Those of you who have been following our blog know that we’ve spent the last few weeks hanging around in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. It’s a sticky place for Vanlifers and once we arrive here, it’s always hard to leave. BUT, we recently had a great opportunity to meet up with some friends in Antigua, Guatemala and do some urban exploring. SO, we tore ourselves away from the lake and headed for the city.
Getting to Antigua from Lake Atitlán
As you may recall from an earlier blog, we’re frugal travellers and often choose our modes of travel based on price, not comfort. When our friends invited us for a visit in Antigua, we assessed our travel options, which basically came down to: 1) private shuttle; 2) public boat and public shuttle; or 3) public boat and chicken bus. The private shuttle was WAY to expensive so out of contention from the get-go. Compared with the chicken bus, the public shuttle is smoother and safer but takes quite a bit longer to get from Lake Atitlan to Antigua and is also tighter for space (an important consideration when travelling with a large adventure mutt!). So, not a difficult decision, public boat and chicken bus it would be!
We took an early morning lancha from Pasajcap to Panajachel to get the boat ride out of the way while the lake was still calm. As you can tell, Walter’s not really a fan of the boat.
We had some time to kill in Panajachel so we ate a big American-style breakfast at Mr. John’s and made friends with a little Mayan kid from San Antonio while we waited. He was fascinated with our pictures of Canadian winter and wanted us to take a picture of him. Sometimes the best experiences happen when you’re just sitting around with no expectations.
We’d travelled by chicken bus many times but only once before with Walter and we were a little worried about how he would do on the almost 3-hour ride. More specifically, I was really nervous he might throw up on some poor, unsuspecting local. Well, Walter spent the whole ride on our lap and most of it napping; he thought it was great. Marc and I on the other hand were feeling completely green for most of the trip (the smiling pic below was a ‘before’ photo). The driver was a madman and we were taking the turns at full speed as the chicken bus swayed back and forth. As locals got off the bus along the route, they stumbled away like drunken sailors so I don’t think we were the only ones feeling the motion. Extremely relieved to finally arrive in Antigua, we took a 30 min break in the Parque Central to get our bearings before heading over to meet our friends.
Meeting Friends in Foreign Places
During every year of travel, we make an effort to meet up with friends from home while we’re on the road. Long term travel can sometimes get lonely so meeting up with friends or family always feels like being reacquainted with a little bit of home. This year, our friends Pamela and Mark (yes, another Mark!) rented a beautiful casa in Antigua for 3 months. A get together while we were all in Guatemala was a must and as our friend’s departure date was looming, time was of the essence!
Pamela and I were long time colleagues from back home and therefore both Urban Planning Nerds. Urban Planning in Canada is a very tight knit community and when two planners get together, they just can’t resist the urge to talk about urban growth, infrastructure, and who’s doing what in the development world. We did our best to spare the Mar(c/k)s from “urban planning talk” with only a mild degree of success. They counteracted our planning talk with fishing talk and that was enough to get us to change the topic!
We spent 3 busy days with our friends visiting the city, learning about day-to-day life in Antigua, eating at delicious restaurants and hanging out in their beautiful casa. Travelling is so much more fun with friends. The casa had 2 outdoor courtyards, which Walter just loved. For him, it felt like living partially outside. As soon as we would get in the door after an excursion, he’d tear around the house to check out each room and visit whoever was inside. He was totally spoiled by Mark and Pamela (as were we) and we were all sad when it was time to say goodbye. Thanks so much Pamela and Mark for being such wonderful hosts – we loved it!
Should You Visit Antigua?
Antigua is probably the most “ON the beaten track” destination in Guatemala. It has a very cosmopolitan feel to it and if you’re looking, you can find many of the familiar comforts of home… including McDonalds, Dominos and Wendy’s! So, you “off the beaten track” type travellers may be thinking that Antigua’s not for you but I can assure you, Antigua is absolutely worth a visit and has something for everyone.
