Antigua, Guatemala is only 240 kilometers (less than 150 miles) northwest of San Salvador. Not surprisingly, our trip, which Google Maps estimates should take about 4 ½ hours, lands on the plus side of eight hours. Besides the terrible roads and slow pace, the additional time is spent waiting for other passengers, shuffling in and out of the van for entry and exit stamps at the El Salvador-Guatemala border, and desperately trying not to pee our pants. But at least it’s interesting. For the first time in our travels, we have a police escort from the Guatemalan border all the way to Antigua, a product of the nighttime crossing and many recent highway robberies by local gangs. Followed closely by a police truck, we feel a bit presidential for our first three hours in Guatemala.
It turns out Antigua is worth the trouble. Set in the western Guatemalan highlands, this colonial town is as picturesque as any we’ve been to throughout our entire trip. There’s an endless amount of “wall porn” and “door porn,” as we like to call it, and while the cobblestone streets make walking an adventure, they only add to the city’s historic beauty. The colorful town center is also home to great coffee shops, art galleries and restaurants. We start to see the Mexican influence from the north and gobble up tacos for the first time in months. Guatemala, and Antigua specifically, has a strong reputation for delicious coffee and chocolate, two areas of personal expertise. We’re happy to report that neither disappoints.
It’s our second day in town and we take a short tuk-tuk ride to neighboring San Miguel Cristobal for a coffee tour with De La Gente Coffee, a non-profit organization supporting small farmers in the area. As the epicenter of coffee growing in Central America, Antigua has perfect growing conditions, including the altitude (1600-1800 meters), volcanic soil, sunshine, and rain needed to grow healthy plants. While our tour (organized and available to all visitors through Visit.org) with a local farmer, Gabriel, covers the growing and production processes in detail, it’s his story that is truly inspiring. Having spent years farming and working long hours in Guatemala City, Gabriel joined the De La Gente colectivo seven years ago with help from the organization’s micro-financing program. He, along with 29 other farmers, now own the complete process, making direct sales to consumers and wholesalers in Antigua, the United States, Canada, and Europe. They earn significantly better profits on their crops this way and in turn, are creating better lives for their families (Look for our guest blog on Visit.org as well as a feature story here on Cohica soon!).
Our time here is fast and furious, and in less than 24 hours we’re onboard another shuttle from Antigua to Lago Atitlan. Atitlan is nothing short of incredible. Surrounded by green mountains and multiple volcanoes, it's the deepest lake in Central America (reaching depths of 340 meters/1,120 feet) and a regular stop on the Guatemalan tourist circuit. After a few hours exploring the village of San Pedro La Laguna and a quiet night at Uxlabil Eco Hotel, we begin our journey back to Antigua. This time, we depart from the popular town of Panajachel on the other side of the lake, taking an early morning water taxi that stops at many of the small lakeside villages along the way. About halfway to the village of Pana, we spot a volcano in the distance, billowing plumes of smoke from its high crater. In that moment, all that’s special and unique about this place becomes quickly apparent.
We leave Antigua with only ten days left in our World Tour. It’s a surreal feeling, preparing to go home after nearly eight months. We’re excited for simple things; sidewalks, sleeping in the same bed for more than five nights, licorice, and Trader Joe’s. And we’re really looking forward to spending the holidays with our families and friends. That being said, we’ve strangely adapted to this nomadic life and have spent many hours on the bus brainstorming the next move in our adventure. But it’s not over yet. Next stop, the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal!