Antigua and Tikal: "Café Condesa"



January 9, 2007


Dear Family and Friends,

At 03:00am one morning in 1976, Antigua was destroyed by a "terremoto." The adobe homes here and and in many nearby villages were flattened by an earthquake. The ruins of the churches and public buildings remain. Three volcanos loom and threaten in the mountains surrounding Antigua.

Antigua is the gateway to the Guatemalan Highlands; the land here is high and mountainous and volcanic and colorful.

Antigua. What a wonderful town! All the stucco walls of the houses and shops are painted in a varied palette of pastels: bright orange, yellow, pink, light blue, dark green and deep cinnamon. The narrow streets are cobblestone. The women wear traditional dress of multi-colored blouses and skirts and large cloth hats to carry packages and bundles on their heads.

The Parque Central is reminiscent of the Spanish Colonial style of Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru - broad walkways, sculpted trees and shrubs, and a circular fountain in the middle of the park. Children and teenagers hang out in the evening.

On one side of the park is the large white Catedral de Santiago with its sculpted walls. On the other side of the park is the Palacio Del Ayuntamiento - City Hall, and the double tiered portico walls of Palacio de los Capitanes - shops and restaurants.

I wander about and choose Cafe Condesa for a late lunch. The Cafe of the Countess is a colonial stone house built in 1549. The hostess leads me to the inner courtyard. I am seated under a slanted roof that is held up by Greek columns and broad archways that are covered with green vines. On my left is the patio with other tables and a fountain - a fish stands on its tail and spurts water from its mouth.

The adjoining patio, a smoking area courtyard, has a fountain with a mermaid. She spouts two jets of water from you know where.

My waitress urges me to try Sopa Xochitl - the local soup of a rich thick broth of dark noodles and turkey and small cubes of avocado, all bought to life with jalapeno peppers.

I select the Condesa Sandwich - home baked wheat bread with a generous slice of Emmental cheese and an equally fat slice of Gouda that is slathered with avocado, lettuce and tomato. A side order of thick slices of cucumber, tomato, red bell peppers, scallions and a light, creamy dressing. Cafe con leche.

For those of you who are suspicious and careful, there is a sidebar on the menu. "...the vegetables are grown locally and washed in potable water. Comalas con confianza!"

And for those of you who know me well, I am sure that you are also confident that I never did make that 5:00 am mini-bus to "experience" the dawn in Tikal a few days ago. In fact I re-booked my seat for a more civilized 9:00 am. I just loved the tomato and onion breakfast omelets at La Casonora de la Isla in Flores - another delightfully pastel town.

Over a smartly paved road, the one and a half hour ride to the entrance of Tikal - no problem. Tikal is vast, and grand, and majestic and...vast. I walked for hours through the jungle from temple "complejo" to temple complex.

My first inclination is just to let my photos do the talking. But on re-reading my guidebook I decided to reprint a description:

Towering pyramids poke above the jungle's green canopy to catch the sun. Howler monkeys swing noisily through the branches of the ancient trees as brightly colored parrots and toucans dart from perch to perch....

Certainly the most striking feature is the steep-sided temples, rising to heights of 44m....

Tikal is deep in the jungle. Its many plazas have been cleared of trees and vines, its temples uncovered and partially restored, but as you walk from one building to another, you pass beneath the dense rain forest canopy. Rich, loamy smells of earth and vegetation, a peaceful air and animal noises all contribute to this Mayan experience.


Indeed, each one of my five Mayan experiences was loamy, peaceful and unique.

Yes, five sites and five adventurous adventures: Up the river to Lamanai; across the river to Xanantunich; over the mule road to Caracol; off the beaten track to Yajha; through the jungle to Tikal in the north. Tikal - the supreme example of the Mayan civilization that lasted for more than sixteen centuries.

Here in the south, in Antigua, I am resting.

My plans for the final few days in Guatemala are shaped by a magazine article I saved from ten years ago and a photograph of a dramatic geological formation.

Me voy a los volcanos. Me voy al lago. Patiencia.

Hasta luego,

Juan Roberto.

PS To be honest, it was Luisa who pointed out the similarities between Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru and Parque Central here in Antigua. (See my website, Travel Letters, Peru, 2003.) Luisa, her husband Luis, and their teenage daughter Valentina live in Bogota, Columbia. We met at the hotel in Flores and we met up again, as planned, at Casa Rustica in Antigua. We all went to dinner at Cafe Condesa.

Luisa is a retired engineer. She has a white European complexion. Luis is a businessman. He is dark, with a bushy mustache. He looks Mexican. Valenina combines the complexions of her parents. She has her mother's dimples and long black curly hair. She looks Brazilian. Valentina is bright and athletic and gorgeous. She will break many hearts.

I have been reluctant to travel to Columbia. But now, quien sabe, with friends in Bogota, I am motivated. Besides, as Luisa observed, with my dark (really tanned) complexion, I look like "un Columbiano!" HA!



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