Shooting Two Birds with One Stone – Antigua, Guatemala

Shooting Two Birds with One Stone: A Bad Start and a Kaleidoscopic Finish Sum Up a Trip to Antigua While Dabbling on Architectural Exploration Timed On a Busy Lenten Weekend
Antigua, Guatemala

Traveling is never complete and to some extent, less challenging and lacks a sense of adventure without its glitches and hurdles. Rarely, it goes according to plan. Murphy’s Law always rules when least expected. It’s better to brace for the worst and expect for the best.

Bumped-up Accommodation

The journey to Antigua went smoothly until I reached my hotel to discover that the owner, showing neither guilt nor remorse, didn’t prepare my room even after I reserved and prepaid it in full days ahead. Not notifying this johnny-come-lately occupant on the terms of this room, she brazenly dumped me in favor of him who was staying much longer.

Nevertheless, she proposed to show me on the utility roof deck a toilet-size room with no bath, closet, nor power outlet. The deck is dangerously unprotected for somnambulists but offering unobstructed nice overlooking view of the neighborhood and the imposing Volcan Agua.

Bumped off and duped, I accepted it only after I initiated a discounted rate for I have everything to loose and all of Antigua to gain. I have no aces up my sleeves to play hardball with a no-vacancy holiday and party boomtown.

Festive Scene
Festive Scene
Searching a room on the eve of Semana Santa is an exercise in futility, the nearest would be a town away or roughly 6 to 10 kilometers from the epicenter of the action at a very horrendous rate just as what I gathered from another traveler.

After I unpacked and checked the guidebook Footprint, this posada named “Dona Angelina” didn’t live up to its heavenly name, rather more for its notorious reputation as I quote “…some staff is not particularly friendly…don’t make it a priority.” It also proved to be untrustworthy for when I checked-out waiting for my next journey, I remembered I left my cupful of petty cash and soon rushed back to find everything was swooped away except for my trash.

Nevertheless, Antigua offsets all that and absolutely no regrets in coming to this place even when everybody easily turned greedily unethical.

Information Gone Awry

Arriving on a festive occasion, I assumed the best attractions are kept open during the weekend, I was wrong. Doors were shut off at a time when hoards of foreign tourists were descending, possibly their first and last visits in their lifetime. It’s unfortunate that the outcome of my visit didn’t produce a two-bird result from a single stone, hoping to cover the best architectural showcases at the same time the Holy Week celebration with the best possible shoestring budget.

The government tourism agency disseminated a misleading visiting date-and-hour information schedule of sites over the weekend. One of the listed “open” ones is the old University of San Carlos, possibly the most popular and photographed icon of Guatemala in the travel book kingdom.

But this shouldn’t be missed attraction froze up. Four days in a row, I kept knocking at the door but no one answered. Not even a note saying, “Closed for the Holidays” was posted. Disappointingly, much precious time was lost hoping for the doors to be opened.

Tourists arriving in unusual multiplicity in numbers were deprived of an optimum open-house welcome. It’s like visiting Paris on Bastille Day and finding out that the Louvre is closed! Snooty and snobbish Parisians would never do that to their guests.

The Blind Leading the Blind

The bare-bones legal size one-sheet handout map by the government tourist agency contains some erroneous information, one even points to a non-existent church in the middle of a street. A major typo could be forgiven as long as it does not go over three strikes. But its diagram becomes increasingly unreliable as it spans to the extreme fringes of the city where the mapmaker thought exploring tourists wouldn’t venture out. Relying heavily on this map because I picked a companion guidebook initially perceived to be accurate, I suspected the errors when my tour was beset with wrong leads, somewhat disorienting, discouraging, and wastful.

Assessing my tour after the trip, I realized I missed some attractions when I should have taken this and that direction and not the map’s lead. Not all guidebooks can be brought along for cross checking for I believe in light traveling, and ample homework time is not attainable, having been generously pampered by easily accessible materials and English assistance on my last trip in Mexico.

Tourist police are of not much help, a clueless cross between cinema ushers and supermarket guards that might have been recruited just days before the onslaught of the peak tourist season from a pool of the habitually indolent and unemployed. Never did I encounter so many inarticulately timid monolingual tourist cops catering only to Spanish-speaking visitors. Their responses were tantamount to the blind leading the blind. The local folks are just dicey they might be knowledgeable but not in every encounter, especially in sparsely inhabited areas.

In a high profile, UNESCO endorsed site like this, I wondered if they didn’t provide funds for the historic markers. Churches and historic houses do not sport whatsoever, a conspicuous, uniform and, if not asking too much, a jazzed up signage system much like those eye-catching and very helpful plaques installed at the side of the main door in centuries-old Mexican churches, say in Puebla.

Antigua’s Rocky Road

Just by the enormous quantity of churches to visit alone makes sightseeing a formidable task. What more of other architectural interests? Street blocks are replete with charming houses enough to erode a short four days of stay.

Judging by how streets are paved in dreadful chunky blistering cobblestones, trudging on them is not a cakewalk for a sightseer on an 8-to 10-hr. operation.

