There are two ways to travel. Commoditized travel, or leading with the heart, eyes wide open, ready to embrace flow. There are two ways to travel. Preplan your itinerary moment by moment, book it all in advance, come with expectations, follow your schedule. Stay in your lane of comfort. Or, there’s this last-minute “I feel called to go there” no explanation or expectations, show up and find out why later. You create your experience with your intention and will. My intention this time was simply curiosity and connection. To see what the universe wants me to experience and to enjoy it as fully as possible.
I follow my intuition to places around the world. It’s usually that simple. When I keep hearing of a place and feel curious based on someone else’s experience, I take it as a sign. And it’s never disappointed me thus far. I write this in an airport lounge in Guatemala City, the ending of a 3-week adventure here in Guatemala. I have a large salad of mostly greens dressed lightly with balsamic by my side, and a cup of chamomile tea. I feel emotional as I usually do at the end of trips. Finishing little chapters in my big book of life thus far.
Antigua Guatemala was special, though. As soon as I pulled up to this charming town of magic, I had tears in my eyes. It felt like I was stepping into a fairytale, with sustenance. With real culture. Guatemalan women line the sidewalks in traditional woven huipils (a square-shaped embroidered blouse worn by the locals) bright with color from head to toe. The traditional textiles found in Guatemala, are all made by hand using traditional techniques and methods that have been passed down for generations.
Vibrant patterns amongst a colonial city backdrop. Monuments preserved as ruins remain — destroyed from the earthquake of 1773. As I approached I had a visceral remainder of European flavor. The cobblestone streets, the history, perhaps as if Spain went bankrupt. Inviting cafes pique my interest as I wonder what lies beyond the facade. As I find out later, it’s usually a treat of charming lush courtyards, fountains, and textiles. Or sometimes even a spiral staircase to a quaint rooftop overlooking the city.
Somehow I always find what I’m looking for even when I have no idea what I’m seeking. I came with open curiosity, but also the intention to study Spanish. I left with a full heart and a plethora of memories. New friends, a new appreciation for coffee (can you believe it?), and for Guatemalans specifically.
It started with my Airbnb host, Cesar. After putting my bags down in my new temporary home, he showed me around his favorite spots amongst arriving. Immediately we had a coffee at a local favorite, La Parada. I felt welcomed by his warm energy and the happy baristas. We walk around a bit, as I get a quick history tour by foot. Cesar also happens to be a tour guide by day and seems to know every single human in Antigua. He’s funny, flamboyant, and scared of dogs. We become fast friends.
I’m introduced to the Quetzal, both the currency of Guatalama and also the country’s bird. And also, churros. Standing on the sidewalk with mountains in the background, we share a bag of hot churros dipped in chocolate. Granted my mind is overstimulated on beauty with a bit of fatigue. I’m eager to capture the intricacies of the city by camera. I’m still crying a little at this point at the sheer awe that this fairytale exists IRL. And here I am prepared to embrace every corner of it.
Usually, the inspiration of a place wears off after a week or so there, so I always try and take my photos while I feel fresh and inspired. Not here. I took more photos than ever on this trip, constantly seeing photos in my minds eye as I walked down the street. Smiles are found in locals’ eyes beyond the masks. Even the street dogs seemed calmer than anywhere else in Latin America. Maybe it was something in the air…
The next few weeks consist of first, acclimating to spanish school. I chose Spanish Academy Antigua due to their affordability and ratings, also being owned by Guatamalans. Many of the schools are owned by foreigners. The first day I meet the owner Jose and my instructor Emy, a petite woman from Antigua who has been teaching english for 35 years.
We walk 4 blocks to a lush garden, getting to know each other while she low key assesses my Spanish. The lessons take place daily underneath avocado and lime trees in this beautiful garden. Most of my Spanish conversation practice was talking about the garden and all of it’s musings. Many secrets lie in that garden, that’s for sure.
Emy is patient as I stumble through many sentences in rough, grammatically terrible spanish, correcting me as I go. She asks me a million questions about my country, my upbringing, my preferences. I mean, when you’re learning a language you mostly talk about yourself and your day-to-day. I swear she probably knows more about me than my close friends at this point.
Emy and I spend the next 2 weeks practicing Spanish, learning vocab words and expressions. I bring her a surprise snack everyday, because well, after 2 hours of Spanish you’re pretty tired. I try to keep things interesting. Emy is sweet, patient, and quirky in her own way. I am roughly double her height and feel like a giant standing by her side. She’s scared of worms “gusanos” 🐛 3cm long — but not dead birds. She thinks I’m hilarious when I hiccup and burst into laughter for a good few minutes. She also thinks it’s funny when I get startled (usually by falling objects), which happens somewhat often.
Much of the time we spend laughing. By the end of our two weeks together, I feel an improvement in my confidence when speaking, but still have a long way to go. Over my time in Antigua I practiced speaking with all of my cab drivers and listening to their stories. Antigua is lined with cobblestone streets, and if you don’t feel like walking, you can uber or tuk-tuk anywhere for under $5. I walked as much as possible but relied on uber after dark.
