The Doors of Guatemala

Doors are fascinating. They are also quite mysterious for who knows what lies behind the doors of a place. They are the gatekeeper when closed. Yet when opened, they offer you a look into a whole new world of possibilities inside.

When I think of doors, there is one place in particular in which I was utterly blown away by the doors:  Guatemala. This colorful country had perhaps some of the most unusual and interesting doors I’d ever seen during my travels. For those of you who have been following my blog, you have already seen these photos. However, I decided to spruce them up a little by playing around with the colors.

Come, take a walk with me and admire some of my favorite doors I found…..


Goodbye Guatemala!

To my friend Lucy, who showed me her world in Antigua and how to love the art of photography.  I will forever be grateful for your kindness and friendship.  May our paths meet again!

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”-  Flavia Weedn

I always find it hard to say goodbye to a place.  I found it especially true with Guatemala.  Over the last week I’d been as immersed as possible with the culture.  I lived with a host family, took intensive spanish courses, climbed a volcano at the crack of dawn, took my first chicken bus and learned to slow everything down and take things as they come.  All in all, you couldn’t ask for a better journey than that.

As Sunday morning came and went, I felt a sadness about leaving so soon.  I could hardly believe how much I’d done and seen in only a week.  Perhaps more than many people ever experience at all.  I honestly believe that immersing oneself as much as possible in the culture you are visiting, is the greatest reward ever when it comes to traveling.  It was no vacation, that is for sure.  Every day I rose exhausted beyond belief and wondering how I’d gather the energy to make it through another long albeit exhilarating day.  But one thing I’ve come to learn and understand about myself over the years is that this is how I like to travel.  I would do it no other way.  A vacation?  No thanks.  Sitting on the beach?  I’d be bored in two minutes.  Running around a country and trying to see and learn as much as possible in only a week with never taking a moment to sit still?  That is what I do.  That is what I crave.  And most importantly, that is what I love.

Sensational, cloudless view of Agua Volcano on Sunday morning, the day of my departure. 

I know that many people find my way of traveling absolutely crazy.  They don’t understand me one bit.

But as I always love to say and quote my parents for reminding me “The world is your oyster”.  With those encouraging, motivating words….there was no time to sit aimlessly in my room checking emails.  I had to take advantage of every moment and opportunity I got to explore, learn and see my surroundings.  For how else would I get a sense of compassion for Guatemala?  It certainly wouldn’t be gained from laying on my bed reading a book.

Adventure Travel Guatemala TRAVEL BY REGION

Happy hour on top of the world

“I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees”.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

After full day of non-stop sightseeing and picture taking (over 400 each!) Lucy and I were exhausted and ready for some rest and relaxation.  It was time for a drink.  Lucy knew just the place, the Sky Bar, which had a great selection of icy cold beers and drinks yet best of all, a rooftop deck with a view to the world.

The sun was beginning to set and cast its lovely shadows across the brightly colored terra-cotta buildings of Antigua.  I could hardly stand the urge and temptation to forego the drink and keep taking pictures.  Yet my camera battery was really dying down as was my energy.  It was also well past five o’clock happy hour.


In search of the perfect Guatemalan Chicken Bus

I must admit, I seem to have an odd fetish when traveling.  Every time I go to a new place there is something unique that seems to gravitate to me. In China, it was the exotic foods.  In Morocco, the goods at the souq. In Nepal, the prayer flags.

So what was it when I was in Guatemala?  Hands down the funky, multi-colored Guatemalan Chicken Buses that grace the roads and streets throughout the country.  Known as “las camionetas“, the Chicken Buses are decommissioned American school buses that are sent on a long journey south to poor countries in Central America, where they are repainted, refurbished and act as the main source of transportation for the Guatemala’s 13.8 million people.

While researching my trip to Guatemala, I had read about the much loved and hated Chicken bus.  I even googled it and found several silly pictures of these elaborately decorated buses.  I knew that they were cheap, relatively reliable and safe (that is for the most part) but I wasn’t sure where the name came from and whether or not there would be real, live chickens on board.  The origin of the name still remains a bit of a mystery to me today as I never did see anything except people on board.  Then again, I only got to actually ride inside one chicken bus so that is perhaps not very good odds.

