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Trip Report Antigua, Guatemala Trip Report Jun 2008

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We just returned from a wonderful week in Antigua that was part business, part tourism.

Some highlights and comments:

Aurora Airport: The airport is still in the middle of reconstruction and is a shell, albeit it a nice one, of its former self. There are no tourist kiosks, no functioning ATM, and the bank may not be open when you arrive. Don’t plan on buying last-minute souvenirs at the Aurora either; the plethora of kiosks that abounded in the 1990s no longer exists. However, you will find a Pollo Campero, McDonald’s and coffee shop on the level above check-in. There is also intermittent Wi-Fi throughout the terminal.

Entering Guatemala: You will de-plane and get through immigration in about 20 minutes. Our baggage came out promptly and customs was a breeze; most people were waved through. Just beyond customs you will see a sea of people waving cards advertising shuttle services. Make sure yours is a legitimate service and not one that is in collusion with thieves who occasionally rob arriving international flights. This is definitely not the norm, but it is not unheard of either. Check out http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1129.html. If you don’t believe the State Department, take my word that some very nasty incidents have occurred in the past six months involving arriving foreign visitors and “shuttle vans.” I am not being paranoid: it’s real, and locals both Guatemalan and American confirmed the details. Any poster who gives you the line that Guatemala is just like DC or Dallas is either delusional or part of the pack that is desperate to revive tourism in Guatemala at any cost, period. Again, you can have a wonderful time in Guatemala, but be alert. I have lived for 30 years in Manhattan and DC and this really is different.

Exiting: Exit tax is twenty quetzales (not twenty dollars). You pay it after you check in and before you pass through security. Everything is easy to find.

Hotel: See Casa Santo Domingo post on TripAdvisor, dated July 2008.

Tour Operators: We made our hotel reservations as well as Pacaya volcano trip and all shuttles to and from airport through Elizabeth Bell’s tour agency (www.antiguatours.net). Her travel agency is the model of efficiency. I highly recommend her and her staff. Her office is situated next door to the CSD but you can just as easily deal with her office by email. If you wish to take any tours of Antigua, take hers. She is just terrific.

Antigua Weather: It poured the first two days (we were there in late June), and was gorgeous the other five. Antigua can get pretty muggy (for Antigua) from May through September, so pack clothes that are quick-drying and absorb moisture well. Capilene fabrics and Patagonia-type shirts and pants are a good bet. There is no air conditioning in most hotels or restaurants, including luxury locales, so be prepared.

Food: We had a terrific meal at Panza Verde (www.panzaverde.com). It is in a converted house with multiple rooms. Have a drink at the bar before you eat dinner. Reserve a table in the back near the swimming pool (it’s also a boutique hotel) and facing a fountain. I don’t know what the bill was because we didn’t pay, but appetizers were pegged at $6-10 and entrees at $15-20, more or less. Other terrific places: Frida’s (try the chicken with almonds), Fonda de la Calle Real (chicken soup and tipico platters), Doña Luisa’s (good everything!), Rainbow Café (terrific BLT!), and Fernando’s Kaffee (GREAT coffee – try to Moka – and wonderful breakfasts and granola; very popular with Spanish students). If you buy a pound of coffee ($6) you get a free coffee. Come to think of it, we didn’t have a single bad meal in Antigua. Even the food at the CSD was terrific; I say “even” because hotel food, even luxury hotel food, seems to be bad universally.

Tip for budget travelers: Treat yourself to a $11 breakfast buffet at the CSD. They serve until 11am. Go at 10:30 with your postcards and newspaper, eat like a pig, stay until noon, and then check out the grounds. Others will disagree, but the museum is not really worth the $6 if you have seen colonial relics elsewhere. While you’re at the CSD, stock up on quetzals at the ATM to the right of the reception desk; it’s usually working and there is zero chance of the oft-reported ATM scam happening here, since they seem to have a guard whose sole purpose is to, well, guard the ATM.

Where we wish we had eaten but ran out of time: Fusion, a new restaurant opposite the Merced Church. The menu looked first-rate, and the setting is beautiful.

Spanish Language Schools: Check them out very carefully; what may work well for an adult will be a disaster for a group of teenagers. Do not necessarily rely on what you read on the Websites. Some schools are actually too modest about what they offer while others shamelessly lie. We visited six schools and saw one that should be the poster child for all language schools, while a second school was reminiscent of Panajachel in the 80s complete with empty Gallo bottles and an administrator who could only answer questions by looking at a computer screen.

