Written in 2000 for the New York Times Magazine
So much of travel is an experience of time. We rely on certain places to give us a portrait of the past, and on our imaginations to summon up what’s missing and shut out what doesn’t belong. This is why a Venice is rare: a place seemingly so well-preserved, so complete, that we can enjoy the illusion of walking around in another century.
And why, for a decade, I’d wanted to go back to Antigua, the colonial city rimmed by volcanos in Guatemala’s highlands. Once one of three Spanish capitals of the New World, Antigua was so repeatedly shattered by earthquakes that during the late 18th century it got evacuated and abandoned by government edict. Throughout the last century it has crawled back to life. Many ruins were repaired and rebuilt; writers like Aldous Huxley, visiting before World War II on the heels of a small expatriate community, recounted in impassioned tones (“one of the most romantic cities in the world”) its baroque splendor and half-devastated beauty.
During Guatemala’s recently ended 36-year civil war, the most brutal in the hemisphere, Antigua retained a magnificence and relative calm that still attracted visitors. Rather like a Guatemalan Krakow, Antigua held out as the heart of the country’s intellectual and cultural life, with plenty of museums, concerts, galleries, bookstores, and language schools. (It’s also within easy reach of Chichicastenango, the highlands town with a huge, age-old biweekly Mayan market.) I visited in 1990 for a few days and, like many foreigners, considered staying for months to rent a room inexpensively and study Spanish. But I moved on.
Now, having recently returned, I can think of no other city, not even Venice, where the architectural past is so enveloping and the present so easily held at bay. Antigua was as graceful as I remembered: a stately, walkable Spanish dream of lavish 18th century houses—block after dignified block of red or yellow, gray or green or blue stucco walls like rinds of seared fruit, with modest balconies and formal white moldings and tiled roofs. As if confirming the propriety of the secluded life within, their wooden doors are massive, bigger than horse-carriages, with knockers shaped like lions’ heads, pointed shields, arcing fish, or hands. Cars are forced to roll slowly along the uneven, immaculate cobblestoned streets, and no billboards or shop signs are allowed. One day in Antigua made me realize how much a modern fatigue that we take for granted is simply visual overload.
At the end of every street rose the slopes of volcanos, now plumed in mists, now glittering green in broad sunlight, looming like a false threat when for centuries the true danger has relentlessly come from below—from the uncertain, tremor-prone ground. It could be an allegory of Guatemala’s tragic politics, that the very earth might swallow up anyone’s life without warning.
But that danger seemed in the past. As a French travel agent who has lived in Antigua for over a decade pointed out to me, there’s now even a Guatemalan middle class. “And for people in the capital, Antigua has become the chic weekend spot. It’s driven the house rentals crazy. To buy a large old house is now a million dollars, because there’s nowhere like Antigua, and it’s only a square mile. Then after you buy the house it’s impossible to change it. You want to put a new doorway in an old wall? Forget it.”
As Friday afternoon waned, I sat in the Plaza Mayorbeneath purple jacaranda trees and watched the gentle promenade of the town, infinitely more relaxed than on my first visit. A band of brass, clarinets, and drums took their time between numbers; later they were replaced by a marimba orchestra who kept fizzing well after dark. Indians (the women in striped dresses and baggy blouses) stood in line outside the banks, whose tellers must be among the most sluggish in the world.
Guatemalans are a beautiful people—the Mayans more than the ladinos of primarily Spanish blood. Built low to the ground, they trot along at top speed with no effort, often with a pot or a load of blankets balanced impossibly on their heads, walking faster than everyone else, awkward in their posture but with stolid purpose. Their faces are open, with much inward delight and the struggle well masked. It seemed evident that the two peoples have always moved at two different tempi.
Everyone met on equal footing in Antigua’s hub, that plaza with its columned arcades, cathedral, cafes, and municipal nerve center. In recent years all the street lights have become 19th century-style lampposts, faithfully copied, like the lanterns hung from hotels, restaurants, and private homes. The result, as night fell, was that the shadows belonged to another age; the lamps came alive, as if upon a classic novel into which modern people and their ghostlike motorcars trespassed.
I saw the original lamps in the Colonial Museum, right on the square, along with a collection of cannons, pistols, and the busty stone mermaids lopped off the central fountain in the last century and later replaced. There were also crossbows, drums, rifles, spears, and arrows—pride in violence, and pride in the history of Guatemala (independent since 1821, over a dozen revolutions in the 20th century alone).
Next door a Museum of the Book contained an early edition of Don Quixote and volumes made here on the first printing press in the New World (1660), whose replica resembles a fiendish torture device. Many were treatises or grammars of indigenous languages, like the Maya, whose books the Spanish conquistadores had systematically destroyed. (To paraphrase Huxley: I can appreciate irony on my own, I do not need to have it underlined for me.)
