Lovely Antigua and being sustainable
Trip Start Sep 26, 2011
54Trip End Feb 20, 2012
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Where I stayed
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As Green As It Gets
We haven't heard one good thing a about Guatemala City in our travels: noisy, dirty, polluted, dangerous, overcrowded. From the brief look we had on our way through to the lovely little townof Antigua I don’t think those reports were exaggerated too grossly. In total we transit through Guatemala City four times and it’s not until our second last day in the country that we spend any time here. But more on that later. First – Antigua. With a gorgeous place like Antigua barely an hour away, you really wouldn’t need to spend any time in Guatemala City. We are staying in the most impossibly gorgeous hotel complete with a blue-tiled lap pool and fountain, vivid green courtyard with climbing vines to entice the local birdlife, shaded walkways and a lovely rooftop terrace that looks out over Antigua through to the volcanoes that ring its borders. We breakfast on delicious huevos rancheros on the rooftop in our three days there, served by a lovely man with a startling black toupee. After booking we find out that Bill Clinton was a guest there in 1999…there are no reports about who escorted him while in town. Antigua is a lovely town albeit with a rather stern chequerboard layout. Cobbled streets, squat houses squared around courtyards overflowing with bright bougainvillea and green green foliage and tumbling ruins of convents and churches cornering every block. It would be very easy to spend a few more days here.
I think I do alright with sustainable travel – trying to shop and buy local, use resources from the local people and not eating at McDonalds or shopping at chain stores. It’s easier to do in some places than others though. We do okay in Antigua, and I think our time there is better when we are successful with this. Antigua is full of older American tourists, all hanging out around the (very lovely) central parque. Restaurants and shops are priced accordingly, and the square is full of touts who follow you around enquiring if you would like to buy the necklaces and scarves they hold out to you. Inevitably you don’t because it’s the same awful stuff that you would find in cheap Australian chain stores – making me wonder where on earth they all find it all…the cynic in me has some suggestions but that’s really really cynical isn’t it? But never fear. Lonely Planet has recommended an artisan co-operative that sells objects from a variety of different communities around the area and there we find beautiful weaving, chocolate, beads and a variety of other little gorgeous things that have slipped my mind. This is a better place to buy souvenirs than in the square or in the dubious 'jade’ stores. It is funny shopping with Angus. We decide to get some lovely serviettes for our new place and I leave him in charge of that while I skip off to run my hands over the colourful embroidered blankets. He emerges with some interestingly shaded brown and yellow pieces and I can’t help but enquire why he chose that particular colour scheme. They match the décor, he answers. But honey I thought you said the décor was horrible? Oh. Um. Yeah. I make a stealthy resolve to keep the home-decorating to myself from now on, although this may have been Angus’s cunning plan from the beginning…
We have lunch at a local comedor (kitchen/restaurant) which is just great. We order the plato tipico (typical plate) which has the whole meal right there – vegetables, aguacate (avocado), frijoles, queso and freshly made maize tortillas (in a word – oh yeah.) The meal cost us barely anything and is fresh, wholesome and simple. I love it. That night we try to go to another, more formal Guatemalan restaurant but find it closed, or closed down. Disappointed, we try to get off the main strip but end up at Gaia, a middle eastern restaurant and in a word – awful. Most of our meal is inedible, we pay an astronomical amount for a bottle of cheap red and end up feeling decidedly under the weather the next day. The music is too loud and a garish bellydancer shakes her thang up and down the restaurant as we puzzle over what would make a salad taste so, so…wrong. We tried to go local anyway. Food in Guatemala is definitely better when it’s the food of Guatemala. The next day we do something that is one of the highlights of my whole trip though, although we are both feeling pretty rubbish. We’ve booked in a tour with As Green As It Gets (http://www.asgreenasitgets.org/), a non-profit organization focusing on economic development and environmentally sustainable agriculture in Guatemala, staffed fully by volunteers. As Green As It Gets helps small farmers purchase or farm small plots of land, producing mostly coffee but also fruit, nuts and wood. We meet Carlos, a 21 year old farmer, in the plaza at San Miguel Escobar – the site of the original Antigua before an earthquake forced its migration to the current spot (a spot which was also traumatised by numerous earth quakes before the powers that be demanded a new Guatamalan capital be built an hour East. ‘Antigua’ actually means the old or antique). We are joined by Franklin, a self-described ‘long-haired hippie’ who in a past life was an Engineer somewhere in the US. Carlos and his bro (I think) take us uuuuup the volcano to their fathers plot, as Carlos’ plot is about an hours hike higher. Carlos, through Franklin, tells us about the farms and his work as we go – Franklin telling us all about As Green As It Gets and the way of life in Guatemala. Angus tries a coffee berry and a native neeceberry and I struggle with all the being upright. After the tour we stop in at Sylvia’s house, built by another charity in partnership with As Green As It Gets. To help bring funds in to pay her share, Sylvia has started making cosmetics with some of the produce from the local farms. Alongside her daughter, she produces rich face and body creams using macadamia and almond oils, citrus oil from the fruits, spices and herbs from the rosemary and cardamom bushes. She shows us a sample and I can’t resist but buy one, Sylvia’s face absolutely lighting up when we tell her we will take one of each of her products. For less than the cost of the overpriced bottle of Chilean wine from the night before we’ve bought three delicious, hand-made products made by the Guatemalan woman in front of us created using organic, natural products sourced from small land-holders farming plots just up the road. I feel guilty for having frequented the restaurant. I feel angry at the restaurant for exploiting tourists like that.
But there’s also coffee to be tasted - Carlos and Cristobel and their sister roast, grind and brew the drink for us and we chat to Franklin and sip with pleasure. It’s such a good thing to do here.
We rounded off the rest of Antigua by exploring the ruins of two different churches and convents (glorious, beautiful and left us wondering just how many wayward young girls there were in this small city) and visiting a couple of smaller museums (um, more glory and beauty). We both really like Antigua and wish we didn’t have to leave so quickly. Angus more than I is keen to stay here – he’s on a holiday from his full-on work life so would rather appreciate some relaxing and reading time on the lovely terrace I think whereas I really want to push on and check out more of the country. Anymore, the plans are booked and we move on to see some proper Guatemalan history; the Mayan ruins of Tikal.