Mayan Coronas

Fire & Water
Thursday 12th March 2020

We had a good night's sleep, as long as you don't count the bit where we woke at 2am thinking it was time to get up; so apart from that we enoyed almost 10 hours of sleep! There was nothing planned for today, so we had the luxury of time on our hands. Some of it was spent on-line trying to find the best breakfast in Antigua. Our hotel didn't offer any. Although they did have complimentary tea or coffee available downstairs.

When I eventually decided to pop down to get some free coffee and opened our door, I was absolutely blown away by the view that was before me. (I love it when that happens, you arrive in the dark, late at night, unaware of your surroundings then in the morning you wake up to something special.)

It was quite a sight, the doormant Volcan de Agua in all its glory towering over Antigua. We were already 5,000 feet above sea level here, but there was another 7000 feet to the summit.

It's name, the volcano of water, seemed at odds with the idea of a volcano but it refered to a tragic event in 1541 when the crater collapsed and the subsequent flow of water & debris that spewed from the volcano destroyed the country's then colonial capital Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, (St.James of the Kights of Guatemala), which is in the area of present day Ciudad Vieja.

After this tragic event the capital was moved four miles further away from the volcano, here  to Antigua, where it remained for over two hundred years. 

Standing on our verandha looking beyond the stout buildings of the old town I saw another volcano.

"Bloody hell, there's a volcano over there with smoke coming out of it!" I yelled back to Julie who was still in bed, thinking I was joking. But I wasn't!

Some tweny miles away to the West was the aptly named Volcan de Fuego, (volcano of fire).

It was an active volcano which had erupted as recently as 2018. Despite the plume of smoke rising from it there was no need to be concerned, even if its status on said it was "erupting"! This low level emission has been almost a daily occurence for the last two years.

Over coffee, which wasn't that nice considering they grow it locally on the slopes of the volcanoes, we made our decision for breakfast; a place called the Rainbow Cafe. It was the other end of town so we set off down the streets of Antigua for the first time in the daylight.

Following a more scenic route we returned to Parque La Merced, where last night's feast took place. A few vendors had set up in the square, some selling snacks, others with a stack of hats, waiting for the tourists to arrive.

The yellow church looked even prettier than we remembered from last night but we didn't hang around. I marched onwards, on a mission to see Antigua's, if not arguably Guatemala's most iconic view before the streets got too busy.

From La Merced we turned a corner onto 5th Avenue North to see the beauiful Arco di Santa Catalina with the ever present Volcan de Agua in the background.

It was built at the end of the 17th century to conveniently connect a convent to its school allowing the nuns to cross over the road without leaving the confines of their cloisters and keep their vows of seclusion. The clocktower was a later addition. 

We soaked it all in, stepping off the pavement with their deep kerbs and crossed the uneven cobblestones into the middle of the road for a better perspective.

We continued down 5a Avenida, walking in the shade as it was already warm in the sun. Some of the buildings down here had been nicely restored. Antigua is an UNESCO World Heritage site so there are many restrictions on what can be changed so to preserve this unique place for centuries to come.

Before long we had reached Parque Central, the heart of the old town. It was a large square with a ruined Cathedral on one side, two palacios opposite North and South sides and a colonaded building to complete it. It the middle was a park with a small fountain and jacaranda trees in violet bloom.

We needed a few quetzals for the next few days so as we passed a Banco Credomatic we went inside a small room with three or four free standing ATMs. However after three failed attempts I gave up. It was a little concerning that our entire budget for the trip was locked up in our Revolut travel card account. At least we knew the card worked last night, so we hoped this was just an ATM issue.

We left the square down 5a Calle Poniente but we just couldn't find the Rainbow Cafe. Julie asked a friendly shop assistant who suggested it could be on the next street down. So we returned to the central park and then tried 6a Calle Poniente.

Again we reached the intersection with 7a Avendida Sur and still hadn't found it. We stopped a startled local who didn't have a clue what we were saying. As we apologised profusely for alarming her we looked up and there it was, right on the corner of 7th Avenue and 6th Street.

The cafe was really quirky inside. From the outside you couldn't tell of the little treasure inside. It was brightly decorated with mountain scenery painted on the walls  and a covered inner courtyard bringing in much needed natural light. We were drawn to a window with another amazing view of Agua volcano. Best seats in the house for breakfast.