If you have been to Antigua before, you know what you’re doing. If you have never studied abroad before, the schools should be able to answer “yes” to the following questions:
1. Does each student take a placement test upon arrival and is there an orientation?
2. Are teachers carefully screened, evaluated regularly, and do they receive regular training at the school’s expense?
3. Are families located within the boundaries of Antigua; do they accept a maximum of five students; and do students evaluate them on a regular (not once a year) basis?
4. Can I study at your school for one week before I commit to a longer term?
5. Can I study for half a day instead of a seven hours? (Some schools want you to sign up for a full day, but this is too much. One-on-one language learning is intensive enough without overdoing the teaching part.)
6. If you offer afternoon activities, do you provide the transportation and guides? If I am expected to pay, are the fees stated in writing and do excursions normally leave from the institute?
7. Have teachers been with you for at least five years, and is teaching a major source of their income?
8. Are textbooks included in the fee? If not, is this stated up-front?
9. Are the installations clean and well-lit (surprisingly how many dim cubicles we saw), and are the bathrooms cleaned at least every hour?
10. May I contact some of your recent former students for references?

It is sometimes unproductive to ask schools how much they pay teachers and families because there are a lot of arrangements and some administrators are not exactly truthful on this score.

Shopping: If you have time for just one place, go to Nim Po’t, a huge souvenir store just north of the arch. NP has absolutely everything and at very fair prices. I hate to bargain, and this place was Shangri-la; the prices were reasonable and all the candles were in one place, huipils in another, tee-shirts in yet another and so on, so you weren’t walking from stall to stall trying to remember who had what. (www.nimpot.com). If you are buying textiles, check out the big bargain bins; you can get pretty nice huipils for $13. If you go to Nim Po’t you can forget about the artisan market next to the food market; the latter is cute but has nowhere near the variety that NP offers and is not as well-located. A second place that doesn’t get enough press but, unlike most of its sister stores actually offers useful handicrafts (very nice and affordable jewelry boxes, trays – all incorporating huipils swatches), is Casa de los Gigantes (www.casadelosgigantes.com) on 7 Calle Poniente #18 southeast of the plaza. They will also gift wrap your purchases individually for free. Very cute!

Pacaya: We did a morning excursion to Pacaya through Antigua Tours, which partners with Adrenalina for transportation. Our 6 am pick-up arrived at our hotel at 6:40 which we were told was par for the course. The shuttle bus was okay but nothing fancy, including no seat belts. Driver was very good and careful. Note that the $15 tour does include a guide, but not the $6 entrance fee to climb Pacaya; have either $6 or 40 Qs ready when you get to the base. Tips: Kids will accost your bus offering 5Q sticks for rental. Splurge, your knees will thank you on the way down. There is also a stand where you can buy marshmallows. Do it; where in the U.S. do they let you walk within six feet of gushing lava? You can have your picture taken roasting a marshmallow which will go over very big on Facebook! The climb itself is pretty easy and takes 90 minutes. At the top you will walk for about ten minutes across a level but slightly dicey floor of hard lava. This is another place where the stick comes in handy. Be careful; as you get closer to the precipice, the lava underneath gets hotter; I burned off a shoelace by standing in one place for too long. The lava flow is incredible; it’s like watching 900-degree orange oatmeal gushing its way down a slope. Totally worth getting up for. The hike down is easy and takes about 45 minutes. Do this while you can. One of these days Pacaya is going to gush big-time and that will be the end of the Sunday-morning scampers to see the lava.

ATMs: People ask this question a lot on TA. Again, we did most of our cash withdrawals at the Casa Santo Domingo ATM. The other ATM that we liked was the one in the southwest corner of the central plaza. There are two machines inside individual booths, which are guarded by security guards posted just next door at the bank’s main entrance. Remember, however: this is not Europe and Euros, and most shops and many restaurants accept dollars at a favorable rate; we got 7.5Qs to the dollar at restaurants and shops compared to 7.4 as per my AmEx bill this morning. They even took dollars at a 7.5 to 1 exchange at the Saturday-Sunday outdoor market next to El Carmen church (corner 3 Calle Norte and 3 Calle Oriente).

Credit Cards: I took my MC and AmEx but Visa is the most widely accepted.

The Best Map: The best map is free and it is available at most stores and hotels including at the desk just inside entrance to the CSD for those of you who decide to go eat breakfast there. It’s called “the most Exclusive Map & Guide/La Antigua” with a photo of a Holy Week procession on the cover. Take two and mark up one for your return trip!

The Best Guidebook: Fodor’s, Moon, and Rough Guide all are adequate, but none of them is completely up-to-date. Some really cover the shopping; others have better maps. If you’re on a budget or you don’t want the weight, download the Lonely Planet Antigua guide; it’s incomplete but costs under $3 and weighs a lot less. If you get to Antigua and still cannot live without a guidebook, go buy one second-hand at Rainbow Café or El Pensativo bookstore and you’ll feel guilt-free when you chuck it as you pack to go home.

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