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Antigua – Colonial charm, idyllic scenery and some more mezcal…

Arch of Santa Catalina

Arch of Santa Catalina

It’s dark when we arrive in Antigua from Monterrico, and we emerge from the 3 hour bus ride scratching our selves like flea ridden dogs from the sheer volume of mosquito bites we were sporting (I reckon I had over 50!).  After sorting accommodation for a night we venture out to into the busy streets in search of supplies, food and a cold beer; all of which were readily available at each turn here.

For just the snaps, click here!

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Palacio del noble ayuntamiento

Antigua is a brightly-coloured colonial city complete with cobbled streets, which is nestled in a dark green valley.  Volcán Agua stands visible to you at most points in the town as it sits poking through the clouds to the southern point.  The city itself is a UNESCO world heritage site and strict building regulations mean it stays bloody delightful.  The lack of buildings over two stories high affords you a decent view from pretty much any second floor window or terrace.  1773 saw the city crumble to an earthquake and many of the colonial ruins still lie untouched alongside the rest of the surviving buildings.  The architecture and layout is extremely similar to San Cristobel de las Casas in Mexico, to the point where walking up 4 Ave Norte approaching the handsome Parque Central, I had a mild bout of confusion and thought I was back in the high altitude Chiapas town.

La Merced

La Merced

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust - They love this guy

Bartolomé de Las Casas bust – They love this guy

One of the various church ruins of Antigua

Straight posing

So on our first night here we found our way into the brightly lit-central square of Parque Central and admired the impressive architecture and started to soak up the general laid-back vibe the place has.  Seeking refreshment we headed to ‘The Ocelot Bar’ but when we entered we found that the building opened into a twee courtyard and we were surrounded by a few others establishments as well.  After meeting up with an American we had met in Lake Atitlán at the Spanish school we headed for ‘Café No Se’ with its promise of cold beer and mezcal.  The dark and purposely dingy bar has a smaller bar to the side which sells its own brand of mezcal which they have proudly smuggled out of Oaxaca for a few years and officially produce it now under the name ‘Ilegal Mezcal’.  The Brit behind the bar was happy to tell us the story and pointed out the one lonely bottle of tequila that sits on the back bar in case the cops come looking, having to claim that the mezcal is just decoration.  This was also the first place we came face-to-face with Maximón who is the ‘evil saint’ also known as San Simón as he has a shrine in the back where you give him booze and smokes.  Needless to say that we had a good night and the one thing I can remember clearly is speaking with a Dutch guy and learning about/discussing the finer points of Swaffleing’.

Ilegal Mezcal

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

The shrine to Maximon the Evil Saint

Handsome back bar

We had two full days in the city and we moved to the much coveted (and deservedly so) Yellow House hostel.   One day was to be used to venture up Volcán Pacaya following my defeat by San Pedro and the other was to just for exploring.  The weather was not great so we decided to abandon the volcano trek for a lighter day of further sightseeing.  We spent the whole first day just walking through the cobbled streets, admiring the colourful buildings and complimentary weathered effect that they have succumbed to.

Antiguan Street


More building posing in Antigua

Colonial ruins and churches are everywhere and we decided to pay to visit the peaceful ‘San Jerónimo’ ruins which were once a church and school before the quake.  This was a top little spot and we had it almost to ourselves apart from some locals who get in for next to nothing and were taking advantage of the peace by having a picnic in the scenic gardens.

Central yard of San Jeronimo

Ollie pulling a Mona Lisa face

San Jeronimo Stairs

Some nooks in San Jeronimo


The pit of San Jeronimo

A visit to the local market was good fun with all kinds of weird and wonderful things on offer including the fruit called ‘Sapote’ that Ollie has been going on about since she left Cuba and she finally found it here.  One happy traveller!

Finally found the Sapote

Finally found the Sapote

The second day was a late starter and feeling refreshed we hiked up to Cerro de la Cruz, which is a lookout point over Antigua and Volcán Agua.  It was a stunning view.

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cerro De La Cruz overlooking Antigua and Volcan Agua

Cru selfie...getting better at them!

