chicken bus with fiery volcan Fuego at sunset
Frequent flier miles accumulated over years of using our one and only credit card and forgetting about the points allowed us to afford a much shorter version of the lengthy stay in Guatemala we'd originally had in mind last fall.
I'd been to Guatemala about 10 times for work during my coffee tasting and buying days, but aside from a one day trip to Tikal had never done anything touristy. Hanging out in Antigua for a few days seemed like a good way to begin the process of "déjà vu all over again," 15+ years after my last visit.
Antigua seemed pretty cosmopolitan for its size when I first stayed here in 1990, but it's exponentially busier and glitzier now. Naturally I can't help but compare this city (and country) to México, and Antigua these days, though it has less than half the population of San Miguel de Allende, is even more over-run with tourists and pollution, has far more depth, quality and variety of restaurants (surpassed in México only by gigantic México City), and has prices that ought to make any budget traveler think twice about anything beyond a very short visit.
The land and the colonial architecture are as entrancing as ever, but the transformation of large swaths of centro into a Central American Rodeo Drive is both disturbing and sad, in a country where over half of the people (and three-quarters of the indigenous population) live in poverty. Imagine a México made up solely of the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca and you have a good idea of the level of economic and cultural dysfunction in this beautiful but heartbreaking country.
While there are a fair number of expat residents here what one mostly notices are the tourists, with at least as many Europeans as Americans and Canadians, and hordes of folks from Guatemala City descending on the place on weekends. The Disneyfication of the place is so thorough that it makes San Miguel de Allende seem like an undiscovered colonial backwater by comparison.
We're looking forward to getting out of the traffic exhaust and up to Lake Atitlán on Wednesday, though I'm certainly prepared for a similar level of change there. What's obvious even this early on, for both of us, is the vastly superior value-for-money, safety, infrastructure and (last not least!) cuisine of México. We'll enjoy our visit here, but I can't imagine choosing this country - and this town in particular- as a place to live long term