This week my quest to find natural wonders brings me to Guatemala. Half the thrill of the quest is the seeking. When you fly into a destination and it is a totally blank slate and you are not entirely sure what you will find, that is magic to me. Many times I deliberately don’t research a destination before I get there because I don’t want to spoil the excitement of being surprised. When you read the guidebooks and look at the photos online, you already know what to expect and what it looks like. I find it takes away from the adventure of the days when you had no google maps or guide books. You flew by the seat of your pants.
Arriving in Guatemala today I have not read a single thing about the country. My colleagues in Guatemala have arranged a tour for me and aside from glancing at it, I have no preset expectations. I have learnt from experience that most cities that have international airports are never anything wonderful. Guatemala City is no exception. Smog filled and run down, I breathe a sigh of relief as we climb out of the city up the mountain.
As we snake our way down the other side, a hint of lushness emerged. Then we turn onto a cobble stone road and straight into the historical wonderland that is Antigua.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua has had a tough time with nature. It was originally constructed in 1524) as Santiago de Guatemala but a fire forced a rebuild in 1527, and a volcanic eruption in 1541 forced it to be moved and rebuilt. Thereafter it became known as Cuidad Vieja (Old City) and functioned as the capital until another earthquake destroyed part of it and prompted the capital to move to the safer location of what is now Guatemala City. The Guatemala of old (Antigua) was mostly abandoned until the mid-1800s when increased agricultural production, particularly coffee and grain, brought new investment to the region.
As I explore the town I find it enchanting. The Baroque style colonial buildings form a striking backdrop for the vivid colors that are splashed everywhere.
The hues of the buildings, the saturated colors of the Mayan weavings, the jocotes piled high. (The jocote is a member of the cashew family. They are generally small – the size of a walnut – consisting of a nut in the center surrounded by the fruit, juice and the skin. Apparently you pop them in your mouth whole. That is on my list to try.)
And one thing I am realizing on my journeys to find natural wonders is that very often the wonder is in the nature of the people in the countries I visit. I see it in the face of the young boy peddling goods in the street who sees me again and shouts out a big hola. And makes me feel a little like I belong because I saw the same person twice and they recognized me.
I see it in the throngs of people in the town who are thoroughly enjoying hanging out together. And unlike many places you go, the tourists are in the minority. Mostly it is local people enjoying their town. I wander down towards the main square and entertainers are performing fire acts and wowing the children. At the square a school music competition is in full swing and the infectious music holds me in its grasp and I hang out to get my fill.
I notice all the interesting buildings around the square and feel the need to look inside. There is an interesting dynamic to the town. It is a fully functioning town underneath the gorgeous wrapper. Coffee bars and dessert bars nestle into the smaller spaces.
Larger colonial hacienda style homes house high end jewelry stores only selling jade which is mined nearby. I find ruins abbutting museums with Mayan artifacts.
And my jaw drops as I round a corner and spot the best looking Office Depot I have ever seen. I feel a little sad that chain store mania has found its way into a setting so unique.
Choices of restaurants are many but I scan the menus looking for one that is frequented by locals and has a specific meal that I have been looking for: Guatemala’s best meal as recommended by a Guatemalan sitting next to me on the plane. Chiles Rellenos! Roasted bell peppers stuffed with beef and vegetables. She was right. It is good.
The most famous landmark in Antigua is the golden arch (no not that one), the Arco de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Arch), which was constructed in the mid-17th Century for the purpose of allowing nuns to run to another part of the Santa Catalina Convent without being noticed!
As I look down the street I feel the presence of the natural wonders that preside over this town. I imagine it would be an amazing view. If the volcanoes were not hiding behind the clouds. But that is the great thing about nature is that it keeps you guessing. There is always tomorrow.