Holy Week Photos: Antigua Guatemala Processions – Part 2

Scary Cucurucho - Antigua Guatemala

As I mentioned last Friday on my first post about Antigua Guatemala processions, there are a number of smaller processions carried out before the really big ones on Easter Weekend. Out of the earlier ones, my favorite ones are definitely children’s processions. They carry all the pomp, costumes, and solemnity of all the other ones, but in a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” size.

Holy Week Photos from Good Friday in Antigua Guatemala

I encountered this particular procession as it made its way around Antigua Guatemala‘s Parque Central. The purple-robed guys are the traditional “cucuruchos“, of which you’ll see hundreds around town, eating, walking, and hanging out with their families until it’s time for their shift to carry the heavy “andas”, or religious platforms.

Children's procession, holy week photos Antigua Guatemala

Children’s procession, Antigua Guatemala

The andas are pretty heavy, even when they’re kiddie-sized. The children really sweat it out with the heavy weight on their shoulders. And the weather, while pleasant, was more fit for t-shirt wearing.

If you notice below, children seem to be wearing different shades of purple. This is due to the material from which the robes are made.

Robes are custom-made and fitted, and depending on cost, you can go for luxurious with satin, or sweat it out in cheaper polyester blends. That’s why the older folks around here are fond of saying:

“It makes for a hellish day if you chose polyester for a holy day.”

By the way, I completely made that last sentence up. But I would’ve said that if I was an old Catholic guy. And drunk. Which I’m not.

Children carrying heavy andas - Antigua Guatemala

Children carrying heavy andas

The music, unfortunately, is seldom cheery. Not that trombones lend themselves easily to party music, but I understood the significance of Good Friday.

Procession marching in front of San Jose Cathedral - holy week photos Antigua Guatemala

Procession marching in front of San Jose Cathedral

Procession marching in front of the Captain's Palace - Antigua Guatemala

Procession marching in front of the Captain’s Palace

The air is always heavy with incense smell at procession time. I believe this is the only time I can recall children being allowed to play with fire, without adult supervision. Eventually, all three kids below were able to figure it out.

With great power, comes great responsibility“, Peter Parker once said.

I would add, “And keep that power away from cheap, flammable robes“.

Children lighting incense - holy week photos Antigua Guatemala

Children lighting incense

Processions go on for hours - Antigua Guatemala

Processions go on for hours

Some other children dress in different costumes, as per tradition. The white-and-blue get-ups below were my favorite. Perhaps because they stood out among the sea of purple…

Different costumes according to role - Antigua Guatemala

Different costumes according to role

Ha! Not really. The pointy, Batman-like ears were what made them cooler than all others.

Purple robes are overwhelmingly more common than all others - holy week photos Antigua Guatemala

Purple robes are overwhelmingly more common than all others

Unfortunately, for them, humans don’t have horns (ex-girlfriend excluded), or Doberman-like ears to actually keep those cool, pointy hoods aligned correctly with the eye-sockets. Hence, some chose to just remove them, like the guys above did (booooooooo!!!), or soldier on and adjust on the fly every three steps (like the kid below – A+ for effort!!!).

But for some, strangely enough, the hood stayed perfectly in place. Almost made me want to follow them and see if they actually had horns, or what other tricks they pulled to do that. But self-preservation instincts kicked in and I decided against it. Some things are just better observed, noted, and moved on from.

Cucurucho Children in Blue outfit - Antigua Guatemala

White and blue outfits

That procession left me stoked to see the big ones, which I stayed all night for on Good Friday’s early morning hours. Read how that went here.

And here we start where I last left off, going home to catch a couple of hours of sleep and return the morning of Good Friday to see more processions. I had a hearty, semi-traditional (ham-cheese omelet instead of scrambled eggs) Guatemalan breakfast at El Tipico Antigueno, a restaurant that serves traditional Guatemalan food.

Guatemalan breakfast - Antigua Guatemala

Guatemalan breakfast

I guess this spot is as good as any to shoehorn this in. My new favorite drink in Guatemala now is “naranjada“, a sweet concoction of orange juice, syrup, and mineral water (sometimes Sprite or 7-up). Available at every restaurant, I can’t seem to get enough of the stuff!

