After a night in Tapachula, Mexico, we crossed into Guatemala. A young "helper" had used our prepayment to get stoned. The Mexican Emigration lady warned, "Dangerous - is on drugs", so we ditched him. On the Guatemalan side of the border an official demanded a $50 bribe, but settled for $30.
Guatemalan roads were much better than we had read. Advised by a Guatemalan MIT alumnus, we followed the coastal truck route, not the Pan American Highway. He had told us that road was safe to drive since the disputed election. The scenery was gorgeous: lush greenery, flowers, volcanoes. We entered Antigua on what turned out to be the biggest fiesta day of the season. The inns we had chosen from a guidebook were full, and the narrow cobbled streets were choked with assorted vehicles and revelers. The firecrackers continued all night. By parking and walking we found a fine $26 room with semi-kitchen in a friendly 4-room hotel.
We've seldom been so enchanted with a city, and hope to return. Antigua is a living museum. Founded in 1543, and once the Spanish political and cultural capital of the New World, it has often been damaged by earthquakes, especially in 1773 and 1976, then partially and carefully restored. The streets were last cobbled about 1760, so are hard on tires and feet. We're didn't use our car there, and Marge switched to hiking boots.
Flanking the streets are very irregular narrow sidewalks, and drab centuries-old walls, regularly interrupted by heavy ornate doors, closed at night and open days to disclose flowered garden patios inside, or arcades of little shops and restaurants. I used a computer facility nearly concealed in an old building. It cost 6 cents a minute for phone calls to the USA, and $2 a hour for "premium" use of computers. It was owned and operated by a gruff German paraplegic, who must have quite a story to tell.
I couldn't imagine a more paradisaical view than that from our simple breakfast restaurant, looking out over orchids and old cathedrals to the conical volcanoes beyond. Note 5/29/10: PACAYA was one of them.
Pedestrians were a mix of workers, businessmen (never women) with cell phones, tourists (mostly European), and short Mayan women in bright multicolored dresses, most carrying wide loads on their heads and babies on their backs, without apparent strain. At 4900' altitude, the climate is springlike.
In Antigua quetzals (8 per dollar) are accepted, and usually dollars, euros, and Visa. Haircuts cost $1.75 US equivalent. Skilled workers get $3 a day. The city teemed with no-haggle shops selling art we could understand and enjoy, beautiful craft work with which we would have liked to fill the car, and fine goods woven in nearby village homes.
For total language immersion one can stay in local homes for $60 or less a week, including 3 meals daily except Sunday. People come from all over the world for the many little language schools. We' had four afternoons of one-on-one instruction, at $3 an hour for experienced university graduate instructors. It was illuminating and intimidating.
My maestro was a lapsed Catholic. The instruction was nearly all in Spanish. Amidst conjugations of irregular verbs, and idioms, we talked about politics, religion, moose, jokes, gringos, anything. Snippets: Why have we seen only 1 cockroach ? "You are very lucky, ho, ho". With so many men killed in your recent war, half your women must go without a man, no ? "No, for it is our custom for every man, rich or poor, to have 2 women. The wives do not like it". That was an exaggeration. not all men were hypocrites there. But the manager of our little hotel was a pretty girl, charming, intelligent, and still single at 29.
The Guatemalan general partly responsible for the long genocide of perhaps a half million people, and supported by the USA in the Cold War, was defeated in an election the month before our visit. That was a significant step towards democracy, but the country was left with a legacy of violence and corruption that required the most caution of our journey so far. Somber armed police were at every street corner near the city center, and vigilant before every store of luxury goods, and by every bank and ATM. We were told, "You're safe to walk most of or streets... until 10 PM , when all the police go home".
One recent evening we happened on a ceremony that epitomized the soul and deep faith of the people. Down the dim narrow streets slowly lurched an apparently heavy platform supporting a highlighted Virgin Mary surrounded by flowers. The platform was supported by nine persons on each side. Each side moved in lock step, alternating with the other side, hence the measured lurching to the cadence of the somber suited band following it. Every two blocks a weary nine was deftly replaced by another nine. Once they were women. Liturgical choreography. Finally, with apparent great effort, the platform was carried up stairs and into the floodlit main cathedral in a blaze of glory, the music replaced by firecrackers and arching skyrockets.