March 31, 2017
Antigua, Guatemala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and walking through its old, sometimes crumbling, downtown is like being in an open air museum!
Our guide today was Dario, whose English was not as good as our previous guides in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but he was understandable. He told us he’d been a science teacher and so today we were his “students.” Our group was large and he had a lot of stories to tell us, so he would clap his hands to indicate he wanted us all to gather around him. He had given each of us a number, so he would call out the numbers and we were to reply with “a word, any word” to declare our presence. He also created imaginary “bridges” to get us to walk single file on the narrow sidewalks.
There were 37 of us on the tour, so we tried to keep up in order to not lose sight of
the rest of our group. We tried to keep the little flag with the number 12 on it in sight. We all wore lanyards with Dario Morán written on them. Whoever was at the front of the line had the benefit of Dario’s continuous narrative. Dale and I were never in the front, because we always got out of line to take pictures.
With all the walking and narration, Dario left us little time for bathroom breaks!
The old part of Antigua has many cobblestone streets and sidewalks. We walked along a street that took us to a wall in bad repair with indentations that apparently were bricked over windows of what had been an old hospital. Because it is privately owned, Dario said, the government can do nothing to restore it and apparently whoever owns it doesn’t care to pay for restoration, which is a pity – it could be made into an interesting museum open to all. Dario said there were other such privately-owned sites that would be better put to use as public patrimony.
Our first major stop was a 1736 Capuchin convent, called Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, belonging to an order of Franciscan nuns. It has been partially restored and is open to the public. One interesting architectural innovation was the columns, which were wider at the bottom than at the top to create a sense of space.
This convent and church has several sections. One courtyard flanked by arched hallways had a number of carved stone slabs imprinted with religious or secular objects on display. Another area was a circular courtyard around which were small rooms with arched entryways and each equipped with its own “toilet” (a private area marked off with a hole to use for the purpose). A few of these rooms had wax figures of nuns who would go into these rooms for a private place to read or meditate.
The columns in this courtyard are wider at the bottom.
Stones with religious symbols on display
Left: A wax figure of a nun in a private “room.” Right: passageway to another courtyard.
Some of the archways led to larger, more open rooms with windows onto other courtyards with trees and flowers.
We gathered in a patio in front of the church entrance but did not go in – I’m not sure if it’s open to the public.
We continued our walk down a cobblestone street with yellow arches over the street. Over one of these was a clock tower. Everywhere we walked, vendors followed us. A couple of young men, one with a Mohawk hairstyle played wooden flutes and tapped on hollow pieces to make percussion sounds. Women in traditional dress peddled their wares to anyone who paid even the slightest attention.
Although many of the items were similar – beaded necklaces, fake jade pendants, beaded birds and earrings, woven cloths in various sizes, designs and colors – they were mostly quite nice and well made. They and we played the game of pretending the jade necklaces they were selling for $10 were “real” jade.
As I walked along one of the narrow sidewalks, I saw the woman in front of me negotiate with a vendor to buy three necklaces. I showed interest so she followed alongside me as I asked her about various necklaces. I spoke to her in Spanish. (She spoke enough English to sell stuff to tourists.) She wanted to sell me some that didn’t interest me; I wanted (fake) jade. As we walked along, she would show me some of her wares, then suddenly point down and tell me to be careful, there’s a pothole down there! This happened a couple of times. I was enjoying this, since I had had little opportunity to have a conversation in Spanish on this trip. I finally negotiated for 2 necklaces for $15. She wanted $20, and they were probably worth it, but I told her I needed $5 to tip the guide. She accepted this excuse and drew a five-dollar bill from a fold in her skirt, as change for my twenty dollar bill.
Many windows in town were draped with purple cloths, called cucuruchu (not to be confused with cucaracha, although tourists often did, Dario told us!), as preparation for Holy Week. We saw some of the statues that were being prepared for the Passion procession, a tradition here.
We came to the Plaza Mayor, the main square, whose center featured a mermaid fountain – the mermaids had jets of water flowing from their breasts.
I saw a sign with the word sanitarios, but didn’t have the chance to follow up on that immediately without risking losing the group. Along one side of this plaza was the main cathedral, a pale yellow edifice decorated in Baroque style with white bas relief designs and statues. The symbols of Saint James (Santiago) were present in the design, including the shape of a shell. Dario pointed out one figure of a saint, high up over the main entrance, who was holding a black cross.
The rest of the plaza had greenery flanking its walking paths and on the three sides not containing the cathedral were government buildings and arch covered walkways with rows of stores.
We then walked to the ruin of a large church that seems to be in the (slow) process of restoration.
After the ruin, we walked to the jade factory and museum Jade Maya, our last stop before lunch. Real jade was sold for high prices in high class shops like Jade Maya, which was a factory, museum and showroom where beautifully designed jewelry sold from $50 (for earrings) to over $500 (for stunningly crafted necklaces). It was possible to get a cheap souvenir for $19, imprinted with the symbol of an animal which corresponded to your exact birthdate. The vendors looked up birthdates in a large book with small printing, containing every date for the last 100 years! The symbol for June 2, 1952 was “Iq” (pronounced “eek”) or colibrí (hummingbird). I bought the round pendant on a black lanyard and in the packaging was a card explaining the symbol’s significance.