Our Second Favorite City – Granada, Nicaragua

Nicaragua is not known for preserving the past. Granada, with its Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, is a rare exception to this rule. It’s often called Nicaragua’s most beautiful city and when we traveled there we found a real looker of a city with a stunning boutique hotel bargain, great locals and a pleasant slow, steamy pace. However, Granada ended up being our second favorite city in Nicaragua. Stay tuned to this travel blog to learn what our first favorite city in Nicaragua was (hint, it WASN’T Managua).

View of Colonia Granada, Nicaragua and Lake Nicaragua

A birds’ eye view of Colonial Granada, Nicaragua.

Colorful colonial houses - Granada, Nicaragua

The Colonial architecture of Granada, Nicaragua, like this typical house, is in various stages of restoration.

Old Granada

Granada was founded by the Spanish in 1524 which makes it, according to some, the first European city on mainland Latin America. The settlement was named after Granada, Spain and the Spanish used it as a more southerly seat of power in conjunction with Antigua, Guatemala.

Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

The main cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua is called the Antiguo Convento San Francisco and it was built in 1592.

In addition to Spanish conquistadors, Granada has been invaded by the English, the French, the Dutch and a whole bunch of pirates including Henry Morgan. The most bizarre interloper, however, came from the United States.

Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534, in Granada, Nicaragua.

Wacky William Walker

If he were alive today, William Walker would probably have been a member of the Tea Party. Back in the mid 1800s he had to settle for the Filibusters (aka Freebooters) who thought it was perfectly reasonable to just rock on up to a foreign country, establish an English speaking colony and then pretty much take over.

Oddly enough, that cockamamie tactic worked and Walker was actually President of Nicaragua for a year (albeit a spectacularly unpopular one). A fighting force cobbled together from the armies of various Central American countries finally kicked the Filibusterers (is that a word?) out of Nicaragua. In a final act of contrition they set fire to Granada as they fled.

Learn more about this Walker character in the 1987 movie Walker starring Ed Harris.

San Francisco Church Museum - Granada, Nicaragua

The San Francisco Church museum in Granada, Nicaragua has a large collection of indigenous artifacts and modern art.

It’s a wonder any of the Colonial architecture survived, but some did including the lovely yellow main cathedral and the Antiguo Convento San Francisco which was built in 1592 by Franciscan monks and is now home to indigenous sculpture, pottery and modern paintings (US$2). Iglesia La Merced is even older, built in 1534. Climb the narrow, curving staircase to the roof (US$1) for fantastic views over the clay tiled roofs of the surrounding Colonial structures.

Merced Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

A cupola view from the roof of the Merced Cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua.

View from Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

A view over Granada, Nicaragua from the bell tower of the Iglesia La Merced which was built in 1534.

For some really, really old bits and pieces of Granada visit Mi Museo (free) where Peter Kolind, owner of the nearby Hotel La Bocona, has filled a gorgeously restored Colonial home with thousands of pre-Colombian artifacts. Mr. Kolind has found and purchased so many bits and pieces (more than 7,000 at last count) of the past that the entire exhibit changes every three months.

Colonial Granada, Nicaragua

A cross in front of the Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua.

New Granada

Granada’s Colonial bones have been getting a slow but steady spruce up thanks to the city’s latest invaders: retired (or semi-retired) foreigners. Lots and lots of them. At times it feels like Granada is content to have sold its soul to foreigners looking for a place where their retirement funds go further. If a few travelers stop by that’s just gravy.

Cale de Calzada bars - Granada, Nicaragua

The pedestrian-only Calle de Calzada where expats, locals and travelers mix in Granada, Nicaragua.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Calle de Calzada, a pedestrian-only street that breaks away off the main plaza. The promenade and the surrounding blocks are lined with foreigners enjoy foreigner stuff: bars (including the mandatory Irish bar), cafes, a few souvenir shops, a fabulous home made gelato shop and some noted restaurants including meat-centric El Zaguan (Nicaragua is famous for its beef) which was recommended to us by Chef Ben Slow who operates one of our favorite eateries in all of Nicaragua, Cafe Campestre on Ometepe Island.

Centralito Bar - Granada, Nicaragua

Centralito is one of the more modest, traditional bars (and therefore our favorite) on Granda’s Calle de Calzada.

Because so many foreigners (both expats and visitors) spend so much time in this area there are also a lot of begging children. We were glad to see business owners and locals making the point that child beggars are a new phenomenon (remember, Nicaragua is a socialist country) and most of the kids are not homeless or starving. They’ve simply learned that getting a handout is easier than going to school or getting a job. Don’t perpetrate the cycle.

Marimba Band - Granada, Nicaragua

A roving marimba band plays for tips on the Calle de Calzada in Granada, Nicaragua.

A much more welcome new addition to Granada is a small but growing crop of remarkably polished and shockingly affordable boutique hotels in addition to the city’s existing grungy hostels and slightly slumping, fairly uninspired Colonial style hotels.

pool Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

The courtyard pool at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

The best of the bunch is Los Patios Hotel where less than US$100 per night gets you stunning Scandanavia-meets-Spanish-Colonial style, a perfectly serene atmosphere and a gourmet breakfast. More reasons to book are in our full review of Los Patios Hotel.

Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Stark design and Colonial touches, like replicas of original tile, mix at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Boutique Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Your gourmet breakfast is served here at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Another stylish and even more affordable choice is  Hotel Con Corazon. Run by a foundation, 100% of profits from the hotel are used to help local kids finish school. There are 15 rooms around a central courtyard that has a pool and breezy patios. Room rates, starting at around US$60, include Wi-Fi and breakfast. The feel-good factor is free.

Horse Carriages - Granada, Nicaragua

We urge you to think twice or even three times before patronizing any of the horse drawn carriages on offer in Granada.

Momentary rant: You can’t swing a dead cat in Granada without hitting a horse pulling a tourist buggy. There have been allegations of mistreatment of these horses in recent years and despite a handful of improvements you may still want to think twice about promoting the practice of paying a man enough to (hopefully) feed and care for himself and his family but not his horse so you can be clippity-clopped around a city you should be seeing on foot anyway. If you ask us, this goes for any destination still offering horse-drawn carriage rides including New York City.

View from Merced Church - Granada, Nicaragua

The view from Iglesia La Merced in Granada, Nicaragua.

Our Granada

The pros in Granada far outweighed any cons so we decided to stay a while and rented an apartment for a month. Though the influx of gringos is pushing real estate prices higher and higher we found a dark, breezeless furnished studio apartment with a grungy bathroom and a small bat problem for US$350 per month including water, cable and Wi-Fi through GPS Properties.

GPS apartment rental Granada, Nicaragua

Our lovely apartment for a month in Granada, Nicaragua.

 The very best part of this apartment was the quite street it was on, home to Nicaraguans and gringos. Every evening as the (scorching) sun went down our neighbors would drag big wooden rocking chairs out onto the sidewalk or street in front of their doors to catch the breeze and the latest gossip.

This evening ritual is also a chance for everyone to check on everyone else. Nowhere else in Central America did we feel this ownership of a neighborhood by its residents and we think that pride and responsibility is part of the reason Nicaragua is the safest country in the region–far safer than murder-plagued Honduras and reliably safer than Panama and Costa Rica too, according to The Economist magazine. Shenanigans simply aren’t tolerated.

Our other favorite thing about being in this apartment for a month was the fruit lady. Every morning she’d roam the ‘hood toting a four foot (1.5 meter) wide rattan basket full of fresh fruit. We still have no idea how she lifted the thing full of watermelons and papayas and pineapples and we were tempted to buy more than we needed just to lighten her load.

She quickly learned to pause in front of our door and call out “amiga” and we quickly learned to buy all of our fruit from her. If she didn’t have something that we wanted during her morning rounds she would return with it, or send her daughter, later in the day. The fruit was delicious and dirt cheap and her smile was always free.

Because the apartment did not come with any parking facility we arranged to leave our truck in a filthy lot adjacent to a nearby fire department. In a shocking insight into modern socialist Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in Central America, our US$20 per month parking fee meant the firemen had some money to put gas in the fire engine’s tank.

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Relics, Eruptions and Mysterious Mounds – Around Cartago, Costa Rica

The small city of Cartago, less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) from San Jose, was established by the Spanish in 1563. For the next 200 years or so it served as the very first capital of Costa Rica until Irazú Volcano erupted and destroyed most of the city. What remained was ultimately wiped out by two massive earthquakes. Cartago was eventually rebuilt though, sadly, not in its original Colonial style. It’s now a base for travel to nearby Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes as well as the Guayabo archaeological site.

Ruins St Bartholomew church Cartago

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have demolished the small city of Cartago, Costa Rica more than once. All that remains of the St. Bartholomew Church are these atmospheric walls.

Cartago’s Our Lady of the Angels Basilica (Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Spanish) retains some Colonial architecture mixed with 19th century Byzantine style and various other types of architecture that were employed during numerous reconstructions of the church which has been repeatedly damaged by eruptions and earthquakes. The result is a kind of religious M.C. Escher effect.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles Cartago

Our Lady of the Angels Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica houses La Negrita, a religious icon said to be capable of performing healing miracles.

