6 March 2015
We have a totally free day today and decide to spend it exploring the beautiful city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a colonial city surrounded by tree-covered volcanoes (Volcan de Agua, Volcan de Fuego and Volcan Acatenango). The cobbled streets keep the minimal traffic to a slow pace so walking around the compact centre is a breeze. Antigua used to be the capital of Guatemala but has been all but destroyed by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes several times. After the 1773 earthquake the capital was moved 45km away to Guatemala City. The city is positively bulging with churches, convents, monasteries, schools and universities. Even though most are built in a squat Baroque style to try to resist earthquakes, much of the city is made up of ruins. Great efforts are being made to preserve and restore key buildings although many are just empty shells. Antigua is the most prosperous city in Guatemala – based on tourism and language schools. Old colonial mansions have been restored as hotels and restaurants.
Gill and I have a leisurely start and walk to the main square Parque Central. It is surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings and covered in flowering jacaranda trees. Many of the buildings are draped in purple for Lent. In the centre is the Fountain of Sirens -with mermaids spurting water from their nipples. Shoe shine boys are doing a brisk trade while horse buggies circle around waiting for custom.
We have brunch in Café Condesa (Café of the Countess) – a restored 16th century mansion that has a lovely courtyard in the centre; good food and coffee; nice bathrooms; a fountain with water spurting from a mermaid’s nipples (what is it with this obsession?) and interesting shops and galleries in front. It is the place that we enjoyed a healthy lunch at a couple of days earlier. Today we enjoy Granola with Fruit and Yoghurt (just what the stomachs’ need).
After brunch we visited Iglesia de San Francisco (Church of Saint Frances) that is known particularly for the tomb and shrine of Hermano Pedro de Betancourt who cared for the sick, street kids, and established hospitals. He was (posthumously) made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Hundreds of locals still visit his shrine to ask for help and he is credited with many miracles. The church itself has been restored but there are extensive ruins around it (and a museum).
On the way to the Parque Central is the Arco de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Arch) – built in 1693 to connect the convent of Santa Catalina to the orchards and gardens on the other side of the street so that the nuns could cross the street without fear of contamination by the outside world. On a clear day there are great views through the arch to the volcano behind.
Las Capuchinas is another famous site. The Capuchin order was a very severe group of the Franciscans: nuns were not allowed any contact with the outside world. It is set in beautiful gardens and in the middle is the circular Torre de Retiro (Tower of Retreat): a circular courtyard of 18 tiny cells thought to have been a retreat cloister for nuns.
La Merced church has an amazing “wedding cake” façade – recently restored and painted bright yellow with white detail. Inside (amongst a whole range of figures) is the figure of Jesus Nazarene, sculpted by Alonso de la Paz in 1650. We are very lucky because we are visiting during the period of Lent, so much of the church (and also all around the city) is draped in purple and there is a spectacular coloured sawdust “carpet” surrounded by harvest offerings.
La Merced also has a little courtyard area with a café and stalls; it also has a “spa” where we have a fantastic massage for our sore muscles, and a cup of mint tea. I have been amusing myself during the day taking pictures of ornate door knockers and window boxes.
We have afternoon tea back with “the Countess” and head back to Los Bucaros to get ready for our evening meeting. Everyone seemed to have eaten late in the afternoon, so just Gill and I went out to find something light for dinner. We found a nearby restaurant (just 1 person in it) and asked if they had soup. It wasn’t on the menu but he said they could make us some: carrot or tomato. We said yes please – after consultation with the chef, tomato it was. Could he do us some garlic bread too? It was only after we sat down we realised it was a steak house. Still, it was good, cheap and close to home. We retired for an early night.
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