Dishes on their menu had "suitable for vegetarians" symbols which was reassuring. I went for a traditional breakfast they called Chapin. It consisted of egg, black beans, fried plantain, some sour cream and a few tortillas. Julie wasn't feeling so adventurous and only had some toast. We also had an amazing cup of coffee.

The 85Q bill was succesfully paid by card which was a relief. So much so we spent again in their little gift shop buying two tin cups with 'Guatemala' on the side. They cost more than breakfast but at least we now had something from which to drink our champagne later!

It was only 9am so we decided to return to our hotel room to chill out. This time we took the direct route all the way up 7th Avenue, in a straight line.

Along the way we passed one of the many derelict churches in Antigua. The facade of San Agustin on the corner of 7th Avenue and 5th Street was pretty much intact but it was just a shell with its collapsed roof. 

After a devastating earthquake in 1773 the city was all but abandoned as the capital moved to its current location in Guatemala City. It acquired its current name, Antigua which means Old Guatemala,  and over the years life gradually returned.   

After a couple of hours relaxing in our room we ventured back out again. This time our main destination was a bar! (Manchester United were playing.) Yes, I know it's a bit odd travelling to the otherside of the world only to sit in a bar and watch football but it's my thing, so if I can, I will.

Again, we took the scenic route, retracing our footsteps through Parque La Merced, pass the wonderful view of Santa Catalina arch and then we carried on until we reached 3rd Avenue.

As we walked down, in the directon of the volcano we came to the ruins of El Carmen, the remains of a church of an order of Carmelite Nuns.  A series of earthquakes (1717, 1773, 1874,1976)  each took a piece of it down until all that remains today is literally its facade, but what an absolutely gem. Twenty four columns still stand, with eight on the upper layer carved so ornately, it was a stunning sight.

Moving on we turned down 5th street back towards Parque Central. We were far too early for the game so we walked over to a small coffee shop on the square called La Casaca, where Julie enjoyed a refreshing fruit smoothie and I sampled another quality coffee. We sat in the window and watched the world go by for a good half and hour.  

As kick-off was nearing we left the comfy chairs of La Casaca and crossed the square to 4a Avendia, stopping on our way at the bank on the corner, this time succesfully getting cash out of an ATM.

The Bullseye Sports bar was just a little further up on the right. At first we walked straight past it, we were still looking for big bold signs but of course they're not allowed here; and rightly so. It would ruin the old town.

 Stepping inside I was genuinely excited to find a full blown sports bar. We settled into position at the end of the bar after having a look at the memorabilia on the walls. I asked the barman why there were a couple Welsh football and rugby shirts in frames. It turned out the owner of the bar was a Welshman! Well, it's a small world.

John, the barman, who was from California, changed the TV channel over to a satellite station showing the game. "If it's on, we'll show it" he said cheerfully. He apologised for only finding a Spanish language commentary but I didn't mind, they always go crazy when anyone scores a "Gooooooooooooooool!" 

We settled down to watch the game. Andy was trying to make small talk whilst I was trying to concentrate on the match. We were the only customers here, so he had no one else to talk too.

Because of the coronvirus pandemic United were playing LASK in an empty stadium in Linz, Austria.  It was strange how you could hear players calling to each other, shouts of encouragement from the dugout. It was like watching a training match. It was an enjoyable game, with Ighalo scoring a beauty before half time.

During the break Andy the owner introduced himself. He was from Bridgend, South Wales. Some fifteen years ago he met a girl whilst backpacking through Central America and decided to stay here in Antigua. We talked about Wales, about football. Conversation then turned to the pandemic and he said he wouldn't like to be quarantined in Guatemala. "The hospital they have chosen is new and modern but it's in an area of Villa Nueva that's classed as a red zone" he said "bullets fly on a regular basis".   Our eyebrows raised so much our eyes almost fell out.

The second half started well with Daniel James, United's Welsh wonder, popping up with a goal! The bar was now filling up. A young British couple, an Aussie with a manufacturing business in Guatemala, an American, who was involved with an NGO and two local men.

With the match under control we soon forgot about the game and were chatting away. I even missed a flurry of three goals by Mata, Greenwood and Pereira. I only heard the commentators enthusiatstic "Goooooooooooool" and then watched the replays.  Final score was a glorious 5-0 victory.