Today, while I was tooling around on the internet,  I found an interesting piece on Chicken Buses calledLA CAMIONETA: The Journey of One American School Bus” which offers a rather fascinating account of how the school buses arrived south of the border as well as some rather grueling facts about the dangers Chicken Bus drivers face.  I was warned to never take a bus at night yet I met plenty of young travelers who did.   Not sure how their trips ended up but hopefully they were safe.

Above is my first sight of the Guatemalan Chicken Bus!  I had heard so much about these old American buses that were shipped south of the border and then painted in an elaborate spectrum of colors.  My fabulous hosts informed me that each bus is color coded for its destination.  Pretty clever!  


The Saint of Iglesia de San Francisco

A strong aura filters around the ruins and church of San Francisco. Inside the sanctuary, the tomb of the only saint in all of Guatemala rests. It is believed that the powerful and humble Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose is watching over the place in a sense.

Santo Pedro was a Spanish missionary who came to Guatemala during the 17th century and was known for his commitment to fighting poverty, disease and hunger among his people. A large statue of Santo Pedro looms over the grand church walls offering a sense of protection and well-being to the people of this lovely town.


Finding destruction and rebirth in the ruins of San Francisco

Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.  -Frank Gehry

It was nearing the end of the day and perhaps Lucy chose to save the best for last.  We had time to see just one more set of ruins in Antigua.  The spectacular ruins of the church of San Francisco.

The building was constructed in 1542 only to be hit by a series of damaging earthquakes in 1565, 1717, 1751 and 1773.  Thankfully a tremendous amount of reconstruction took place and the church remains the oldest functioning church in Antigua today.  It’s gorgeous facade is perhaps the best part as it depicts intricately-sculpted saints and friars, who in a sense welcome the visitors inside.  However, of course, knowing me and my passion for ruins, I found the ruins behind the church to be the real treasure of this site.

Come, follow me inside the spectacular ruins of Iglesia de San Francisco and judge for yourself….


The handicraft market alongside the ruins of El Carmen

The ruins of El Carmen are yet another set of impressive, post earthquake ruins that raise up to the Antiguan sky.  Unfortunately these ruins are not open to the public, however, the colorful Mercado del Carmen, a Mayan textile market, is open and ready for business

I found this series of photos around the ruins of El Carmen to be some of my most favorite from the trip.  The array of colors, culture and architecture capture the heart and soul of Antigua and her mystical charm.   Unfortunately there is not much information on El Carmen however the pictures themselves perhaps tell a story of what this lovely church must have been like before it became destroyed over years of earthquakes. And the lovely colorful market which surrounds the ruins provide one more example of the majestic Mayan culture in all its splendor.


The ruins of the Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara

After the delightful scene of the women washing at La Tanque de la Union, Lucy and I went to see the nearby ruins of Santa Clara where we were in for yet another surprise.  

Established by two Mexican sisters, the Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara was inaugurated in 1734 only to be destroyed 40 years later by a massive earthquake.  Not much of this ornate structure was left intact however perhaps by an act of grace the church’s magnificent facade was left relatively unharmed and is still standing strong today.


Women Washing at the Tanque de la Union

One of the best things about wandering around a new city with a local is the special surprises. Lucy, a resident of Antigua for the past five years and a professional photographer and travel writer, knew exactly where to take me on my 24 hour stint in Antigua.  We hit all the main tourist attractions in this UNESCO World Heritage city as well as the beloved ruins, best views, greatest cafes and restaurants and more.  It was a day I’ll never forget.

After our marvelous lunch at La Cueva de Urquizo it was time to hit the pavement once again.  It was well past three and we still had so much more to see and do before the sun set across the brightly colored buildings of Antigua.

