Antigua, Guatemala, 9-12 May 2019.

Getting there: I would like to share the story about our journey from Esteli in Nicaragua to Antigua, Guatemala. We travelled through four countries: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and into Guatemala.

Above: the red line indicates our journey on 8 May travelling from Esteli, Nicaragua, to San Salvador in El Salvador. The blue line indicates our journey the following day to Guatemala City, then Antigua in Guatemala. The thin black lines on the map represent borders.

We were at El Jaguar Reserve in the Miraflor region (Nicaragua) and tried to book our Tica bus fares online a few days before we needed to travel, but as we took too long to complete the online form it timed out on us. We were than asked if we wanted to proceed, so we said yes. The website then advised my credit card had an incorrect expiry date and we could not complete the booking. We had definitely entered the correct expiry date, so I became rather upset about potential fraudulent sites etc etc. Within a few hours I received an email from the credit card company advising they had detected fraudulent activity regarding the Tica bus purchase. And they had blocked my card! I responded immediately telling them what had occurred, and requested they unblock my card. This they did – thank heavens! I also told them I would purchase the tickets in person in a few days time…When in Estelí overnight before we travelled to the Miraflor area we had checked out the Tica bus office close to the city square – it was closed on a Sunday, but we felt reassured it was there.

We arrived back in Esteli late morning Tuesday 7 May, dropped our bags at our hostel, and immediately walked to the Tica bus office. Bingo! We were able to purchase fares for the next day, (A$190) for two of us) and in doing so managed to use nearly all of our excess cash.

Wednesday 8 May: we departed our hostel at 6.20am, and caught a taxi to the StarMart/Uno petrol station on the main road towards the far end of town. (Opposite direction to the CONTRAN bus terminal for anyone reading this and contemplating a similar journey). Less than a ten minute drive. Already the roads were extremely busy with a huge variety of transport visible – open back Utes – people standing or sitting in them, trucks, tractors towing trailers, and buses for example. We were really surprised to see maybe eighty to ninety people standing or sitting near a large circular planter in front of the petrol station. We wondered why so many people were there… Well, turns out this was a meeting point for workers to be transported out to the agricultural areas in Miraflor. Large trucks, similar to trucks used to transport cattle, pulled into the service station, and people climbed up into the tray. Within fifteen minutes all the people were gone…

Above: mass transport for workers. The man in blue on the right hand side of the photo fills cars etc with fuel – all stations have such workers. Generally one worker per bowser.

We had been told to be at the Star Mart/Uno petrol station by 6.45am. The bus arrived at 8.10am…by this time we were becoming a little worried, and also hungry as there had been no time for breakfast.

It was a long day. Close to the Nicaraguan border I saw two billboards with a politician and his wife ‘waving goodbye ‘ – I am pretty positive it was Ortega and his wife. We departed Nicaragua – exited the bus and went through immigration. Bags searched. Exit fees paid. Even the bus went through a huge scanning machine…

10.15am approximately: Enter Honduras – exited the bus and went through immigration. Finger printed – even though we were travelling through the country and continuing into El Salvador… Pay entry fees…fortunately our bus assistant managed all the finances and looked after the passports. Surprised to see an extremely large solar farm, the largest I have seen, outside a town called Pavana. Departed Honduras at 1.15pm approximately.

1.30pm approximately: Enter El Salvador. We stayed on the bus while an immigration official ticked us off on his paperwork. A sniffer dog was brought into the bus. Three quarters of an hour later the immigration staff had completed their checks, including the baggage below, and we departed. A welcome food stop between 2.30-2.45pm – we were pretty hungry by then. Oreo biscuits had sustained us during the morning.

Finally arrived in San Salvador at 6.35pm, the capital of El Salvador. It was dark. We had not booked any accommodation, but as there were so few tourists in Nicaragua due to the 2018 demonstrations and the ongoing difficult political climate, the bus was only a third full and we knew there would be no trouble obtaining a room. Besides, John had checked online, and Tica bus has two terminals in San Salvador – we did not know exactly where our journey would end. Anyway, Tica bus detailed hotels on their website right next to both terminals, so no need to worry. We walked into the hotel above the Tica bus office and obtained a room. Basic, but sufficient. The hotel had a restaurant – impossible to eat there. The loud music was far too loud – we could not hear ourselves think; the lighting was extremely dim, and thus we were unable to read the black menu…What to do? We walked down the street towards a Wendy’s and a Pizza Hut, both next to each other. Neither were very appealing, but we settled on the Pizza Hut.

We were amazed. Both car parks were full of shiny new looking cars – no spare parking spaces. I’d guess the Pizza Hut was about two-thirds full – a high proportion of families with children. We ordered two small pizzas and two orange juices – the bill came to US$18 (A$26). We honestly wondered what was going on in El Salvador given the very high poverty rate. Only a small proportion of Salvadorians would be able to afford meals at Pizza Hut and allied food outlets. Having made that statement, I commenced googling poverty statistics in Central America and became lost in a maze of resources; one could devote a lifetime to such research, and many do, thankfully.