The miracle of the black Madonna

The basilica was built because of La Negrita (the Black Madonna), a small, dark stone figure said to have been discovered by a local indigenous girl in 1635. When she tried to take the figure with her it repeatedly found its way back to where it was found so they built the basilica on the spot. You can see La Negrita on a gold platform near the main altar of the basilica.

La Negrita Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles

The interior of Our Lady of the Angles Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica is an architectural mish-mash that looks a bit like an M.C. Escher drawing.

In 1824 La Negrita was declared Costa Rica’s patron Virgin and people still travel to the basilica seeking her healing powers. A museum in the crypt below the church is filled with votives (or milagros in Spanish) which are tiny charm-like representations of ailments (hearts, legs, etc) left by those seeking La Negrita‘s help.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles interior

Every August pilgrims flock to Our Lady of the Angels Basilica, the most important religious site in Costa Rica.

Some consider the basilica to be the most important religious site in Costa Rica and thousands of the faithful make a pilgrimage here every August.

In Cartago we stayed at Casa Mora, a comfortable, spotless and homey B&B in what used to be the Mora family’s home. A prime example of city rebuilding done in the ’70s, Casa Mora’s wacky entryway fountain, split level design, beaded curtains and orange/brown/yellow color scheme had us thinking Brady Bunch, not Mora family.

A volcano comes (back) to life

Turrialba Volcano seen from Irazu volcano

Smoke puffs out of the recently-revived Turriabla Volcano in the distance, as seen from one of the craters of Costa Rica’s Irazú Volcano which is also active.

In January of 2010, the centerpiece of Turrialba Volcano National Park, showed signs of life after a 140 year nap. This 10,958 foot (3,340 meter) volcano has been rumbling, spewing and erupting off and on ever since creating two new vents and prompting some evacuations.

The road up to Turrialba Volcano National Park and the crater rim is hellish so we skipped it and headed to nearby Irazúu Volcano National Park (US$10 per person), just 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Cartago, instead.

We arrived at the parking lot and the start of the short trail around Irazú’s craters at 9 am and were rewarded for our efforts with clear skies and fantastic views of Turrialba in the near distance. Plumes of smoke were clearly wafting into the air out of Turrialba’s crater.

crater Irazu Volcano

A small lake in one of the craters of Irazú Volcano in Costa Rica as seen from a trail in Irazú Volcano National Park.

Irazú is also an active volcano and some experts theorize that the renewed activity of Turrialba could spark more action at Irazú too. Not for nothing, we were asked to back into a parking space to ensure a speedy get away should Irazú try any funny business.

Irazu Volcano National Park Costa Rica

On a very, very clear day you can see the both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans from Irazú Volcano National Park in Costa Rica.

The mysterious mounds of Guayabo

One of the best places to take in Turrialba Volcano is from Guayabo de Turrialba National Monument (US$10 per person) on the volcano’s southern slope. Guayaba is the only pre-Colombian site in Costa Rica and dates back 2,500 years. It’s not a Mayan site, so don’t expect soaring temples.

Overview Guayabo ruins Costa Rica

Mysterious mounds and circles are a distinguishing feature of Guayaba de Turrialba National Monument, the only pre-Colombian archaeological site in Costa Rica.

What’s been excavated at Guayaba includes intricately carved stones, an even more intricate water management system and a series of odd mounds which can be easily toured in 45 minutes via a gentle trail.

 Guayabo archaeological site Costa Rica

Guayaba de Turrialba National Monument is one of the few archaeological sites in Costa Rica and the only one that dates back to pre-Colombian times.

Rock carving Guayabo archaeological site

Carved rocks, an impressive water management system and odd mounds in the ground are hallmarks of the Guayaba de Turrialba National Monument in Costa Rica.

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Not So Scary – San Salvador, El Salvador

You will be warned not to stop in San Salvador. These warnings will come from Salvadorans. You will be tempted to heed them. After all, the capital of El Salvador does have a growing problem with gang violence. Newspapers sometimes refer to the victims as “the new disappeared” in an eery, fear-inducing flashback to the country’s not so distant civil war. Some areas of the sprawling city really are seriously sketch to travel through (looking at you, Soyopango area), but we stopped in San Salvador anyway. And we stayed. And we found that the city is really not so scary.Here’s what else we found.

The most jaw-dropping church in Latin America (so far)

We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is in the middle of San Salvador. The irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario) was created in 1971 by artist and architect Rubén Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America.

 Iglesia de Rosario - San Salvador, El Salvador

Artist and architect Rubén Martinez tweaked the standard elements of a Catholic church when he created Iglesia el Rosario, the Church of the Rosary, which is the most surprising Catholic church we’ve seen during the Trans-Americas Journey (so far).   

The exterior looks like a derelict airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews.

Exterior Iglesia de Rosario - San Salvador, El Salvador

Yes, this is a church and the inside of Iglesia el Rosario is even more unexpected and compelling.

To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadoran independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia de Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this church.

Stations of the Cross sculpture, Iglesia de Rosario

This is one of the stations of the cross inside Iglesia el Rosario in San Salvador.

Sculpture by Rubén Martinez in Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)

Rubén Martinez, the creator of Iglesia el Rosario, is also a renowned sculptor. This piece is in the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) in San Salvador.

Just a few blocks from Iglesia el Rosario is the Metropolitan Cathedral which was recently rebuilt then renovated. Honestly, it looks like a mash-up of church and the conference room in a Marriott hotel and is weirdly modern and bland inside.

Metropolitan Cathedral - San Salvador

The modern Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

The cathedral is home to a (well) hidden site, however. Go to the right side of the cathedral and walk into an unmarked door. Go down a flight of stairs and you will find yourself in the final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The priest’s assassination by death squads in 1980 tilted El Salvador into civil war and the sanctuary around his tomb is a serene, reverential area that’s been set aside for personal reflection. Do not miss it.

Tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero

The final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Romero underneath the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

 

One of the best  boutique hotels in Central American

Opened in 2011, Casa ILB is a minimalist, elegant and (for now) shocking affordable winner of a boutique hotel with rates from US$110 double including a lovely breakfast buffet. Check out our full review of Casa ILB for iTraveliShop. Another reason to check in to Casa ILB? Il Buon Gustaio, the iconic restaurant adjacent to the hotel which the owner has run for more than 10 years using family recipes to create authentic Italian dishes from scratch. The handwritten menu is extensive and traditional. Your fellow diners will likely include ambassadors, socialites and heads of industry.

Speaking of food, not far from Casa ILB, in the same swanky neighborhood, is Restaurante Citron. Opened in 2006, this hip/chic restaurant is helmed by chef Eduardo Harth a Salvadoran who was raised and trained in the US where he was sous chef at the award-winning Grapeseed Bistro in Bethesda, Maryland. Then he decided it was time to bring his talents home.

Now chef Harth prepares daring dishes in a house that’s been converted into a restaurant. He bakes his own bread, makes his own cheese, kills his own farmed venison and changes the menu more or less monthly. We loved the rich/sweet/salty house-cured duck prosciutto with maple syrup, venison loin so tender we didn’t need a knife and giant squid on a bed of grilled asparagus and radicchio with a complex sour orange and cinnamon glaze. Eat at the bar in front of the small, open kitchen and you get a free show with your meal.

When it was time to leave Casa ILB we embarked on the hunt for our more normal level of accommodation. We found Villa Florencia. At US$13 a night for a clean double room with a fan, private bathroom and WiFi plus secure, enclosed parking big enough for our truck we were sold. The only bummer is that Villa Florencia is located in the depressing, neglected downtown area. While not exactly unsafe, downtown is certainly not interesting unless you’re into dirty streets and decaying buildings.

Decaying buildings - San Salvador, El Salvador

Sadly neglected buildings in downtown San Salvador.

 

Some very moving monuments

El Salvador was in a bloody civil war from 1980 to 1992, the second longest civil war in Central American history. During that time at least 75,000 people died and many, many more “disappeared” and pre-war massacres killed many, many more. The war may be over, but the remembering is not.

Revolutionary mural - San Salvador, El Salvador

El Salvador’s civil war is commemorated in many ways.

Monuments large and small commemorating the war and the fallen can be found all over El Salvador. The capital has the most moving places to visit which mark the start of the war and it’s aftermath.

The situation between the military backed Salvadoran government and the country’s poor was already bad by March 24, 1980, the day Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by government death squads while performing mass. His assassination, proceeded by the Archbishop’s request that US President Jimmy Carter stop backing the Salvadoran military and a call for members of the military to defy their orders and stop massacring villagers, tilted the country into outright civil war.

The chapel at Divine Providence Hospital (Hospital la Divinia Providencia), where this tireless defender of the rights of the common man was killed with a single shot to the heart while standing at the pulpit, is surprisingly modern and bright and serene. It’s still in use.

Church at Divine Providence Hospital where Romero assisinated

The chapel at Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador where death squads murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero during mass, plunging the country into full civil war.

Much more intimate and moving was a visit to the humble house near the chapel where the Archbishop was living at the time of his death. His beloved Toyota Corona is in the carport (the owner’s manual is also proudly displayed). His monogrammed towels are hung neatly in the bathroom, as if he’s due back soon. His typewriter, used to compose sermons, is on his desk. His passport and a collection of oddly hippie-ish rings are on a table.  His blood stained vestments are in a glass case.

Mural - Divine Providence Hospital where Romero was assissinated

A mural at Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador honoring Archbishop Oscar Romero who spent his last days living and working here until death squads killed him in 1980.

