Destination? La Antigua – a charming colonial town, surrounded by volcanoes, 45 km from Guatemala City. A peaceful welcoming location for travelers of all generations to gather. That’s what we had been told by others as we traveled throughout the countries of Central America. “A great place to study Spanish”, says the guidebooks. No doubt about it, we needed some Spanish lessons. Our one-word phrases, always in the present tense, were getting tiring, even to us. I’m sure the locals would have agreed if we only knew how to ask them. Therefore…our destination – Antigua.
Arriving in Guatemala City from El Salvador, my two children and I located the dusty, noisy, crowded terminal that offered bus transportation to Antigua. Unfortunately, our overworked bus attendant wasn’t really pleased to see our three big backpacks. Scowling and yelling with great disgust, he insisted our packs were to be tied on the roof of the bus, while we were just as adamant that they were staying inside with us. After two months of traveling on these buses, we had seen a lot of luggage go flying off the back – never to be seen again. A heated discussion took place in our stilted Spanish and his frustrated hand waving – in Spanish too, of course, until we happily agreed we would pay for one extra seat to stack our backpacks on. Well worth it.
Ah…padded seats, the ultimate luxury. However, the seats on each side of the bus were supposed to hold three people (little people, I might add). The aisles weren’t wide enough to walk through, let alone take a backpack. The object was to fill up each seat and then cram the same number of people down the aisle – standing! When the bus was totally jammed – push in 10 more!
After the gasping, shoving and poking were finished the attendant then decided to work his way to the back of the bus, collecting the fares from his passengers. Once we were on our way, he then rode up front, leaning out the open door, while the driver slowly cruised along the edge of the highway. The attendant yelled “la Antigua” to the people on the road just in case he could find ten or twenty more paying customers.
The people of Central America are very accepting – they just shrug, settle in, and ignore the plastic bag tied to their arm rest with a live chicken in it, his head sticking out. Nor do they panic when a tired mother, juggling another heavy baby in her arms, thrusts a small child onto their laps.
We found Antigua a clean, bustling hive of activity. Standing on the street looking lost, exhausted, hungry, and grumpy (if we would only admit it) we were approached by a tourist guide, offering his help. We were grateful, since we were also broke. We hadn’t been able to find a bank machine, had no local currency and weren’t quite sure how we were going to manage until the banks opened the next day. Our guide very kindly guided us to a decent hotel and lent us 200 quetzals. The Guatemalan government pays his wages, while he provides service to the tourists, assisting them wherever he can.
Antigua is a popular place for language study because it is relatively inexpensive, safe and comfortable. There are dozens of schools to choose from to suit everyone’s needs and pocket book, even ours.
After visiting numerous schools we chose one and arranged to start classes the next day. Most schools offer a variety of options; one-on-one instruction, four to eight hours a day or, if you prefer, group classes. We chose individual instruction and initially studied five hours a day, but dropped down to four. The last hour became torture; we couldn’t take anything more into our overloaded brains. My son and I studied for three weeks but my daughter found two weeks more than enough. If given the opportunity again, I would study for two weeks, travel for a while and then return for more lessons. Put the knowledge to use and practice whatever sunk into my brain.
Homestay is a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture. Our host family with their three children lived in an old two-story historic family home. This was also shared with the woman’s brother and his family. Each family has one side of the house, with each room opening onto the beautiful common courtyard in the middle. Our side had two bathrooms, a shower with hot water and NO TOILET SEAT. I would like to know where all the toilet seats from Central America have disappeared. Also the toilet paper, which is guarded like gold. These people have little children – how do they toilet train a baby without the child being able to sit down on the toilet seat? Someday I’ll figure this out.
One mistake we made was that the three of us stayed together in one home, which did nothing to further our practice of speaking Spanish. We tended to speak English with each other and not use our new vocabulary. Next time I would make sure we all went our separate ways.
Antigua offers far more than just Spanish lessons. Walk the cobblestone streets and visit the numerous cathedrals, convents, museums and nearby Indian villages. See the many ruins from the horrific earthquakes they have endured in this region and learn about the volcanoes that surround the area. Guided walking tours of Antigua are available, or tour on a mini bus and enjoy learning about the cultural heritage of this Spanish colonial city.
Visiting some of the many Indian villages nearby is a must. Most of these villages are predominantly agriculture-related, but those close to Antigua also have their people involved in weaving and textile shops. One of these villages, San Antonio, is approximately 8 km from Antigua. Considerable weaving is done in this area, and the local tablecloths, Indian blouses and wall hangings are among the best in the country. Don’t forget to haggle over prices – it is traditional and expected.
Whatever your reason for visiting Antigua, I hope you enjoy the time you are there. Use it as a stopover point before heading off to the ruins at Tikal, or to shop in the markets at Panajachel or Chichicastenango, or make it your main destination. Be sure to visit Parque Central – a great place to meet fellow travelers and the locals. You won’t be able to resist a smile – I guarantee it.
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