2:20 am and it’s raining so hard in Antigua, Guatemala that it would be impossible for anyone to sleep…much less someone who zonked out at 9:00 pm. My “year of summer” is off to a wet start….with mid-day showers and overnight downpours filling my dreams. The good news is these rainy moments seem perfectly timed around opportunities for rest and haven’t deterred the chance to fall in love with Guatemala.
I know….I say it all the time…about lots of places…but Guatemala has the simple charm and confidence of a person not trying to impress, but capturing your interest nonetheless with a solid, gentle nature. Guatemala is accessible to visitors, and easy to navigate, but filled with the busy of people who have work to be done.
I left Guatemala City on Saturday, grateful for the company and guidance of my couch surfing friend Jonathan. He shared insights along the way about activities in Antigua, directed me with a quick overview of the city layout, and said goodbye on the front step of my hotel…all unimaginably generous ways to kick off my faith in the kindness of others.
When my friend Ursula told me she was going to Antigua for her honeymoon, I was excited at the idea of sharing dinner with that lovely couple. She talked about beaches and sunsets while I was told about a quaint colonial town. It took us longer than it should have to figure out we would not be visiting the same Antigua…lucky we are not Geography teachers.
Antigua has a familiar grid system that is easy to explore. The numbered streets leave nothing to the imagination and within an afternoon of wandering and getting lost, everything becomes easy to find. The colorful buildings, bustling market, cobbled streets, and Colonial Spanish influence ooze charm. Before leaving home, I spent an afternoon with my friend Donell who just returned from a mission trip in Guatemala. His pictures were filled with inspiration and changing lives found in the eyes of the people he met. His stories painted pictures of days spent in deep spiritual transformation and revival. But…just like all good travelers, Donell also inspired me with pictures of his best meals and shared information about a beautiful restaurant in the mountains of Antigua. Between his photos of spiritual conversions and stories of preaching abstinence to local students, he shared pictures of tamales, rice, beans, and huge displays of artwork integrated into the mountain landscape. While he couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant, I recognized it immediately when Jonathan also described this interesting place to enjoy Sunday brunch. A trip to El Tenedor seemed meant to be. In fact, the amazing view and delicious homemade tortillas, might make it worth another long trek to Guatemala. As you walk the endless restaurant grounds, there are murals, sculptures, and other surprising art displays around every turn. The Volkswagon Beetle popping out of the grass and towering fork and spoon spinning spaghetti were my favorites. It’s hard for words to describe this place, but my breakfast was a culinary and artistic treat…and a good way to start the day in Antigua.
One note about this breakfast..sometimes when people ask me about traveling alone, they say that they imagine the worst part would be eating alone. Usually, this isn’t an issue for me. I will bring along a book or my IPad…restaurants in the most unusual places seem to have Wifi now, so I use the quiet time for catching up on email or news events while enjoying my meal. But on this morning, at this specific place, I had a moment where I understood the anxiety people have described. In what I imagine was an effort to give me the best view of the mountains, the host seated me at a table for five…all by myself. The people around me smiled graciously when I was seated, but during the whole meal, their eyes kept roving back to see if the rest of my party had arrived. I imagined the story they created-just like I would do- of my jilted romance or family who forgot about me and almost felt a need to let them know I was okay. Instead, I just finished my meal and acted like I didn’t notice those four extra seats.
The same afternoon was spent exploring El Volcan Pacaya. For only $11, I took a small shuttle van to hike on this volcano along with a group of eight other visitors. I dream of being a prepared traveler, so I confidently strolled off the van with gym shoes in my bag to replace my trusty flip flops and wearing one of the only “non-dress” items in my bag, a pair of back shorts. It was only after I walked three feet in the humidity that I remembered how nice it is to have water when hiking….darn….I will do better next time. Luckily, there was a local woman who capitalized on the forgetfulness of hikers and I was able to buy one along the way. On the bus ride to La Pacaya, I listened to a college student from Kansas share his life mission with his friendly seatmate from the UK. He talked about his desire to find a career that was “not stressful, gave him lots of time off, provided international travel, paid a lot of money, gave hi pm a chance to make a difference, and didn’t make him work very hard.” I was torn between encouraging his life dreams and letting him know that he was a reason I worried about the future of social security. I settled on not being in a place to judge and agreeing that his plan didn’t sound half bad.
Walking up La Pacaya was a scene from an end of the world Sci-Fi movie…blackness, clouds, and steam everywhere. The humidity was oppressive at first, but relieved by the coolness of increasing elevation. As the sweat trickled down my forehead, I was inspired to keep a steady pace by the man on horseback trotting next to me, who kept reminding me how hot and tired I was, and how nice it would be to ride his horse instead. He seemed ready for me to give up on this moderate hike, but my sense of pride made my flip flop journey through horse droppings and shifting volcanic rock a piece of cake. Yeah..I didn’t put on those gym shoes until I got to the top.
Almost one week down…and all is well…outside of cold showers and mosquito bites COVERING my feet and legs, I can happily say I am in love with Guatemala.