A Travellerspoint blog

Introducing Antigua to Family & Friends

and I Don't Mean the Island

For those of us who seemed to keep returning to Guatemala, Antigua is such a byword, a nonchalant commonplace place, that I forget five years ago I had never heard of it. Now, returning home, I speak of it to family and friends as if everyone from Mississippi to Montana has a firm grasp on this tiny colonial town in Guatemala, a country most people I’ve met can’t pinpoint on a map (nor could I before 2008).

On my last visit up north, I was haranguing my oldest brother to finally break free of the US borders and visit his “punk” little brother this year. I’ll be living in Antigua, and it’s a place he would enjoy, not too far out of conveniences and comforts but still close enough to traditional dress and the Latin American vibe. To my surprise, I got a call from him a couple of days later when he’d had little success finding a resort hotel and learned the city wasn’t near the beach. Obviously, my description of Antigua had been largely lacking.

As a result of this blunder, I’ve come to realize how often Antigua is mentioned in my conversations, emails, and blogs—the same way my family might discuss Plaquemine or Zachary on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, assuming there’s already some rudimentary knowledge. In truth, the former Central American capital is peeking up at a population of 40,000 and is probably most readily identified by its inclusion on packages of designer brands of roasted beans. It’s great, but perhaps there is little reason for Community Coffee-drinking Louisianans to know a damn thing about it.

So, I suppose the place to begin is where we are. Antigua is obviously located in Guatemala (Guatemala is the country just south of Mexico), but more specifically, it’s about one-and-a-half/two hour drive from the Pacific coast and roughly 40 miles west of Guatemala City. We are in the lower third of the country, nearing El Salvador, and Antigua is sunken into the Panchoy Valley at the foot of a massive dormant volcano called Agua in an area known as the Central Highlands. (Outside the gate of our apartment, the right-hand view follows 6th Avenida directly into the enormous waistband of Agua.)

While many on the backpacker trail, roughing it through Central America, consider Antigua a bit of Disneyland, a city that caters much too obligingly to tourists, I find it refreshing and real. It’s definitely a cultural melting pot of expat business owners, international volunteers, and commuting villagers. It’s largely void of global chains, disabled-friendly entrances, and air conditioning, yet safe enough to explore at night, kempt enough to find genuinely beautiful, and funky enough to still have chicken buses—packed to the emergency exits—belching their way through the streets.

Antigua, the city itself, is the former capital of Guatemala, abandoned in the early 1900s after an earthquake destroyed much of place. What’s left is a colonial town densely populated with the ruins of Spanish churches, restored and maintained buildings, fantastic plazas, and shaded promenades. There is a lazy Parque Central with a huge fountain where folks congregated for idleness. Cobblestone streets, a huge market, abounding pastels, coffee plantations, chocolate museums, as well as unique bars and hotels and restaurants…It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for Christ’s sake.

Beyond the city, there are active volcanoes to climb. Three hours north is Lake Atitlan, often cited as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. There is Earth Lodge, the guesthouse where we’ve lived for the last seven months, a lethargic land of hammocks, guacamole, vistas, and games. And further afield, for those who yearn for adventure, for moving, there is Tikal (Mayan ruins hidden in the jungle), Rio Dulce/Livingston (near the Caribbean and all that), and the Pacific Coast (for black sand beaches and surfing).

Also, for some, there is me, the punk little brother who has visited the outskirts of Tulsa (where the punk big brother lives) twice since moving abroad, who has been to Baton Rouge half a dozen times, to Texas (despite sticking out like a belt buckle in a yoga retreat), to Memphis, St. Louis, California, Oregon, and Utah. Around one million people who don’t know me visit Antigua every year. More or less, only my mother and mother-in-law come to see me. So, take this as a hint, a wink (www.kayak.com), and see you soon.

Riding the Roads in Antigua

Riding the Roads in Antigua

Posted by jonathonengels 09:27 Comments (0)


Jonathon's January Author


The new year has begun, and in the spirit of fresh starts, I’m revamping my approach to blogging: The initiation comes in the form of Pico Iyer, a beloved travel writer respected for his ability to pull something interesting out of everything. I hope to do the same when, in the first week of each month, I share with my comparatively small audience thoughts on a travel book.

