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The Balance city of dreams guide to: Antigua

Guatemala’s most beautiful city is an historical gem, a living breathing museum where modern life and ancient traditions thrive
The Balance city of dreams guide to: Antigua The cobbled roads breathe ancient stories and many of the women wear traditional costume, proud of their heritage
February 9, 2017   |    MERAID GRIFFIN

Stroking the plaster on one of many crumbling facades, I imagine how magnificent this city was in 1772, the year before it was struck by a devastating earthquake. Beneath peeling ochre paint, intricate decoration clings to the stucco-like wall. Deeper in, plaster sticks to bare bricks and I can almost feel the hands of the craftsmen that built this colonial city. Antigua rightly deserves its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site, having survived many natural disasters, hardly surprising considering it’s surrounded by volcanoes.

Single storey buildings painted in chalky shades of terracotta, coral, blue and yellow, line the cobbled streets. Shaded by a fuschia pink bougainvillea, spilling from a tumble-down ruin, an old man plays marimba as we walk towards the market. We pass colourful camionetas, or chicken buses, as they’re commonly called. These are pimped up chrome-trimmed cut-and-shut old American school buses, crammed to bursting with people, clay pots, papayas and hens, where every ride is an adventure.

MAYAN HERITAGE

Hawkers shout about their wares and behind a pile of pineapples and a mound of melons, a woman yielding a machete hacks coconuts and I drink fresh coconut water. Proud of their Mayan heritage, many of the women wear traditional costume: hand-woven wrap skirts and on the top half, huipiles – simple tunics, which are beautifully embroidered with flowers, geometric patterns, animals and birds. Kaperraj, a type of shawl, is worn over one shoulder ready to be used as a sling for carrying the shopping, or a tired child. Fascinated by textiles, I buy an old, slightly damaged huipile to use as a wall hanging.

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FOOD FOR THE MIND AND SOUL

My boyfriend, Dan, came here 10 years ago to learn Spanish and it’s been a godsend on our three-week trip. Language schools have sprung up everywhere, where you get one-to-one tuition for a fee that includes bed and board with a local family.

He reminds me that learning a language keeps the brain young. I remind him that I’m hungry, so we nip into a little bookshop near Parque Central following the aroma of roast coffee, to a courtyard garden within a colonial mansion.

We’ve come back to Café Condesa for breakfast; fluffy American style pancakes, freshly squeezed juice, and frothy coffee – a welcome change from beans, eggs and tortillas.

Antigua has a plethora of restaurants serving international and traditional cuisine. For Mexican food, try Frida’s, where the interior pays homage to the artist Frida Kahlo. And for typical Guatamalan fare, La Fonda de la Calle Real serves Pepián, a warming stew in a rich spicy sauce, though it’s a tad salty for my palate.

A pick-up truck pulls up beside Old Town Outfitters, our ride to Earth Lodge, an eco lodge with tree houses. After hiking through jungles, climbing a volcano, and partaking in festival chaos, we’re on our way to an avocado farm. Too disorganised to book a tree house, I’m not disappointed when I see the wooden cabin I’ve nabbed. I’ve got a loo with a view across a lush green valley, and a hammock, too.

We gather firewood to heat the Maya-style sauna then join other travellers on the terrace to drink beer. The sun sinks low and when you’re 1500m above sea level, the temperature drops rapidly, so down to the sauna we go. Safe in the knowledge that no one is joining us, we strip naked and enjoy the steam.

Afterwards, we shower in the privacy of our bathroom then join the other guests for a home-cooked meal. Eventually we retire to our lodge. We awaken to birdsong, and another blue sky and wish we could live here forever. It’s hard to leave this country without being touched by the warmth of the locals. My rucksack is heavier now than when I arrived, and I feel like I’ve taken a piece of Guatemala into my heart.

P.S. Haggle. It’s expected. One third of the hawker’s asking price usually seals the deal. If it’s too pricey, just sing to yourself, ‘Let it go…’

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THE BUCKET LIST

Relaxation
Take a stroll around Parque Central and sit near the fountain, where four dolphin-riding nymphs squirt water from their nipples, causing children and adults alike to giggle.

Curiosity
Visit a church. Guatemalans are a fusion of Mayan traditions mixed with Catholicism.

Adventure
Hike up Volcán de Pacaya to catch the sunset and eat marshmallows toasted by the heat. Remember to bring a torch for the way home.

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