Antigua Volcano

I think Antigua is the equivalent of the UK’s spa towns; Bath, Cheltenham, and what have you. Except it has an active volcano, magnificent local food, and a rich and vibrant culture visible right from the get-go. Bath and Cheltenham have lost their food culture to Prezzo and pedo-infested Pizza Expresses.

I spent nine days in Antigua, Guatemala, and despite its size, it was just the right amount. I think I could probably get stuck there, as so many have, it appears. It has that same small-town draw that San Cristobal has bit without the constant shitting.

Basketball and ruins

Prices are hiked in the town, but that’s to be expected when there is an influx of thousands of Western tourists in a place the size of a postage stamp. I wouldn’t say it’s gouging either; I was still able to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not to mention the copious amounts of incredible coffee for under £15. I shopped in the markets, was happy to wait for a place to eat, and undercut my yerba verde guy. Hopefully, I don’t bump into him again.

My last two months have seen a considerable rise in the amount of English speakers I have been around. The Yucatan was infested, and Antigua has enormous amounts of them too. I met Londoners, Americans, Dutch, Israeli, and Germans everywhere I went. The Antiguans themselves speak absolutely impeccable English, too, simply due to the lucrative effect it has on their main source of income. I found it quite nice to be able to freely express myself in my own language again. Probably wasn’t so great for the people being inflicted with it, but who cares. Being able to get drunk and chew someone’s ear off was a rare treat for me.

Petrol Station

The nightclub, singular, in Antigua, had a hell of a scene. There is a 12-hour dry law in Antigua, I’m not sure about the rest of Guatemala yet, so nightclubs are rare. This one just has a blind eye turned to it, allowing it to stay open much later than anywhere else. The law goes from 11 to 11 across the whole city, only allowing drinking in your own private domicile. This means that the one late-night club has literally everybody in the whole city who hasn’t been invited to a house party in one place. The party was wild, and very mixed. I don’t think it is too often you see that many different crowds in one place, but the party is good.

I am used to reggaeton remixes of 90’s classics at this point, but hearing them mixed in with a little R&B, then a little Sum41, backed into a little Ibiza Classics, is a fun audio soup to listen to.  Despite being tone-deaf and unaware of time codes, the DJ kept the crowd jumping. I watched it all from the balcony above. Having a bird’s eye view of a bunch of kids on their gap year, possibly drinking legally for the first time, and only ever staying in the town for 2/3 days made me feel like a voyeur, not a sexy one either. Kind of looked like one of those balls of worms you see in bait shops.

Hat man guatemala

The rest of the nightlife was also fantastic. Antigua is on a number of backpacking trails, and they know how to cater to it. Everyone has a happy hour that lasts all afternoon, and there are multiple rooftop terraces to take in the, quite frankly, breathtaking trio of volcanoes. Every night there is a ton of music on offer, from big bands to cute jazzy two pieces, and of course, the raging DJs. I met a few people who, like in San Cris, had come for a week and stayed for a year. The community amongst bar staff, musicians, and hostel workers was seemingly tight-knit.

Football Pitch in a Finca

My little apartment was very cute and a little way out of the center of town, a 25-minute walk or 5 minutes and 3 Quenzales ride on the chicken bus. I broke one of my cardinal rules of accommodation and got a place with a kitchen in the same room as the bed, but it wasn’t so bad, and the garden was wonderful. The sounds of birds in the day and various horny bugs in the night were a welcome change from the unmuffled exhaust and dogs of Mexico. 

Chicken busses are the chosen transport of the locals in Guatemala. They are all old American school buses painted in the most garish colors imaginable. They cost mear pennies to ride and will stop anywhere to pick up and drop off as long as it is on the route. Stop is a very loose term in this case, though; if they see you’re able-bodied, the bus will simply slow, come closer to the curb, and the conductor will hang out the front door and swing you aboard. I love them, and if I stay longer in this country, which I think I probably will, I will use them as often as possible. The websites will tell you to stay away from them due to crime, but I think that is just another slice of that Western fear of anything brown again. People are actively encouraged to use the double-decker busses in London; I think they have a higher death rate than most geriatric wards.

Chicken Bus Antigua

The food in Guatemala was something I came here knowing nothing about. It has turned out to be a more than pleasant surprise. I love Mexican food. It is almost impossible not to. Tacos, napalm hot salsa, lime and cilantro on everything, pork, mole, chicharrónes, chapolinas, I could go on and on and on. Still, they have a distinct lack of one thing that is very, dearly, passionately important to me. Their fried chicken fucking sucks.

Guatemala takes pride in its fried chicken. Their little mum-and-pop shops outsell KFC, and their main fried chicken outlet runs a roaring trade. When I found this out, my stay went from a month or so to maybe having to extend my visa. I tested my tour guide’s judgment of his national cuisine, and he wasn’t lying. They make the colonel’s 11 herbs and spices taste like MSG and a crack of pepper. And the crispy skin, oh the crispy skin. Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible than are the tender horns of cockled snails and never as crispy as Guatemalan fried chicken, I think Bill Shakes said. They also make other delicious food, or so I have heard.

Ceviche in AntiguA

I took a trip to the huge market that sits just outside of Antigua. As usual, there is a little Artisan market to the side. It’s full of the usual tat tourists like to buy that lets them tell the people back home they ventured in. Then there is the actual market with hanging fly-covered meat, knock-off DVD stores, and a guy who sells power tools and poppers on the same shelf. They also sell the best fruit from small local farmers, bags of spices you’ve never heard of, and exactly what I was looking for, small plantation coffee.

Antigua church

I grabbed the usual produce I needed from the labyrinth of stalls, haggling the already criminal prices to the point of basically being free and asking where the coffee stalls were. The answers were hard to follow. Unlike a lot of other city markets, this wasn’t based around blocks and had seemed to grow organically over time. It felt like moving my way through the veins of a body. I was slowly squeezed between ever-moving crowds down endless, twisting corridors full of sounds and smells. Thankfully, the average height of Guatemalans is 5 foot 1, so I could see head and shoulders over the masses.

Chicken a la Linea Antigua

I found a few coffee stalls. They sold one type of coffee each, all washed, sun dried, arabica, and medium roast. You could get it ground, or you could get it as beans, and some sold it ground with corn also. I don’t know why that was a thing, but it was phenomenally cheap. I imagine it is to either weaken the effect of the caffeine, or reduce the overall cost, or both. Either way, I bought 500 grams for a handshake, and it is absolutely delicious. My coffee intake has quadrupled since getting here. My astronomic anxiety and new ability to hear the electricity in the walls are worth it.

Coffee pulper Antigua

I met some lovely people in Antigua, mostly people just passing through on holidays, but sometimes they’re the best ones. They bring a life and vigor with them that I find myself forgetting. Travel and new places have almost become the norm for me, and far from the spark being gone, I often forget how exciting it is. It is so reinvigorating to spend time with people who maybe only have two weeks off a year and soak up the joy of being in a new place for the first time. They marvel, explore, and cram everything they can into every minute of their stay, and it gives me the motivation to do the same. Holidaymakers are great. It’s us long term, responsibility avoiding, developing country benefiting, bums that spoil the culture. I say they gave me strength back, but not the strength to walk up any of the volcanoes. That shit looked hard, and I could see from down here, thank you very much. It was only on my last day, waiting for my shuttle to the lake with two 20-odd-year-old siblings, that I found out that if you’re rich enough, New York enough, and lazy enough, you can take a Jeep the whole way and only walk 45 minutes. It usually takes two days.

volleyball at a coffee plantation

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