The culinary scene is real and abundant in Antigua. There’s so many gastronomic experiences in one small town. Antigua is about 9 blocks by 9 blocks, so it’s all very condensed and walkable. It’s cheap to eat and drink like a queen, and so I let myself have the liberty to do just that for a bit. I’m not a big drinker, but enjoy a craft cocktail now and again, and Antigua is the place to do just that.
I stumbled across a small speakeasy called Ulew, a dimly lit cocktail bar where they have no menu and bring your drink on an exotic plate. Yes, an exotic plate. My plate last night was fake beans in resin with a wolf figurine. And then a silver platter with a lock and key. And then lights and a disco ball. The bartenders become my favorite people, and I kept returning for a good laugh or spontaneous dance party. I like to be kept guessing.
I met with a new friend I had met earlier that day by chance, and we began chatting with a British mountaineer named Garreth who also speaks Welsh. He trains local Guatemalen’s about altitude precautions and heat fatigue while leading tours up the local volcanoes. Most locals have no idea about altitude dangers while giving tours because well, they’re accustomed to living there. I was curious to learn about altitude dangers, leading tour groups of mixed cultures up volcanoes, and making them feel comfortable as somewhat of an awkward guy.
Garreth was amusing and spent three months walking through the Amazon. Listening to his experiences with indigenous tribes while also channeling my inner Brit, telling fairytales of the wolf on the plate frollocking through the Welsh pastures became amusing fast. He spoke of these cultures in Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador that still exist purely by trade, completely outside the matrix of a commerce economy, living in tribes on the Amazon. It was fascinating to hear a first-hand account of someone who had spent months with these cultures.
They communicated with body language and were asked to play soccer in the jungle with the kids. The Brazilian government frequently went to extract gold from the river while trading brightly-colored soccer jerseys with the tribes. Bright colors are novelty items to them because they are immersed in nature. And well, the value of gold is nothing to tribes that trade food, weaponry, and simply whatever it is they make with their hands.
After we leave, we embark to “The Temple” a multi-purpose creative space where I was welcomed my first night in for mask painting night. There’s a bar, a dancefloor, a barber’s chair, and a whatever space. I had visited multiple times since, where I had my hair cut for $3 amongst many intoxicated dancing folks. I only regretted it a little the day after.
I say hi to my now old friends while watching a woman get tattooed in the corner, dance a bit with my new friends, and decide to go home before 11. Granted, there’s a curfew of 9pm due to C19 but most places stay open a little bit later.
While in Antigua I made it a point to visit Earth Lodge, an eco-resort in the mountainside 15 minutes outside Antigua. It’s a vertical drive up mountains. On the way up with my uber driver, kids surround the car selling candy and water, asking the driver if he’s sure he doesn’t want to buy water for his esposa (aka wife). We laugh somewhat uncomfortably for the following 5 minutes as we await the man to wave us forward, ensuring oncoming traffic around the sharp corners has stopped.
I stay in a treehouse overlooking the town and fall asleep watching Volcan El Fuego spit out bits of lava from the top. It feels like pure peace. I can see the entire town below me and have such an appreciation for my trip thus far and being able to experience such a reality. I wake up, participate in a hip hop yoga class, definitely a unique experience, and decide to splurge on a heavenly $20 facial. Because, porque no?
Antigua made me a morning person. I woke up at 7 each day, did my morning meditation and yoga practice on the roof, went for a coffee at 8:30 where I greeted the day with a croissant and chat with the locals. The owner of the coffee shop across the street, Puerta Once, would stand in the doorway each day smiling and waving at people to come in. He was just so damn friendly though that it worked. After he successfully won me over as a coffee client, each day he would wave and shout “Cristina!” across the street, genuinely excited to see me.
Granted, seeing me first thing in the morning isn’t always a pretty sight. Every day he makes small talk and asks me if I partied the night prior. No, I just woke up 5 minutes ago I mumble in Spanglish. Forgive me. He waved farewell to me this morning, asked when I was coming back, and reminded me to always keep smiling. I felt warm and somewhat guilty that I was leaving.
Around the corner was the local tortilleria, a small hole in the wall where you can get 4 fresh blue corn warm tortillas for 1 quetzal (like 1 penny essentially). My new favorite snack was smashed avocado and mushrooms on tortillas. Simple yet good for the soul.
I spent the days wandering, seeing what was behind the facades. Quaint courtyards and rooftops with zero humans in sight. I found a local yoga studio I really liked called Shakti Shala, and found myself working from cafes like Boheme Cafe or the co-working space in Selina. Sometimes I would hike up the hill with a great view, called Cerro de la Cruz (hill of the cross). On the way I passed my favorite tree-lined street watching the sun rise through the leaves and fall gently on the sidewalks.
Antigua was one of the most special places I have traveled because of its charming beauty, safety, sense of community, accessibility, and affordability. Being able to flow around my day without too much thought or hassle was my cup of tea. I will forever hold a special place in my heart for Antigua and feel a warm nostalgia thinking back on the memories made.
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