El Tipico Antigueno serves a pretty tasty one:

Naranjada - GuatemalaNaranjada

Once breakfast was taken care of, it was time to hit the streets, check out “alfombra” creations (flower carpets), and wait for the main procession to start at 12 p.m.

There were a LOT more people on the streets now. It didn’t help that the temperature was quickly climbing. On the other hand, the sunny weather made conditions great for pictures.

Elaborate Alfombra - Antigua Guatemala

Creating procession alfombras

Arco Santa Catalina, as viewed from South to North. La Merced Church is in the background.

Arco Santa Catalina Alfombra - holy week photos Antigua Guatemala

Alfombra at Calle del Arco

Below is my favorite alfombra of all the events. I couldn’t really figure out where they were trying to go with it.

So, according to the scene, Jesus is heading towards Calvary carrying His cross. Along the way, Mary? pops-up, blocking his path. Her stance is curious, as she appears to be either getting ready to stop Jesus or wave him through like a bull with her towel. Not sure.

The towel Mary is holding is another curiosity, as it seems it has Jesus’ face imprinted on it. This clearly shows that merchandise hawkers had no decency even back then, as they appeared to be printing “Martyr Jesus” items as Jesus was on His way to Calvary! I liken it to when they print those “Super Bowl Champion” shirts before the game is even played.

In any case, I thought it was amusing in a “that scene is totally wrong” sort of way since I’m more of a go-for-realistic-depiction kind of guy.

Creative Procession Alfombra - Antigua Guatemala

Elaborate alfombra display

The Arco as viewed North to South. Volcan Agua (barely) viewable in the background.

Calle del Arco Near Arco Santa Calina - Antigua Guatemala

Calle del Arco

Dyed sawdust used to color alfombras is definitely more colorful this time around.

dyed Sawdust - Antigua GuatemalaDyed sawdust

My favorite pic of the bunch. Mayan girl taking a rest on a wooden bench, admiring an alfombra.

Mayan Girl Looks at Alfombra - holy week photos Antigua Guatemala

Taking a break

At 12 p.m., the first procession of the day got under way, in front of San Jose Cathedral. We decided to get up at the top of the stairs, as we guessed (correctly) that this would offer the better view.

The other advantage is that we were able to take pictures that other thoughtless tourists made impossible at ground-level. There were people that behaved as if the procession was conducted solely for their enjoyment and had no qualms about getting into the faces of procession participants to snap pics away, ruining shots for everyone else behind them.

Exhibit A below.

Procession Leaving San Jose Cathedral - Antigua Guatemala

Procession leaving Cathedral

Once we were in place, we knew we’d have a good view. The air was thick with incense. No, incense doesn’t make you high, but at least it didn’t burn the nostrils either. Part of the experience, so I was more than OK with it.

Crowd waiting for procession to start - Antigua Guatemala

Crowd waiting for procession to start

Crowds were massive, covering the entire park. It was hot, about lunch time, so some people were a bit cranky. Like the woman behind me who thought a good 10% of the upper platform belonged to her. I mean, she was wearing a huge backpack and clearing her zone with elbows open as if she were LeBron James coming down with a rebound. Took a couple of shots to the ribs, but managed to hang on to my spot successfully.

What I do for you, my dear reader…. Enjoy the spoils…

Holy Week crowds at Parque Central - holy week photos Antigua GuatemalaHoly Week crowds at Parque Central

Crown and Nails - Procession - Antigua Guatemala

Pageantry of Good Friday’s procession

Then, the KKK-hooded guys made an appearance. Well, that’s who they resembled anyway.

Actually, their costumes pre-date KKK activities, so we’re cool. I don’t think political correctness is ingrained in the culture here and won’t be for a while. I’m positive that in the US, hoods would’ve been replaced by Abe Lincoln-style hats or some other nonsense, tradition be damned.

Black-robed cucuruchos are only seen on Friday - Antigua Guatemala

Black-robed cucuruchos are only seen on Friday

Hoods have nothing to do with the KKK - Antigua Guatemala

Hoods have nothing to do with the KKK

This procession symbolizes Jesus being taken to the tomb.