Many of you reading this blog will be aware of political and social conditions in Central America. Deciding I wanted more precise information about the countries we visited and travelled through (except Costa Rica), I chose Oxfam as a reliable source of information. I quote (in italics) brief statements from the Oxfam website (16 May, 2019) intending to provide some minimal background to those of you who are interested. You may well wonder why I am bothering with all this; I hope it becomes clearer later on in the blog.

Nicaragua:

‘The social-political revolution that took place in Nicaragua during the 1980’s was an inspiration for change throughout the world. Nicaragua was on the verge of delivering a fairer political system thanks to the social movers of the times. Now many decades after the revolution however, ravaged by war and disaster, the country is saddled with debt and is the second poorest in America. (Oxfam’s emphasis)…40% of the population of Nicaragua lives on less than US$2.00 per day. Extreme poverty is concentrated in the rural areas where it is principally manifested as food security’.

Honduras:

‘With a population of over 8.5 million, Honduras is one of the richest and more diverse countries in Central America. Despite having a high productive potential, 74% of the population lives below the poverty line’.

El Salvador:

‘El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America with an area of 21,000 km2 and a population of 5.7 million. It’s amongst the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with the highest levels of inequality’.

Guatemala:

Over half the population of indigenous girls and boys suffer from chronic undernourishment. This situation is made worse by the recurring impact of disasters and droughts on the most vulnerable communities’.

The following morning, Thursday 9 May, we were up at 4.45am and in the bus reception at 5am, as requested. The bus departed San Salvador at 6am – once again, no time for breakfast – we made a coffee in our hotel room. El Salvador has the highest number of fast food outlets we have seen in Central America: McDonalds, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Mister Donut, Chinawok, Panda Express – just some names I jotted down as we drove past. Added to that are a high proportion of take away chicken franchises with local branding. Mind boggling given the structural inequality…

A constant annoying issue for us during the trip was the ridiculous amounts of plastic rubbish strewn along the highways, and on the outskirts of villages. But I will return to this topic later.

The bus drove into Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala. We found the metropolis with its flyovers, highways, high rises, and intense ‘business’ quite overwhelming. The bus ended up at the Tica bus terminal, which is a gated, secure building large enough to park two buses at any one time. The gates were closed as soon as the bus parked in the terminal. John and I were extremely ‘bus lagged’ by this time; lack of food and general travel weariness had taken its toll. We wanted to immediately travel that afternoon to Antigua. We intended to take a local bus to Antigua on the next leg of the journey. A fellow traveller told us the general bus terminal – meaning local ‘chicken’ bus terminal – was on the opposite side of the city – there was no way we could imagine trying to organise that…I asked our Tica bus assistant if we could travel to Antigua that afternoon by bus. He confirmed that was possible, and told me to pay at the counter inside the terminal. As there was another bus inside the terminal, and lots of people in the waiting room, I was relieved to be able to pay for bus tickets. Turns out somehow there was a miscommunication – my conversation was done via Google translate – and we paid A$60 to be chauffeur driven to Antigua. Well, we were delighted. We settled back into the comfortable seats, enjoyed the view, and felt relieved we did not have to negotiate local transport when feeling so exhausted and vulnerable.

It was a one hour drive to Antigua, and at one stage we travelled down an exceptionally steep incline – I counted three emergency ramps with thick layers of gravel to slow down run away vehicles.

We drove into Antigua. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The first noticeable differences are the high solid walls surrounding properties, private houses and businesses alike, and the cobbled streets – all traffic is forced to slow down to deal with the uneven surfaces. I imagine it would be a brave, or silly woman, who would attempt to negotiate these streets in stilettos or platform shoes.

Above: typical street scene. Note the barred windows…

Our driver delivered us to the front door of our hostel – Posada Juma Ocag, directly opposite the market. A comfortable small hostel with a kitchen and small garden in a courtyard. We were delighted.

Above: entrance to Posada Juma Ocag – entrances can hide the true interior.

Above: view of our room at Posada Juma Ocagthat’s it at the end of the balcony.

That same afternoon, we wandered around the back streets of Antigua into what we guess may have been one of the ‘not so well off’ suburbs. John had used the google map to view vegetation cover, and we were trying to access some good habitat for bird watching. All we could find was habitat behind high paling fences. The amount of rubbish thrown over the fences was remarkable. Once again, we were dismayed.

Above: rubbish thrown over fences.

Above: this is how the majority of vegetables are sold in the main supermarket in Antigua.