This time, Lucy brought me to a special place.  The public laundry washbasin called the Tanque de la Union in Antigua, where the Mayan women gather to gossip, socialize and do their laundry.  In colonial times, public water tanks and washbasins served as the prime gathering place for the local women to do their wash and catch up with the latest town news and gossip.  Today, these public washbasins can still be found throughout Guatemala in cities and the countryside as well around rivers and other natural water sources.

What I found so incredibly amazing about the Tanque de la Union was the explosion of colors.  The Mayan women were true to form, dressed in their spectacular handcrafted clothing with their children nearby and loads and loads of laundry packed in plastic bags.  The thought that they had to walk perhaps several miles to this water basin with children and clothes on their back, and then make the return trip with heavy, wet clothing on their back, was astounding.

To think of how difficult this would be to a me, a Western woman with a washer and dryer to do it all for me, made me realize once again how different our lives are.  Yet for these women, perhaps a visit to the public water basin to do their laundry and laugh with their friends, was the highlight of their busy, hard day.  Something to remember.

Follow me through the brilliantly colorful photos of my visit to marvel at the local women washing at the golden Tanque de la Union….

Antigua, Guatemala

Eating like the locals in Guatemala

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ― Lao Tzu

Lucy and I hit the pavement hard in the morning, walking and taking pictures as if we were on some kind of crazy photography marathon.  Lucy lives in Antigua.  However, I only had one full day to see as much of this amazing city as possible.  And, amazing Antigua was.

I was completely captivated by everything I saw.  Every step was a photographic moment. Every building had a story to tell.  The rooftops were often in a spray of blossoming flowers in hues of purples, pinks and white.  The peeling paints telling the tales of centuries ago.  The missing cobblestones making each street a unique albeit tiring journey.  The mysterious volcanoes.  Threatening and looming off in the distance.  The colorfully dressed indigenous people.  Everything was a Kodak moment.  The problem was there simply wasn’t enough time.

Beautiful typical buildings and homes. There are many streets like this in Antigua. 


The ruins behind La Merced

As I mentioned in my earlier post “Antigua’s Magnificent Le Merced“, the ruins behind this spectacular church, which resulted from a series of dramatic earthquakes over the centuries, are perhaps as equally impressive as the golden yellow exterior of La Merced herself.  It is a tough call however I have to say that there is something haunting and exciting about ruins.  I love them.

I’ve seen the fabulous ruins of Rome, spent four days hiking to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, and took an overnight dilapidated Greek ship on my honeymoon (while sleeping on the stinky floor underneath the luggage holder) just to catch a glimpse of the Turkish ruins of Ephesus.  Let’s just say, I really like ruins and there are many more that I desire to see. (Only problem of course is time.  Most ruins are in far off destinations that make it hard for  me to see at this point in my life).

At least I was able to get my fix of ruins in Antigua!  Antigua is loaded with ruins thanks (or no thanks) to all the earthquakes.  The monastery ruins behind La Merced proved to be quite impressive with its centerpiece being a 27-meter in diameter fountain which is believed to be the largest fountain in Central America.


Antigua’s magnificent La Merced

Hands down, the most beautiful church in all of Antigua and perhaps all of Guatemala is the magnificent Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (La Merced for short). Construction began in 1548 by the Mercedery Fathers who dreamed of building a temple, yet the church suffered several setbacks due to Antigua’s infamous earthquakes which wreaked havoc and destruction throughout the city.

It wasn’t for another two hundred years that the cloister and sanctuary were finally built and finished in 1749.  Then another traumatic earthquake struck Antigua in 1773 causing significant damage to the church and leaving its marvelous ruins behind it.

Today, La Merced is one of the only old churches that is still offering services on a regular basis and its brilliant yellow and white colors are a delight to the eyes and the soul.  When the Antiguan sky is clear and royal blue, the brilliant gold-yellow of La Merced is perhaps one of the most glorious sights in all of Guatemala.  Here are some photos of the magnificent La Merced and you can judge for yourself.

La Merced blends in perfectly with Antigua’s brightly colored colonial buildings and architecture.  Here is a glimpse of the church on the lefthand side of the photo.