Jesus' symbolic burial - Antigua Guatemala

Jesus’ symbolic burial

Either the dude below is half-asleep and not carrying his weight, or he’s got some sort of mental endurance yoga meditation-trick going on. Did I mention it was really HOT?

exhausted Anda Bearers - Antigua Guatemala

Heavy andas + hot temperatures + heavy black clothing = exhaustion

Funeral music - Antigua Guatemala

Funeral music

Procession in Front of Palacio del Ayuntamiento - Antigua Guatemala

Crowded everywhere – watch out for pickpockets

A second procession followed right behind the big one. This one was preceded by various women, among them Maya, wearing mourning-type clothing. This is one of those times I’d think laughing does not fit with what’s going on and neither does texting.

What can I tell you? All I ask for is a little bit of theater to go along with my religious processions, that’s all.

Mayan Mourners - Antigua Guatemala

Women wear funeral veils (madrileñas)

Smaller andas trailed, depicting Mary, John, and a third woman I assumed to be Mary Magdalene since she and John were the only disciple that stuck around while the others fled.

Mary's processional anda - holy week photos Antigua Guatemala

Mary’s processional anda

Notice only women are allowed to carry Mary’s anda. This is the case in all processions. Why? Not sure.

But notice Mary Magdalene’s anda has no such restrictions. Was it because she was the slutty one in the Bible and is comfortable around a bunch of men? I don’t think that’s fair to her. AT. ALL.

There are questions I don’t think I’ll ever get answers to, even if I get an audience with the Pope himself.

Smaller andas trail the main anda - Antigua Guatemala

Smaller andas trail the main anda

After the procession was over, we headed home since we were exhausted. There were other processions, including Easter Sunday’s big resurrection-themed procession, but by that time I was done with Good Friday, and I could no longer take another whiff of incense anymore.

In all, I’m super-glad I was able to be here to see them in person. They’re truly amazing to see and experience. I recommend to everyone to come down at least one time to see them in person.

They are unforgettable.

Processional andas heading north - Antigua Guatemala

Processional andas heading north

*****

Check out my Antigua Guatemala Pinterest page for more photos of one of the prettiest Spanish colonial cities in the world.

ATMs and Banking in Antigua Guatemala

5B ATM

One of the first things you’ll grow to dislike, once your travel for longer than your standard two-week vacation, are banking regulations.

When you visit for short spells, ATM and credit card transaction fees won’t amount to that much. In fact, you may avoid them all together if you use Traveler’s Checks and your bank provides them free of fees.

Another strategy is to convert to local currency all the cash you think you’ll be using during your stay. Both approaches may work, but only if you plan to stick to touristy places (that take traveler’s checks) or don’t mind carrying huge wads of cash with you (not recommended).

What to do? Here are some simple tips that will help you manage your money better during short-term or long-term stays:

Watch the Exchange Rates

Exchange booths at airports usually are among the worst offenders when it comes to horrible (for you) exchange rates. I recommend that you only exchange what’s necessary to get you through the day or weekend until you get to a bank.

Banks almost always offer better rates than airports and currency exchange booths at tourist-heavy areas (I’m looking at you, Niagara Falls area ripoff-artists).

Put Away That Credit Card (If You Can Help It)

Another option is to use ATMs to withdraw needed amounts from your Visa/Mastercard check card. The advantage of using a check card is that you stay away from the typically outrageous “advance fees” that credit cards charge.

The downside is that you will most likely get charged an ATM fee whether you’re using a check card or credit card. There are exceptions, however.

The Best Travel Card in the World

Before embarking on your travels, you’re well advised to open a Charles Schwab High-Yield Checking account – the greatest card ever for travelers. They will reimburse all your ATM fees and offer competitive exchange rates. And, get this NO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES! Most credit cards will charge you 1%-3% fee on any foreign transaction.

They also have excellent customer service. I’ve already called them twice about ATMs that malfunctioned and did not spit out the amount I requested, and they refunded the money both times, with zero hassle.

Beware of ATM Fraud

On the topic of malfunctioning ATMs, watch where you stick that credit/debit card. Don’t just jam it in whatever ATM slot you come across, as there have been cases here where crude skimming devices have been found affixed to machines. Please practice safe banking ;)

While traveling, I’ve yet to be hit with any fraudulent charges. I credit this to staying away from using my card for point-of-sale purchases, checking out all ATMs I come across for signs of tampering, and only using those ATMs that are inside banks or guarded by lock and key after the bank closes. No 24-hour accessible ATMs for me.