When last I visited the States, I ordered about half a dozen selections from authors whose names had cropped up time and again, some known for their daring, others their humor, as well as Pico, who seemed to be known simply as a great writer, somewhat un-categorically. Somewhere I can recall reading a description of Pico Iyer’s panache in which he is put in a country café of some abandoned highway and comes out with a story—a travel story.

Perusing through his list on Amazon, my expectations were summed up to one title that had appeared again and again on the webzines, blogs, and personal pages where I’d been educating myself on the craft: Video Night in Katmandu. While the book sounded good enough—it is the most popular selection by one of the most popular travel writers—there was something about it, perhaps its esteem, perhaps the way its name conjured up memories of watching DVDs at Korean nori bangs, that put me into the mindset of wanting something different.

I flipped through rather aimlessly amongst his titles—Sun After Dark, The Lady and the Monk, and Tropical Classical—any of which might have done the job just fine. After all, my goal was simple: get a good sampling of Pico’s work. However, just as I’d begun to resolve myself to settling, all of them relatively interesting but no title that just enthralled me, I found a book that made my ears point a little: The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Though not one with a particular interest in global religious figures and, like many, particularly turned off when celebrities become too involved in waxing political about situations, something in me wanted to know exactly who the Dalai Lama was, what he was getting up to in his daily life, and why and how he’d garnered such a favored position in the global community.

My knowledge going into this book was the general locale of Tibet on a map, that the Dalai Lama didn’t live there due to some skirmishes with the Chinese government, the Himalayas, teaching peace, Buddhism—a collection of random thoughts. I hadn’t (still haven’t) even seen Seven Years in Tibet, but I’d once seen an interview in which the Dalai seemed much more jovial—almost a practical joker—than one would expect from such a reverent figure. Seeing the Dalai Lama crack a couple of friendly insults at his interviewer had been enough, I suppose, to make me want more.

What I didn’t know going into the book was that Pico Iyer, beyond being an author of reverence himself, had a rather unusual relationship with the Dalai Lama: His father had been a personal friend, dating back to when the Dalai first arrived in India, having narrowly escaped the Chinese army and braved the peeks of the Himalayas. It was as if Pico had spent a lifetime preparing to write this book, getting to know his subject.

In general, the Dalai Lama wasn’t entirely different from what I expected. He is a man who gets up at four every morning to meditate for hours. He is an advocate for peace, tolerance, patience, and understanding. He holds incredible position (literally, god-like for Tibetans). He has immense power (preventing young militants from fighting the Chinese). He influences the world at large (the book is framed with the Dalai acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize). The scaffolding of who the Dalai is to us all is reconstructed in the book.

However, where Pico Iyer’s talents come into play is his ability to relay the Dalia’s interactions with people, his reactions to people, painting a more rounded picture of the human being as opposed to his credentials. The book looks at the Dalai from several angles: as the idol, as a man with a family, as a monk, as a question mark in a world curious to be enlightened, as an optimist and leader who is often left contemplative by his own stances and hopes. He is humble, friendly, fallible, obliging, and self-deprecating without losing mindfulness of his station on the globe.

Of course, discussing the Dalia Lama, his country and religion and message, inevitably leads into rather deep and harrowing moments of language. Concepts can be swift, simple, and dare I say Zen-like; however, expounding on such thoughts, reflecting on their meaning in the webbed wide world, is a dangerous proposition for any writer. Even the great Pico, I think, at times falls prey to getting overly poetic and profound on certain subjects, perhaps spinning his wheels over ideas that are less interesting than the portrait he was piecing together.

Still, I came away wanting to know more about it all, not from any lacking of The Open Road but by the constraints of keeping the book palatable, rewarding, and focused. I’d recommend this one, but in the same breath, I’d warn that it’s not a fluffy, quick read. Pico Iyer a serious writer who packs sentences with meaning and takes on difficult ideas. At times, I’d sneak every free moment to get in another section, and just as often, I found myself stepping away for a rejuvenating breath.

Ultimately, my first book by Pico has warranted the next.

Posted by jonathonengels 05:57 Archived in Guatemala Tagged books Comments (1)

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