Beyond the printed story there was anecdote. Many families have been here for many generations, and tales from before the 1773 earthquake and Antigua’s abandonment still circulate.
“Oh, there are a lot of stories,” an amateur historian named Hector told me. “Centuries ago there was a count in Antigua. Very important, always coming and going, because back in those days Guatemala wasn’t what it is today, no sir, it went from Chiapas in Mexico all the way through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. Anyway, the count had a wife of considerable beauty. And whenever he was away he left her in the care of a servant—not another woman, but a butler. Eventually, you know, there was an understanding between the lady of the house and the butler. One day the count came back from his adventures and surprised them in the middle of, well, their own adventures. So the count got his men to open one wall as if for a cupboard, and he had the butler walled in. Alive.” He paused to savor this solution. “This was in a house right on the square, that’s now the Cafe Condesa, in the back. We always used to hear the story, just like many ghost stories Antigua is full of. Very dubious history, of course. So some of us were surprised a few years ago when the owners were doing repairs on the cafe. They had to open up a wall, and what did they find? A skeleton, my friend, buried in the wall. Standing up.”
The 18th century Antigua that survives is on a smaller scale than the 16th century original, for the early massive earthquakes made clear that those grand, Madrid structures were untenable. A typical story was the Church of El Merced, my favorite—a gigantic yellow wedding cake decorated in white icing, with children playing soccer among tortilla-women on its square. Its history summarizes Antigua. Construction begun in 1548; ruined by a huge earthquake in 1717. After years of restoration, another massive quake in 1773. Then centuries of neglect. Now mostly rebuilt, in the still-shattered arcade of its convent stands the biggest fountain in Central America—nude angels containing the waters—with bougainvillaea grown cunningly into the broken walls above.
Those earthquakes had never halted the appeal of the many-domed Church of San Francisco, one of the largest in Antigua, similarly destroyed and rebuilt but with one chapel which never closed. It is devoted to a beatified 17th century Franciscan monk named Pedro, buried within awaiting sainthood, who still attracts pilgrims praying for his aid. On display are his tattered clothes, the skull he used “for meditating on death,” and a pile of wooden crutches no longer needed by those “who received favors.”
These days most foreigners came to stay for weeks on end, studying Spanish; Antigua was full of young Europeans getting, say, thirty hours of private language studies a week for around sixty bucks. Some were from the USA, but unfortunately a lot of visitors from the States were still fighting a war.
This was for the religious loyalties of the Guatemalans, who have (depending on their background) a vast array of surviving Indian beliefs and also their own peculiar version of Catholicism, which incorporates an elaborate set of Mayan images. You’d think the centuries-old confluence of these two rivers would be enough, but a relentless North American stream of evangelists and “bridge-builders” from the Christian right were determined to divert and convert wherever possible. As on my last visit, I kept running into hordes of these self-satisfied do-gooders in sensible shoes, wielding their pamphlets and maps—a United Fruit Company of the soul. In the phone book for this part of Guatemala alone I counted six columns of such organizations; the result was a sign you might see in Antigua windows, saying in Spanish:
WE DO NOT ACCEPT HOUSE CALLS AND PROPAGANDA
One expatriate I could admire left his house open to the public. This was the Casa Popenoe, dating from 1632, the result of a love affair with Guatemala by an agronomist, Wilson Popenoe, and his wife Dorothy, an archaeologist who authored the first guidebook to Antigua and died young. (Their daughters occupy the house.) Louis Adamic wrote a happy 1937 memoir of an extended sojourn there that details how the house, one of the oldest in Antigua, was carefully restored by the Popenoes after they bought it as a ruin in 1929.
It is built typically around an inner patio whose calm garden is ruled by a great tree and bowl-like fountain and linked to smaller courtyards, their white walls lined with a superb collection of old bowls and tiles. The austere bedrooms, the library and salons, are full of colonial portraits and grave carved furniture. I clambered up spiral stairs to Popenoe’s study, a remnant of the colonial-era mail service—formerly a carrier-pigeon coop, with 115 bird nooks. Then onto the roof, with an all-embracing view of Antigua and its brooding volcanos swathed in mists and green forest. No wonder Adamic had felt he was in a writer’s heaven.
Chichicastenango is a highlands town of 5,000, clinging to its hills a couple of hours’ drive northwest of Antigua. I went, like so many foreigners, for its monumental Thursday and Sunday market, which takes over the small main square between two churches and becomes a dense metropolis of stalls shaded by plastic tarps on rough wood poles. The market is sometimes sniffily described as touristic, but this is a peripheral view, for only the outer stalls are for foreigners—weavings, statues, pottery, and masks. (The specialty of each strolling Mayan girl was tiny prayer dolls for children to tell their worries to, crowded into a box the size of her palm.) One morning delight was to see visitors turning themselves into porters, lopsiding through the market muttering "Permeso," with sacks of newly-bought blankets cradled on their backs.
