Saturday, February 17, 2018

everything's new again

I cannot believe my sense of curiosity failed me so drastically.

I knew our first stop in Guatemala was going to be Antigua. And I know that "antigua" means "old" in Spanish. But I never thought to ask what the adjective modifies.

It turns out that I only knew the city's first name. Its full name is Antigua Guatemala -- to distinguish it from the "new" capital, Nueva Guatemala. What we know as Guatemala City.

Our group arrived here late Friday night. Today was our first day to explore this old colonial city. In some ways, the city seems almost frozen in place when it lost its status as the capital of Guatemala.

We will discuss Guatemala's pre-Colombian history when we visit Tikal next week. But, as far as this area of Guatemala is concerned, its history began with the arrival of the Spanish. There is little archaeological history around Antigua itself to show any Maya settlement.

After invading Mexico, the Spanish spread south. The conquest of Guatemala was part of the move to bring the Maya under the sway of the Spanish crown.

Antigua was established as the capital of the province in 1543 after the site of two previous capitals proved unsuitable. There was no silver or gold here. The sole purpose of the choice of the city's site was that it was strategically located to control Spain's conquest.

Antigua served as the capital until 1775 when the capital was moved to Guatemala City. The authorities decided the city was no longer safe following a series of earthquakes, floods, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions. The remnants of great buildings still dot today's Antigua.

Antigua has to be one of the easiest cities I have ever navigated. And, viewed from the hills above the city, it is easy to see why. The place is laid out on a perfect grid radiating from several well-planned plazas.

Even though it is a UNESCO site, the place looks a good deal like other Latin American cities that appear to be frozen in amber in the late 18th century.  It is pleasant, but certainly not unique.

Because I am on a group tour, I did not get a very good feel for the city. Our day was made up of a trip to see a panoramic view of the city, a coffee plantation tour, a very brief stop at a colonial church, a whirl through a jade factory, and a long trek past fancy shops ending with a visit to a market where the same goods seem to be on offer at your local Import Plaza.

Instead of spending more time like that, I headed off on my own through the streets of Antigua. On the walk back to the hotel, I was propositioned three times. First, by two women who would have been better-suited to market their wares in the soft glow of street lights, rather than in full sunlight. And then by a young man who followed me with an interesting bit of patter and flattery in Spanish. My wallet enriched none of them.

Tomorrow is a special day here in Guatemala. We have entered Lent. There will be a special procession through the streets decorated with designs made of colored sawdust. I have seen photographs of this event. Now, I will see the real thing.

And maybe I can redeem my relationship with Antigua.  

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