If I were to accept the US State Department’s briefings on the countries I’m traveling to, I’d likely stay home.
[…] Avoid close contact with children, including taking photographs, especially in rural areas. Such contact can be viewed with deep alarm and may provoke panic and violence. Rumors of foreigners stealing children to sell surface periodically and can provoke a violent response towards strangers. Foreign tourists have been attacked by mobs and one has been killed […]
But when it comes to Guatemala guidebooks from those geared to budget travel to others that cater to five-star travel the universal them is danger. That is, Guatemala is perhaps the most dangerous country in Central America. A small handwritten sign at the Hotel de Santiago on the north side of the Lago de Atilan warns guests to be careful, not walk villages alone and never walk the streets at night. The hotel management strongly suggests not carrying cameras or other gear indicative of wealth. It notes there have been armed robberies in the area.
In Antigua I’m told that guided hikes up the volcanoes are imperative and that these excursions include an armed guard. But for this motorcycle traveler I feel extremely safe. Smiles are returned when I walk through the poorest villages. Men who’d be profiled as dangerous and unfriendly are happy to engage in conversation and answer my sometimes silly questions in what I’m sure is terribly broken Spanish. But again, they understand me.
Fear is a detriment. With it travelers close themselves to experiencing any locale. Afraid to look others in the eye, afraid to eat food from anyplace that doesn’t accept a credit card, afraid to engage in communication, fear is a buzz kill. An Australian ridicules Sacha for carrying his laptop around town. He could be ripped off. And while there may be some truth in the warning, it’s important to be prudent and act with a degree of vigilance, it cannot be the foundation of a journey.
Antigua is an enchanting town. Nestled in a sweeping highland valley between two volcanoes, the third capital of Guatemala, Antigua was settled in 1541 after a massive mudslide from Volcán Agua, destroyed the previous capital (now called Ciudad Vieja) a few kilometers from here. The city reached its peak in the mid 1700’s where its population swelled to more than 50,000 and a construction boom prompted by competing religious orders that settled here resulted in a rich collection of colonial buildings including schools, monasteries, hospitals and residences. But in 1773 a series of earthquakes damaged Antigua so much that the capital was moved one more time to its present location 50 kilometers south in Guatemala City.
Thanks to its identification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Antigua has retained its rich architecture and colonial heritage. While many marvelous buildings lie seemingly in decrepit ruin, others have been immaculately restored. The hub of the once grand city sat around the Parque Central which is framed by Catedral San Jose a massive church decadently build with a massive dome, 18 chapels and an alter inlaid with mother of pearl, ivory and silver and the Palace of the Captains General with its block long run of arches supporting this large constructor which was once home to colonial rulers and now seres as the seat of Antigua’s modern government.
Walking the cobbled streets and through the Parque Central, drinking cappuccino’s and dining at the fine cafés it’s easy to forget this is Guatemala, even Central America. Cheap language schools, fine restaurants and minimal traffic draw travelers from around the world and locals eager to escape the smog, congestion and dirt of the current capital flock here. Yet in the hills indigenous Mayan people still grow coffee, weave colorful fabrics and live a simple lifestyle so far removed from what I see here in Antigua. I must return here, spend more time and learn more Spanish. Tomorrow I’ll head to perhaps the center of the Mayan world and the largest complex of Mayan ruins in all of Mesoamerica, Tikal.
Photos: (1) Perhaps Antigua’s signature, the 17th century Arco de Santa Catalina was built as a passageway between the monastery and adjoining school. (2) Catedral San Francisco on the main Plaza de Armas in Antigua, Guatemala; (3) Palacia de los Capitanes Generales; (4) Fountain gracing Plaza de Armas.