Banking in Antigua Guatemala

In 2011, there was a rash of complaints about fraudulent credit card activity near the ATMs in Antigua Guatemala‘s Parque Central. By collecting victims’ accounts of compromise, others were able to narrow the culprit down to specific ATMs belonging to BAC Bank that was transmitting user’s unencrypted information to the bank’s branch nearby. The unencrypted information allowed hackers to sniff out the data traffic and get ATM users’ account information.

Again, this is why I recommend using ATMs inside the bank, or visibly hardwired to a branch within the same physical structure.

For ATM withdrawals in Guatemala, you’ll be limited to only Q2,000 max per day if using a yellow 5B Bank ATMs such as this one – below is what they look like:

5B ATM Guatemala

5B ATMs

Banco Industrial (BI) blue ATMs will allow you only Q2,000 max per withdrawal, but up to 3 times, for a maximum of Q6,000 per day.

Banco Industrial ATM Guatemala

Banco Industrial ATM

BI and 5B ATMs are nearly everywhere, while Banco Santander ATMs (white and red) are a little harder to find. There’s a Santander ATM I’ve used inside Porta Hotels in Antigua.

Santander ATMs will also allow you three withdrawals of Q2,000, and offer the option to withdraw in dollars as well (I haven’t tried the latter option – why pay exchange rate fees twice?)

I haven’t tried BAC Bank ATMs’ (white with red Lion logo on the side), even though they’re right near Antigua’s Central Park. No need to when there’s a perfectly safe 5B machine inside the CitiBank branch (above), on the Northeastern side of the park.

Opening a Bank Account in Antigua Guatemala

Opening a foreign bank account is one of the greatest challenges you may face as an expat, depending on the country you choose to settle in. Just because the bank is the same as where your account is located in your country of origin, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll be able to use your account the same way or even open another account at the foreign branch – which is what happened to me at CitiBank.

I inquired at CitiBank about opening an account in Guatemala. The requirements to do so were the following:

1- Passport

2- Another foreign ID – Driver’s License for example

3- Application with information about Guatemalan Sponsor and said sponsor’s national ID (Cedula)

4- 1,000 dollars or 1,500 quetzals (Not a typo – doesn’t make sense to me either).

5- Copy of Utility Bill in your name

Meet all these requirements, and it still won’t guarantee you a bank account. Usually, other “required” documents tend to be asked for after the fact.

So plan your withdrawal strategy accordingly to avoid fees. It’s also a good idea to keep a reasonable amount on hand, safely tucked away at home. You never know when you might need to get out of a jam quickly should an emergency come up, as it’s not easy to get a hold of a significant sum quickly.

Happy travels and good luck banking in Antigua Guatemala!

 

*****

Check out my Pinterest page about Antigua Guatemala, one of the prettiest Spanish colonial cities in the world.

Good Friday Procession: La Merced Church

One of the most interesting events I have seen during my travels is the annual Easter Week religious processions in Antigua Guatemala. There are others, notably in Mexico and Spain, but it can be argued that Antigua’s have the best overall displays. Antigua’s beautiful colonial building make for a colorful background, which definitely contributes to the perception.

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Processions

The main processions (and matching ones in Guatemala City) occur during through Lenten season and Easter Week. One of the most important, the Good Friday procession, begins Thursday night, shortly before midnight, with a reenactment of Jesus’ arrest.

There are other processions occurring during the weeks preceding Easter Week, though most are really small compared to the main ones. Usually, children from nearby schools carry them out. Below is one such charming procession that we encountered, by chance, while hanging out at Antigua’s Parque Central (Central Park).

school-sponsored procession

Small, school-sponsored procession

The platform that the children below are carrying is called an “anda”. The ones used for the main processions weigh about 8,000 pounds and must be carried by shifts of close to 100 people dressed in purple robes. The purple-robed guys are called “cucuruchos” and their likeness is sold at the market in form of dolls for children.

Being a “cucurucho” or anda carrier entails signing up for duty (varies depending on how important the procession) and buying the outfit, which can run upwards of $50, is made of nicer material than the simpler ones.

On Thursday before Good Friday, we took a stroll through Antigua’s main streets to witness the “alfombras” or carpets being designed and laid out. Alfombras are as varied in design as they are in construction materials. The most popular alfombras are made out of dyed sawdust.