Many horrific things happened between the day the Archbishop died and the day the peace accords were signed in 1992. While the country struggles to come to terms with the atrocities of war a monument to those who died has been created.

The Monument to Memory and Truth (Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad) in Cuscatlán Park is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Completed in 2003, this 300 foot long (85 meter) black granite wall has been engraved with the names of nearly 30,000 people who died or disappeared–less than 1/2 of the estimated total body count.

Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador

The Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador is a massive wall of black granite inscribed with the names of just a portion of the tens of thousands who were killed or “disappeared” during El Salvador’s 12 year civil war.

The wall is also engraved with the town names in which massacres took place leading up to and during the civil war. There are so many of them that they had to be organized by year. Some village names turn up more than once. The wall does not include the 30,000 plus Salvadorans killed during genocide that took place in the country in the 1930s, but sometimes it takes baby steps to get to the truth. It’s a start.

Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador

The Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador is a massive wall of black granite inscribed with the names of just a portion of the tens of thousands who were killed or “disappeared” during El Salvador’s 12 year civil war.

The park is a calm, relatively green oasis in the middle of San Salvador, an appropriate place to visit and reflect on what happened in El Salvador and continues to happen around the world today.

Part of the Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador, El Salvador

The people hold up a picture of Archbishop Oscar Romero on a portion of the Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador.

Monument to the Revolution - Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)

This massive mosaic in front of the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) is called Monument to the Revolution.

 

A delicious battle of the pupusas

Take a palm-full of masa (corn or rice paste), form it into a ball, spoon in a dollop of filling, then flatten it and grill it on a hot griddle and you’ve got yourself a pupusa, the national dish of El Salvador. Pupusas are usually filled with chicharon (fried pork), beans, cheese, loroco (the flower bud of a vine which tastes like asparagus and is said to be an aphrodisiac) or a shredded squash called ayote or any combination of those ingredients. But there are creative alternatives if you know where to look.

Though pupusas are available everywhere in El Salvador, perhaps the best place to sample them is a neighborhood of San Salvador called Antigua Cuscatlán. Salvadorans come from miles around to feast on pupusas here and everyone seems to have a favorite pupuseria among the dozens or so that have set up shop in this part of town.

Papusas at Pupuseria La Unica - Antigua Cuscatlán, El Salvador

Making our favorite pupusas at La Unica pupuseria in the Antigua Cuscatlán area of San Salvador.

In our humble opinion the best made, best priced examples of this ubiquitous food are found at a pupuseria called La Unica, a large, bustling, bright little eatery which hunkers down behind the church in the square in Antigua Cuscatlán. Many swear by a nearby much fancier pupuseria that is certainly the place to go if you want ingredients that go beyond the usual suspects (like jalapeños and mozzarella cheese). They’ll even give you a knife and fork (!?!?) to eat your gourmet pupusa with. However, we’re traditionalist who prefer the classic ingredients and like eating with our hands.

An eco hotel worth the name

We’d gone to Antigua Cuscatlán to check out an eco hotel called Arbol de Fuego. The hotel has implemented all the usual eco measures including long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives like low-flow showers (using a simple adaptions dreamed up by her handyman), a greenhouse created for drying laundry which is washed using EPA approved detergents, all appliances are unplugged when not in use and all garbage is sorted so that local collectors can pick up pre-sorted bags to recycle without the indignity of digging through the hotel’s garbage looking for tin cans or glass bottles. The result of many small, smart steps has been an epic reduction in energy use, water consumption and pollution.

The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of all those pupuserieas.

One regret: we never made it to a coffee shop called Viva Espresso to sample coffee made by Alejandro Mendez, the 2011 World Barista Champion.

 

Guadalupe church - San Salvador, El Salvador

The Guadalupe church in the Antigua Cuscatlán area of San Salvador.

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Doin’ Time in Tegus – Tegucigalpa, Honduras

You wouldn’t automatically put most Central American capital cities (BelmopanGuatemala City, San Salvador, Managua, etc.) on the top of your travel to-do list but they do have their charms, you just usually need some local help to uncover them. For example, we didn’t have high hopes for Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, but then we found a great burger, a really good museum or two, a nice little hotel and more with a some help from our local friend Edo.

Tugucigalpa (just Tegus to some) has been the capital of Honduras since 1880. In 1921 Tegus was also the capital of the Republic of Central America, created by mashing together Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. You can imagine how well that worked out.

Cathedral - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The Cathedral in central Tegucigalpa, Honduras was completed in 1782.

Cathedral altar - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The ornate altar in the Cathedral in central Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

The city started life as a mining town and has never quite shed those down and dirty roots. The city now suffers from Los Angeles-like sprawl, creeping and oozing over a vast area (we got horribly lost coming into town). Buildings decay, cars honk and belch and people continue to migrate to this city that seems supremely ill-prepared to take them in.

Still, thanks to Edo’s insider suggestions, we found some eating, sleeping and touring highlights in Tegus. Now you can too.

Lempira statue - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

A statue of legendary Lencan leader Chief Lempira in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Someone stuck flyers calling for worker' rights on his chest.

 

A perfectly respectable burger

In-N-Out has nothing to worry about, but the burgers we had with Edo at an outdoor institution called Bigos were more than respectable. We ordered at a window (80L or about US$4 for a big burger and 24L or about US$1.25 for a beer), then ate on plastic picnic tables in the midst of a parking lot. Not classy, but we liked the vaguely ’50s drive-in vibe and the grilled burger was not puny and came on a good bun with a pile of tasty fries.

More than 40 embassies and consulates currently exist in Tegucigalpa which means food from around the world is available, some of it world-class. Edo was dying ot take us to a place called Había Una Vez. The owners are French and Peruvian and so is the food. He loves the bar as well. Sadly, Habia Una Vez was closed every time we stopped by.

Edo also told us there’s even a place in Tegus which sells local microbrewery beer. It’s called Joe’s Sports Bar but it’s weirdly and inconveniently located by the airport so we never got there either.

We did grab a bite at Asados El Gordo, an Argentinian steak house that Edo recommended. We weren’t hungry enough for a steak but we really enjoyed their filling and relatively cheap empanadas.

Food fights

Tegus is also full of international fast food chains (not that that’s where you want to eat) and their presence has inspired some very interesting controversy. When we were in town McDonald’s and KFC were the target of angry graffiti accusing the chains of tax evasion.

McDonalds & KFC wanted for tax ivasion - Nicaragua

This spray painted protest on a wall in Tegucigalpa accuses McDonald's and KFC of tax evasion. Occupy Nicaragua!

We also came across a business called DK’d Donuts complete with pink and brown colors and a distinctly Dunkin’ Donuts script. The story we heard is that the owner of DK’d got screwed out of his Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Tegus and opened DK’d instead.

DK'D donuts - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

If it looks like Dunkin' Donuts, smells like Dunkin' Donuts and tastes like Dunkin' Donuts...

Copan stelae -  National Art Gallery, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

A stelae from the Copán archaeological site displayed in the National Art Gallery in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Despite it’s vaguely disturbing name, the relatively new Museum for National Identity (Museo para la Identidad Nacional in Spanish) provided a comprehensive, if a bit overwhelming, collection of Honduras’ greatest hits. From pre-Columbian times to a virtual theater experience of the country’s world-famous Copán archaeological site to the present day it’s all here under one roof (though don’t be fooled–nothing compares to actually visiting the Copán site). Worth the 60L (US$3) admission price.

The National Art Gallery (Galeria Nacional de Atre in Spanish) charged a more reasonable 30L (US$1.50) and delivered ancient art and petroglyphs but we enjoyed the modern art (all by Honduran artists) the most. The building it’s in is beautiful as well.

The National Museum of History and Anthropology Villa Roy (Museo Nacional de Historia y Antrhopologia Villa Roy in Spanish ), in a mansion that was the home of ex Honduran President Julio Lozano, also sounded interesting but it was closed to do water damage when we were in Tegus.

For culture of a different kind, Edo recommends Café Paradiso, a bohemian coffee house in the center of Tegus where you can watch independent films or find poets reading their work.

Iglesia Los Dolores - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Carvings on the front of Iglesia Los Dolores in Tegucigalpa represent scenes from the Passion of the Christ.

 

A homey haven

With all those embassies, consulates and expats around Tegus is full of international business-class hotels (Intercontinental, Marriott, et al). But we wanted to see what an ambitious, locally owned hotel was all about. Portal del Angel, which was just about the first boutique hotel in Tegucigalpa when it opened ten years ago, hosted us while we were in town. While their website may oversell the “boutique hotel” part of this establishment, which is showing signs of wear and tear which the owners are slowly addressing, the hotel is in a quiet neighborhood and was a calm haven.

Day trips

A short trip northeast of Tegus takes you to Santa Lucía and Valle de Angeles,  two towns known for offering great Honduran food and well-made handicrafts at reasonable price–in other words, eating and shopping. Edo says not to miss the tea house in front of the church in Santa Lucia.

Edo also urged us to visit La Tigra National Park (Parque Nacional La Tigra in Spanish), the first national park in Honduras. The park is famous for its cloud forest, but the US$10 per person entry fee kept us away.

