Thursday, March 4, 2010

A trip to Antigua and Barra de Santiago

The Elkertons in Antigua

Antigua, Guatemala is a picture postcard perfect little town outside of Guatemala City. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the former capital of the entire Central America. It has lovely old Spanish colonial architecture, many quaint inns, and some great restaurants.

On my first few trips to El Salvador in 1996, when people would find out that I was visiting their country as a tourist, they would all say, "you have to go to Antigua." I would answer "but I am here to see El Salvador" and they would repeat, "you have to go to Antigua".

So I did and had an amazing trip. We did the bus trip package - leaving from San Benito on Tica or King Quality Bus Line to Guatemala City, then a transfer to Antigua, and we stayed at the Hotel Aurora. We have some nice pictures from there of the lovely courtyard full of flowers, the same place where Fatima’s parents went 30 years earlier.

Since then, I have visited Antigua 4 or 5 times and every trip was by bus and a lot of fun.

Having more visitors this year I thought I would brave the drive over, especially since I had a GPS that should take me from my door to the door of the hotel in Antigua.

Historically, the trip from San Salvador to Guatemala has been problematic with bandits holding up cars (and even buses) once over the border. The Guatemalan Government used to organize extra security (I think you could go from the border in an escorted convoy during the busy Easter holidays) and once the Guatemalan president took the bus across to show it was safe. More recently, the police have been stopping people asking for the payment of an entry fee or an exit customs fee. One friend routinely gets asked for $100 (and once was asked for $700 to cover a purchase and exportation of an outboard engine ... and when he said he didn’t have the cash, the cops said they could go to an ATM with him before finally settling on the $20 he had on him) but he is a gringo in a pick-up. Another friend who is part Salvadoran and part Guatemalan usually pays the cops about 30 Queztales or USD 4.00. Another friend from Montreal blasts down the highway in his nice SUV and has never been asked for money on his 5 trips to Antigua. So what to make of that? My friend theorizes that if you travel in a big SUV with tinted windows, the cops might think that you are important/connected and might not be willing to ask for a bribe.

So, I had Chris and Janet and their kids down and I decided to make the trip. My friend who works in an embassy in Guatemala was chiding me for being a wimp about the trip. She had made it herself with no problems but I’d like to point out that she was traveling with another car and I think they had diplomatic plates so were a far less appealing target for bandits.

We loaded the car and I wanted to leave plenty early so that we would hit the border in the morning. As it was, we didn’t get going until 9:30 a.m. The road to the border was no problem - the GPS was working fine and the highways in San Salvador are fast and in great shape. On the Salvadoran side, the immigration officer took our documents because he wanted to record some information for statistical purposes. Then we crossed the bridge and ran into a big outdoor market before we even reached Guatemalan immigration. Tuc Tuc’s (the little cabs powered by motorcycle engines) were going back and forth and a bunch of people were shouting at us to change USD for Quetzales. Fatima had very strongly cautioned me not to change money ... since they would know how much we had and might call ahead to have someone rob us. As it was, we had almost no cash since we planned to take out money from an ATM in Antigua.

So we waited behind a line of big 18 wheelers until other cars behind us just drove around them and through some pylons. I realized that it doesn’t pay to be polite and to wait in line when you can just go around. Once I passed the trucks, I realized that they were waiting for some other procedure that we cars didn’t have to follow. Our procedure was to drive to the immigration building and ... what was going on? There was no sign telling us what to do, there was no one in uniform telling us to stop or park or go in, just an old woman begging for money. So I stopped and went in to the building and there were 5 women and one guy working behind the open counter. I had the 4 Canadian passports along with my C-4 residency card. After a few minutes, one of the women decided to do some work and asked for the documents. I handed over the passports and my card and she said I needed my passport. I was under the impression that the card was good for the 4 countries listed on it (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador) but I was wrong and I was glad that I had brought my passport as well. So she looks at them, does some stamping and that’s that. Oh, the tourist card entering El Salvador is good for those countries as well.

I get back into the car and as we are leaving, other cars are just driving through and not stopping. I have no idea how the system works ... maybe it is a voluntary self-reporting system?

So back on the road and we are booting along. We pass one, then two, then three cop stops but we are not waved down. There is some construction along the way which slowed us down but we made it to Guatemala in about 4 hours. Much faster than the bus. So we drive into the city and we pass the Pricesmart (where I wanted to do some shopping - stuff is cheaper there and they have some stuff that we don’t get in the Pricesmarts in San Salvador) and some car dealships that I was supposed to drop in on to get some car parts. But I want to get to Antigua quickly so we are following the GPS and I miss a turn off and have to take another road to get back to the route but it goes through a guarded gatehouse so we do a tricky U-turn through 4 lines of traffic and then miss another turn off and finally get on the right road but it is pretty small and goes up and down on some extremely steep hills and through a forest ... and gets narrower ... and we pass a horse ... and even narrower ... and then we pass some chickens ... and when the road turns to dirt ... we know the GPS is lost. I should have stopped at the horse. Turns out it is bringing us to a barrio called Antigua in Guatemala City instead of the town of Antigua. We reprogram it and we are soon back in the middle of the bustling city and heading to the right Antigua.

Michael and me in with one of three volcanoes in the neighbourhood

Once there, I stop in on my friend Michael who lives and writes there. Check out his blog at and his writings for the Examiner at

We go to the hotel where reservations were made but my friends wanted one room that would sleep a family of four ... and of course they said that three was the max per room so we had to take two rooms. I refused to take the rooms and we went looking for another place. Now renting a room in Antigua is much easier when it is done well in advance and through a travel agency. We checked the Aurora (always full including this time) and finally went to El Carmen which is never full because it isn’t nearly as nice. It does have some okay rooms and a beautiful rooftop terrace and a hot tub with cold water but some of the rooms aren’t great. Anyways, we didn’t want to waste more time on hotel searching so we took the room there.

