Of the 25 sprawling zones that make up Guatemala City, we decide “Zona”10 is the best fit for us. Pre-booking our first two nights in this zone, we are taken aback when we cannot extend our stay in this hotel or any other in Zone 10! Delegates for the International Coca-Cola Convention are spilling into the city. If we could have found a room, I would have sported a Pepsi T-shirt for a lark. But can’t put all the blame on Coca-Cola, as a Walmart Convention is drawing in a multitude of attendees on the same days! Zone 10 is zoned-out for us!
Our Antigua Photo Gallery
So – it is off by taxi to Antigua for a week, for which we thank these multi-nationals – as Antigua proves to be a colonial gem and finding the Casa Santa Rosa Boutique Hotel adds to the pluses!
Founded in 1541, Antigua was once the country’s capital, until it was shaken in 1773 by a massive earthquake, destroying the city to the point where the powers that be moved the capital to present day Guatemala City.
The setting of Antigua is spectacular, nestled in a valley between the Agua, Acatenango and Fuego volcanoes. To the north a gigantic cross watches over this relaxing city that is like an open air museum of colonial structures. We find it delightful to walk about the squares and old cobblestone streets lined with fine restaurants and great cafes, the restorations adhering to their original design. Everywhere the intoxicating scent of jasmine permeates the air and it’s the season for the flower petals of the towering Jacaranda trees to be rustled loose by breezes, patterning the ground with violet dots.
I am particularly awestruck by the gigantic churches – over three dozen in number! Some are beautifully restored; some partly in ruins while still functional for church services. In yet others the massive roofs and thick walls remain collapsed like a Lego structure toppled by a child’s hand.
La Merced is my choice for the most strikingly rebuilt Antigua church with an intricately designed yellow façade. One of the inside displays is outstanding – shimmering gold catching fragments of light on a slanted cross tipped forward for a 3D effect.
Santa Domingo took another restoration path. This once huge church complex is now a hotel, convention centre and museum amid beautiful gardens, keeping much of the old structure for an encompassing feel of modernity amid the intriguing old thick stone walls.
Most interesting is our visit to the Las Capuchinas, the ruins of what was once the largest convent in the city, and the best preserved. The nuns who once lived here had minimal contact with the outside world. Food brought to them was placed on a large turntable at the entrance and retrieved into the inner sanctum without the giver and the receiver laying eyes on each other. Rare visitors spoke to the nuns through a grill. I imagine their life as we make our way through pillared courtyards with fountains, the cooking and dining area, and to the tiny cells set into the walls of a circular top floor tower where they slept. The rubble of the church on one side vividly shows why this convent was abandoned after 1773.
It seems the biggerthey were the harder they fell. The only remaining part of the Santa Catalina Convent is its prominent arch. All that’s left of the Cathedral of San Jose are two chapels – out of the original eighteen that were once enclosed under an immense dome. Under the rubble are old burial vaults of clergy. At each turn we have an appreciation of Antigua being designated a UNESCO site.
When the conventioneers vacate Guatemala City, we head back to soak up the luxury of the Holiday Inn with attentive staff and to finally check out the Zona 10 neighbourhood with its many excellent restaurants and shopping-malls-a-plenty. Then it’s off to (heart thump) Tikal!