Hike up to Cerro De La Cruz

Antigua is a main tourist draw and many people come here and use it as a base to take trips to the rest of the Gringo trail in the country.  I was slightly apprehensive about this place as we had heard lots of reports of crime against tourists on the way down south, but we saw none of that.  The local life going on around the tourist army is a friendly one with the majority of locals giving the obligatory ‘Hola’ as you walk past them in the street.  We are on a short time frame in Guatemala and it was a shame to leave this spot so soon as I could have easily stayed for at least a week.   It is not kind to a backpacker’s wallet however.  But, if you’re ever in the area it would be foolish not to stop by.

Camoflage dog

Chicken Bus to Guate from Antigua

Volcan Agua to the south of the city


Mexico City – El DF, Teotihuacan and an intro to mezcal…

Templo Mayor ruins and the Spanish Cathedral behind

Mexico City (also known as Distrito Federal, or el DF) is one place where I genuinely didn’t know what to expect before I arrived.  It has had plenty of bad press in the past but I know people who’ve lived here for some time, and one thing Mexico has taught me so far is to take what you read in the papers with a big pinch of salt! The one thing I was sure about was that it was BIG. On the bus in on a Sunday lunchtime I confidently declared to Rich that we were only a few km out, so would be there in no time. This time his raised eyebrows were correct. The suburbs and stop-start traffic rolled on for miles and miles, but we eventually arrived at the North bus terminal, and got off, where much to my amusement Rich was repeatedly elbowed out the way by several elderly Mexican ladies half his size when trying to retrieve our bags. After the scrum we climbed into a cab and started towards the centre. Being a Sunday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend the streets on the way in were quiet, with lots of shuttered shops; it felt like driving though the suburbs in the early hours. We wondered where everyone was. On arriving at the hostal by the main square in the centre, the Zócalo, we found out.

As usual, if you’d prefer the pictures to the words, click here.

Ollie and some Mexican legends

Ollie and some Mexican legends

We stepped out into the throng and walked around for a while as Rich’s blood pressure slowly rose. Respite was found at a hole in the wall selling some of the best tacos so far (beef and chorizo in one – why has no-one done this before….) then into the bar next door for an overpriced warm beer. Rich looked ready to declare that Mexico City was rubbish, till we found Al Andar mezcal bar on Av. Regina. 10 minutes later he declared that the city wasn’t half bad and mezcal was his new favourite drink.

Muchos mezcales

Muchos mezcales

Not cheap but lovely and smooth, with orange slices and spicy nuts/beans/roast garlic on the side. A whole night’s accommodation budget later we went back to the hostel for a rather early night!

Looking out from the Moon  towards the Sun

Looking out from the Moon towards the Sun

The next day we were up with the birds (and only a hint of a mezcal headache) and tackling the DF metro system for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to navigate and the price – 3 pesos (about 15p) per journey. Also, all the stations have symbols as well as names which is surprisingly handy! We headed out on the bus (after Rich was frisked 3 times, which he was delighted about) to Teohuaticán, a huge site of pre-Aztec civilization ruins, about 20km north-east of DF. The site is anchored around a 2km wide pathway called the Calzada de los Muertos that runs north-south through the site. Towards the top end on the east side is the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) – one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever seen. The third largest pyramid in the world and you can still climb up the steep and uneven steps to the top and get a fantastic view of the whole site, including the second temple Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) that lies at the top of the pathway.

Before the climb up...

Before the climb up…

The view from the top of this second one is just as spectacular, possibly more so as it allows you to grasp the sheer size of its counterpart. The whole thing is even more awe-inspiring when you realize it was built without metal tools, pack animals or even the wheel. The site also contains many other smaller structures, including some remnants of murals of jaguars, pumas and birds (owls and quetzals) in faded colours that must once have been rich reds and bottle greens.

