Sensations and Suggestions of Guatemala

As a contrast to the otherworldly landscapes of my first day in Guatemala, today I take a trip to Antigua. The old capital of Guatemala has many reminders of the Spanish invasion from the Baroque churches to the Moorish arcades. The colours are incredible and though the centre of town is very clearly changing to accommodate the increasing tourist population it is still charming.

Antigua was designed around a grid system which helps navigation but also conceals several surprises. The edges of the blocks look unassuming with simple kiosks and shop fronts, but there are several bars and restaurants which are far more extensive than they appear. A small doorway opens into a dining area, but continue walking and the space opens out into a courtyard with fountains, trees and flowers. Hidden pieces of paradise behind crumbling exterior walls.

I make a stop at Cerro de la Cruz. It’s a short but lovely walk up flagstoned steps in the forested side of a hill. The brief exertion is easily worth it. From high above the northern side of the city, it is possible to see out towards Volcan de Agua, the top of its perfect volcano shape shrouded in cloud. It looks exactly as one would draw a volcano in childhood, pointy on top with matching steep sloping sides rising from the lowlands making up the horizon. There’s no plaque to indicate what the cross is there to mark, and despite it very clearly being 1930s cement I imagine an ancient city and a civilisation before volcanology. The old stories of gods, and the shrines built to appease them. What gods must these have been? A mountain that roars and spits fire, the ground shaking without warning, and raging spikes of blinding light from the turbulent skies. I can see why this hillside would have been a refuge to appease them at a distance.

Although I had sampled the fresh fruit and coffee of this fertile country, I have yet to try the cacao, and so I call in at the chocolate museum. It’s late but the shop provides plenty of information and stimulation. I learn that the cacao generally grows better in the jungles of the northern part of the country, rather than the higher altitudes around Guatemala City and Antigua. This museum has tours of of the plantations, which I make a mental note to plan for if I should return in the future. Today I content myself with tasting pure cacao paste and the chocolates made with various amounts of added sugar. I decide that the 90% is rather good when I remember than I have another 2 weeks before I return home. However my resolve is broken when I try the cacao tea. This is made from the husks which are removed in harvesting the nibs that go into the chocolate process. This appeals to my “use it all” philosophy and I ask for a sample of the unflavoured as well as the cardamom spiced varieties. I’m not expecting much, maybe something slightly woody, slightly bitter. I close my eyes to better focus on the internal experience. It has elements of hot chocolate, and the warm spiced cider that makes its way into bars in the winter. And yet it isn’t like either of those things other than the feeling. I think of dark skies at 4pm, huge soft pillows and warm duvets, of the tulip glasses that for me are the epitome of Turkish hospitality, of camp fires in the desert. I can’t help adding the elements of Guatemala that I’ve picked up from looking around the craft market, the bright and warm flavours conjuring thoughts of the colourful scarves and carved masks. After the tiny tasting bowl is empty and I have layered the memories and thoughts, I return to myself, standing in the brightly lit store. It’s time to go home. This day needs nothing more.

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