Saturday, May 30, 2015

City Tour in Antigua

Before I take off to see the rest of Guatemala, I never really told you much about Antigua, where I spent a month.

I like to take city tours when I get somewhere new. It helps you get your bearings and provides some highlights to help you decide what you want to go back to. If it can be a walking tour, even better.

There were only about seven of us, so a nice small group. We met our guide who I guessed to be around my age, maybe slightly older. He had an interesting backstory, one American parent and one Austrian. He grew up in several places, I think in Africa and Central America, went to school in New Mexico and returning to Antigua, which has been his home for a while. He had a PhD in something like anthropology or archeology, in which he studied the Mayans. The Mayans are the indigenous people in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and potentially I'm missing other areas. I say all this because we got more than a city tour but also background on the Mayans, historic Antigua and current day Guatemala. 

We started our tour in one of the government buildings that overlooks the main square or park. Always Agua Volcano is to the south. Antigua is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is the best preserved Spanish Colonial city in Guatemala, maybe all of Central America, maybe of all Spanish colonies. When the Spanish first came to Antigua, they found this beautiful area and decided to settle here and make it their capital. What they didn't contemplate was the impact of the environment, surrounded by volcanos and on top of a section where I think two or three tectonic plates meet. 

Needless to say that they built a beautiful town that was then destroyed by some big earthquakes. Some of it was rebuilt. Some of the damage was really only on second stories and above. But after one particularly disastrous earthquake, they finally moved the capital to what is now Guatemala City. So throughout Antigua there are lots of ruins to see. 

This is the main cathedral where the support exists but the domes would never be built again. The current building code requires walls to be 6' wide - I did not make a mistake, that's feet not inches. Often there are no windows or very small windows so as not to impact the structural integrity of the building. Luckily, no earthquakes while I was there :).

The Spanish brought Catholicism with them but also had to incorporate some elements or rather highlight elements that the Mayans could relate to. For example, blood had significant meaning in the Mayan culture. The wooden crucifixes like the one below were made to show more blood than what you might see in European ones. 

We learned a little about Mayan culture and they had their own calendar, pretty different from ours. You could look up your birthday to see what day your were born on and what symbolized that - which for me sounded similar to finding out which Chinese year you were born in. I'm May 13, but I forget now what the symbol was for that day...oops. Anyone read Mayan? :)

The Mayan used plaster in their building which required very hot fires and lots of fires. He told us that the Mayan were the first destroyers of the forest. The amount of wood needed to plaster their cities and temples was ridiculous. So it makes me a little hopeful that we won't destroy the earth either. Below is a plaster decoration from one of the Mayan sites. I believe it is a jaguar/panther decorated. It is so heavy that they had to cut it in half to move it into the museum. They believe the Mayans built/sculpted it in place. It was also painted in bright colors which were just faintly visible to me and not really seen in the picture (maybe a little in the second pic).

This was an old fountain from Spanish colonial days that was still fairly in tact and working. In the background is Fuego volcano with its mini eruption cloud. 

These are ruins from an old monastery. There were something like 80 monasteries or nunneries (I think there's a more official name than nunnery but can't recall). Antigua was the center of Catholicism in the Americas. Every order had their own church, school and monastery. They've made one of the more significant monasteries into the poshest hotel in Antigua and there are services held here. It was pretty impressive looking. 

Even today Antigua is known for its religious fervor. There are a very high percentage of practicing Catholics and the Holy Week (leading up to Easter) celebrations are one of the most well known in the world. I want to go back for Easter one day. Every day a different church has a procession in town where they carry the wooden 'floats' that are crazy heavy. Some take 80 up to 200 people to carry them. Often the people carry in shifts. And they pay to carry these! On top of that, they make these beautiful carpets of flowers and plants which are laid in the street to be walked upon and trampled. I cannot imagine the effort. During the Lenten season, different churches will host different celebrations, such as when Jesus walked on water. Sometimes the line to get into the church to see the decorations will be hours. The city has a normal population of about 40,000 and increases to 500,000 during Holy Week. It is ridiculous and I'd love to see it :). 

This is an example from the church just down the street from where I stayed. They kicked off the Lenten week with the first celebration and I was thoroughly impressed with the transformation in the church. 

Antigua is the single largest contribution to government income from tourism. So it can be a bit touristy in areas. But I stayed in a little 'suburb' just a twenty minute walk from town and you lose the tourism. So it is easily escaped if you're willing to explore a little. If you're in Guatemala, Antigua deserves a visit. 

*Not to be confused with Antigua the island/nation and former (I think former) Dutch colony. 

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