Below are students building a huge alfombra in front of San Jose Cathedral, in front of Parque Central.

Making a sawdust alfombra

Making a sawdust alfombra

Boards are laid out as to not disturb the sawdust and cardboard patterns are placed and filled in according to the design.

Laying a sawdust pattern

Laying sawdust pattern

The job of “Water Sprayer” is very important. Someone needs to constantly spray the sawdust with a fine mist to keep it in place.

Keeping sawdust moist

Keeping sawdust moist

Being a computer geek, I loved the pairing of traditional carpet with the built-in QR code. A publicity agency created it, which I thought was a stroke of genius. Go ahead, try it. It works!

We took a break to cool down by the water fountain at Parque Central.

Nighttime Alfombras

After checking out the alfombras, we headed back home for dinner. Since processions started after midnight, we decided it was best to catch some sleep and come back later. Proved to be a smart decision.

When we returned, alfombra building was still going on in earnest, with the aid of huge floodlights.

Making alfombras before midnight

Making alfombras before midnight

We headed to Parque Central area. Lots of people milling about. The procession started at 3 am, so we had some time to kill.

Fire jugglers at the park

Fire jugglers at the park

As we were milling about in front of the Cathedral above, we heard a commotion and noise from up the street. It was definitely headed our way.

The Sentencing

And lo and behold, a totally unexpected (for us and everyone else there, it seemed) cavalry of Roman soldiers showed up and lined up on each side of the street. Later on, it dawned on me that the whole act and ensuing processions were timed and acted out in concert with Jesus’ biblical account of His death. Basically, the city became the whole stage. Pretty neat, I thought.

Unbeknownst to us, at midnight, in front of La Merced Church (the yellow church in the pics), there was a promulgation made regarding Jesus and an arrest order was issued by the religious leaders of the time. It was more jealousy than anything, according to the biblical account, and was facilitated by Judas’ betrayal.

The Roman soldiers wound their way around the city, which symbolized the part of the story where the soldiers went to Gethsemane Garden to apprehend Jesus. Of note is that no live actor ever played the role of Jesus. His only appearance was in the form of statues on top of the andas.

The costumes were better than your average Halloween version. I thought they did the job nicely. The swords spears and swords were definitely made out of metal and the torches were very hot and real.

The soldiers stopped for a few minutes in front of San Jose Cathedral, to simulate Jesus’ arrest. Once Jesus’ was “arrested”, the soldiers made their way back to La Merced Church to be “tried” in front of the religious leaders.

A funny moment happened on the way back to the church. The soldiers marched in two columns along the street, and no one was able to get in between the two formations. There was a soldier (pictured below) with a very real-looking sword at the back of the line making sure no one wandered into the middle of the formations.

Sure enough, an absent-minded blonde (yes, she was blonde – I’m just describing what I saw… no offense meant ;) got carried away snapping pics and wandered into the middle of the formation. Almost immediately a chorus broke out, in English: “Get out! Get out! Get out!” as the soldier moved menacingly towards her with the sword.

“Someone will be dying alongside Jesus today”, I thought.

Thankfully, the suddenly-aware girl realized her predicament and quickly sneaked away to the side, thus sparing her own life.

The soldiers continued their march almost uneventfully after that.

centurion with sword

Prop swords and shields

Marching towards La Merced Church

Marching towards La Merced Church

I said “almost uneventfully” above because the soldier below dropped a torch right near some tourists. Thankfully, no one was burned and he picked up the torch again without incident.

Dropped torch

Torch on the floor

Candy stalls next to La Merced

Candy stalls at La Merced

Once the soldiers returned to the church, we had some more time to kill as we waited until 3 am, when the main procession was set to start from La Merced Church. We went back to look at more alfombras and hang out at Parque Central.

Floodlights help alfombra makers at night

Thursday night alfombras are very elaborate

Even though my daughter had slept a few hours before we returned to watch the processions and alfombras, drowsiness was starting to set in.

Once it was close to 3 am, we returned to La Merced Church.

Good Friday Procession

Waiting for Procession to Start in Front of La Merced Church

Waiting for the pre-dawn procession

Below are Herod and the two thieves that were to be crucified alongside Jesus.

A hush fell as the anda made its way out of the church.

First anda, depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.

Second anda, depicting a Jesus after He was savagely beaten by the Roman soldiers.