Walking on a cobblestone street sounds dreamy and nostalgic as “strolling down memory lane”. But it’s not Disneyland and it’s no mean feat. Actually, it’s a treacherously difficult podiatric nightmare of walking trough randomly spread slippery bowling ball-shaped paving stones and torturous sharp-edged flat ones unevenly settling down forming lumps, flakes, cracks and crevices. The profile is like a tossed-out assortment of nuts and belly-down tortilla chips sinking on a bed of guacamole.

Some sites are at the fringe of the city and are accessed through rough, unpaved, and during spring and summer time, dusty – meaning wind blown and very powdery, lonely and to some extent eerie isolated roads.

Real determination is needed to reach it the simplest way – by foot for those with lower comfort and cholesterol levels. The rewards are great for the tenacious architectural junkie.

Avalanche of Tourists

Antigua on the heels of a festive event is teeming with tourists both domestic and foreign while locals have come up to give their best foot forward, sprucing up, securing safety and order, and making sure their enterprising spirit rise up to expectations.

Iguana Marionette Vendor
Iguana Marionette Vendor
Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of the Big Event, a cascading avalanche of visitors has finally assembled in the central plaza expecting some action at the cathedral and hunting for news. The tourist information shop nearby is once again prematurely closed while the sun is still out.

I have to rely on the postings on the window while jostling for a spot against other information hungry tourists. The map postings indicated the route of the processions for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Black Saturday, and Easter Sunday, numbering three each day and all in different themes lasting 12 plus hours each! Even on Wednesday night, processions have been going on.

The city authorities were there and provided a not-so-informative alternative to the closed tourist information office. Fiesta organizers, police, civil defense crews and medics were in full force and there was absolutely nothing to worry about safety.

Festive beyond reasonable doubt, everybody is here for a grand party. People lined up sitting in the benches, railings, or any street curb space available, relaxed and having a good quality time while street vendors are also having the best of their entrepreneurial bonanza. TV and film crews jockeyed in for the best momentary positions and competed with clicking camera bugs.

If I’ll stick my nose in the Central Plaza, I’ll definitely encounter all precessions but with plenty of dull moments in between is a huge waste of time. Everybody is hanging out here with all seats taken, the place is jam packed to the rafters. Since these parades are grindingly slow, somewhere, somehow, I will catch all of them in the course of my field trip and won’t miss a single beat.

Show Stealers

The whole place is dressed up for the celebration with the color theme of purple, perpetuated in ribbons, buntings, flags, and streamers in front of every window on top of every roof and across every building. It’s a remarkable sight made more like Saturnalian spring complemented by flower and leaf adornments. And the most impressive of them all are the colorful and scrumptious sawdust carpets laid on the street floor where the processions passed through.

Events on my four-day stay turned out a watch-’till-you-drop overkill experience. I got them all mixed-up because of an overload of sights and spectacle but I can recall the highlights as accurately as possible:

  • The procession of the sorrowful Mary the Virgin Mother in an elegant total black velvet cape with gold trimmings carried by an all woman-troupe. She was accompanied by all black-wearing Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist on separate carriages in at least three occasions. The most dramatic time to see them was during the evening candle lit round.
  • The Holy Thursday morning procession, which included rare real life horseback riding Roman Centurions.
  • Another Holy Thursday evening procession, which included a very long float depicting the Last Supper menagerie of the complete cast of Apostles seated frozen along a kilometric long table.
  • The Good Friday procession featured a float carrying a tableau of the gaudy and glitzy Jesus while heavily burdened by the ivory white cross with gold spiral trimmings. The crucifixion scene and the ‘laying in rigor mortis’ tableaus were all spectacularly melancholic.
  • The almost life-like sado-masochistic scenes of the 13 Stations of the Cross menageries paraded in carriages on a separate procession.
  • Another spectacular one featured the cast of cruel Roman Centurions, some mounted in horses, others riding in chariots, together with a breathing Pontius Pilate, log-bearing chained criminals, little girls as angels, Lawrence of Arabia and Klu Klux Klan costumed men.
  • The implements used in the crucifixion scene such as the crown of thorns, nails & hammers, and whips, were displayed like royal jewelry on a pillow rest carried by teenage boys.

View from my Hotel Room
View from my Hotel Room
I woke up late Easter Sunday by the sound of the processions. Not bothering to watch, I decided to go easy for the late afternoon spectacle. It turned out to be not as spectacular. The locals might have been tired or just psyching for tomorrow’s back-to-usual work activities.


I survived the tour; my feet callous from walking non-stop coupled with a short-circuited brain deluged with lightning flashes of images. That Sunday afternoon, I headed back to Parque Centra,l my home base; the place still teeming with revelers. Vendors added flavor to the whole festivity.

Nebular clusters of colorful foamy rubbers creatively cut-out and assembled by wire to form marionette reptilian-like creatures are hung on the portable poles carried by toy vendors along with paper windmills, balloons, Looney Tunes cartoon characters, and Spiderman. Catching my attention, these Mayan princes of the park walk around with their wares like regalia headdress enticing revelers while swishing a sample on the ground in a spellbinding squiggle like the scampering dance of an iguana.