• Emmy Ciabattoni

A Pedacito of Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for the Spanish ruins that remain untouched, by law, throughout the city. I flew into Guatemala City (GUA) and took a 45-minute taxi to, translated literally, “Old Guatemala”. The rainforest heat hung heavy on the way and reminded me that I was far from home in Minnesota. I couldn’t wait to step foot inside the ancient city.

A bird's-eye view of Antigua, Guatemala
A bird's-eye view of Antigua, Guatemala

I visited Plaza Central Park almost every day to watch street dancers, drink the freshest and most affordable juices, and explore the ruins. I’d usually sit on the benches and gaze at the fountain. People seemed incredibly friendly; strangers would sit down, next to me, and strike up conversations. It was great for practicing Spanish. When it got quiet, I would pull my journal out and write. The experience was magical; sitting in the ruins, nestled in the middle of a mountain and volcano landscape. Not far from the center, I stumbled upon historically pristine buildings on almost every corner; the ancient aurora of the city seeped through every crack and crevice.

I sat by the fountain in Plaza Central Park to talk to people and write
I sat by the fountain in Plaza Central Park to talk to people and write
The Santa Clarita Arch of Antigua, Guatemala
The Santa Clarita Arch of Antigua, Guatemala

I saw the Santa Catalina Arch from Plaza Central Park and wandered towards it. I stood beneath the faded yellow archway—against a strikingly blue sky and draped in a volcano landscape—and thought of the thousands of ancient eyes that had settled upon the same view. Beneath the structure laid a variety of markets, a deep dive into their culture. I found a secondhand store that felt like a warehouse; it held cardboard boxes of secondhand clothing and numerous rows of Guatemalan art. Hand-painted masks covered the walls in bright colors.


While rummaging through a clothing box, I met a solo-traveler girl like me. We found what we thought were large, square-shaped tunics for women—embroidered with geometrical designs and flowers. We tried on about ten each in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I picked up a few of the blouses for myself, my mom, and my friends back home for about $7 each.


Later, I found out that the shirts were called huipils and were worn by descendants of ancient Maya; today, they symbolize indigenous solidarity and defiance amid oppression. When I learned this, I never felt comfortable wearing one or even giving them away to my friends and family. Did I have the right to wear it—something with a lot of meaning, but a meaning I knew nothing about? I wondered how these cultural artifacts ended up in a secondhand warehouse. To this day, I haven’t worn the huipil; but every time I look at it, I take a moment to think about, honor, and respect the Mayan culture.


Aside from shopping, I was ready for another kind of adventure. I’m more of a high-adrenaline kind of traveler; for example, I like surfing, sailing, cliff jumping. When I heard that Volcano Acatenango is the most difficult volcano trek in Antigua, I had to try it. I can now confirm that it’s not for the faint of heart.


The guide told me to bring a hat, gloves, coat, and wool socks, which made no sense standing in the heat of the city. We hiked to an altitude of 3,976 meters (about 13,000 feet) and, believe me, the winter gear was necessary. It took a total of 7 hours, 5 up and 2 down, over the course of 2 days. We started in the afternoon and by sunset, set up camp and a bonfire just in time to see the sunset and rising smoke from Volcano Fuego. We built a fire and boiled water to make ramen. I’d only eaten a mayo and cheese sandwich all day and was starving; I found myself dreaming of home, where I was staying with a family in Antigua and my house mom’s cooking. But deep inside, I knew the adventure would be worth a little hunger.

Risin gsmoke fro the Volcanoe Fuego in Antigua
Risin gsmoke fro the Volcanoe Fuego in Antigua

While most of us slept, some felt too sick. About half of our crew had altitude sickness and spent hours hunched over, nauseous. The guide said there was nothing we could do for them. I had some basil oil in my bag; it was a high-quality oil that wafted off an incredibly powerful, almost overwhelming, scent. I let my sick friends take sniffs; although it probably didn’t help their condition directly, it seemed to offer some kind of solace. While I drifted to sleep, with a volcano view outside my tent window, I was incredibly grateful that I didn’t feel what they were feeling.


At 3 am we continued our hike to the summit where, when we arrived, our heads floated high above the earth, in the clouds and mountain peaks, at the height of commercial planes. I’ve never experienced such a vast, open, nothingness; I felt so far away from Earth. We couldn’t stay for long at that altitude because it was freezing and oxygen was scarce. We made our way back down the peak by bounding, nearly weightless, through soft black sand.


Mid-bound, I looked behind me for my friends—I watched their expressions shift from joy to pure terror as a free boulder bounded violently behind them. We all tried to either outrun or dodge the rock, and everyone made it out of the way except David. The boulder nicked his shoulder and threw him on the ground. We huddled around him, while he teared up in pain. Thankfully, one of the hikers was training to be a doctor. She said he dislocated it and put his arm into a makeshift sling. The rest of us helped him carry his gear down the mountain.

Me hiking through Guatemala
Me hiking through Guatemala

When I wasn’t on a crazy adventure like the one listed above, the day-to-day life was hot, humid, and full of life. I picked up a liter of bottled water whenever possible because the tap water isn’t safe for drinking. I ate homemade Guatemalan food daily while living with my host family; for breakfast, we ate pancakes and papaya, and for dinner, we ate black beans, some kind of carb (potatoes or pasta), and my new favorite salad: diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lemon, and salt. The culture easily accommodated my vegetarian diet. My host mom told me to make it home before sunset, so my days started and ended early. When my time came to leave, I wasn’t ready to go; but I boarded the plane knowing I’d be back.

I didn't want to leave my Guatemalan host family
I didn't want to leave my Guatemalan host family
 

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