VANTAGE POINTS: Antigua, a World Heritage Treasure

When the DuFlon family came to Antigua in the early 1960’s it was a sleepy town dotted with the ruins of 300 to 400 year-old colonial churches, convents and monasteries – all fringed by outlying coffee fincas. In 1979 Antigua was named a UNESCO world heritage treasure. Though the city now buzzes with tourists and language students, its small town atmosphere is ubiquitous – people stop and chat with friends and family and nod greetings to others that they have seen for years but may never have actually met.

Antigua is a stunning example of a Central American colonial with cobblestone streets, one-story buildings donning orange, yellow, blue and white façades, tile roofs, cúpulas and iron grill window wells. It is nestled in a broad, verdant valley ringed by mountains and three spectacular volcanoes: Agua the single majestic perfect cone-shaped mountain south of Antigua, Acatenango, and its fiery, active neighbor Fuego to the southwest. The town also boasts an eclectic collection of restaurants, shops, Spanish schools and galleries. At center stage is the main park plaza and colonial fountain where sweepers appear early in the morning with their palm frond brooms, accompanied by the chattering of starlings and schoolchildren crossing the park in every direction. The park plaza is an ever changing cast of characters with tourists, vendors, mid-day lunchers, evening celebrations, weekend baptisms and weddings at the Cathedral across the way.

In this "land of eternal spring," bright and varied colors of abundant tropical flowers and vines cover walls, rooftops and parks.  These natural colors compete on equal terms with the vibrant colors woven in the Mayan street vendors' "trajes" (costumes) and their artisan wares.  In Antigua there is something fascinating and alluring for everyone.  Many people come to visit and end up staying forever.

Over the years we have come to love some very special spots in Antigua and would like to share them with you. The Revue magazine is a unique and very special English-language monthly publication where you can find out absolutely anything and everything that is worth your time and attention in Guatemala. The magazine also offers a substantial El Salvador section, plus some coverage of Honduras and Belize. Print copies of the Revue magazine are widely available in Guatemala's cities, and you can download the entire magazine by visiting them at www.revuemag.com. The Revue main office is on 4a. Calle Oriente No. 23 in Antigua.

For us, the Proyecto Cultural El Sitio is a most important and stimulating place where you can indulge in all cultural happenings from international movies to art expositions, from Yoga to poetry readings, from workshops and thought-provoking discussion groups to theater, to concerts and children’s art sessions and more. You can also sit quietly in its intimate garden surrounded by the power of artistic creations with the sound of the fountain in the background, gaze up at Agua Volcano and let the magic of Antigua sink in deeply. El Sitio is only two blocks west of the Central Plaza and Cathedral on 5a. Calle Poniente No. 15 – it is a spot you will never forget. www.elsitiocultural.com

Our favorite restaurant is Mesón Panza Verde where you can dine on "international cuisine with a twist" in the most romantic of settings. Mesón Panza Verde opened nearly 20 years ago as one of the first European style bed and breakfasts in Antigua. While you are there for an unforgettable meal or stay, make sure to visit the art gallery up on the rooftop terrace and catch a spectacular view of the Agua volcano and the cúpulas of Antigua – this is particularly spectacular at dusk. The Mesón Panza Verde is ideally located at the quiet end of 5a. Avenida Sur No. 19, a pleasant four block walk from the Central Plaza past wonderful ruins. www.panzaverde.com

 When you stroll the northern end of 5a. Avenida Norte, make sure to stop in at Textura No. 33, just beyond the yellow arch that spans the street leading to the landmark La Merced Church. A walk through Textura is sure to delight all of your senses with its exciting multi-level design that so magically sets off the items that range from bedspreads to tablecloths, napkins and placemats to rugs to pillows in vibrant color combinations. It is truly a feast.

If you have a passion for jade, which the Chinese call the "Stone of Heaven," tougher than granite and more difficult to carve than solid steel, visit our favorite source at La Casa del Jade on 4a. Calle Oriente No. 10, one block east of the Central Plaza. The Central American Mayan civilization carved and used jade hundreds of years before it actually attained a royal position in the Chinese Middle Kingdom. At Casa del Jade you can watch craftspeople creating original jewelry designs in a rainbow of jade colors, including the new lilac jade, set in silver and gold. Artisans also replicate ancient jade masks and other unique items. This shop is a reliable and quality gem source among the many you will find in Antigua. Remember, jade is believed to bring good luck, health and fortune. www.lacasadeljade.com

You may want to start off your time in Antigua with the unique "behind the walls" walking tour that Antigua Tours offers. One of their guided walking tours will give you a sense of place through information about the city's current events, restoration efforts, cultural and architectural history and how Antigua Tours contributes to the conservation of Antigua. The Tours office is on Hotel Casa Santo Domingo property and has its own street entrance on 3a. Calle Oriente No. 28.

