We found an online package tour in Guatemala that fell on the Labor Day day weekend and the best of all - it was on sale. We were not planning to go anywhere until we saw that ad.
At first, Mijo and I were dreading being hauled from city to city on a tour bus with other tourists. Not only that proved to be the best option when you don't have a lot of time traveling, we also got lucky that our tour guides are very knowledgeable and tour group was a happy bunch!
Follow me on our five-day trip to Guatemala...
We flew from SFO to Guatemala via Houston on a red eye flight. It was uneventful except for our discovery of a statue of the former President Bush senior at the Houston airport on our way to the gate of our connecting flight to Guatemala. The Bushes must be adored in Texas the way the Aquinos are in the Philippines or the Clintons are in California? La Aurora International is Guatemala's main airport located in Guatemala City. We were whisked by a service van from the airport to the hotel which took more or less 20 minutes. Barcelo Hotel is in the Zona 9 of the city. From the map, it looked as though the hotel is just a mere 2 miles from the airport. Barcelo Hotel looks like a generic major hotel from the outside but it is beautiful and elegant inside. The lobby bar serves good cocktails and has live music when we were there on a Friday evening. The checkin was swift and we were in our room within 20 minutes from the time we sat foot at the hotel. Mijo wanted to eat right away so after we freshened up we went to Kacao. Kacao restaurant serves authentic Guatemalan dishes and is a few blocks away from the hotel located around the fancy Zona 10.We ordered something that I haven't had before and not usually available in the Central American restaurants in the Bay Area. We started with De Todo Un Poco which is a combination platter for two containing tamales of different fillings, forms and sizes. Later in the trip, I would discover that corn based dishes are king. The Pollo con Loroco was delicious. I remember the first time I tasted loroco was in a pasta dish during a trip to San Salvador in El Salvador. The coffee was very good!
We hailed a cab right after our late lunch to go to the Museo Nacional Arte Moderno. Based on our tour schedules, the only day to get around at our leisure was on Monday and the museums are closed on Mondays. So we made use of the remaining day time to see one or two museums. A big Mayan warrior made of different scrap metals greeted us at the museum lobby at the Museo Nacional Arte Moderno. I enjoyed the sculptures and modern art paintings at the museum and I noticed that most of the modern paintings are in the league of Picasso where the objects are deconstructed. They also have a permanent collection of the artist Carlos Merida. A guided tour would have allowed me to truly appreciate the collection. The Museo Nacional de Arqueologica e Etnologia is just across the street from the museum. Unfortunately, a special function was happening that day so it was closed to the public early. We decided to head back to the hotel to enjoy its amenities.The hotel lobby bar is quite nice and elegant. They also serve good quality local beers and cocktails. The pool is heated which is nice because the temperature in Guatemala City is actually cool and not hot at all. It has something to do with its altitude. The hotel also has a sports bar, a Japanese restaurant, a seafood buffet and a gift shop.
The hotel also has a breakfast buffet and they serve continental, Western and Central American dishes, pastries, cured meats and breads. My favorite is their platanos or baked or fried plantains. Que rico!
We didn't want to venture out far that evening so we decided to stick around Zona 10. About 3 miles from the hotel is the city's biggest and modern Oakland Mall. One would think there is nothing cultural about malls but malls are actually one of the places where you'll see locals doing local stuff. Mijo was surprised to see a Salvadoran retail store called Siman. We also tried sampling their local coffee chain called Cafe Barista and the coffee was good as expected. The cafe also serves Guatemalan style corn-based desserts like Pastel de Elote which is like a flan with ground corn in it and of course the usual Western desserts like cheesecake, tiramisu, etc.
We didn't know what to expect in a tour group. The tourist van I think is good for 14 people but there were only 11 of us. I think they made space for the luggages that people may be hauling with them. We left ours at Barcelo Hotel in the city since we were going back after a couple of days. The trip from the city to Antigua was almost 3 hours. Our first stop in Antigua was Fernando's Kaffee. Though we've already sampled Guatemalan coffee in the city, I guess no tour is complete without first sipping the local specialty. I specifically asked for my coffee to be black and no sugar so I can truly taste the brew. It was very good. Just the right balance of bitter taste, acid and hints of caramel. They sell not just coffee but chocolate and pastries as well. Inside the cafe, there is a neat and quiet courtyard with tables and chairs. Next to it is the kitchen where chocolate confections are handmade. We ended up buying a couple of bags of beans for our own consumption back in the States.The streets of Antigua is cobbled stone and the buildings are all colonial style. We went inside an old church called Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de La Merced and learned how the Mayan natives were able to combine both the Catholic ways with their native Mayan rituals. A classic example is the cross. It can be used as a Mayan sign to mean the elements of the earth and also as a Christian sign to mean the Trinity. At this point of the tour, I was seeing more indigenous people wearing the traditional Mayan textile - from head to toe. Carlos, our tour guide, put a couple of locals on the spot to act as our models. They showed us their clothes, their jewelry, the gold adornments they put on their teeth, etc. I was feeling bad at one point because they were being treated like a specimen. I hope they didn't feel like one. I did not take a picture as a sign of respect. We walked by the Parque Central or the town's central park. The park is charming and is dotted with fountains. Fountains on the edges and a big fountain in the middle. And most importantly, locals and tourist gather by the park and stores and cafes housed in colonial buildings surrounding it. Behind the church called Catedral de Santiago is the remains of the original church that has been damaged by an earthquake in the 1700s. The structure that still stands today and the massive pillars piled up on the ground give clues how big the original church was. Part of the tour is a visit to a local jade factory. There we learned that ancient Mayans adored jade and this can be seen in ancient jewelry, statues, masks, etc. We also witnessed how these precious stones are shaped and polished and made into earrings, necklaces, masks and other aesthetic pieces. The factory has a store so we had a chance to look around. We also checked out a colonial hotel called La Posada de Don Rodrigo and its charming couryard with lovely fountains. At first I thought we were going to break here for lunch since it also has a restaurant.We did break for lunch at Hotel Antigua. I ordered what is called a Lomito which is a grilled beef loin with spices, rice, salsa and black beans. My favorite landmark in Antigua is the Arco de Santa Catalina. It is where most tourists congregated. It used to be part of a convent that stood in the same place. While walking on 5a Av Norte, watch out for a view of a volcano that can be framed with the arc. I was waiting for the clouds to clear but it didn't while we were there.