Despite having a plate of papas frittas at the bar we were still hungry. Julie went restaurant searching on tripadvisor and found a Mexican called Frida's a few steps from the Santa Catalina arch.

It was a lovely little place, with Warholesque prints of Frida Khalo (famous Mexican artist) up on the walls. We were handed the menu and told it was happy hour, 2 for 1 on the cocktails. It would have been rude not to have had a margarita!

The menu had plenty of choice for me, but I opted for plain quesadillas. Flour tortillas, filled with cheese, all gooey and melted. Simple but tasty. Julie went for some prawn tacos. They were nicely presented and she said they were incredibly delicious. The only thing ... because the prawns were battered they were very filling. She struggled to eat all four tacos and I couldn't help her out.

It was time for a siesta, to sleep off lunch, so we returned to Casa Florencia, and our hotel room. We decided it was an opportune time to crack open a bottle of champagne, which we sipped out of our tin mugs. Going to sleep wasn't a problem.

At 6pm we had a meeting with our tour leader, and the rest of the group with which we were going to be travelling for the next two weeks. It was just downstairs at the hotel. With a few minutes to go we forced ourselves awake and made our way down.

We were the first to arrive. Others soon came and we introduced each other, Lucia, from Toronto, Helen, from the UK, Christian, from Germany, all solo travellers, then came a flurry of others, mostly couples.  All in all there were 14 of us. 

With everyone assembled, our guide then arrived and introduced himself as Gabriele "but call me Gabo" he said. He was stick thin with a marvellous beard and colourful shirt. He got us all to introduce ourselves to the group and say what we were hoping to get out of the trip. "To see Tikal" was mine. "I'm just following him" was Julie's.

The group was a mix of ages, genders, and nationalities. Split 50/50 male/female, with six Aussies, three Brits, two Swiss, a German, a Brazilian and a Mexican. Most of the group were late twenties / early thirties except for fellow Brit Helen, whoseemed our age and an Austrailian couple, Richard and Margaret who were just a little older.

Gabo mentioned that he had arranged for us all to eat together this evening. This caught us by surprise a little. It was our first real group tour and we didn't realise that eating as a group was the norm. Food has always been a big part of our travels and giving up control of where we ate was a difficult thing to accept. Of course he did say that it was entirely optional , but we didn't want to ostrecise ourselves on day one, we needed to get to know our fellow travellers.

So at about 7pm we left the hotel and we all followed Gabo down to the central park where he mentioned that the restaurant only accepted cash so if we needed to get some quetzals out, now was the time. Having spent our cash already on lunch we needed some more.

I tried at the cash point that failed this morning with the same result. Gabo suggested I try another bank a little further down, just off the square but it failed in exactly the same way. They seemed to have the same procedure, where I had to take it out and put it back in again, which it didn't like.  I wasn't the only one having the same issue. 

Eventually we found another bank, on the square, that had a different type of ATM, with a straightforward process and this one worked a treat.

So with all of us carrying a lot of cash on us, we walked the dark streets of the old town, following Gabo along 6th Street to the small square of illuminated palm trees with a lovely yellow church on the corner. From here we turned South, and started walking out of town.

There didn't seem to be anything down here, until somewhere between 7th and 8th street we came to what looked like a garage. There was no sign of life. Gabo knocked on the door and it opened. It was like a speakeasy restaurant! It was called Montagu and described itself as an open kitchen closed door restaurant, a reservations only kind of a place. It was a cool idea and felt like a special event just for us. 

We walked into the garage/open kitchen where two ladies were busy prepping. The owner/head chef directed us to a row of tables. We were the only diners in this evening.

Sat opposite us was Helen, from Sussex, and Jordan, an Aussie who worked in London for Coca Cola, Next to him was Lucia, from Mexico City, but now worked in Toronto for Intrepid (the tour company!). 

Further down the table within chatting distance were Alex and Suzie, an Australian couple, (but just good friends), who had been travelling around the world for almost 5 months now. He was on his "service leave", which we had never heard of before. A perk that all Australians enjoy after ten years of service in the same trade is six months paid leave!  No wonder the world is full of thirty something Aussies!