 

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Land of the Lenca – Gracias de Dios, Honduras

Our travel timing was accidentally perfect and we pulled into the town of Gracias de Dios in southeastern Honduras (about four hours from the famous Copán archaeological site) just as the annual Chief Lempira Day Festival was gearing up. Held every July 20, this is the most important festival among the Lenca people–the largest indigenous group in Honduras–and Gracias (no one says the “de Dios” part) is ground zero.

How to stop the Spanish (almost)

Chief Lempira - Gracias, Honduras

Legendary Lencan leader Chief Lempira is immortalized in this statue and in an annual day-long festival  in Gracias, Honduras.

The festival celebrates the Lencan leader Chief Lempira who managed to unite historically warring tribes as Spanish conquistadors descended in the 1500s. Chief Lempira ultimately cobbled together an anti-Spaniard force 30,000 strong which caused the Spaniards considerable trouble. The Lencan leader was eventually killed by the Spanish, however, and in his absence the popular uprising fizzled.

But Chief Lempira’s legend lives on. The currency of Honduras is called the Lempira and he is still a hero to the Lencans. His annual festival day transforms Gracias, normally a sleepy town of 25,000, with a parade, fireworks, rock concerts, an air force fly over, even the President of Honduras helicopters in for the event.

Money - Honduran Lempira

The official currency of Honduras is the lempira, named after Lencan leader Chief Lempira (that’s him on the 1 lempira note).

 

Fireworks and fly overs

Conqistador - Lempira Day Parade - Gracias, Honduras

The most adorable conquistador in the world taking part in the annual Chief Lempira Day parade in Gracias, Honduras.

The day started with a three-hour parade featuring homemade floats topped with waving children, groups of costumed paraders representing either the Spanish or the Lencans, marching bands and beauty queens of all ages, each wearing a heavy handmade dress decorated with beans, corn kernels and plants in designs representing Chief Lempira’s face, farm life and jungle scenes.

Three Air Force jets provided a dramatic finale to the parade but the emotional culmination was a solemn costumed re-enactment of Chief Lempira’s final moments at the hands of the Spanish, re-enacted by children wearing conquistador helmets made of silver paper and riding papiermâché horses. Check out our photo essay of parade highlights.

As dusk fell, spirits were lifted by a truly impressive fireworks display followed by live bands on a stage set up in the central park.

View of Celaque from fort above Gracias, Honduras

The high peaks of Celaque Mountain National Park seen from the Castillo San Cristobal Fort above the town of Gracias in Honduras.

 

The other 364 days of the year…

Even when there’s not a parade or a President in town, Gracias has a lot to offer. How do we know? Because we ended up spending about a month in Gracias after El Salvador wouldn’t let us in the first time we tried to cross the border.

A short stroll up a rise over Gracias took us to the Castillo San Cristobal fort. This beautifully restored aerie is also the final resting place of Honduran Juan Nepomuceno Fernandez Lido, better known as Juan Lindo, who managed to become President of both Honduras and El Salvador (not at the same time). Best known and loved for establishing the University of Honduras and writing a new constitution for the country, Juan Lindo retired in Gracias where he died in 1857.

Castillo San Cristobal fort - Gracias, honduras

Castillo San Cristobal Fort above the town of Gracias in Honduras. 

The Casa Galeano Museum, with displays in the breezy rooms of a former home, is a great place to sample traditional Lencan masks, pottery, history and lore, including the  legend of La Sucia, a mythical hag believed to present herself as a gorgeous temptress.

Iglesia San Marcos - Gracias, Honduras

Iglesia San Marcos on the main square in sleep Gracias, Honduras, is painted in lemon meringue colors. 

 

Hikes and hot springs

Gracias is only five miles (eight kilometers) from the entrance to Celaque Mountain National Park (Parque Nacional Montana de Celaque in Spanish) which is home of El Cerro de las Minas, the highest peak in the country at 9,347 feet (2,848 meters).

Waterfall in Calaque National Park - Gracias, Honduras

One of the many waterfalls in Celaque Mountain National Park near Gracias, Honduras.

Though the park is close, the drive takes 45 minutes due to the generally abysmal condition of rough dirt roads. It’s worth every bump, however. Though not heavily visited, the park has great facilities including comfortable, covered camping areas for pitching tents (50L, about US$2.60, per night), shared flush toilets and showers and a separate covered cooking and dining area. A network of well-marked and well-maintained trails and foot bridges wind through pines then steeply up into the highest cloud forest in Honduras.

River in Calaque National Park - Gracias, Honduras

Celaque Mountain National Park near Gracias, Honduras.

More than 200 species of plants, nearly 300 species of birds and a wide range of mammals and reptiles live here including jaguars, pumas, a unique salamander and the coveted quetzal bird. And that’s just the living stuff. The steep terrain of the park is also the final resting place of mastodons and giant sloths, which we could almost picture roaming and roaring through the Jurassic Park terrain.

To call these animals (living and dead) elusive is an understatement, but even the super slim chance of catching a glimpse of spotted fur or an irridescent tail feather in the distance was enough to keep us climbing up the short (1.5 miles each way) but steep Sendero Mirador de la Casacada (waterfall view point trail).

Hardy hikers can also take in the view from the top of El Cerro de las Minas, a 10 mile round trip that’s normally done in 2-3 days along the appropriately-named Sendero al Cielo (trail to the sky) since you end up at the highest point in the land.

Whether you tackle the peak or not, a visit to Celaque is best topped off with a soak in one of the natural hot springs that surround Gracias.

The potters of La Campa

The tiny village of La Campa, less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Gracias, is the epicenter of traditional Lencan pottery production. Using techniques that date to the 1500s, Lencan women create pots of clay, water and natural dyes. The dishes, cooking vessels and enormous urns are decorated with geometric patterns inspired by natural elements such as the moon. Displays at the Centro de Interpretación de Alfarería Lenca pottery museum give a good overview of the process and the art that’s being kept alive in La Campa.

Lencan pottery - La Campa, Honduras

Traditional Lencan pottery is sold directly from family workshops in La Campa near the town of Gracias in Honduras.

You won’t find a pottery shop in La Campa, but many of the potters’ homes and workshops are open to the public. Doña Desideria Peres is one of the best known local potters (anyone in town can direct you to her workshop). Examples of her reddish-brown glazed pots adorn the lobby of the Hotel Real Camino Lenca in Gracias.

If you’re inspired to spend the night in La Campa, head for Hostal JB two blocks from the church. The JB has five rooms in what used to be a private home. You can use the common living room, kitchen and dining room and there’s a a lovely garden, too.

La Campa, Honduras

The church in La Campa near the town of Gracias, Honduras.

 

The “Sistine Chapel of Latin America”

It’s worth continuing another 10 miles past La Campa to the Lencan town of San
Manuel de Colohete. Settled by some of Chief Lempira’s warriors, the big attraction
here (besides the verdant, hilly scenery) is the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Concepción,
one of the loveliest and oldest churches in Honduras.

San Manuel de Colohete, Honduras

Nuestra Señora de Concepción church in the town of San Manuel de Colohete has been called the “Sistine Chapel of Latin America.”

Built by the Spanish in 1721, the interior still shows traces of nearly 400-year-old frescoes and a wonderful wooden ceiling which was constructed without nails. Although some renovation has taken place, the church retains an ambience of elegant decay. If the doors are locked, ask in town for the key and locals will proudly show you their “Sistine Chapel of Latin America.”

Sleeping and eating in Gracias

We called Hotel Guancascos home while we were in Gracias and you should too. Located just below the Castillo San Cristobal fort, the 17 rooms are spotless and well-appointed, the staff is charming, free Wi-Fi works in the common area and in the three rooms under the restaurant, which is excellent. Owner Fronicas “Frony” Miedema, a Dutch woman who’s lived in Honduras for 24 years, will be happy to give you information about the area and arrange tours and transportation. When we were there the hotel was also in the final stages of gaining green certification, making it one of only a few eco-certified hotels in Honduras.

Restaurant Rinconcito Graciano, Lizeth Perdomo - Gracias, Honduras

Lizeth Perdomo whips up dishes using traditional Lencan recipes and organic ingredients at her  Rinconcito Graciano restaurant in Gracias, Honduras.

Do not miss the chance to eat at Rinconcito Graciano on San Sebastian Avenida. Owner, chef, guide and organic food pioneer Lizeth Perdomo cooks meals using Lencan recipes passed down from her grandmother like beef in a stroganoff-like gravy and a salad made with local large-leaf oregano and a watercress-like green straight from Lizeth’s garden. Meals are served on traditional Lencan pottery. If the restaurant is closed, ask for Lizeth at the shop across the street and she’ll come open for you. Lizeth also bakes a mean loaf of grainy whole-wheat bread, something about as rare as the gold they used to mine from the hills around Gracias.

Meng You, on San Cristobal Street is the place to go if you’re really hungry. Run by a Chinese family, the place has zero atmosphere and it’s strictly service with a sneer but the affordable (around 100L, around US$5) plates of fried rice or noodles are enormous–more than enough for both of us.

La Fonda, four doors down from the church, serves platos tipicos a notch or two above the ordinary (90L, about US$4.75) in a setting that is more Borscht-belt brothel (sweeping lamps with flower petals made of glass,  flouncy lace curtains) than Central American comedor.

