I was tired. Ragged. Worn down. If you picture a life of travel being glamorous, I suggest you take that image out of your head right now.
When I’m traveling, I think my friends stateside picture me at this cool little cafe. They don’t see me dragging my kids 8 blocks to the market, braving the madness, then walking 8 blocks back in the pouring rain.
Both our real.
On the morning of November 2, we were in Antigua. It was my son’s 5th birthday and we rode horses up a volcano and roasted marshmallows over cooling lava. That afternoon, my wife was at the hospital while I stressed over our financial situation.
Both experiences were quite real.
We arrived in Antigua near the midway point in our 6-weeks of travel through Central America. As soon as we settled into Posada Bucaros we felt at home. For the next few days we did nothing. When you’re traveling, even the daily task of living is an adventure. We didn’t need tours our big excursions. We just needed to figure out the basic things of life like where to buy milk or where to get a good cup of coffee.
We got to know Antigua.
Then, on November 1, the day before my son’s 5th birthday, we headed to Santiago for the Día de los Muertos, or as my gringo friends might put it, the Day of the Dead festivities. Santiago, a small town between Guatemala City and Antigua, is famous for it’s annual Kite Festival. We wanted to check it out.
We arranged transportation via a shuttle van to drive us both to and from Santiago, which is about 30 minutes from Antigua. Arranging transportation in Central America is a little like getting a ride from a friend (only you have to pay for it). Your driver shows up an hour late, picks up a friend, stops at home to pick up his sister, stops to get gas, goes to another friends’ house to change drivers, then onto pick up a few more passengers, then stops to get gas, and then you’re on your way.
It’s frustrating at first. Once you get over the frustration it’s just comical. Until your driver leaves you.
More about that en un momento.
We arrived in Santiago for the Día de los Muertos festivities along with hundreds of thousands of others. There were a lot of people. We walked 2 miles from where we parked to the main area of the festival, but all along the way people were set out in front of their homes selling food and kites and access to el bano. Once we arrived at the more designated area of the “official” festival there was a smorgasbord of food, clothing, kites, art — anything and everything you could imagine — for sale. And lots of people.
We made our way toward the massive, magnificent kites, eating a little food and perusing the offerings of the street vendors along the way. Each step we took toward the kites the crowd grew more and more dense. Finally, we found ourselves on a tiny little street with buildings on both sides and a mass of people headed toward the top of the hill where the largest, most beautiful kites were flying on display. As the crowd inched ownward, moving at a snails pace, we began to feel claustrophobic. So many people in such a tiny space.
Finally, we ducked into an alleyway and abandoned our quest.
We had seen Santiago’s Día de los Muertos Kite Festival, even it we had not seen the kite’s close up.
When we had parked and begun our trek to the festival, we figured the most important thing to figure out was confirming with our driver the time and location we were to meet back for our return to Antigua. 4′clock. But not where we had parked. We’d meet at 4′clock at the church in the center of Santiago and then all walk back to the van together.
4 o’clock. Not where we parked. 4 o’clock at the church.
My Spanish isn’t very good but it was pretty clear to me. My wife, though, is pretty fluent in Spanish, and it was very clear to her.
Still, we walked along with our driver into the heart of the festival. We arrived at the church and we all confirmed. Right here at 4 o’clock.
We arrived at the church at 15 minutes before 4 o’clock. It was a beautiful spot, and from the church steps you could sit above the crowd a bit and take it all in.
4 o’clock came and went and our driver was nowhere to be found.
I was worried but my wife just thought it was Central America time.
At 4:25 we borrowed a cell phone from someone sitting near us to try to call our hotel, which we thought would have the number of our driver as our driver had been arranged through our hotel. We just couldn’t get the number right on the little card we had. Some number was off.
4:35 someone came looking for us.
Our driver and the few other people who’d been with us were waiting 2 miles away at the van. I grabbed both kids — one in my arms and one on my shoulders — and we began the haul. We were booking it. And as we approached the spot our van had been parked I could see it was not there.
We’d been left.
Moments later, we were on a Chicken Bus — our first Chicken Bus — back to Antigua.
The next morning we had a scheduled pick-up at 6 AM.
The next morning was also my son’s 5th birthday. A day which would contain highs and lows and end oh so sweet.
What did you do for your birthday this year? Ride a horse to the top of a volcano? Roast marshmallows over the cooling lava?
No? You didn’t do anything nearly as cool?
What a life this 5-year-old is living.
Our driver arrived close to the designated time and we began the 2-hour drive to where we would make our ascent to the top of the volcano. Locals were offering horses for hire we could ride to the top. We declined.
“My horse does not get tired,” the gaucho told me.
“I don’t either,” was my reply.
Our guide began moving along at a pretty fast pace. The kids were never going to keep up. Carrying them was going to be a serious workout.
A few hundred yards in, when we stopped to pay our entrance fees to the national park, I relented and got a horse for the kids to share. Soon thereafter, my wife — my pregnant wife — got her own horse to ride.
I’m so glad we did.
Those horses, at a cost of $10, were such a thrill for the kids.
We reached the top and roasted our marshmallows. Some fellow travelers from Israel surmised that it was Jackson’s birthday. For some reason, one of the travelers had balloons in his pack. They blew up the balloons and sang Happy Birthday to Jackson. We began our descent, now without horses, and our Israeli friend carried our daughter Emery on his shoulders as I carried Jackson on mine.
There is nothing so heart-warming as the kindness of strangers.
Having departed so early in the morning, we still had a lot of the day left when we arrived back in Antigua.
My wife, though, wasn’t feeling well.
