Thursday, October 25, 2018

Revolution Day

Revolution Day in Guatemala is celebrated every year on the twentieth of October, which in 2018 fell on a Saturday. However, due to a recently modified law, this year's holiday was extended to the following Monday to encourage national tourism. That is how I found myself traveling to Antigua on October 22 with my adopted Guatemalan family.
Panorama of Lago de Amatitlán and Volcán Pacaya in Guatemala
Panorama of Lago de Amatitlán and Volcán Pacaya taken from Linda Vista.
I woke up early on Monday to a beautiful, sunny day. It was the first day in several weeks that there wasn't a layer of clouds obscuring the view of Pacaya, so I went up on the roof to take photos but then decided to go for a short walk to make a panorama of Lake Amatitlán and the volcano. Around 10:30 a.m. I received a message from Beatriz, one of my friend Hilda's cousins whom I had met at Coffee Fest the previous weekend. She asked if I had any plans for the day and I replied no, other than possibly walking to the grocery store. Beatriz said that she and her mother, who is also named Beatriz, were going to Antigua and invited me to join them.

Less than 30 minutes later they picked me up and we drove to Karin and Andrés' condo. With all five of us squeezed into the car and traditional marimba music playing on the stereo, we set off towards Antigua. The city, which served as the seat of the Spanish government for the kingdom of Guatemala for over 200 years, is known for its Spanish baroque-influenced architecture and 16th-century colonial churches for which it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is only 25 km on the Pan-American Highway from the condo in San Cristóbal, Mixco, or 38 km from the historic center of Guatemala City.
Spanish Baroque church in Guatemala
Iglesia de la Merced in Antigua (2016)
I actually have been to Antigua before, during the Panama Canal cruise I took with Greg and our families in late November 2016. We booked a private excursion from the Pez Vela cruise terminal in Puerto San Jose (Puerto Quetzal) with Go With Gus Tours. Our five-hour tour included stops at the highlights of Antigua like Cerro de la Cruz, Santo Domingo Church and Monastery, La Merced Church, and Santa Catalina Arch; a delicious lunch at La Posada de Don Rodrigo; shopping for local handicrafts; and a tour of Vivero Gilgal (an ornamental plant and poinsettia grower) and Valhalla Macadamia Farm in San Miguel Duenas.
fog-enshrouded view of Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz
The fog-enshrouded view of Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz on November 29, 2016.
Thus I was eager to revisit the city with my friends, to experience its charms from a more local perspective and to enjoy the perfect weather. We did not go directly into Antigua but instead took a more scenic route that had us climbing higher into the surrounding mountains with amazing views of 12,340 ft Volcán de Agua and partially obscured Fuego and Acatenango. After driving for about 45 minutes, we pulled into a dirt parking lot marked Hobbitenango, which by chance I had read about the previous day while researching places to visit in Guatemala.
A view of the Panchoy Valley on the hike up to Hobbitenango.
A view of the Panchoy Valley on the hike up to Hobbitenango.
Hobbitenango is a Middle-earth themed eco-friendly hotel and restaurant development perched high above Antigua overlooking the Panchoy Valley. It currently consists of two hobbit-style casitas and a few camping spots. From Monday through Saturday there is no admission charge to visit the property but on Sundays and holidays it costs 35 GTQ (about $4.50) per person which includes round-trip transportation from the parking lot.
people riding in the back of a pickup truck in Guatemala
The easy way to get to Hobbitenango.
We decided it would be more fun to walk the last 800 meters (1/2 mile) instead of riding in the back of a pickup truck. Little did I realize that it was almost a vertical climb on a rough dirt and stone road that is only suitable for 4x4 vehicles! Still, in spite of having to stop a few times to catch our breath and to perch precariously on narrow patches of grass to allow the trucks to squeeze by, it was definitely worth the effort to better enjoy the views.
local women walking near Hobbitenango with Agua Volcano in the background
Local women walking near Hobbitenango with Agua Volcano in the background.
