The big 4-0 was approaching and even as we boarded our plane in Seattle, I had no idea where we were off to. And trust me, it’s hard to keep a secret from me. It was only while changing planes in LA that I discovered we were returning to one of our favorite places - Guatemala. We first experienced Guatemala in 2006 when we travelled around the country with my family and our trusty guide and new best friend Eduardo. We went everywhere that everyone should visit at least once, from Tikal and the lesser known Quirigua ruins where we stayed in little bungalows deep in the jungle surrounded by Howler monkeys, to Panajachel and Lake Atitlán where we traveled by boat to the little town of Santiago de Atitlán and offered up cigarettes and “fire water” to the evil saint Maximón, to mountain town of Chichicastenango to witness the famous Sunday market.
We also visited the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, and after spending only 1 day there, we vowed to return. We stayed at our favorite Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, a retired 16th-century monastery, with views of the surrounding volcanos from the pool, and where hundreds of candles lit the hotel every night. For a smaller, more intimate experience, I recommend the Posada Del Angel on the edge of town. We are creatures of habit so we found a few favorite restaurants and bars and kept returning for more. The meals we had at Izakaya were some of the best I’ve had all year in Seattle. The chef and owner got his start working at Nobu, and it’s amazing what they were able to do in that tiny, poorly lit kitchen. I’m still dreaming of the beef and fish tiradito. Guatemala is known for its coffee, and we enjoyed our daily coffee from Cafe Condesa, an institution on the west side of the Parque Central. We quickly discovered the best place to watch the sun set over Antigua and her volcanos, was the rooftop bar Café Sky. Almost nightly we would grab a seat, order a mojito, and on several occasions witnessed the Volcan de Agua spew lava. And legend has it, every year around New Year’s, a priest and hundreds of people hike up Volcan de Agua for an annual soccer game inside the volcano’s crater. As night descended we would make our way over to Café No Sé to hang with locals and young backpackers in this dark, candlelit bar serving cheap Gallo beer, illegal Mezcal, and our favorite Ron Zacapa Centenario rum. There’s live music most nights and a secret bar in the back where you can visit and make your offering to Maximón.
During the day we wandered the streets of Antigua, taking in the famous sites like the convent and ruins of Las Capuchinas, the church of La Merced, the ruins of San Jerónimo and La Recolección, and the iconic Santa Catalina Arch built so that the nuns of the 17th century could walk across the 2 sides of the convent without being exposed to the outside world. We saw a procession for La Quema del Diablo (burning the devil), a tradition held on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, where families build bonfires outside their homes and burn all the bad from the previous year and start anew from the ashes. We travelled to neighboring villages where we witnessed a funeral procession, saw women doing the wash in the public wash pool in Santa María de Jesús, and we were lucky enough to meet up again with Carolina and her fellow weavers at her workshop co-op in the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, where the women make and wear the most exquisite huipils.
Mostly I’m drawn back to Guatemala for the warmth. The warmth of the people and the colors that flood my dreams like a painting. I am in awe of the craftsmanship by local weavers and the intricate, vibrant huipils, each one unique, representing different villages. I love walking along cobblestone streets past low buildings drenched in bright pinks, yellows and blues, past smiling, curious girls selling their handiwork. I love getting lost in the rush of energy, language, colors and smells coming from the market, seeing cowboys hanging out of pickup trucks on their way into town and the ornately painted chicken buses blowing by. I can’t wait to return.