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  Issue Date: 3 / 2017  

Antigua Guatemala

James Dorsey

Photo Credit: James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

        Guatemala's’ Panchow valley trembles from deep below her cobbled streets and on any given day the Volcan de Fuego will vent Sulphur and ash into her sky.
       The people of Antigua, true Mayans, will tell you it is the voices of the spirits that dwell within the three massive volcanoes that surround them like a giant three pincered claw.
       Antigua is the third incarnation of the former capitol city of Guatemala that was founded by Spanish conquistadors and re-located twice due to violent volcanic eruptions. For two centuries it was the military seat of the governor of the “Spanish Colony of Guatemala,” an empire that included most of present day Central America and ventured as far north as current Chiapas, Mexico.
       The three towering volcanoes that surround the valley are its defining features; the tallest, Acatenango rises to 13,045 feet, (3976 meters) followed by Volcan de Agua, the most photographed of the three, often framed by colonial doorways, is called Hunapu by local people as it rises to 12,456 ft. (3766 meters) and Volcan de Fuego, the most active, almost daily spewing ash into the cerulean skies as a nonstop reminder of nature’s power reaches 12,346 feet, (37763 meters) The city, the aging symbol of colonial domination has become one of the country’s main tourist draws, rivaling visitor numbers of the more famous ruins at Tikal, Yaxha and Topoxte.
       This UNESCO World Heritage Site has survived floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions since its founding in 1543 and remains today a premier example of Spanish baroque architecture; an aging dowager refusing to reveal herself without her makeup and it is a beautiful sight to see. Antigua has long been a center of religious learning since Franciscan monks settled the valley in the mid 16TH century, followed later by Jesuits and Dominicans, all of whom built magnificent, ornate cathedrals, the many ruins of which punctuate its cobbled streets. It is the royal dame of colonial cities and its ethereal beauty has been featured in numerous films and televisions shows.

Photo Credit: James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

       Perhaps the most fascinating allure of the city is the Sunday afternoon market when local time reverts to its early days. Kapchikel Mayans, the local indigenous clans, descend from their mountain homes to share their textile handiworks with the hordes of visitors who have come specifically to witness the history and pageantry of the event. The city transforms to a living time capsule as raven haired artisans set up their looms and spread their world renowned textiles out for sale turning entire streets into riots of color. These are not farmers bringing crops or livestock to market but artisans of the highest order. Their work is the equal of museum collections and you can watch them create it in real time. The Mayans weave textiles easily as birds fly and Antigua’s market attracts buyers from around the globe.
       At first light on market day, colorful, hand painted buses, themselves mobile works of art, begin shuttling both locals and tourists into the central square where the entire day seems to have stopped in the mid sixteenth century. It is during these brief respites from today that the old world merges with the new, giving tourists a glimpse at an ancient and proud people as they have lived for centuries. It is a chance for modern Guatemala to meet its earlier self but it is also over much too quickly because the mountain people begin to fade back into the highlands with the setting sun, allowing the outer world only a brief contact in order to maintain their mystique.
       Children splash and play in the central fountain whose statue of mother earth spills the water of life from her exposed breasts while nearby women as colorfully attired as songbirds hand beat their laundry into cleanliness in waters of the public square as tourists surround them with cameras. Barefoot or sandaled women negotiate the uneven cobblestones with wicker baskets of clothing perfectly balanced on their heads and children chase each other through back alleys wearing masks of the devil that are such an integral part of local lore.
       Perhaps the most popular destination in the city is the hotel Casa Santa Domingo that began life as a Dominican monastery in 1538. It was a massive edifice for its day with twin towers and ten bronze bells, and its corridors were filled with colonial treasures, many of which can be found in the rooms of the hotel that occupies its ruins today. The modern hotel is built amidst the sagging ruins and merges both the flavor of the old world with the technology of the new. It has become both the historical and artistic centerpiece of the city and visitors to its aging corridors can visit both a colonial and archeological museum, plus pre-Columbian art, silver, and pharmacological museums. Besides being the most popular destination in town for weddings, it is the single best historical archive for the history of the city. On its steps you can usually find several textile weavers using old world hand looms.
       It is a deeply Catholic city that stages a massive procession through the streets each year to announce the beginning of Lent and thus the holy days leading up to Easter. Masks both religious and profane are traditional accessories to the costumes that pilgrims don to proclaim their penance. If you listen closely you may still hear some of the ancient tongues being spoken by leathery faced elders who still live the old way in the surrounding mountain villages. On market day the city becomes colonial Spain, but it is a colony as of yet undefeated as the majesty and dignity of the indigenous people is on full public display. If you follow the people into their mountains, Jaguars still stalk the land and Coatimundis are common as field mice. These friendly little creatures that resemble a cross between a raccoon and badger may walk right up to you in the city and locals treat them as fellow citizens. Blue Herons soar over her fertile rivers and crocodiles too numerous to count populate the waterways they share with subsistence fishermen.
       Antigua is only a forty five minute drive from the capital of Guatemala City and there is daily bus service between the two with multiple departures going both ways. Also any local cab driver with happily take you there for a modest fare. The city is an aging gem far enough away to not be overrun by tourists and close enough for the curious to learn about her.

James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 46 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. His work can be seen on the web at jamesdorsey.com.
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