Given how tired we were from the one and a half days of travel, we were now feeling really frustrated about the constant issue of rubbish and pollution. We wandered back towards our hostel, and along the way came to a striking looking building housing a library. It was the ‘Training Centre Cooperation Spanish in the Old Guatemala’ – direct translation as per Google translate.

Above: interior of the training center, only one block from the Central Plaza.

We wandered in…and purely by chance came across a remarkable exhibition: ‘Discarded People’ – a photojournalist exhibition by Marc Espin. I viewed the first image, and immediately considered my grumblings and frustrations about rubbish and pollution were only a very small part of the complexities of lived life in Central America. I felt chastened.

I have been reflecting on all of the complex issues Central America faces for days now, and really have no answers as obviously I am not an expert. I acknowledge the complex political landscapes and failure of those in so many ways to support people to live quality lives with health, education and medical services, housing, and more…I realise the rubbish issue is but a symptom of some of these failures. Our changing capitalist world is a contributing factor – as an expat said to us recently, twenty-five years ago when he first moved to Guatemala all food items were wrapped in banana leaves….Hence my inclusion above from Oxfam providing some small insights.

Above: an image from the ‘Discarded People’ exhibition.

I have devoted a seperate blog post to this exhibition.

We wandered in and around the city for a number of days visiting landmark churches and other buildings.

Above: La Merced Church exterior.

Above: door and white plaster filigree.

Above: and interior.

Above: the convent next door.

Above: archway inside the convent.

Above: a striking image of Christ.

Antigua experiences earthquakes and tremors – a sign in the La Merced church gives us an idea regarding some history. Construction of the Merced Church commenced in 1548, and many improvements were carried out until 1717. In 1717 an earthquake ruined the church. By 1767 the reconstruction was complete. In 1773 the church was again destroyed by an earthquake. Between 1850-1855 repairs were carried out.

A sign inside the convent advised: ‘most buildings in Antigua are not very tall in order to preserve them from the continuing danger of earthquakes and tremors’. There was also a drawing comparing traditional Baroque columns and those in Antigua – the latter are about a third of the height of Baroque columns.

Every street has a familiar ‘sameness’ – thick high walls, barred windows, admittedly often with beautiful wrought iron, huge solid wooden doors. There is not a piece of rubbish to be seen within the original city. The indigenous women wear traditional outfits consisting of brightly coloured striped skirts held in place with a wide belt, and a colourful short sleeved blouse. Generally a floral pattern, often with sequins.

There was an exhibition in and around the Central Plaza. Nearly every county had painted a two metre high bear. Australia’s contribution was by Ken Done…I wondered how and why he was chosen when we have so many wonderful indigenous artists. A missed opportunity in my opinion.

Above: Australia’s contribution.

Above: me in front of the artworks and crowd.

One morning we walked up to Cerro de la Cruz – a lookout with wonderful views of the city and volcano in the background. Young people were picking up rubbish along the footpaths to the top. It was a long walk up numerous steps, but we were rewarded with the view, and a new bird sighting: Grey-silky Flycatcher.

Above: view of Antigua from Cerro de la Cruz.

Finca El Pilar is a private reserve on the outskirts of Antigua. We caught a tuk-tuk there (Quetzals 30/A$6 approx) and arrived shortly after the gates opened at 8am. The reserve ranges in altitude from 1600-2400 metres and accordingly has different vegetation types: dry forest in the lower section, and pine/oak forests and cloud forests in the higher altitudes.

We were surprised to see three swimming pools near the entrance gates – the water looked inviting and I wished I’d come prepared for a swim.

Above: one of the swimming poolsthe pool in the foreground is the shallow pool for children.

A little further along feeders were present for hummingbirds we saw numerous species , including some ‘lifers’ for our lists. Unfortunately no decent photos…There was a sheltered sitting area and toilets close by – the facilities throughout the reserve are excellent. The walking trail initially commenced past the hummingbird feeders, and wound its way through a narrow gorge – along the way we saw some magnificent old banyan trees. Then we were confronted with the first set of stairs, then another set, then another…

Above: stairs along the walking trail.

We walked to the lookout and sat down at the table and chairs and ate our packed brunch – nice views to Antigua in the distance, plus the benefit of looking down into the canopy. This certainly aids birdwatching – no need to look up constantly…

Above: these trees are native to higher altitudesapologies, I do not know the name of the species.

We then continued along the trail, which was cut into the side of a hill. More and more sets of stairs were forever in front of us…

Above: Just when you need it, a bench to sit on! We decided not to walk any further…

We retraced our steps enjoying the view into the canopy as we descended all the stairs – my legs were feeling a little bit trembly by the time we reached the flat walking trail. We saw six new bird species, and if we had been able to stay longer in Antigua, I would definitely have chosen to visit a second time.

Above: cacti species with fruit.

Our next destination is San Pablo la Laguna on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

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