Bar Museonear the unremarkable town market, is a local dive bar where women and tourists are welcome to join the crowd enjoying cold beer (20L, about US$1) and enormous Flor de Cana rum and cokes (40L, about US$2) amidst framed pictures of Marilyn Monroe and old cowboy knick knacks. Just don’t plan on using the grotty bathroom.

Lorendiana, on Principal Dr.Juan Lindo Avenida three blocks west of the central park, sells delicious, homemade all-natural popsicles (called paletas) in a wide range of flavors including passionfruit, pineapple, strawberry and green mango. Owner Diana Lorena’s
home-canned vegetables, fruits and sauces are almost too gorgeous to open and eat.

Preserves - Lorendiana - Gracias, Honduras

The canned foods at Lorendiana shop in Gracias, Honduras are almost too gorgeous to eat.

Kafe Kandil bar (where you used to be able to mingle with locals and Peace Corps volunteers until the Peace Corps recalled all volunteers from Honduras), is shockingly chic. Owned by a local artist, there’s great art (of course) good music, nifty decor and good drinks and international snacks (like mini pizzas).

Cafe Kandil - Gracias, Honduras

Kafe Kandil delivers unexpected chic in Gracias, Honduras.

They only do it once a week, but the bean and pork soup at Tipicos La Frontera, opposite the church, is delicious, filling, cheap and worth the wait. Look for the hand written sign on the door and be prepared for non-stop children’s TV shows while you eat. Directly across the street is El Jarron, where the most charming waitress in town serves up tasty and cheap platos tipicos (60L, about US$3) and excellent beef-filled fried tacos.

TIP

Rumors of an ATM were in the air, but when we were in Gracias it still hadn’t materialized. In the meantime, you can get cash advances on your credit card from the supermarket near the church with the big metal gates and coffee shop out front. Or just come with enough cash to get you through.

Iglesia de Mercedes - Gracias, Honduras

Iglesia de Mercedes in Gracias, Honduras.

 

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The Pope and the Black Christ – Esquipulas, Guatemala

After our own sort-of-miraculous recovery from our campsite robbery, we packed up and traveled onward to the town of Esquipulas. Now, Esquipulas is not the only town that has a church which features a depiction of Christ as a black man, however, the sculpture of Christo Negro (Black Christ) in the Basilica of Esquipulas is credited with miracles and has become a major pilgrimage site even meriting a visit by Pope John Paul II.

 Basilica of Esquipulas

The gleaming white Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala is home to one of the world’s most revered images of a Black Christ. 

Tens of thousands of devout Catholics cram into Esquipulas during the annual celebration of the Black Christ which happens on January 15th. They come to pray and ask for help in front of a religious icon which has been credited with miraculously curing Pedro Pardo de Figueroa, the Archbishop of Guatemala, from a serious illness in 1737.

 Cristo Negro or Black Christ of Esquipulas, Guatemala

The Black Christ, or Cristo Negro, in the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala.

Esquipulas candles

A copy of the real Black Christ of Esquipulas behind candle offerings from the faithful.

 

Perhaps an even more impressive miracle is the fact that Esquipulas was the site of a Central American peace summit which laid the groundwork for what became the Guatemalan Peace Accords of 1996 which ended the country’s ghastly 36 year civil war.

The Basilica de Esquipulas is such a major religious site that Pope John Paul II paid a visit in 1996 to mark the 400th anniversary of the church which the Pope is said to have called “the spiritual center of Central America.”

The church itself seemed weirdly extra-white and the Black Christ, which is carved from a nearly black piece of wood, looked just like White Christ. Other than the darker color, the features, hair, facial expression and general angst-ridden pose is exactly the same as every other depiction of Christ that we’ve ever seen. Not sure what we were expecting, but our first Black Christ was kind of a let down.

Milagros Esquipulas, Guatemala

Milagros (tiny metal offerings left by those requesting a miracle) collaged together in the image of Jesus at the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala.

A sloped walkway leads up to the image from a side entrance and allows worshipers to walk a 360 degree circuit around the sculpture which is placed behind the main altar. The trip up this ramp can literally take all day during the festival in January, but we moved along quickly with just a few other families. One woman was singing beautifully and everyone knelt and prayed intently when they reached the front of the Black Christ, each clearly asking for something specific and important. There were tears.

Then each person stood and slowly backed away down the ramp, never turning their back to the image that has come to mean so much to so many.

Basilica of Esquipulas

Karen and our friend George in front of the Basilica of Esquipulas in Guatemala.

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So Much More Than Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 6 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

A Semana Santa procession begins inside the Santuario del Apóstol San Felipe as the faithful carry a huge float (called an anda) over an elaborate temporary carpet (called an alfombra).

Antigua, Guatemala is best known as the town that hosts one of the world’s biggest and most colorful religious festivals. Holy week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is celebrated with elaborately made and profoundly temporary street carpets called alfombras and lots of somber and elaborate processions in which hundreds of the devout carry enormous floats (called andas) through the cobble stone streets all in an effort recreate the persecution, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a word, Semana Santa in Antigua is epic and you should experience it if you can. But there are other great reasons to visit Antigua. We were lucky enough to be part of the entire Semana Santa week in 2011 and even luckier (thanks Gene and Judy and Evelyn) to be able to explore Antigua above and beyond Semana Santa.

 

 

 

In the end, we spent more than 40 days in Antigua–more than almost any other destination on our Trans-Americas Journey so far. Here are our insider tips for having as good a time in this colonial gem of a town as we did.

Colonial streets of Antigua with Agua Volcano

Colonial architecture lines a cobblestone street in Antigua with the Agua Volcano–one of three that ring the city– in the distance. 

 

Must-sees in Antigua

There are at least a dozen churches in Antigua and at least half are in ruins thanks to the area’s seismic activity. We are not going to show you every single church in town. Suffice to say that each is unique and atmospheric, especially the ruined ones which have a sort of ancient Roman feel to them.

Santiago Cathedral is Antigua’s main church and it anchors the main square, Plaza Mayor.

Ruins of Santiago Cathedral - Antigua

These are the ruins of Antigua’s original Santiago Cathedral.

The ruins of Compania de Jesus in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of the Santa Teresa church in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of San Jose church in Antigua, Guatemala.

There are at least twice as many Spanish schools in Antigua as there are churches. When we were in town Ana Díaz was just opening a brand new Spanish school called Antigua Plaza and she contacted us to see if we wanted to be among her first students. Nos dijo que si!

We spent every morning for the next week sitting at an antique wooden table in a lovely courtyard refreshing the Spanish we learned during lessons in Guadalajara and adding some new skills. It was fun and effective and we loved our teacher Brenda who was great at her job and gave us each adorable children’s notebooks. It’s also nice that Antigua Plaza has partnered with the serene Tabi House guesthouse so long-term students can get great accommodation too.

Santo Domingo El  Cerro Museum

One of the sculptures on display at Santo Domingo El Cerro, an art park, gallery complex and restraurant above Antigua, Guatemala.

The Casa Santo Domingo hotel owns a large chunk of land on a hill above Antigua which has been turned into an aviary, art galleries, sculpture garden and high-end restaurant (the prices were a lot more reasonable than we’d expected). They call it Santo Domingo del Cerro and it’s home to great art, great food, great views and it made a great place to go to do our Spanish homework. A totally free on demand shuttle runs between Casa Santo Domingo hotel and Santo Domingo del Cerro.

Arch of Santa Catalina - Antigua

The Arch of Santa Catalina serves as a gateway into Antigua, Guatemala.

View of Antigua and Agua Volcano from Cerro de la Cruz

Antigua, Guatemala and the Agua Volcano as seen from the Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint above town.

 

Hotel heaven in Antigua

There are more fantastic hotels in every price point in Antigua than in any other destination in Guatemala. We’re happy to recommend one fabulous splurge and a great economical value. Let’s start at the top.

Agua Volcano from Ponza Verde

The Agua Volcano as seen from on one of the serene patios at Meson Panza Verde boutique hotel in Antigua, Guatemala.

Stunning Meson Panza Verde, one of the first high end boutique hotels in Antigua, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. Just 12 rooms are arranged in a traditional, colonial-style, open courtyard building. Rooms are big and full of rich fabrics and lots of wood and tile all accented with an unexpected collection of art–both colonial and modern. You can feel, see and touch old Antigua and new Antigua everywhere.

Hotel San Jorge has large, spotless rooms from $50. They all have fireplaces and they’re all arranged around a meticuously maintined and super-serene garden. There’s also Wi-Fi and a secure parking lot but the best amenity is your host, owner Evelyn Herrera. She’s a bilingual fountain of knowledge and assistance. You could not be in better hands. During Semana Santa (book ahead!) she even invites guests to help her create a traditional alfombra out of flowers on the street in front of the hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua, in any price point, that offers that.

Antigua Municipal building

Antigua’s municipal building off the main square called Plaza Mayor.

It has to be said that Hotel Casa Santo Domingo was a disappointment. Yes, the hotel is housed in a breathtaking reinvention of what was the church and convent of Santo Domingo and the Santo Tomas de Aquino College which date back to the late 1500s. Yes, the hotel lands on luxe travel magazines’ “best of” lists. However, it’s also true that the rooms we toured and stayed in were disturbingly motel-like (especially the bathrooms and the tattered soft goods) even though room rates start at $250 per night.

