Travel Photos: Time Stands Still in Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua is one of the most-popular destinations in Guatemala and it’s easy to see why. Nestled high in the mountains and surrounded by not one but three volcanoes, it’s a beautifully-preserved example of Spanish colonial charm. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it intends to stay that way, with development limited and modern trappings such as neon signs and billboards banned from the old town.
I’ll admit that I didn’t think I would enjoy Antigua as much as I have — I’d visited two other Heritage towns, Luang Prabang in Laos and Hoi An in Vietnam, and found them both to be pleasant and certainly beautiful but somehow lacking in life. No one seemed to really live there anymore — every building was turned over to tourism, housing not families but hotels, cafes, tour shops and the like. They were great places to visit and relax –perfect for a romantic get-away, for example– but they just didn’t feel real to me.
And Antigua is similar in that regard — near the town center, you’ll find shops selling everything from bagels to high-end French cuisine or expensive jewelry. Curio shops, cafes, street vendors and ATMs patiently await the tourist hordes.
But look around and you’ll find, too, shops selling appliances, motorcycles, cell phones and the other mundane stuff people need to survive this crazy modern world. Wander out to the edges of towns where people live in colorful cinder block houses and kids shoot hoops at a community court. You’ll get some shocked looks — most visitors don’t bother.
Or, even better, dive deep into the local market –beyond the two rows devoted to selling handicrafts to tourists– and you’ll find everyday people shopping, chatting and living their lives in full Technicolor glory.
Antigua is definitely more than a fancy tourist mall, though you may have to look a bit to find it. And if you don’t feel like bothering, you’ll still have a great time — it’s just so damned pretty.
Originally the country capital, Antigua was nearly demolished by a massive earthquake in 1773. There are several ruined colonial-style churches scattered around town — most are fenced off but a couple can be toured and are well worth a stop.
Most of the architecture dates from the 17th and 18th centuries — in order to maintain the look, no modern signage is allowed. Everything is painted on tile, carved from wood or metal or painted directly on the side of the buildings.
I ran into quite a few old men who liked to stand around on corners, waiting for me to take their photo. They never asked for tips but just really seemed to like having their photo taken. No idea why, but I’m not complaining.