Author Justin Goldman Photography Alexis Lambrou
DAY TWO | I’m up before the sun in order to catch the hourlong flight from the nearby Flores airport to Guatemala City. By midmorning, I’m in a car and on the way to Antigua, one of the New World’s great cultural landmarks. The UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of most of colonial Central America is a jumble of cobblestone streets, colorful houses and crumbled churches (due to a 1773 earthquake that destroyed most of the city). It also plays host to frequent, lively festivals.
I drop my bags at Mansión de la Luz, a seven-room boutique hotel that opened last year. The open courtyard looks like a setting from a García Marquez novel, with sprays of calla lilies, tile fountains, arched windows and mannequins dressed in Mayan garb. I head to the restaurant for a late breakfast with my friend Norman Raxón, a cheerful 29-year-old who works as a guide for the Guatemalan tourism agency. I get a desayuno típico: scrambled eggs laced with tomato and onion, black beans, fried plantains, cheese and a spoonful of cream. The salsa I ladle over my eggs is so ragingly picante that I frantically hail our waiter for a mint lemonade to douse my tastebuds.
Now we’re ready to tackle those cobblestones. We stroll down Tercera Calle, toward the town center, making a detour into Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo. A former monastery, founded in the 16th century, Santo Domingo still holds services, and it’s also home to a museum—the highlight of which is an ancient crypt, its disintegrating tombs stacked like bunk beds—and a luxury hotel. We wander the courtyard, past bright macaws on perches hung from avocado trees, then find a candle shop in back, where we watch wax being hand-twisted into resplendent centerpieces.
We’re barely able to walk another block before I’m hooked again, this time by the chocolatey smell wafting from ChocoMuseo. A fast-talking employee named Pablo leads us on a tour of the shop, complete with a brief history of chocolate, which, he tells us, started as a humble Mayan drink (chocolatl translates as “spicy bitter hot water”) and became an increasingly valuable commodity. Mayans would trade more than 100,000 beans for a jaguar skin, while Europeans would later exchange just 100 beans for a human slave. Pablo punctuates his lesson with samples of candy and spicy tea that I can’t help but accept, despite my recent, weighty breakfast.
We continue on across town—spanning the city on foot takes just 15 or 20 minutes—to meet a friend of Norman’s, Fausto Sicán, a guide from the nearby village of San Juan del Obispo. “He knows everything about this city,” Norman tells me. Sicán began leading tour groups as a kid to help pay for school. He studied law, but to be a student during Guatemala’s violent civil war was a risky proposition, so he left school and now uses his considerable intellect to educate people like me.
“This city is considered the best expression of the Spanish presence in Guatemala,” Sicán says. “My favorite place is the Convento de las Capuchinas. It’s one of the most important places in the city. It was the last [major] building constructed here before the capital moved to Guatemala City.”
Sicán agrees to show us Capuchinas, a fortresslike, carved-stone convent that was consecrated in 1736. He leads us into the main hall, light streaming down from above, where a huge dome once rose, then through the sanctuary, where nuns would fast and flagellate themselves, and finally into a circular subterranean room. It’s chilly down here, and with just two windows a little dark, but it’s strangely peaceful. Standing in the slanting light, Norman nods at me. “This is the best place,” he whispers.
This room, Sicán tells us, managed to escape the ravages of earthquakes, and there are many theories about what it was used for. “The best version,” he says, “is that this is like the Gregorian places, where the people went to sing, thinking that their voices go directly to heaven.” He demonstrates by walking around the perimeter of the room, singing in a deep voice that resonates throughout the chamber.
Before he leaves, Sicán tells us we should check out a religious procession happening in the adjacent village of Jocotenango. We take his advice, hailing one of the ubiquitous three-wheel tuk-tuks, and 10 bumpy minutes later we’re stepping out into the central square of the village, which is like a smaller, less touristy version of Antigua.
The streets are decorated with colorful alfombras, or carpets, painstakingly pieced together from dyed sawdust and fruit. Over these decorations passes the procession. First come the cucuruchos, men in purple robes carrying a giant casket, atop which stands an effigy of Christ. A smaller casket for the Virgin Mary, borne by solemn teenage girls in black skirts, follows. The floats sway as the pallbearers, some weeping, rotate in and out. I’m not a religious man, but for a moment the sight is enough to make me wish I were.
Later, we walk back through the main square, scoping out the many food carts. Norman points to a grill, over which roasts an entire pig. It’s time for another religious experience: We chow down on pork tacos topped with virulently spicy green salsa, then tuk-tuk it back down the hill to Antigua.
We alight in Parque Central, the city’s main square, and stroll beneath a bursting purple bloom of jacaranda flowers, past canoodling couples, breakdancing teens, kids pushing wheelbarrows of peanuts for sale. We stop at the 450-year-old Iglesia de la Merced, whose Baroque detailing includes stucco carvings of saints and coffee plants on its dazzling yellow facade. We poke our heads inside—there’s a service going on—then continue on to Quinta Avenida, a ramble of shops, bars and restaurants that the locals call “Arch Street” because it passes under the Arco de Santa Catalina, a 17th-century archway and bell tower. We stop in at Nim Po’t Centro de Textiles Tradicionales, a cavernous shop filled with ceremonial masks, güipiles (traditional blouses) and immense circular kites that Guatemalans fly as part of their Dia de los Muertos celebration. I want to take one home, but it’s not gonna fit in my carry-on.
We stop for dinner at Los Tres Tiempos, a bright blue restaurant that serves expertly executed Guatemalan standards. We sit amid bougainvilleas on the second-floor patio, listening to a pair of mariachis as we munch on fried sticks of Guatemalan chancol cheese and a ceviche of shrimp, fish, conch, octopus and avocado. For an entree, I order pepián, a soup of pork, rice, potato and carrots in a broth laced with tomato, chile, pumpkin and sesame.
Next, we hoof it across town for sundowners at the third-floor rooftop bar of Café Sky. Thanks to preservation regulations (and the fear of earthquakes) three stories is tall for Antigua, so we’re blessed with views of Fuego, Agua and Acatenango, the three 12,000-plus-foot volcanoes that surround the city. As I sip a mint-heavy mojito, a puff of dark smoke rises from the top of the appropriately named Fuego. “That’s a small one,” Norman says. “A few weeks ago there was a big one that covered the city in ash.”
On the way back to the hotel, we come across a guarded motorcade in front of the Santo Domingo. Apparently the president of Guatemala and the prime minister of Spain are meeting here. “Everyone who comes to Guatemala runs to Antigua,” Norman observes. I can see why.