We can’t advise you to check into Casa Santo Domingo but you should definitely checkout the museums on the grounds of the hotel (free for guests, 40Q, or US$5, for non-guests). That one fee gets you into museums containing religious art, archaeolgoical pieces, a vast liturgical silver collection and a creepy crypt.There’s also a modern art gallery and a strangely-compelling Pharmacy Museum. A tour of the grounds is given on Saturdays and on Sundays mass is held at 10 am in the stately (but wall-free) remains of the on-site cathedral.

La Merced church - Antigua, Guatemala

La Merced church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

Good eats (and drinks) in Antigua

Drinking Absenth at Bistro Cinq in Antigua Guatemala

Drinking absynthe at Bistro Cinq in Antigua, Guatemala.

Even in a town full of  inventive restaurants (you can get great local dishes, superb sushi, classic Italian and more), Bistro Cinq stands out. Created and helmed by Chef Robbin Haas, a Florida native who spends part of the year in Antigua, Bistro Cinq lures you in with a welcoming metal-topped bar that is more than fully stocked. We enjoyed Pig’s Nose scotch, great wine and sampled some of the 12 types of absynthes on hand, each prepared in the traditional way (flame, water, sugar). The menu (tuna tartare, duck pot stickers, real burgers, profiteroles) is written on a blackboard and each dish is expertly executed by local chef Mario Godinez.

 

 

There’s no shortage of bars and cafes in Antigua but there’s something different about La Esquina. Maybe it’s the bar made from old bus parts. Or the smell of tasty chicken on the grill. Or the tempting handcrafted leather goods and jewelry and housewares in the window of the adjacent boutique (all at great prices and 20% off if you pay in cash). Or the DJs and bands performing live in the open courtyard. Or the…oh, just go and see for yourself.

La Esquina restaurant in Antigua

La Esquina bar, restaurant, boutique. live music venue and generally cool place to hang out in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

La Fondita offers about a dozen different traditional dishes. Pick what you want (a standard plate with a meat dish, a veg dish, thick Guatemalan tortillas and other sides) and  enjoy in a lovely back courtyard. It’s certainly not the cheapest meal in town, but our lunch was delicious and it’s the best place we found to sample a lot of different dishes in one spot and the atmosphere can’t be beat.

La Fondita restaurant in Antigua

The mind-boggling selection at La Fondita restaurant in Antigua, Guatemala.

The cheapest wine so far during the Trans-Americas Journey was at the supermarkets in Antigua where entirely drinkable bottles (mostly from Chile) go for less than $5.

A few blocks from Antigua’s central market (bustling every day of the week) is a two level restaurant called Weiner where just a few bucks gets you a plate of authentic German schnitzel. Go for the pork. And be hungry. This thing is huge.

Just off the main plaza is a tiny ice cream store called Sobremesa Helados Exoticos which sells sublime scoops of rich, exotic, gourmet flavors like jasmine blackberry, apple chipoltle, ginger guava, triple chocolate and caramel sea salt praline. Rumor has it they’re up to 50 different flavors which rotate on and off the menu.

 

Random facts about Antigua

Antigua was founded by the Spaniards in the early 16th Century and became the first capital of all of Central America. The city’s full name is Santiago de Antigua, though no one uses that anymore.

A very early governor of Antigua was Doña Beatriz de la Cueva, one of the first women in the region (and the world, for that matter) to hold such a high office. Unfortunately, she didn’t hold office for long. Twenty four hours after taking power in 1541 Volcano Agua blew it’s top. She was eventually killed in the disaster.

There is a plaque honoring L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of the Church of Scientology, in the main plaza in Antigua. No one we asked could tell us why.

Antigua was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Cobblestone streets are atmospheric but they’re a bitch to drive or walk on. Leave the heels at home and be prepared to marvel at the six-inchers women from Guatemala city (mostly) strut around in during weekend getaways to Antigua.

An ATM scam has been going on in Antigua for years. Particularly afflicted are the ATMs at the banks that ring the main square. Avoid using them if at all possible. We used an ATM in a supermarket away from the square on numerous occassions and had no problems. We did have problems with pickpockets. Eric caught a hand in his pocket (and not in a good way) before the thief had the chance to snatch anything but many other travelers are not so lucky. Be wary. Antigua’s success at attracting tourists and gringo residents has also attracted an influx of unsavory types form nearby Guatemala City and they’re anxious to take what they can. Remember to pack your common sense.

La Merced Convent - Antigua, Guatemala

The La Merced Convent in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

Day trips from Antigua

Edwin-boots

Don Roberto doing what he’s done all his life: made awesome (and SO affordable) handmade cowboy boots. 

 

Seven miles from Antigua you’ll find the small town of Ciudad Veijo. This is where Don Roberto and his son Edwin Castillo live and work. The Castillo family has been hand-crafting cowboy boots for generations and they now design and make a line called Botas Rango. Some regional shoe stores sell their boots but the only place to get the insider price (starting at just 325Q or US$42) is by visting their home/workshop. Call +51000603 or email botascastillo@hotmail (dot) com (Spanish only) to set up an appointment. Custom orders can be done if you give them enough time.

 

Antigua is ringed by three volcanoes. One of them, Pacaya Volcano, has been a regular erupter since 1965. That is until May of 2010 when it ceased all activity. For now. Bear that  fact in mind before you book a hiking and camping trip to Pacaya which many local tour agencies are still selling with no mention of the fact that the volcano is not currently putting on the show visitors walk all the way up there to see. Unless, of course, you just want to take a steep, long walk.  Luckily our friends over at 2 Backpackers have a great video of  the lava and smoke show Pacaya Volcano used to put on.

We highly recommend a day trip to Lake Amatitlan (about an hour away from Antigua) for a visit to the Santa Teresita Banos Termales & Kawilal Spa. The sprawling, sparkling clean facility has many beautifully tiled outdoor thermal pools of varying temperatures and offers a timed and guided circuit which includes a delicious natural fruit smoothie and time in a eucalyptus-infused private steam room. From about US$15 per person (more if you add on spa services or other extras) it’s a bargain. Just be aware that the best prices are online only so check the web site for specials and book before you arrive.

Antigua Los Remedios church ruins

The ruins of Los Remedios church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 1 in our “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 1 is all about the top Adventures & Attractions of the year (from falconing in El Salvador to diving in Honduras). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2011 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four, albeit very small, countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (after driving over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (vicious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are some of the adventures and activities that made all that time on the road even better. Enjoy!

 Best Adventures & Activities of 2011

Best adventure surprise: There are only a handful of falconers in all of Central America and only one who’s certified to guide guests. That would be Roy Beers, owner of Cadejo Adventures. We walked through the hills above San Salvador with Roy and his Harris Hawk Chucky (named after the horror movie character). We strolled through coffee plantations and forested hillsides as Chucky followed along from tree to tree, landing on our gloved hands when we called and half-heartedly hunting (he wasn’t very hungry). Somehow the forest looks and feels different with a hiking buddy who can fly and the experience made hiking without a bird of prey in tow seem downright boring.

Best natural swimming pool: Guide books and travelers rave about the descending pools of water called Sumac Champay in Guatemala. We are happy to report that these pools, totally created by Mother Nature, lived up to the hype and were worth the serious side trip to get there. Crystal clear water (except in the rainy season), a perfect warm temperature, dramatic surrounding cliffs, not crowded (though avoid weekends) and we even got free pedicures thanks to gazillions of tiny fish intent on removing every last scrap of dead skin as we soaked.

Best adventure we did for the first time:  We love to SCUBA dive and we’ve done it hundreds of times all around the world. However, we’d never been on a liveaboard dive boat until we boarded the Aggressor III in Belize in 2011. Specially built and equipped to accommodate just 18 divers with plush cabins and a huge dive deck. Even better? The swanky SCUBA services including hot showers and warm towels post dive, freshly made snacks all day long (hey, diving is hard work) and great dive masters. Bonus:The 3-D dive site maps drawn by the staff on-board the Aggressor III were colorful, informative and playful (sometimes they even featured plastic sea creatures stuck on the white board for effect). Best of all, the maps were clear. Even directionally-challenged Karen could quickly understand the layout of the site and navigate around during our awesome underwater adventures.

Best National Park name: Parque Nacional El Imposible in El Salvador.

Best guide: We don’t usually hire guides. However, when we wanted to get an authentic glimpse of the FMLN perspective on the decades of war between the El Salvadoran army and FMLN guerrilla fighters which started with genocide in the ’30s and really flared up in the ’70s and ’80s we went straight to Bar El Necio in Suchitoto and asked for the bartender. Luis Carrera is a treasure (and not just because rum cocktails and ice-cold beer are just $1.50 at this revolutionary-themed bar). Luis has since quit his job as a bartender to focus full time on guiding. He will take you to nearby villages that were obliterated during the war and introduce you to elderly people and translate when they recount their often horrifying first hand experiences during the country’s darkest moments. He’ll even take you home to meet his mom, an infectiously bubbly woman who survived a massacre, fled into the jungle and quite literally gave birth to Luis on the trail while she was on the run. Contact Luis at sapitotours@gmail (dot) com.