This anda was HUGE – one of the largest in Guatemala – and depicted Jesus carrying the cross on the way to the crucifixion site.

zAndas are not carried at a steady pace. The move slowly, starting and stopping, and sometimes just slowly rocking back and forth, while New Orleans-type funeral music plays.

Of note is that the figure in the andas often looks to the right. It’s been said that this is for the benefit of the crowds standing to the side.

Good Friday procession

The andas are so tall, that pole bearers must walk in front of the anda, lifting power cables out of the way.

Once the anda left to make its rounds, we decided to head back home and catch some sleep. The next procession would start at 12 pm, which left us time to sleep a bit.

On the way back, I took some more pictures of alfombras.

Some of the alfombras are made by families that have been residing in Antigua for generations. They lay down the alfombras in front of their house and this is a yearly family project that usually goes back generations.

Some of the alfombras are interesting, such as the one made with mangoes. Alfombras are made to be walked on by anda bearers, so some of these alfombras present a challenge in an obstacle-course sort of way.

It was an amazing experience to witness this tradition going back centuries. I highly recommend it. Be aware that hotels and hostels get filled up around this time, so if you’re planning on attending a procession, it is best to get a confirmed reservation as soon as possible.

*****

More Holy Week (Semana Santa) pics: https://www.okantigua.com/category/holy-week/

*****

What’s your favorite alfombra pattern?

La Aurora Zoo, Guatemala City: Visitors Guide

Last Saturday morning, our family was sitting around, wondering what to do for the day. We didn’t want to travel too far. Not likely anyway, since we hadn’t planned for any trips. We could always go hang out in Antigua, but today we all agreed we felt like doing something different. My wife said she knew just the thing to do in Guatemala City. She suggested a picnic at the La Aurora Zoo.

Great idea!” I exclaimed, and we were off to the races preparing our food for the picnic. Well… she was off to the races, to be honest :)

The Ms. prepared a picnic basket and off we went. We stopped on our way out of Antigua to buy some freshly baked bread to go with our chicken salad, and some avocados to pair up with the sandwiches.

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Visiting Zoológico La Aurora (La Aurora Zoo)

Getting There

Since it was Saturday, the roads were clear and we reached the city limits of Guatemala City in about 40 minutes. From there, it was another 10-15 minutes until we reached the zoo, which is very close to La Aurora International Airport. The entrance to the zoo is off of Boulevar Liberación.

Roosevelt Avenue

On the way, we drove by Tikal Futura, the building on the left (pic below). Tikal Futura is a mall/hotel, and one of the closest malls to Antigua. It’s a decent shopping center, but there are much nicer ones further into the city – Miraflores Mall next door is nicer. Pricesmart is located behind this mall as well.

Guatemala has a modern city feel to it, at least when you drive through the main avenues.

Tikal Futura Mall

La Aurora Zoo’s History

Entrance to La Aurora Zoo

The zoo itself has been modernized. It was inaugurated in 1924. By the 1960s it was pretty much abandoned, as the civil war was raging in the country. Recent restoration efforts have made the place a top-notch family destination.

Ticket gate at La Aurora Zoo

Prices at La Aurora Zoo

Prices are more than reasonable – only Q33 (~$5)for adults and Q16 ($2.25) for children. Parking costs an extra Q30 for vehicles, Q40 for buses, Q10 for motorcycles.

La Aurora Zoo prices (old prices – see update above photo)

Hours of Operation

The zoo is closed Mondays and is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 9 am to 4 pm.

The zoo’s grounds are VERY well-kept and a pleasure to walk through. Lots of sponsors, including Pepsi (the only brand of soft-drink available inside the park), have invested heavily to make the zoo what it is today.

Inside La Aurora Zoo

Since it was lunchtime, we put off walking the park and set out to have our picnic in one of the many tables available to the public.

It was slightly jarring to be allowed into the zoo without any bag-check whatsoever and with food obviously in hand. The picnic idea was a smashing success.

 Once we finished with lunch, it was time to walk around the park

Exhibitions

The zoo has three theme areas. America’s region (emphasis in animals native to Central America), Africa’s Region, and the Asian Region. It also hosts a large collection of snakes in its herpetarium, an aviary, and a small aquarium.