 As you wander Antigua, you may hear the term "panza verde" which is Spanish for green belly. This is what generations of Antigüeños have called themselves. It is said that the people who remained living here when the capital was moved from Antigua to Guatemala City after the 1773 earthquake were so poor that they had to subsist on the avocados that are abundant in the valley. However, with time, the reference to "panza verde" has taken on notoriety and is now a label one dons with pride.

Though Antigua is special and a very romantic "land of eternal springtime," reality is that it sits in a land of contrasts: Young Mayan women in back-strap, loom-woven costumes speaking English with tourists and holding portable CD players; Mercedes Benz cars whizzing by weary men pulling wooden carts; international five star hotels a mere four kilometers away from towns where the schools only offer first through third grade; and so on. Guatemala is a society that continues to rate very low on the United Nations Development Program "Human Development Index" because of its high levels of extreme poverty, the lowest education indicators in the hemisphere (second only to Haiti,) and high maternal and infant mortality rates. However, hope and hard work are common and many in Guatemala struggle to change this picture.

VANTAGE POINTS: Making a Difference in Guatemala’s Reality

"There are different types of poverty. Imagine if 8 out of 10 people in your country were living in poverty. It would include many intelligent, good-looking, healthy, industrious, generous, funny, and ethical citizens. And yes, it would probably include you! In the third world, the intelligent cannot study; the industrious cannot earn enough money to feed their kids; easily treatable illness can permanently cripple; and unemployment pushes men (and young people) to drink. It is ugly, but solvable because the problem is primarily a lack of money, not motivation." (from: www.commonhope.org)

Poverty results from multiple causes and conditions. In Guatemala, the origins of poverty reach back in history when indigenous people in Guatemala were colonized by Spanish conquerors – the new social capital conspired to limit opportunity and participation to the few that wrested power and influence. Colonial culture and economy developed around power and control of the few over the many and was characterized by minimal opportunities, heightened exploitation, exclusion, and discrimination. The 36-year armed conflict threw the nation's social capital into question. More people lost their lives in this civil war than in El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua and Argentina conflicts combined. The Guatemala peace process negotiated changes in social capital necessary to open society and construct prosperity for all citizens. The Peace Accords signed in December 1996 constitute a plan to liberate, empower, and open social relationships so that society will prosper.

On occasion one hears the expression, "Guatemala sí tiene de donde," meaning that it does have the wherewithal. And it does: Guatemala has an abundance of natural resources that provide it with GDP in medium range compared to LAC countries. However, it also has the largest population in Central America - half are Mayan descent and two-thirds live in rural areas. The lack of investment of profit back into the country in the form of infrastructure, education, health, food, security generates widespread poverty. The structural inequities and inadequacies in Guatemala's social services and business opportunities lead to "legion of poor in a rich country" (newspaper El Periódico, 2000.)

You might ask yourself, "What can be done?" or "Where does one start to turn this around?" There are many devoted individuals and organizations in Guatemala that are making a difference by empowering people to help themselves in creative and practical ways. The following are some stellar organizations that we have had personal contact with and have supported over the years – organizations that we know are creating choices and new life options for people who have never had those luxuries – organizations that demonstrate sustainable impacts on individual lives, families and communities.

MayaWorks "is about interweaving lives - in spite of apparent barriers of distance, language and culture, MayaWorks provides opportunities for all involved to discover one world through sharing our common concerns for health, literacy, dignity and justice. The singular goal of MayaWorks is contributing to Mayan artisans' economic security by creating substantial and sustainable markets for their products." MayaWorks supports artisans in different parts of Guatemala and has strong programs in girls' scholarships, credit and micro-enterprise, and women's leadership. Find out more at www.mayaworks.org

SHARE was founded in 1986 with assistance from World Share/California and is now a fully independent Guatemalan development NGO. SHARE works through a network of partner grass root organizations in over half of the country's 22 departments to establish sustainable, holistic programs for vulnerable rural populations. SHARE's program areas include food security, rural infrastructure, credit, natural resource conservation, reproductive and maternal/child health, literacy and basic education as well as youth development. Find out more at: www.shareguatemala.org

Common Hope, known in Guatemala as Familias de Esperanza, focuses on family development in the villages surrounding Antigua. The founders state that, "It is not a conscious choice for people to be born into poverty. It's where they find themselves. Common Hope's mission is to provide choices for those whose lives may seem doomed… We work with the entire family, because a child cannot be healthy unless his or her family is healthy." Find out more at: www.commonhope.org

Safe Passage, known in Guatemala as Camino Seguro, works with children of the Guatemala City garbage dump to bring hope and a new life options through education. "Safe Passage is not a 'hand out' project but instead endeavors to empower the child and family to assume responsibility and play an active role in the child's education." www.safepassage.org

 

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