We also managed to grab a little conversation with Irene and Christoph, who were travelling for a few months before returning home to Switzerland after working in America together for the last year. Also Christian, who was probably the least talkative of the group.

At the far end, too far to strike up a conversation with, were Rich and Margaret and Mike and Mari. 

The menu arrived, and whilst the chef talked about homegrown produce and local ingredients I was surprised to see that it mostly consisted of pizza or pasta!

It did have a taco section, which I went for the veggie option. I have to admit to not enjoying mine that much. I think with all the hype I was expecting big things. Perhaps it made me too critical but the home-made blue corn tortillas were a bit thick and dry and the black bean topping was bordering on bland. A decent drizzle of a green chilli sauce came to its rescue.

Unfortunately the disappointment continued. Julie went for a plain marguertia pizza. She was mightily unimpressed by it. The thing with a marguerita is that it's so simple there's no place to hide. You have to rely on a good base, tasty tomato sauce and quality cheese because that's all you've got. She couldn't eat more than half of it.

We ended the evening having some mezcal cocktails which were just the best. Wow, they were delicious, with a mix of herbs, fruits and a real smokey flavour from the mezcal.  Mine had a sprig of rosemary in it adding to the earthiness. The guy was less chef and much more mixologist!  

Our end of the table continued talking, laughing and drinking and hardly noticed that the rest of the group had left. Gabo, stayed with us, to make sure we got back safe.

As he herded us back through the streets of Antigua someone suggested we should stop for one more drink before calling it a night. Gabo knew just the place. "It's like a hidden bar" he said enthusiastically.

Antigua Brewery Company had their own bar on 3rd street. It was a large venue with a stage. It  looked like we had just missed whatever performance they had tonight. There was still a smattering of people lingering.

In the corner, behind us, there was a red telephone box. There was a small sign that said Ul'ew cocktail bar. Gabo opened the door to the kiosk, stepped inside and then disappeared.

We followed him, swished back a black curtain and stepped through into Gabo's hidden den. It would have been such a damp squib if the place was empty but the atmosphere was buzzing, filled with Antigua's beautiful people. It was so trendy that they didn't serve beer or wine, only cocktails and spirits.

Gabo did a beer and wine run to the regular bar whilst I went to the trendy Ul'ew bar for a double Jack Daniels. I almost choked when they asked for 160Q for it! That was ridiclous for London prices let alone a country where there average salary is only about 270Q a day.  (10Q = £1)

We got talking with Gabo about drink and I asked about the local tipple. He said tequilla and mezcal were very popular of course and mentioned a story about an Antiguan bar owner who dressed like a priest to smuggle Mezcal into Guatemala.

I imagined this story was set in the 18th century but no, it was 2003!  American expat John Rexer wanted to sell mezcal in his bar, Cafe No Se, here in Antigua but at the time it was illegal to export mezcal, tequila's more interesting smokey sibling, out of Mexico. So he put on a white priest's collar and travelled by bus to Oaxaca, which took a day and a half, filled a few duffle bags full of the spirit. A blind eye was turned because he was a man of the cloth! 

There's also Ron Zapaca Centenario, one of the world's most highly regarded rum. With distilleries in the Western highlands city of Quetzaltenango but named after the town of Zapaca, in the Montagua valley a few hours drive away to the East.

But he said the average guy would enjoy a bottle of aguardiente, or fire water. "Would you like to try some?" he asked "It's not expensive".

After almost choking at the ridiculous price tag from behind the Ulew bar Gabo popped out to find a corner shop still open at this time of the night. Some ten minutes later he returned with a 250ml bottle in his pocket. To be fair to the staff behind the bar gave him a few shot glasses for us to use.

Fire water was a good description, like a cheap vodka, it didn't have much falvour but plenty of burn as it went down the throat!

Helen was the first to break, as she headed back to the hoel but we weren't too far behind her. We left Lucia, Jordan, Gabo and the fire water and headed back to Casa Florencia.

When we reached our hotel it was all dark. The door was locked. "Damn, (or words to that effect) I forgot about their 10pm curfew" I cursed.

I rattled the door and cursed some more.  We were an hour late. A small door to the left opened and out popped the head of the guy from behind the recption desk. He gave us a wry smile and let us in.

We apologised profusely for being a nuisance, picked up the key to room seven and went straight up to bed.

Next day >  

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