Antigua is a stunning UNESCO Heritage Site and it’s popular with tourists and expats for good reason. It’s full of old Spanish colonial buildings, historic ruins and cobblestone streets. The City is surrounded by volcanoes that form part of the view down just about every quaint city street. There are TONS of restaurants of all types and the quality of the food is excellent. So much so that Trip Advisor has to make recommendations by street. Cafes abound and you could spend all day sipping coffees from different parts of the region. There are reasonably priced tours for just about every activity including hikes up the Acatenango volcano (and other nearby volcanoes), coffee farms, macadamia nut farms, market tours, city tours (historic ruins), as well as tours to just about every other destination in Guatemala. Antigua is known as an excellent place to take Spanish lessons if you’re looking to up your language skills a little. It’s also one of the most famous places in Latin America for their Semana Santa (Easter) rituals and parades.
If you’re frugal (aka cheap) like us, don’t fear! There is excellent, cheap, street food at Le Merced church, especially on weekends. There are lots of reasonably priced hostels. Most travel guides contain a self-guided walking tour of the ruins… you can pay to enter the ruins or just admire them from the street for free (like us). There’s enough people watching and streetscapes to keep you busy all day and if you enjoy photography, you will find yourself driving your spouse or travel mates crazy stopping at every corner for yet another instagramable shot. If you’re an overlander/vanlifer, you can park in the field at the police station for free or in front of Hostel Antigueno for 50Q ppn/ per night and that includes a free breakfast, showers, space to hang out, etc.
So should you visit Antigua? Our answer is a resounding YES!
Coffee Farm Tour
We’re not generally tour people but our friend Pamela highly recommended a coffee tour with the “De la Gente” cooperative. She’d been on 3 coffee tours with them in 3 months so we figured she must know!
We headed up to the little town of San Miguel Escobar where a group of 8 of us met up with Andres (one of the De La Gente coffee farmers and our guide for the day) in front of the town’s cute little yellow church.
Andres told us a little bit about his town and all about his experience as a coffee farmer. An interpreter was there for those of us who speak on ‘un pocito espanol’. Once we were all acquainted, he took us up into his coffee fields on the Agua Volcano. After showing us his fields and explaining how coffee grows and is harvested, Andres took us back to his house to demonstrate how coffee is processed. Andres’ poor 13-yr old dog got kicked out of the family home to accommodate Walter. His dog spent the entire morning on the sidewalk staring at the outside of his own front door! I hope Walter felt guilty… I did.
After Andres’ wife prepared delicious coffee for the group with their very own beans, she served us a typical Guatemalan lunch of rice, chicken, broth and tortillas – delicious. Andres explained to us that being part of the co-op has resulted in him having better access to capital, allowing him to purchase more land for growing, machines and resources for processing and access to a market for selling. Although he now works harder than he used to, he makes much more money than he did previously and is able to send his 7 (yes, 7!) kids to school. The coffee tour was a real highlight and being able to spend time with Andres, learn about his lifestyle and meet and share a lunch with his family was really special and a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into the lifestyle of a local Guatemalan farmer.
We also learned so much about coffee, too much to include in this blog. But one of the most interesting things that I learned is that many coffee farmers who work for large companies don’t make a fair wage (meaning a fair wage within this economy). In fact, due to corruption within organizations, even farms with the “fair trade” certification don’t always pay their workers what they’re supposed to. The best way to drink high quality coffee that is truly “fair trade” is to purchase it directly from independent coffee farmers or from coops like “De La Gente”.
Back to Lake Atitlán
Four days in Antigua flew by and before we knew it, it was time to head back to Slow Sally, Lake Atitlan and Vanlife. I won’t bore you with the details, the trip was basically the same but in reverse. This time though, the bus driver was slightly more careful (we didn’t feel quite so sea sick) and the boat, though overloaded, travelled at a slow easy pace, which made Walter a happy puppy.
We’ll spend the next week or two spending more time here at the lake and then it will be back on the road. But more about that, in the next blog!