I’d grown quite fond of Nicaragua for the segment of it we experienced. Not least for its volcano sledging and studded landscapes, colonial jewels of the Spanish-American culture and corkers on the hostel scene, but also the food. Tasty fare from the Caribbean creole to the Maya-influenced Spanish style cooking was noticeably lighter on the pocket and consequently tastier somehow. Give me a street-side polystyrene plate of stuffed tacos, rice and black beans or a dish of homemade stew bobbing with the local veggies and blue corn pupusas (tortillas infused with egg and cheese) for dipping any day of the week. We owe our taste buds exposure to a whole world of culinary delights, do we not?
Take Mamoncillo fruit (a Spanish lime) for instance—is about the size of a bon bon encased in a hard green rind, which as bon bon sized balls go, are twice as sweet like sherbet with the texture of wet cotton wool. You simply suck out the pulp in one easy movement and bam! An explosion of flavour erupts in your mouth. And your tum will keep schtum for quite some time; apparently mamos are great against stomach aches. They definitely went the distance in trumping other locally prepared fruit; seasoned oranges. The chap standing at the back of his tricycle-truck had fashioned a nifty little way to unravel the orange skin in the flash of an eye by means of an antiquated peeling machine. The hand-wound lathe device left long, narrow trails and zesty tendrils behind with which to adorn his selling space. Perfect but for the heavy-handed addition of salt as the finishing touch. Yuk!
Relic-adorned ruins, bone-white beaches and tropical rainforests are often sights on which the eyes can feast throughout Central America but add tantalising tucker into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a meal deal to devour.
After another fiddly-free border crossing from El Salvador into Guatemala, we rocked up at 1,500 metres to a glorious municipality in the central highlands. Antigua. A UNESCO World Heritage site that’s cradled by three spectacular volcanoes: Aqua, Fuego and Acatenango amid mountains, pine forests, foothills, milpas (a plot of crop land cleared from the forest) and coffee farms. As the former capital, Antigua means ‘ancient’ or ‘old’ and I wondered without hesitation on arrival, could you get more of a photogenic city in Central America? To my mind and I’m still open to any serious contenders, possibly not. Even the public waste bins were elegant pieces of unusual beauty made from ornately designed wrought iron.
At almost 500 years old, it felt like we’d ridden through a portal into another century. It takes the colonial era to a heightened level with its mansions adorned in exquisite detail; tiny tiendas (shops) and intimate panaderias (bakeries) with pistachio green, burnt orange and deep yellow facades; as well as 17th and 18th century churches and convents lining the topiary tree-lined plaza. No street or avenue ruined by modernisation, it’s a city in harmony with itself and the last vestiges of another time.
Post a hot hour of ‘hostel shopping’ in the pricey part of Guatemala—gripped by a heat made heavier from our protective suits, I was running low on patience. And cream crackered from the last couple of busy border days commencing at stupid o’clock. A handful of mid-range lodgings (to my knowledge, there were no budget choices), had all refused accommodation of both us and the bikes. That is, we could’ve struck a deal and left our wheels on the street until 8pm each evening, to then have to roll them back outside each morning. Afraid not madam, that’d be against our riding religion, lo siento. Rocking up to Posada de San Jeronimo—despite offering a more sensible rate (170 Quetzals or £14 pounds for a private room per night)—still left me in no mood to hear the same refusal by that point.
Make this happen, Lisa! the panicked voice of my soul cried—the command driving my vocal cords. Ashamed to admit that the Morris powers of pushy persuasion kicked in, and once successfully executed, I all but smothered the poor girl on reception with gratitude when she agreed that we could permanently leave our bikes inside. I’m a fru-gal when it comes to cost but fiercely vigilant where the wellbeing of Pearl and the 800 are concerned. We duly promised her a minimum three-night stay and an ‘enough to write home about’ mention of the marvellous hotel that really is Posada de San Jeronimo. It’s clean, the staff are friendly and boasts the prettiest micro-sized courtyard beneath the roof terrace too. After my initial approach, I’m amazed at how quickly the girl warmed to us, showed genuine enthusiasm for our trip and ended up giving us a matrimonial room with en suite for the same price as one with a shared bathroom. Girl, you’ll go straight to heaven!
There is always someone of interest to watch—from the highly enthralling to the morbidly fascinating—on every street corner in Latin America. Antigua is by no means an exception; whether it’s a band of musicians tapping their mallets on marimbas (deep-toned xylophones) or the city’s finest artisans who spread their wares on blankets—beautifully painted pots, handcrafted wooden figurines or more trinkets and charms than Guatemala’s population. Some of the local ladies would sit stationed in their patch displaying baskets of creamy avocados whereas others would wander purposefully advertising head fulls and handfuls of rainbow bright woven fabrics. A traditionally clad woman carrying her back-wrapped baby selling bags of the sweetest mango managed to catch our eye and Quetzals every day.