Big Gallo beers in the market

Then I parked the car and we went for a walk. To the Parque Central and then to the ATM I always use and then to the market. We went to the very back where all the food stalls are and very few gringos (although the town is full of ‘em) and had some giant Gallo beers and lots of food. Then I needed to buy some more white belts and Janet wanted some souvenirs so through the market and the hundreds of stalls.

Janet made this woman very happy by buying a pile of stuff

We found a nice woman with a big stall and bought a bunch of stuff from her. I was asked to negotiate prices for everyone and did what I always try to do - pick a price that I think is fair and negotiate to it. If I see something that I think is really cheap or underpriced, I’ll pay what they ask but there is a lot of room to negotiate in Guatemala. You may be presented with a huge runner or table cloth that they say took 3 months to make and that you can have it for $80. You can admire it and say no thanks. Then they’ll follow you and say $60. If you say no again, they’ll offer it for $40.

Check out Nicole's yellow shoes!

So out of the market and Nicole spies some really cute yellow shoes - very Twiggyish - so I bought them for her and she proudly sported those shoes for the rest of the trip.

In Parque Central before being attacked by vendors

We went back to Parque Central and came across the indigenous women selling stuff out of bags - mostly jewelry and woven goods. Interestingly, many of those women spoke quite good English. We sat down to take a picture and a vendor came up, and then two, then five ... then the cops came to bust up the sale. They were quite stern and we eventually had four cops hassling the ladies. I asked the friendliest looking one what was the problem and he said that the park wasn’t for commercial purposes and they didn’t want it turning into a market. I said I understood so we concluded our deal and they shooed away the ladies. We walked to end of the park by the big white church and sat down and were approached again by the ladies and of course the cops came back ... I think we were being followed by everyone.

The view from our table at the Welton.

That night, we walked around looking for a place to eat. I think Nicholas has closed so we ended up at the Welton. Beautiful dining room and we took a covered table by the pool. The water was covered in the petals of a hundred roses and floating candles. Dinner was fantastic although Tyler ordered the most expensive meal on the menu - something my son used to do and which I find annoying - I swear, I should only take kids to places with a kids menu. But we all enjoyed our food - I had the lamb - and the wine was great and the service excellent.

Next day, I had breakfast with Michael at a very charming, large and empty restaurant. Met up with the family and we did some more walking around before jumping in the truck and heading back to San Salvador. We wanted to leave early since we were heading to a beach house we had rented from Manolo at the Barra de Santiago which is very close to the Guatemalan border before the Acajutla cargo and fishing port. We followed the GPS out of town between the two big volcanoes but it kept us on a very slow cobblestone road that was really going up and down. We knew the generally direction was good but I think the programming could have been better and should have put us on a parallel and faster asphalt road. But we got out of the city and headed for the coastal border crossing.

Really beautiful rolling hills and nice roads. We stopped at a shop to stock up on Guatemalan beer (they have a good dark bock called Moza) for the beach house. There were a bunch of dodgy looking drunk guys on the lawn of the store and we watched them and they watched us but we drove away without any problems. So we are close to the border and we finally get stopped by the cops! There are about 8 of them at a crossroads and one guy has a big automatic assault rifle and we are asked for our documents. They ask Chris to open the glove compartment and they look inside the car and ask to see inside Nicole’s back pack. I explain to the cops that they are Canadian tourists and they seem satisfied by that so they smile and say we can go.

Back on the road and we hit the border, more trucks, more driving around trucks, then we get stopped by Salvadoran immigration who really take their time asking us questions and recording all the info on the passports. As we are stopped there, every vehicle going back a few hundred feet drives past us with some of them not stopping at all including several big trailer trucks that have to squeeze by us on the bridge with just inches between them and my vehicle and the immigration officer standing beside me. So after getting all the info, they smile and say we can go.

Another half an hour and our GPS tells us to turn off to the bumpiest road I have seen in my life. It is completely embedded with round river rocks and it goes for about 20 minutes! Then dirt road, then paved road, then dirt road, then nice paving stones ... and we finally get to the turn off and have to drive down a beach to get to the house. Of course the directions are vague and I have to stop a few times and we get stuck twice and need a push ... and watch out for that dog ... and is that our place or is that our place, and no one is answering their cell phone. Warning lights are going off on my dash saying the automatic transmission is getting too hot and the differential light is on ... don’t know why. We finally get there and we are near the end of a beautiful open peninsula of sand. You can see it at the beginning of Manolo’s video at

The big open beach at Barra de Santiago

Then a day of splashing in the ocean, grilled freshly caught red snapper, more giant shrimps than we can eat, lots of beers, pitchers of Cuba Libres ... what a nice life.

Cuba Libres on the beach ... thanks Janet!
The custodians (slash fishermen slash boat tour guide) took my car out to get the shrimp and then to drive one guy home and they tell me that the front plastic underbody seems to have been ripped off and was lying on the beach. Hmm, don’t know if I did that or if they did that. I am thankful that they found it though. My mechanic suspects that it wasn’t attached properly - there are ten places for plastic fasteners and I don’t think they were all used. If Honda designs something for ten fasteners ... it needs ten fasteners.
A boat ride in the salt water estuary behind the beach house

We load up the car the next day and I make the fast run down the beach following the example of the guys - counterintuitively, we drive in the tire ruts of other trucks and not on flat sand. We also don’t try to drive on the wet sand near the ocean (don’t want to get stuck in that with the tide coming in). With the engine gunning, we make it to the road and enjoy another 20 minutes of severe bumps before we get back on the highway and then back home.

Fun trip!