It is best to attack a market like this with a purpose. To decide you cannot live, say, without a jaguar mask allows you to disregard the lion, devil, quetzal, deer, monkey, dog, crocodile, cock, horse, wolf, conquistadore, parrot, bull, Moor, and cow masks. Certainly the quality has gone down with more visitors; virtually none of those masks had ever seen ceremonial use, and there was a better selection in Antigua, which wasn’t the case a decade ago.
But most of the Chichi market, as always, is aimed at locals. I penetrated it by one lane of stalls and immediately there were no more woven bedspreads but rather the thread to make them with, and multitudes of household items: oranges, batteries in all sizes, coffee, live chickens, rope, watermelon slices, cassettes blaring competitively, a crowded restaurant with no white faces.
Men were always pushing their way through the throng, mostly Indians as small as a child (or even, dauntingly, children) doubled over, staggering resolutely forward with an organized mountain of clay pots in a nylon net on their backs. Many Guatemalan men, carrying nothing, still walk in a forward slump, as if a weight has been lifted but they can’t enjoy or even feel its absence. You come away from this country with a renewed admiration for what a determined back can bear.
Every now and then the steady market chatter was punctuated by a barrage of firecrackers; the trick was that if you suddenly saw children nearby running away, it was best to run with them.
I took a brief walk from the market square to the cemetery. It was visible from much of Chichi and made a kind of rainbow town unto itself, packed onto a ridge. Some large graves were stucco versions of churches but in bright colors; among them were simpler Mayan graves, mounds of earth surmounted by a cross with a name; others were cairns of fire-blackened rocks. Before a few graves, fires were lit among freshly-laid flowers, and women and men swung censers, spewing fumes. Rites were intoned by the professional worshippers and repeated by family members. Behind the cemetery the hillsides of pines fanned out above the town.
The larger of the square’s two churches, Santo Tomas, was immensely touching. Past women selling bunches of flowers, up a series of Mayan steps—for the church was created around 1540 on the site of an ancient temple—through a side door, as was proper, I entered a sanctuary full of people. The air was dense with incense, the scent of burnt offerings, the souls of the dead, and the weight of deeply felt prayers. Small stone slabs covered with burning candles received flower petals and ash under the ministrations of chuchkajaues, Quiche Maya prayer men, while a cofrade (an elder, not a priest) led the Catholic service at the back, where the white-walled church ended in muscular carved altars of dark wood inset with old statues and intense paintings.
The force of this strange alliance, between the rituals of the Mayan past and Catholicism with its passionate sense of blood suffering, was overwhelming. At this church a Spanish friar around 1702 at the last minute discovered the extraordinary manuscript, now lost, of the Popol Vuh, the Quiche creation myth, secretly written down in the 1550s in the Roman alphabet. Fortunately the friar translated it into Spanish, and saved it for the world.
Back in Antigua, I decided to get my horoscope mapped by a Mayan priestess named Rosa Maria Cabrera, a “bundle-gatherer,” one of about two hundred such worldwide, designated by elders. I found her when I stepped into a Spanish language school near the plaza to investigate prices; she had a kind of apartment-office off the courtyard. It was impossible even for a skeptic like myself not to take her seriously—a striking, dark-haired woman in her late forties with enormous energy, who spoke very eloquently about the mystic tradition she was part of. Indeed, she was rarely here, but usually off in the countryside.
Rosa Maria kept a replica of a Mayan altar, a room of masks, crosses, and statues, as a way of explaining to people the tradition in what she does—“so there’s no confusion between witchcraft, which is what the Catholics accused us of, and the reality, which is to venerate the four elements of earth, air, fire, water. These are equally represented in the Mayan cross, which unlike the Christian cross, is evenly balanced.” A day later she produced my astral chart in terms of the Mayan calendar; it included an accounting of the nawales (protective spirits) with me since birth and, alas, an accurate description of my character.
Not a day has gone by since I first visited Antigua when, at home, I have not thought of the place—largely because of the old masks I brought back in 1990. I purchased many of them from a Guatemalan of German background, Gwendolyn Ritz, who ran a shop in Antigua called the Casa de Artes which has been the best such for many decades. I learned, sadly, that she had drowned a few years ago; her granddaughter Karla runs the shop now, and keeps up the family practice of giving lectures on traditional arts and crafts in the schools.
Karla had mixed feelings about Antigua’s newfound chic. “We’ve become a fashionable city. So anyone from the capital with money wants to rent a house here. And they don’t necessarily see it the way we locals do—as a cultural patrimony that we have to look after with great care.”
The pall of violence was off Guatemala now, but Antigua remained much as I remembered, full of glorious ruins awaiting repair. The town’s restoration will probably never be finished, and its poignant magic comes from this. Everywhere you walk, in virtually every block (the Mayans hurrying past), you are reminded how vulnerable are the works of man, that nothing can ultimately withstand the whims of the earth—certainly not the architecture of empires.