Every now and then, I find myself visiting a place that is so much more than I ever could have dreamed of. Somewhere unexpected, where I don’t know what I’m going to see or who I’m going to meet. Antigua was one of these places. I was delighted to fall in love with this city from the moment I arrived.
Founded as Santiago de los Caballeros in 1543 by Spanish conquerors, the city was the Guatemalan capital for over 200 years. However, due to its earthquake-prone location that caused serious damage to the city on a number of occasions, the Guatemalan capital was eventually moved to Guatemala City and Santiago de los Caballeros was renamed la Antigua Guatemala (meaning “the Old Guatemala”). Today, the Spanish-influenced architecture of Antigua remains well preserved, earning Antigua UNESCO World Heritage status.
In a valley surrounded by three towering volcanoes, its location played a big part in making this city such a special place to me.I found myself purposely getting lost among the cobblestone streets and between the colorful buildings.. From the handicraft markets to the rooftop bars and the delicious taco restaurants, there was so much to see and do. To top it all off, on my last night in Antigua I was treated to a spectacular show as Volcan de Fuego erupted right before my very eyes. I watched from my hotel rooftop and couldn’t look away. The volcano was so active I wondered if the glowing lava was going to roll right down into the streets of Antigua.
Not only is Antigua spectacular in it’s own right, it is also conveniently located within an hour from the Chichicastenango Market. One of Guatemala’s largest markets, Chichicastenango is open twice a week (on Thursdays and Sundays). Fruits, vegetables, fabrics, and handicrafts are just a few of the goods available at the market. I spent hours strolling the narrow walkways taking it all in. I found myself drawn to the embroidered wall hangings and handmade throws and, in the end, I couldn’t resist purchasing a colorful blanket from a beautiful Guatemalan woman.
From Chichicastenango, my colorful journey continued to Lake Atitlan. This spectacular lake is surrounded by three volcanoes and 14 Mayan villages.. I started my visit to Lake Atitlan with a homestay in the village of San Jorge. Unexpectedly, my visit fell on the one day of the year when San Jorge celebrates la Virgen de los Inocentes (the Virgin of the Innocents). I had a special meal with my host family and then joined them in the main square where the final hours of the celebration went off with a bang – literally! This was probably one of the most over the top fireworks displays I’ve ever seen, with the main attraction being a “firework tower”. The fireworks at the bottom of the tower were lit and in turn they triggered fireworks all the way to the top where finally an explosion of fireworks lit up the sky! Just when I thought the celebrations were wrapping up a man came out of a truck with a “firework hat” on! Atop his head was a structure that shot fireworks off in every direction, straight into the crowds of people watching him.
After my stay in San Jorge, I went on to explore the villages of Panajachel, Santiago, San Pedro, and San Juan. Panajachel acts as a gateway to Lake Atitlan, it is the busiest of the villages and a launch spot for boat service to the other villages. Santiago is the home of the Mayan deity “Maximon”, San Pedro is backpackers central and San Juan is an artistic and creative hub. All of the Mayan villages surrounding Lake Atitlan are different and, if I’d had the time, I would have explored all 14 of them.
As an avid traveler, I typically avoid revisiting destinations in favor of new cities and countries.. But for Antigua, it’s surroundings, and Guatemala in general, I know I will make an exception.