ANTIGUA, THE CITY OF COLOUR AND CULTURE: BACKPACKING AROUND GUATEMALA
My Central America backpacking journey started in Panama and lead me to countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala and finally Belize. Before embarking on my trip, I knew very little about this part of the world so I really was not sure what to expect. All I was sure of was that it would be a totally new experience, one I could not wait to start…
Out of all the countries, it was Guatemala that I truly enjoyed the most. I found it carried a sense of uniqueness compared to its counterparts. The indigenous Mayan culture that is deeply rooted in Guatemala makes the country diverse, colourful, and naturally beautiful. Each region is completely different yet they all retain a level of tranquillity and calmness – boy oh boy it was a joy to discover!
From articles online and the words from our trusted travel buddy – The Lonely Planet Guide – after touchdown, we headed straight for Antigua rather than staying in Guatemala City. Our hostel, Hostel Antigueno was cute with rooms centered around a communal garden. Run by a Californian family, it came with a free breakfast every morning – a highlight when travelling on a budget!
Day 1- We had booked a coffee plantation tour in San Miguel, a nearby local village, as our first activity during our stay. When visiting Australia, I stayed in Adelaide with a family friend. She owns a coffee shop and her coffee beans come directly from Guatemala so it was something I had to do whilst visiting! To get there, we travelled on Guatemala’s famous ‘chicken buses’ – a pimped up American school bus which are differentiated by colour rather than using number systems. We booked our tour through De la Gente coffee tours – a personal experience with a local owner where they show you their own plantation, invite you back to their home and show you the process of making coffee; it was an interesting and intimate tour. For us, booking independent and personal tours were essential, we wanted to support local villagers and truly experience the authenticity of a place.
Truly Authentic & Honest
The ‘chicken bus’ dropped us back to Antigua, behind the markets. We hit up the markets which were colourful, bustling stalls, full to the brim with a variety of merchandise from clothing, electrics and food. We watched women roll and pat out what looked like dough and were intrigued, so we decided to stop for a bite to eat and try what seemed to be the most popular meals: Pupusas and Tostadas. ‘Pupusas’ were handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese. These were fried over a fire pit, spread with guacamole and served with a tomato sauce, pickled cabbage and cheese – it was delicious! The tostadas were classic fried tortillas with a tomato sauce and cheese – basically a sort of crispy, thin pizza.
After stuffing our faces, we began to wander and explore the wonders of Antigua. It truly is a hub of colour with little collections of gorgeous architectural buildings, cobbled streets, central plazas and tasty hole in the wall eateries. Weaving in and out of shops, we were suddenly struck by a mass of colour from the craft market ‘Casa del Tejido’. There were ponchos, dresses, cushions, rugs … the list goes on, of brightly striped hand woven fabrics – it is a must to purchase a souvenir here!
Day 2: One key attraction in Antigua is the famous ‘Cerro de la Cruz’ – the hill of the cross. Ascending some tiny little steps, we made our way up the hill where we were welcomed by an outstanding view. It was picture perfect gave us a birds eye view of the city of which is enclosed within three grandeur volcanoes. After sitting and simply taking in the breathtaking views, we left and headed for to the city to begin our cooking course.
La Tortilla cooking school teaches visitors what Guatemalan food really is and how it demonstrates the blending of Mayan culture and Spanish colonial influences. Pavlow began our lesson with a tour around the market, educating us about some of Guatemala’s fresh produce and bought us unusual local treasures to try back at the kitchen.
Paterna – it looked like a huge green bean on steroids! Inside, there are furry white pods which cushion a hard pip. The only part you are meant to eat is the furry white bit – a strange texture when eating… I have to say I was not converted.Chicos – similar looking to a passion fruit, however the inside is soft and white. This was my favourite, tasted similar to a lychee.Nances – small green cherries, very sour!Jacote Maranon – this orange round fruit features a large black curved stone at its head. This stone is actually a cashew nut stone and underneath hides the nut! However, this stone is extremely toxic and when burnt can emit a harmful gas that can kill a herd of cattle. To eat, you slice the orange fruit and added salt. As you begin to chew a sour twang runs through your mouth then bang your mouth becomes like a desert – it was a truly bizarre feeling!
Once we had finished trying the unusual fruits, we began cooking. On the menu was: Pepian curry, Guatemalan rice, tortillas and beetroot salad. For dessert, rellenitos – a plantain fried ball filled with a chocolate and refried bean sauce. Although a slightly basic cooking lesson, it was an interesting and educational course where we met some lovely people and really made you feel part of the culture.
As we were not raging fans of the rellenitos dessert, we decided later on in the evening to pop to Luna de Miel for their signature dish: Crêpes. This quaint, blue painted French restaurant benefits from a charming roof top terrace decorated in crescents and stared lighting. The ‘Luz de Luna’ and ‘Luna Caribe’ were definitely winners in our eyes! As soon as it had arrived on our table, it was gone!
Some cities loose their sense of culture due to being swamped with consumerism which is a shame, but Antigua retains its traditional charm and character. Within our two day stay, it was refreshing to experience the local Mayan culture was still at the heart of this city – simply beautiful.