With only a touch of heatstroke and shaky legs from climbing hundreds upon hundreds of steps we caught the bus back into the city, then back into the bowls of the metro to visit the city’s leafier (i.e. richer/whiter) districts – Roma and Condesa. Things were very quiet due to it being a bank holiday Monday, but we found a suitably hippyish café where I could satisfy my craving for salad after weeks of tortillas/meat/cheese/sugary snacks. I must be getting old when I start dreaming of courgettes…

The next day was our big tour of just a few of the city’s historical and cultural highlights. You could spend a couple of weeks in Mexico City and still be lapping up culture, there’s just an incredible amount on offer.

Part of the Diego Rivera mural - Palacio Nacional. Can you spot Frida Kahlo?

Part of the Diego Rivera mural – Palacio Nacional. Can you spot Frida Kahlo?

We cherry-picked a few, namely the Cathedral on the Zócalo and the Palacio Nacional, where the President’s office lies, and which houses a huge and wonderful mural on the main staircase by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico – no mean feat. We followed this with the Templo Mayor, the remains of the centre of Tenochtitlan (the great Aztec city and which they believed to be the centre of the Universe). I marveled at not just the technical and engineering prowess of the Aztecs but also at the sheer audacity of the Spanish in casually razing the lot and putting a Cathedral over the top of it.

Panificadora La Vasconia - amazing cakes and iced ceiling tiles

Panificadora La Vasconia – amazing cakes and iced ceiling tiles

Before our next meaty chunk of culture we stopped at a bakery for coffee and a sweet treat (in fact Rich’s third cream horn in his time in this country – he’s quite the connoisseur now…)

The place was nothing short of a palace of cake (they’d even iced some of the ceiling tiles) and also picked up some damn fine cheese/ham/jalapeno pasties for lunch.

Ollie's favourite jaguar sculpture

Ollie’s favourite jaguar sculpture

Next stop was a gawp at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (just the exterior) before heading down to the Bosque de Chapultepec to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología. The place documents all the peoples of what now make up Mexico throughout history. We started with the Maya, and continued on through the people of the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca and the North. The sheer volume and quality of the exhibits is astounding, as is the information (often also in English) that accompanies it. I was particularly struck by the beauty of so many of the objects found and the breadth of variety of cultures that came before the Spanish. It leaves you with a real sense of poignancy that such a rich history was so systematically and seemingly callously destroyed and dismantled in so few years by the Spanish. They don’t come off well.

By that point our brains were at saturation point and the rain had begun to fall so we sought shelter in a pool bar in Condesa called Malafama where I was delighted to find some red wine after weeks of beer and less delighted to be trounced at pool by Rich… We had planned to move on to a few other places in the area but the rain gods had other ideas – a spectacular lightning storm and torrential rain fell for a couple of hours while we watched from a sheltered spot with a drink in hand. Once it finally let up a little we hopped through the puddles to find a mezcal bar called La Clandestina that had been recommended to us. On arrival we found that it was full of English people, including the chaps that had told us about it a couple of nights previously. A couple of rounds later and after some chat with some expats things got a little blurred around the edges and we headed for home.

Rich standing over the ancients

Rich standing over the ancients

Mexico City is a shock to the system after beaches and sleepy mountain villages but comes recommended – you’ll blow your budget and you’ll expand your mind as well as destroy a few brain cells (if you take a liking to mezcal, that is…)

So on to Oaxaca, which the glutton in me is very much looking forward to as it’s known for being a real culinary hotspot. Before that, here are a few general things about Mexico that have struck me so far:

  • The food – Rich say he doesn’t like to write about food too much, but I do! Mexican food has really exceeded my expectations, and the variety available, particularly between regions, is fantastic. This may warrant a blog post all of its own…!
  • Social levels – it’s striking that everyone in advertising and almost everyone on television looks very European. The smart areas of DF reflected that as well. It seems that the mestizo majority, followed by indigenous groups are more invisible in the media and in how the wealth is spread. Many bars/restaurants have signs up stating that they do not discriminate in any way but it seems that perhaps this does occur more generally or subtly.
  • And on a lighter note…. VW Beetles! – Apparently Mexico was the last country to continue producing the old-style Beetles, well into the 1990s in fact. As a result, the country is full of them, often in fantastic condition and pimped up. These have been an unexpected but great visual highlight in the streets!