Guatemala – Been There

Amazing aromas and pure-hearted people

Almost 60 per cent of Guatemala's population is under 24, such as these young men dancing in the evening cool on Antigua's Plaza de Armas. The estimated median age is 21, the lowest of any country in the Western Hemisphere.

Photo by Ton Koene

Guatemala – Been There

Amazing aromas and pure-hearted people

When I take the anarchic road to Antigua in the central highlands of Guatemala, I feel as if I need some credit with the ancient gods.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

Shops are crammed together by the roadside behind narrow sidewalks, offering the bright Chinese plastic and cheap clothing that mark poor areas worldwide. There are more tire shops than seems economically feasible, while suicidal motorbikers and tuk-tuks fight for road space.

The road descends into the shadow of four volcanoes, one active enough to be sending a puff of smoke high into the cloudy sky. Antigua’s cobbled streets are teeth-achingly rough but very much part of the town’s character. It retains its handsome colonial one-story buildings that spread away on all sides down narrow streets. “A lot of people who visit go home, sell everything and move here to stay,” says Norman. Ninett de Córdova, originally from Guatemala City, is one, having settled here to manage a boutique hotel. Maison de la Luz, like several other upmarket hotels in the town, is stylishly converted from a former colonial house.

“I loved Antigua when I visited and, now that now I live here, I love it even more,” she says. “Younger people like the bars and clubs but I enjoy just walking around appreciating the atmosphere. It is very relaxed and you feel safe, which you do not always do in Guatemala City, like any big city. The people are pure-hearted. I also love the colors; the colors of the walls and of the women in the market. Their clothes are rich and intense, with the sort of palette you would never find in a shop. Then there are the smells, like in Holy Week (during Easter) when the roads are carpeted with pictures made from flowers or sawdust. When the procession goes by, the aroma that rises is amazing.”

The town’s people are as much part of its appeal as anything else. They smile easily and are happy to draw me into their life. When I show interest in a school, I am invited to watch morning assembly, when white-gloved students earnestly carry the national flag to the stage as all sing the country’s and school’s anthems.

In the evening, the central plaza is filled with more students studying under street lights and a group of youths practicing hip hop moves with great athleticism. All are friendly and happy to chat. The evening light smooths out the town’s ruins, some dating to the 1773 earthquake, to show it at its best.

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