Best voluntourism opportunity: Love and Hope Children’s Home in the hills above San Salvador lives up to its name providing a truly homey home for children whose own families are unift or unwilling to care for them. Rachel Sanson, a native of Ohio, has been in El Salvador since 2001 and she helped start the home in 2004. She’s still there and she can use all the help she can get. Volunteers are accepted for short or long-term stays (room and board included). We visited the home and a friend of ours still raves about his experiences during a brief volunteer stint. We were impressed with Rachel and with the home’s policy of putting all volunteers through a background check before allowing them through the doors to help heal and teach her needy kids.

Best zip line: In the hills above Metapan in El Salvador, just shy of the Montecristo National Park, lies Hostal Villa Limon. In addition to a handful of lovely, multi-bedroom cabins with kitchens Villa Limon has one hell of a zip line. Eight different sections criss-cross the slopes up to 300′ (91 meters) above the jungle and coffee plantations below. One particularly steep stretch is 1/4 mile (.40 km) long. It’s almost enough to distract you from the awesome views of volcanoes in the distance.

Best private waterfall: For $120 you can reserve your own private waterfall, swimming hole and rustic picnic pavilion in the vast protected area around Hidden Valley Inn in Belize. They’ll even bring you a four-course champagne lunch and string a handmade Do Not Disturb sign across the trail to ensure complete privacy.

Best hot springs: Just outside Ahuachapan in El Salvador lies Termales Santa Teresa, a paradise for anyone who likes to soak in water super-heated and full of healing minerals. Huge, deep pools ($10 pp for a full day of access) already exist in the shade of a well tended garden surrounded by a vast coffee plantation. A few large villas are also available for rent right around the pools and a new hotel and reasonably priced dorms are being constructed right now. Our thanks to Claudia and Roberto from the lovely La Casa de Mamapan hotel in Ahuachapan for taking us to this hidden gem!

Best borrachos: The pro partiers in the town of Todos Santos in Guatemala know how to drink and these borrachos (Spanish for drunks) don’t let a little inebriation get in the way of a good time either. A popular regional pass time is drunken horse racing which is every bit as baffling (and dangerous) as it sounds…

Best tour operator: Miguel Huezo of Suchitoto Tours in El Salvador. He knows the most unique places, the most enjoyable activities, the most innovative guides and tour operators and he devoted a tremendous amount of time, effort and passion to make sure that we got acquainted with all of them. And he’ll do the same for you: suchitoto.tours@gmail (dot) com

Best adventure honeymoon suite: Eric and I well past the honeymoon stage but if we weren’t we might consider spending part of our honeymoon inside a cave owned by Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize. First, you hike for an hour into the jungle then you rapel nearly 300′ (91 meters) down a cliff face called the Black Hole Drop (we did this as part of our awesome cave adventures with Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch). After the rappel, a short walk leads you to the mouth of a cave where a real bed has been set up and strewn with flowers, candles have been lit and champagne has been chilled. Your guides cook you a romantic dinner, then wander off to leave you two alone. In the morning, they cook breakfast and guide you back out.

Best jungle hike: We were hot. Our feet were sore. Our minds were blown. Hiking through the jungle to reach El Mirador in northern Guatemala isn’t easy, but the remains of one of the biggest and hardest to reach Mayan cities is worth it–as is adding a day onto your adventure so you can hike back out via Nakbe and La Florida archaeological sites (where we finally saw a jaguar, sort of). Our thanks to Manuel of Tikal Connection for providing us with the gear and guides needed to have this amazing experience.

Best religious festival: Turns out, there are very good reasons why the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala are world famous. In 2011 we were lucky to spend the entire week leading up to Easter in Antigua (huge thanks to Gene and Judy for letting us stay in their gorgeous home). We watched elaborate religious floats paraded through the streets. We saw artistic but temporary albombras (carpets) created on the streets and even got to help make one thanks to Evelyn of Hotel San Jorge.

 

 

 

Best National Park entrance: The swing bridge that gets you into Parque Nacional Pico Bonito in the Cangrejal Valley in Honduras.

Best (easy) bird sighting: Quetzals are known for three things: the technicolor plumage and extravagantly long tails of the males, their shy nature and their love of a narrow swath of remote cloud forest. In other words, they are exciting to see but usually very difficult to see.  During their mating season (roughly March to June) all you have to do is manage to wake up at dawn and stumble from your basic room at Ranchito del Quetzal Hotel on the edge of the Biotopo del Quetzal in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala and head down to the hotel’s humble comedor. There, you will find a hot cup of coffee and quetzals waiting for you. You almost don’t even have to leave your seat to watch the extraordinary birds dip and dive from tree to tree, tails streaming and feathers glinting.

Best (worth the effort) bird sighting: The resplendant quetzals we saw during our morning at Ranchito Quetzal came so easily that we almost felt like they didn’t count. So we made the rough journey to a remote privately run nature preserve called the Chelemha Cloud Forest Reserve. In addition to a stylish, sustainably handcrafted guesthouse and gourmet, organic, locally grown food you will find quetzals here, but you’re going to have to hike for it. We walked for three hours high into the protected cloud forest where our guide finally pointed out a known nest site inside the hollow stump of a dead tree. After sitting silently nearby, camera at the ready, the male emerged from the nest and obligingly posed on a branch for a while.

Best dive site: During a few days of diving with Utopia Dive Resort on the island of Utila in Honduras we visited a dive site called The Pinnacles. In the course of a 55 minute dive in warm, crystal clear water we saw dramatic coral and rock pinnacle formations, the most enormous green moray we’ve ever seen (easily 6′ long) plus spotted morays, golden morays and a turtle feeding serenely on a coral head with a bevy of colorful angel fish scavenging around it.

Best camp site: We spent our very last nights in Guatemala camped on the shores of Lake Ipala, a lake in the crater of the Ipala volcano. The road up was wicked, it rained like hell and some dude stole our cooler, camp stove and camp chairs (which were all recovered with the help of our friend George Boburg of Guatemala’s awesome Proatur tourist assistance organization). Still, what we really remember was the scenery and serenity of this spot.

Best bird watching platform: Belize Lodge & Excursions has a lot going for it including three of the most unique lodgings in Belize and an equally unique approach to conservation.  Jungle Camp, a lodge so deep in protected jungle that it’s only accessible by boat, offers one more superlative to add to the list: epic bird watching platform hung around the girth of a sacred ceiba tree 100′ off the ground.

Best National Park infrastructure: Parque Nacional Cerro Azul in Honduras was developed in partnership with a Canadian NGO. This helps explain the extraordinary infrastructure which makes it such a pleasure to explore this park. In addition to a variety of very comfortable rooms, the park has a covered camping area with running water, flush toilets, cold showers and electricity. The park’s nine miles (15 kms) of trails through the jungle and past waterfalls are all well marked and well maintained. And the restaurant even has WiFi service. Well worth a night or two.

Best church: We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is the irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario in Spanish). The church, located in downtown San Salvador, was created in 1971 by artist and architect Ruben Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America. The exterior looks like a particularly ugly crumbling airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews. To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadorean independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia el Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this ground-breaking church.



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Surviving the Festival of Santo Tomás – Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Chichicastenango, a mountain town about 90 miles northeast of Guatemala City and a popular day trip from Lake Atitlan, is famous for its weekly market. Vendors come from miles around to hawk everything from potatoes to ponchos to a huge array of local crafts from around the region. A substantial number of tourists come from even further afield to snap pictures and sometimes buy. We showed up in Chichicastenango (which everyone shortens to just Chichi) in time to experience the massive market and witness the culmination of the town’s annual Festival of Santo Tomás.

As we found out, the week-long Festival of Santo Tomás should come with a few warnings–or at least ear plugs.

Happy crowds at the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Members of the cofradia, or honorary council of community leaders (you can tell by their clothes), at the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Most towns in Latin America have a patron saint which they honor annually with a festival as large and grand as the town can afford to put on. The full name of Chichi is actually Chichcastenango de Santo Tomás since, you guessed it, Santo Tomás is their patron saint. Every December Chichi pulls out all the stops and throws one of the biggest, loudest and most colorful saint festivals in Guatemala.

Though the festival honors a saint, the Festival of Santo Tomás is really a melding of K’iche’ (or Quiché) Mayan customs and Christian traditions which explains the party atmosphere and elaborate, vivid costumes and lack of grindingly long church services.

Plumed head dresses in front of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás during the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Elaborate floats carrying effigies of saints emerge from the Iglesia de Santo Tomás before being paraded around town as part of Chichicastenango’s annual Festival of Santo Tomás.

Most of the festival events took place in front of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás which was built by the Spanish in 1545 on top of a pre-Columbian temple mound. It now anchors town’s main square (where most of the festival action took place) with a smaller church facing it on the other side of a large open area.

Costumed dancers representing Spanish conquistadors strut their stuff during the annual Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

 

Dedicated dancers

Guatemala is already a colorful country with a vibrant textile tradition and day-glow clothing that’s still part of daily dress in many areas. During the festival, hundreds of participants put on even more elaborate outfits involving intricately decorated clothes and fancy masks which transform them into representations of Spanish conquistadors. Called the Dance of the Conquest, it traditionally re-enacts the subjugation of the local people by the Spanish. All we saw during the festival in Chichi were conquistadors dancing around minus any subjugation or historical story telling.