Next on the list was Chichicastenango on country's highlands. On our way to there, I saw acres and acres of corn fields. Low lands, highlands, hillsides and slopes, no space is wasted. I thought that is very efficient use of land. I was trying to imagine what these areas used to look like during the Mayan era. When we got there, we walked around the central area of Chichicastenango to show us what the streets look like before they are transformed into a huge marketplace the next day. I saw these Mayan murals on the walls of the buildings. Suddenly, a pack of small kids were following me around saying 'Konichi wa' and trying to sell me small trinkets made of woven textiles. This place is predominantly indigenous population so I was not surprised that I was singled out as the token Asian. There was a moment when two kids were talking in their native Mayan language. I can only assume they were discussing how much was their offer on a particular item because I heard the words veinte and diez. I struck out a deal with one of the kids for a $1 per bookmark. The entire tour group spent the night at the cozy Mayan Inn. We were greeted by Mr. Freddie, the hotel manager, with a welcome drink before we checked in. Before dinner, selected kids from the local school paid us a visit in their traditional and ceremonial Mayan wear and each performed a ceremonial dance while Mr. Freddie narrated the traditional function of each family member. I wonder if these kids will someday leave town in search of a different life? I wonder if that is a trend among Mayan youths these days? The following day is the weekly market. Blocks and blocks of the small town turned into this huge flea market. It is a sight to behold. We were assigned a uniformed local guide to take us through the labyrinth of hundreds, or maybe thousands, of local vendors selling handicrafts, clothes, housewares, or anything you can imagine. I have never seen anything like it. You have to have good bargaining prowess to be successful in shopping here. I managed to score a couple of coin purses, scarves and a picnic mat. Mijo bought bags and scarves for the girls and his sister and for himself. Cash is king here so bring lots of cash if you intend to shop a lot. Aside from bookmarks, coin purses and toiletry bags, I found this small boxed Mayan medicine dolls as one of our interesting finds while shopping. It is supposed to cure anything and solve any problems. What I find intriguing is the size. It is really tiny, the box is not even two inches in length. We did more walking tour of the town and observed how Mayans bury their dead which is very different from how we Christians do it. I did not take pictures as a sign of respect to the locals. On our way back to the city, we dropped by another town called Panajachel for a quick lunch and also to see the famous Lago de Atitlan which is the deepest lake in Central America. From the beach in Panajachel, I could see three volcanoes on the southern edge of the lake. It is so beautiful and yet seems so dangerous and destructive. I was told by our tour guide that the lake itself is a caldera of an extinct volcano. I can't help and compare it to Taal Lake in the Philippines because of so many similarities.
Back in the city, we were hauled around in another van to sightsee the more popular and interesting parts of Guatemala City. The city is dotted with parks, plazas, statues, fountains, and monuments. There were lots of office buildings but no tall skyscrapers because of one obvious reason - the ground here shifts more often than not. There are lots of older buildings so I was imagining Manila would be looking like this if it had not been for the war. After seeing the Catedral Metropolitana and the Parque Central, we managed to sit down and sample more coffee. We went to a cafe called Los Cafes Leon. This cafe is big, having good ventilation and seems like a popular place to sip coffee. Again, the coffee was good. I was also admiring the old city photographs hanging on the walls. That corner of 10a Calle and 6a Avenida is dotted with European style coffee shops. Guatemala City has no train system but they do have a rapid-bus line to move masses of people in and out of the business areas. These buses are colored green and they have stations just like subway trains. The fare is 1 Quetzal per ride. There are regular buses servicing the city and they are colored red and we were warned to be extra careful when getting on them. For our last late lunch in the city, we decided to head to Casa Chapina. We found this place on our first day while looking for Kacao. Like Kacao, Casa Chapina also serves traditional Guatemalan dishes. The interior is well lit and I liked their high ceilings with drapings. I noticed a lot of office workers were coming and leaving. There is an area in the middle of the restaurant manned by a senora where corn tortillas are hand molded and then toasted on a large flat iron grill. Can you imagine the aroma of fresh corn tortilla coming from that area? We ordered another platter consisting of deep fried chicken skin, pork rinds, tacos, tamales and other corn based dishes and cervezas.
Our flight back to the States was early in the morning so we had to checkout and leave before 5am. While checking out, we were handed two big boxes of packaged breakfast to bring with us to the airport. This is what I call customer service! Remember this hotel when you are in Guatemala City - Barcelo Hotel.
I learned so many things about Guatemala and how deeply rooted it is in its Mayan roots. Muchas gracias Guatemala! Thank you also to our tour guides Carlos and Danilo of Gate1 tours.