Bracelets, bangles, necklaces and earrings were constantly catching the light as they were being jangled before us with the same importance as the Queen Elizabeth II’s crown jewels around the jacaranda-lined plaza. Until onlookers looked to barter for a bargain, it became second nature to smile and softly refuse. I clocked a mother and son trying to empty their crate of newborn pups before sun down and loved that they prioritised play time with the mini munchkins over hankering for a sale with anyone passing by. Clever sales strategy though!
A Franciscan monk was fighting to stay awake in his plastic chair against an ancient tree; shading him from the honeyed warmth next to the chapel, and for some reason assumed the grumpiest demeanour around him for a mile radius. We called him the ‘Grumpy Monk’, which incidentally would make a fine name for a pub, Fancy a few in the Grumpy Monk, Jase? His eyes had taken on a furious squint—narrowing towards flammable and when he turned to gaze at me, a hot prickle climbed my spine. Strike no sparks, Lisa. The tinder is dry. Better take on a razor-sharp edge of cunning if we were going to capture this characterful chap. A fascinating fellow but one that remained resolute and seethed. The tinder is very dry indeed.
With a belly like a boulder beneath his brown habit he was huge, had no neck to speak of and his features seemed to huddle in the middle of his face. His fleshy fingers that started as thick as sausages just about managed to taper down enough to look vaguely useable. Tired, he rubbed his squashed apricot for a nose; the action pulled his wrinkles this way and that. As Jason angled the tripod mounted camera towards the monk, a gasp of hard-jawed outrage escaped from him. Studying us with open sourness, his behaviour was akin to a kicked bee and I didn’t relish getting stung. Rightly or wrongly, I interjected and stood between the monk and the tripod; pretending to pose while Jase set up the shot and focused in on our new favourite subject matter. Riling a man of the cloth—neither of us are likely to reach heaven.
Making a mad dash back to pootling the streets, Jason was perpetually solicited with “You smoke weed, amigo?” while I on the other hand got, “You drink champagne? Welcome to the House of Jade, amiga,” past every boutique. Jason even received invitations of “Come with me to a bar, it has many many beautiful blondes,” despite my being stood right next to the guy in the business of blondes. “Sorry chap, my fella isn’t in the market right now, and just for the record, he prefers redheads.”
For all the hustle and bustle of the central park, we found the city’s spirited bus station on the outskirts. All headed up ‘Guate,’ ‘Guate,’ ‘Guate,’ including one called the ‘Rabit Express’; the gigantic Guatemalan buses of bedazzling splendour hit me in the face—‘Out of the way gringo!’—the drivers had little incentive to delay their tight schedules. It took us an hour to get our fix and fussy out of the place. A photographer’s focal point alright. Highly polished chrome was the order of the day embedded into a brilliant spectrum of colours on the beefy bumpers and elevated bonnets. Apart from the US style yellow school buses parked up, most looked like massive travelling carnival trucks.
Taking a breather in the shade sat on the kerb while munching chunks of mango, we spotted a recent travelling acquaintance from San José. Aaron had stayed in Castle Tam hostel at the same time we’d volunteered there. Familiar with the highlights of the area (less so his sense of direction within!), it was great to have him show us a couple of ‘Must eat’ spots and what a lamb, he even bought us an ice cream. Cheers chucky egg.
Sure, you’ll be gently accosted on every street corner in Antigua; it’s a tourist-magnet, and who can blame all and sundry for being drawn towards a piece of the finest colonial pie? Hoping you visit, be sure to eat at least one lunch at Rincón Tipico—superb local fare for just a few Quetzals and Miso, a Korean restaurant (on 5 Avenida Sur). But happy digestion and digression aside, after a couple of apologetic nos, you’re free to keep perusing the intriguing treasures of Antigua.
As cities of rare beauty go, you might even happen upon a local beauty pageant. Randomly, we did. The contestants and winners of which flashed their pearly white painted smiles, positioned their curvaceous figures serenely to the serious cameras (I think Jase was in his trigger-happy element), and posed compliantly with all the grinning adolescent boys.
They were fun to watch for a hand of time yet I couldn’t help think what crowd-pulling stars they’d make dressed up in various princess costumes to do their ting at Disney World. Forget world peace, do it for the kids.
It was a glorious feel-good week engulfed in an age-old colonial city. I’m still stunned to the core that Jason adored it as much as I did, knowing his usual indifference towards Latin American cities. Antigua glowed in a beautiful light the entire time, which washed down from an unblemished blue sky accenting everything it touched. Although Antigua embraces you with its warmth—exuding a radiant heat by day—it emits a much cooler reprieve come sundown. Looking up to listen to the birds that come in to roost, gathering a throatier intensity as night approached, we saw translucent skies of evening extending to infinity, permitting us to watch the stars flicker through the limbs and leaves.
The sounds were wondrous, the sights intoxicating and vibrant flowers bloomed on every wrought-iron girded window sill. It’s pretty much an unlimited cultural scene resplendent with evocative buildings where your time won’t be wasted. The city has also retained that safe urbane vibe of a small town—one that oozes in cobblestone quaint charisma.