and churches, there are 20 sites open to the public and easy to find.

If shopping is one of your favorite activities, Antigua won’t disappoint you. There are countless shops and several markets to explore. Only five minutes from Casa Madeleine is Antigua’s main market and adjacent handicraft market. The area is known for the bright and colorful woven items and tapestries and jade jewelry. While you can purchase jade items in the markets at very reasonable process, they are not the most desirable colors of jade (colors vary from black to creamy white and include many shades of green), nor of the best craftsmanship.

For something special, visit one of the jewelry stores in town. Jades, S.A. is the largest store and is a stop for most tourists. Searching for something unique at a reasonable prices we choose to check out the smaller stores and found Jades Imperio Maya. With a diverse selection of unique items and prices, and a sales staff willing to bargain a bit, we left the store with a jade necklace and pair of earrings at a very appealing price.

The markets are busy places and the merchants are hungry for your business. Multi-colored blankets, wall hangings and tapestries, along with wood carvings, and other hand made goods are all locally made. Of course there are t-shirts, dresses and other tourist merchandise aplenty. You could spend a day looking at every shop and market stall but, after a short while, you’ll start to see the same types of items over and over. So focus on finding a place where you see several items you want.

We’ve yet to visit a market where the golden rule doesn’t apply: Don’t pay the asking price! Ask the selling price and then offer about 20% less. Most vendors will counter-offer. If your Spanish is good enough you often can haggle a bit more and get better deals. You will also be amazed at how a basic frown and uttering the phrase “too much” as you start to walk away will bring about a new, lower price from the seller. Often the process of negotiating a good deal is as much fun as purchasing an item.

Antigua also has many street vendors and they are rather aggressive. Some of what they have to offer are good deals. The starting price on the two wood carved masks we bought was $15 each and we ended up with both for $5. The local tourist police do their best to keep these wandering merchants from selling their goods as we were told street merchants are not legal. However, they are everywhere and the police seem to only be able to chase them out of one area into another.

One thing you will not have to worry about in Antigua is going hungry. There is a large selection of restaurants serving up all types of cuisine. Italian, Brazilian steak houses, Mexican, Asian and continental restaurants are all popular in Antigua. The local cuisine, based on chicken rice, beans and plantains is basic. The best choice is La Fonda de la Calle Real.

A good way to end the day is a trip to the spa. Most properties offer spa services. At Casa Madeleine you can get massages, facials, manicures and pedicures for prices considerably less than you would pay in southwest Florida. An hour long massage was $40 and a 90-minute hot stone massage was only $56.

Antigua is a unique destination suited for travelers looking for a more relaxed adventure. There are an abundance of tourist police and the crime rate is low. We felt safe enough to walk the streets at night and did not hear of anyone having problems. If you haven’t been there, add Antigua, Guatemala to your list of places to visit. •

from the July-August 2010 issue

Volcan de Agua, an inactive
but impressive volcano,
dominated the horizon
to the south, but it was
Pacaya to the east and
Volcan de Fuego to the west,
two very active volcanoes,
that we came to see.
There are an abundance
of tourist police and
the crime rate is low.