She laid down to take a nap while I hung out in the courtyard with the kids, who were content to be low-key after such an adventurous start to the day.
My wife woke up feeling worse and soon she was at the hospital.
I’m a big believer in margin. The more margin we have in particular areas of our life, the happier and more at peace we’ll be. While my wife was at the hospital my margin began to run thin in 2 key areas: my patience with the kids and in considering our financial situation.
Monica made her way back from the hospital, where she learned she had an infection and a parasite. She had a prescription to fill. Both the hospital visit and the prescription set us back $70. Not a lot when you think about it, but at the time that $70 really stressed us out because it was not in our budget. But what are you gonna do.
Figure it out.
It was Jackson’s birthday, and you only turn 5 once, so it was time to party. I suggested we do what I knew Jackson would want to do more than anything else for his birthday. Take-out pizza.
I left still feeling a little down.
3 unsuccessful ATM stops where my miserable Spanish failed me did not help.
I ordered the pizza and soon began to feel a spring in my step.
I knew we’d figure out the money. Today was my son’s birthday and I wanted him to have a cake. I began walking around on a mission to find a bakery and soon I did.
We sat out in the courtyard of Posada Bucaros that evening eating mediocre pizza, drinking Pepsi, and eating birthday cake.
It was magical.
He turned 5. I don’t know how long he’ll remember his birthday.
I’ll remember it forever.
As the kids drifted off to sleep, my wife volunteered to stay with them while I journeyed a few doors down to Jardin Bavaria, our neighborhood pub, and a really remarkable pub at that.
I reflected on a day of highs and lows. Several singings of Happy Birthday. The tickling and the kisses. That amazing experience at the top of the volcano.
What a day.
We spent a week in Antigua on our first stop, and then would return to Antigua following our visit to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan before moving onto El Salvador.
In that week, Antigua became home.
We had those incredible experiences at the Kite Festival and at the volcano. But we also just experienced life. We sang happy birthday and drank Pepsi.
My mornings began each day at Cafe El Portal, overlooking the main city square. There I’d sit and jot little notes in my travel journal and work on my Spanish phrases.
I needed those phrases. Soon, I would discover that, “No tengo muco dinero” (I don’t have much money) had no affect on the street vendors. “Necesito hablar mi esposa” (I need to talk with my wife), however, proved very effective. Apparently, the necessity of running a purchase by one’s spouse is a universal language. Even Jackson made strides in his Spanish in Antigua. We bought him a flute from a street vendor in Antigua. Those flutes are everywhere, and from that moment on whenever anyone approached, he’d simply exclaim, “Yo tengo!” (I have!).
Leaving Antigua was hard. Not only because it had come to feel like home, but because the place where we stayed, Posada Bucaros, also became to feel like home. The staff became our friends (and Facebook friends). Hugs were exchanged. And we were off.
For months, as we prepared for our 6 weeks of travel in Central America, I had this feeling that I was going to love Antigua. I couldn’t wait to visit Antigua.
Now, I can’t wait to go back to Antigua.
Oh, how I love Antigua.
A few other notes about Antigua that may help you if you’re planning a visit:
- The Plaza is beautiful. As in many Central American cities, it really is town square and the hub of all of the action. Also, as in many cities through Central America, the plaza is equipped with free wifi.
- Speaking of wifi — it’s everywhere in Antigua. Every hotel. Every hostel. Every shop. Every cafe. Every restaurant. Free wifi was easier to come by in Central American cities, ESPECIALLY ANTIGUA, than just about any city in the United States.
- We had a great lunch at Cafe Condesa, which is in a courtyard just off the main plaza. Interesting and tasty sandwich options and great options for the kids too.
- Cafe El Portal, where I had coffee each morning, is just a few doors down from Cafe Condesa, and overlooks the Plaza.
- There are tons of ATM’s around the plaza.
- On Saturdays, artisans set up around the plaza and the street from the plaza to Inglesia La Merced (about 4 blocks) is closed to cars and only open to foot traffic.
- That stretch from the plaza to Inglesia La Merced is loaded with vendors, especially on weekends.
- Bargain with street vendors. Prices start high — about double what you should actually pay.
- The textile market is the cities main market and is a great place to spend an afternoon. It’s just a few blocks off of the plaza.
- We ended up at a place called Red’s for dinner 2 different nights we were there. Red’s is across from Inglesia La Merced and it’s an American style sports bar. If you need your NFL-Fix, this is your place.
- The Courtyard at Inglesia La Merced has vendors with street food, etc. throughout the week, but especially on weekends. Our kids also had a lot of fun playing with some of the local kids in this courtyard.
- There are very clean bathrooms available throughout the city for 2-3Q (about 25 cents US).
- Negotiate taxi fares before you ride.
- The private hospital, which Monica utilized, was 1st-class.
- Jardin Barvaria, the pub I enjoyed so much, is a Euro style pub just a few doors down from Posada Bucaros and features photos of Che, Fidel Castro, and John Kerry.
- Carriage rides are available. We were quoted a price of $20, which I assume is negotiable.
- We felt very safe in Antigua. No sense at all that Antigua is a “dangerous” place like we read about on some websites like WikiTravel.
I can’t wait to go back.
One of the things I love about Antigua is the architecture. The line between what is inside and what is outside is very blurry. It all sort of runs together. You are inside one moment and then outside the next. The next, you are not quite sure if you are inside or outside.
It’s a magical place.
Just hearing the word.., Antigua… now conjures up so many emotions.
Read more about our travels in Central America by visiting our Central America Trip Fall 2012 Tag Page.
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