We spent more than an hour exploring the property and taking photos, although we opted not to pay the admission fee as it still didn't allow us to enter the casitas. Then we carefully made our way back down to the parking lot and stopped at a food stand to have a few snacks like enchiladas (not the Mexican version; this is a handheld tostada topped with a variety of ingredients) and rellenitos de plátano (fried sweet mashed plantains stuffed with a mixture of refried black beans, chocolate, and cinnamon).
four friends at Hobbitenango in Guatemala
Myself, Andrés, Karin and Beatriz at Hobbitenango with the two casitas.
It was after 3:00 p.m., so we drove down into Antigua to find a place to relax and eat a late lunch. We parked by the Church of San Felipe de Jesús and looked at several menus from restaurants around the plaza before settling on Restaurante Fonda Don Simon which serves traditional Guatemalan specialties. We particularly enjoyed reading their simple menu because it uses words like "delicioso," "sabroso," and "exquisito" to describe the dishes. I chose the "Insuperable Pepián de Gallina" which is a rich stew made with pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, guisquil (a type of gourd), and chiles. Gallina is hen whereas pollo refers to younger, whiter chicken meat. At Fonda Don Simon, the lunch entrees came with a small bowl of vegetable soup, side dishes of rice and pasta salad, a tamalito, fresh blue corn tortillas, and dessert (plátanos en mole). I also ordered a glass of the refresco del día, which was a choice of rosa de jamaica (hibiscus flower tea) or tamarindo. I have tried both before and like them equally well, but opted for the tamarind this time. My total bill including tip was only 57 GTQ (just over $7).
Pepián de Gallina
Plátanos en Mole
By the time we finished eating it was already 5:00 p.m. The sun sets around 5:30 now with last light at 6:00 so I thought we might start driving home to avoid being on the road at night when it is completely dark and more dangerous because there are no street lights. Instead we headed the opposite direction and I quickly recognized the road and landmarks from my previous visit in 2016. We passed a coffee plantation and then a giant cowboy boot which marks the road to Pastores, a town famous for handmade leather boots. There we turned toward San Miguel Dueñas.
We parked in front of the Iglesia Católica San Miguel Arcángel which sits on one side of the main plaza or town square. The other sides are comprised of a few small shops and a sports court; the city hall; and the fire department. But the main reason we came here was to watch Volcán de Fuego erupting. The volcano is famous for being almost constantly active at a low level. On June 3, 2018 it produced its most powerful eruption since 1974, killing over 100 people. It continues to spew smoke and ash every few minutes, which was easily visible from where we were standing in San Miguel Dueñas only 10 km to the northeast. However the direction of the pyroclastic flow is toward Esquintla to the south. Still, it was pretty awesome to watch.
Fuego volcano erupts with smoke and ash in Guatemala
Volcán de Fuego erupts just after sunset on October 22, 2018.
We returned to Antigua around 6:30 p.m. and parked near the Santa Catalina Arch. After browsing around some shops including the ChocoMuseo and Nimpot, a handicraft and textiles market, we walked to La Merced where food vendors had set up in the plaza and many Guatemalan families were hanging out eating, talking, and enjoying the nice evening. 
traditional Guatemalan handicrafts and textiles
Traditional handicrafts and textiles on display at Nimpot.
We sat outside on the church steps sampling some more traditional snacks like atol de elote, a thick, sweet drink made from corn, sugar and cinnamon. The time passed quickly as we talked and laughed. Everyone had to return to work on Tuesday so we eventually said our goodbyes (Karin and Andrés had run into some friends from their church and got a ride home with them) and headed home. Thankfully there was very little traffic and Beatriz dropped me off in Linda Vista around 10:00 p.m.
Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua, Guatemala at night
Santa Catalina Arch in Antigua.
It was a wonderful and unexpected way to spend such a beautiful day and I am truly thankful for my new friends here (and to my friend Hilda Stevens and the Perez family back in Houston for making this month in Guatemala possible).

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