A dancer dressed as a Spanish conquistador takes part in the annual Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Costumed dancers representing Spanish conquistadors strut their stuff during the annual Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Stranger still was another group of dancers wearing huge sombreros and masks and toting live snakes. The Dance of the Mexicans started off as the Dance of the Snakes, a serpent-based fertility rite that was banned by the church. In order to keep their ritual alive, indigenous groups kept the snakes, dropped the more sexually explicit elements and added the Mexican costumes. Why Mexican? Because there’s a giant snake on the Mexican flag.

The Dance of the Mexicans is a tweaked version of a snake-based fertility dance that the church banned.  

The Dance of the Mexicans is a tweaked version of a snake-based fertility dance that the church banned.  

The Dance of the Mexicans is a tweaked version of a snake-based fertility dance that the church banned.  

Though we kept asking locals (and even the tourism representatives who occasionally wandered through the crowd) we could never get a clear answer about when the valadores were scheduled to perform.Therefore, we completely missed this impressive spectacle which involves costumed dancers climbing to the top of a 100′ pole then tying a rope to their ankles before rolling off a platform at the top and slowly spiraling down to the ground head first.

Valadores in costume before their amazing head-first spiral off the top of a 100′ pole–which we totally missed.

No matter which costume they were wearing, the dancers were expected to perform all day long. In heavy, stifling costumes they shuffled and jumped under a blazing sun.

Our video, below, captured a lot of the dancing action.

Parades and processions

When folks weren’t dancing or spiraling off the top of very tall poles members of the cofradia (a kind of honorary committee of community leaders) were parading slowly through the streets carrying three enormous elaborately decorated floats with representations of Santo Jose, Santo Sebastian and, of course, Santo Tomás inside. As the heavily decorated floats were carried out of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás, the technicolor feathers, inlaid mirrors, satin and sequins reminded us of Mardi Gras costumes.

Members of the cofradia, or honorary council of community leaders (you can tell by their clothes), carry floats during a parade at the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Members of the cofradia, or honorary council of community leaders (you can tell by their clothes), carry floats during a parade at the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Members of the cofradia, or honorary council of community leaders (you can tell by their clothes), carry floats during a parade at the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Women taking part in a procession during the annual Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Check out one of the processions in our video, below.

Frightening fireworks

As we’ve mentioned before, Latin Americans are obsessed with fireworks. It’s just not a party without an enormous cache of things that make loud noises and/or explosions and/or sparkly colors in the sky. The Festival of Santo Tomás was certainly no exception.

Fireworks go off in front of Iglesia de Santo Tomás  in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

From morning ’til night gangs of men worked diligently to make sure that something was exploding somewhere at all times–usually within 20 feet of where you were standing.

During the day they focused their efforts on laying down miles of mats studded with firecrackers, then lighting one end creating a startling machine gun effect of noise and smoke. Another day time favorite involved an ominous metal tube which was placed on the ground (in as densely populated an area as possible). Then a croquet-ball-sized bomba was placed inside before its long fuse was lit.

Fireworks go off in front of Iglesia de Santo Tomás  in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Even the fireworks boys ran from this one before the ball was thrust up into the air where it (hopefully) exploded before falling back down into the crowd.

At night they turned their attention to huge castillos–elaborate wood structures with spinning wheels and  other moving parts all loaded with sparkling, hissing fireworks that ignite in successions until the entire display goes off, revealing the overall design of the castillo. The well-funded Festival of Santo Tomás also featured full-on fireworks displays in the sky that were as solid as many July 4 displays.

Ear plugs in? Check out the fireworks in our video, below.

Of course, there were drunks…

A borracho passed out amidst the shredded paper remains of a series of firecrackers that were set off right beside him.

The Spanish word for drunk is borracho and it’s not a festival without a few around. The borrachos in Chichi were world class: lurching, lunging, falling, sleeping and not even flinching when they ended up passed out in the midst of a pile of exploding firecrackers which locals seemed to intentially ignite almost on top of them. Not even the pounding bass lines and thumping speakers from the live band stage could rouse them. Impressive.

World’s best fried chicken?

All this festivaling worked up a pretty serious appetite, which was amply satisfied by equally serious fried chicken. Guatemalans love fried chicken and the golden, crispy, juicy, fresh stuff served up out of roiling caldrons of hot oil by overworked and slightly cranky hordes of women in Chichi took the dish to new heights of deliciousness (25Q, or about US$3, with tortillas and a soda). The Colonel’s got nothin’ on these ladies.

Members of the cofradia, or honorary council of community leaders (you can tell by their clothes), carry floats during a parade at the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

A masked dancer shows us how it’s done during the Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

 

Our hotel haven

Luckily we were being hosted at Hotel Santo Tomás, a regal two story whitewashed adobe and wood building with a landscaped inner courtyard featuring gurlging fountains and a mildly disturbing collection of caged birds.

All of the 30 rooms are slightly different, but they all have fireplaces (it’s 10Q, or about US$1.25, for a bundle of wood) and the WiFi signal even reaches the rooms closest to the front desk.

Run by Doña Inés, the place is full of antique furniture, religious sculptures and pottery. Even though the hotel was just a few blocks away from the festival madness, it managed to maintain a relatively serene environment..

Women watch as one of three elaborately-decorated floats (each bearing the effigy of a saint) is brought out of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás.

As if there wasn’t enough going on, a total lunar eclipse took place in the middle of the final days of the Festival of Santo Tomás. Eric shot it and made this cool montage of eclipse images.

A child dressed as a Spanish conquistador during the annual Festival of Santo Tomás in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

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Sacred Spaces – Xela (Quetzaltenango) & Laguna Chicabal, Guatemala

The drive along highway CA 1 (aka, the Pan American Highway) out of Guatemala City through the mountains toward Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) takes you through the town of Hupalupa. At 10,334 feet (3,150 meters), this spot is marked as the highest point on the Pan American Highway.

Also known as Xela

About 3,000 feet lower lies Quetzaltenango which, thankfully, everyone calls Xela (pronounced Shell ah). Xela has become a base for two pursuits: learning Spanish and scrambling up volcanoes including the still-active Santiaguito. This means there are plenty of travelers in town along with the usual lashings of volunteers and NGO workers.

Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala but it’s a mere shadow of sprawling Guatemala City. Still, with so many travelers, students and volunteers there’s a lot to do and see. The best directory of it all is a free, monthly, English language publication called Xela Who. It’s full of details, news and gossip all written in a fun, smart ass style.

The Cathedral in Quetzaltenango, aka Xela.

We checked into the motel-y Los Olivos hotel (200Q, or US$25, with parking and breakfast) but we would have preferred to stay at the similarly priced Hotel Kiktem-Ja which has a rambling sort of Colonial charm and fireplaces–something that’s very important in Xela where temperatures dip way down and most rooms don’t have heat. Sadly, our truck wouldn’t fit in their courtyard.

At one point we got so cold in Xela that we bought a heating pad which we used to sort of stay warm in the room and to heat up our bed at night.

The brightest church in Central America

Less than half an hour from Xela is a tiny town with  big WOW of a church. San Andrés Xecul is home to by far the brightest, most exuberantly decorated, most unexpected church we’ve seen to date–and we’ve seen dozens and dozens of churches.

This yellow church near Quetzaltenango, aka Xela, is the brightest and most flamboyant we’ve ever seen.

Often simply referred to as “the yellow church,” the incredibly bright facade is decorated with a mix of Catholic and Mayan iconography including crops, jaguars, angels, flowers, tigers, crude humans. If you stand back and squint the front of the church looks a bit like the richly decorated huipils worn by most indigenous women right down to the boxy shape and colorful details.

The oldest church in Central America

Iglesia de San Jacinto church in the nearby town of Salcajá may be boring old white, but it’s remarkable for another reason. Founded by the Spanish in 1524, Iglesia de San Jacinto is the oldest Christian church in Central America. The church doors were locked when we visited the church so we had to be content with admiring the facade which is decorated with carved animals and fruit that literally pale in comparison to the cacophony of color on the yellow church.

Built by the Spanish in 1524, this is the oldest Christian church in Central America.

Mayan rituals at sacred Laguna Chicabal

Mayan and Christian worlds collide again at Laguna Chicabal, a sacred lake located in a volcanic crater about 40 minutes outside Xela.

The Mam Maya believe Laguna Chicabal, located in a volcanic crater, is sacred.

At the trail head there’s a small ranger station (15Q, about US$1.90, entry per person, 10Q, about US$1.25, to park) and a collection of basic dorm cabins for rent. From there a very steep and narrow dirt road heads up to the rim of the caldera. After about 30 minutes of walking we reached the Mirador with a few rickety picnic tables and views of Santa Maria volcano.

Santa Maria volcano as seen from the mirador on the trail to sacred Laguna Chicabal.

Tips: For best views get here early since the clouds move in by noon. And do not follow the signs that say “Laguna.” Instead, head for the Mirador and take the steep wooden staircase down to Laguna Chicabal from there.

A Mayan offering left on the shore of sacred Laguna Chicabal.

A trail encircles the clear, inviting lake but no matter how hot you are do not jump in for a cooling swim. Laguna Chicabal is considered sacred by the Mam Mayans who come here to make offerings at lakeside shrines. Basic camping is allowed in one designated lakeside area, but there are no facilities at all.

A Mayan shrine on the shore of sacred Laguna Chicabal.

Mayan shrines on the shore of sacred Laguna Chicabal.

 

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