The zoo has been recently redesigned to deliver the experience newer zoos emphasize, which is to display animals in a cage-free environment. This is due in part to an uproar over the death of an icon at the zoo. More on that below.

First up, the African section.

There are train rides for the kiddies.

There are wooden ponies for kids to pose with.

I loved the Jaguar display. Jaguars were thought to be gods by the Mayan people. In fact, the biggest Mayan temple, in the Tikal ruins, is called Temple of the Great Jaguar. These animals do have an elegance about them that seems to be missing from lions and tigers.

Mocosita

Below is “Bomby”, the Asian elephant that replaced “Mocosita”, another beloved elephant that died in 2008. Mocosita was a national icon and is remembered fondly by Guatemalans that grew up seeing her at the zoo regularly. Mocosita (the name is an endearing term for a kid – it means “runny-nosed“) was brought to Guatemala from Calcutta, India, in 1955, at the age of three. She was named via a contest organized by the local newspaper, in 1957, and quickly became a celebrity. Her birthday was even noted every year by the local press.

Elephants are supposed to live between 70-80 years, but Mocosita died under disputed circumstances, one Friday night, at the age of 56. There were accusations thrown around that union workers were to blame since they failed to help the staff when they tried to get Mocosita up on her feet that night. Mocosita had been feeling ill, due to an apparent heart attack, and was apparently unable to stand on her own, which is how elephants sleep. Leaving her on her side all night apparently caused her to have kidney failure. When video of the burial surfaced (warning: video may be upsetting to some) people were outraged at the callous way they perceived her burial had been carried out.

The news was devastating to many people, who were angry that union workers let this happen. The workers defended themselves, as they did not want to be blamed for her death. Eventually, the public outcry led to improved conditions for all animals. Now you know, the rest of the story.

Below is Bomby, strolling around. Bomby has her own story, as she was allegedly “donated” (or forcibly rescued – depending on who you ask) by a local circus.

Petting Zoo, Penguins, and Playgrounds

The zoo has the requisite petting zoo for the kids. They’ve also somewhat recently added a penguin showcase area.

Esquilandia, a mini theme-park with mechanical rides and a giant slide, is a new addition. It has food stalls with carnival-appropriate fare as well. While entrance to the theme park is free, visitors need to purchase tickets to use the rides. Each ride costs anywhere between Q10 to Q20.

The zoo goes through about five-horses worth of meat every week to feed carnivores.

Food Options at La Aurora Zoo

The food court offered a decent selection and, shockingly, the restaurants were not overpriced. In fact, some of the meal deals were even better than what you could get at the same restaurants on the outside. There are a bunch of fast food restaurants inside, among them, Domino’s Pizza, Pollo Campero, Hamburguesas Berlin, Taquería El Camioncito, Zoo Hot Dogs, plus a few ice cream stands.

Conclusion

In all, La Aurora Zoo is a very nice diversion, especially if you have young ones in tow. Inexpensive, clean, it is a worthwhile stop if you have some time to burn in Guatemala City.

*****

Have you visited La Aurora Zoo?

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Renting In Antigua Guatemala Like A Local

When I first started looking for an ideal destination for my first stop on the “slow travel” world tour, many cities popped up on the list. Ambergris Caye, Belize, was an early front-runner. English is spoken there, and the beaches are gorgeous. A perfect combo.

I also considered Granada, Nicaragua and either Las Tablas or Boquete, Panama. All great destinations and well worth a stop later down the road. However, they were at a very significant disadvantage.

I’d already been to Antigua Guatemala and had fallen in love with itI mean, look at the picture below. Wouldn’t you also?

Antigua Guatemala rentals

Antigua Guatemala’s gorgeous backdrop

Fast forward to today, and I’m pretty happy with the decision. Antigua Guatemala is a great jumping off point for attractive destinations throughout Guatemala. Stick with this site long enough, and I’ll show you what I mean.

One of the first hurdles I needed to clear was finding a place to stay. I did the first thing a digital nomad would do. I googled.

Eventually, I found a place that so far I’m satisfied with. These are the lessons I learned about moving overseas as a first-time expat:

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Avoid Renting in Antigua Guatemala at “Gringo” or Expat Prices

Some websites online will cater to expats and charge a premium, even when the same rental property advertises for less elsewhere. I routinely came across properties that were listed for much, MUCH more on websites aimed at English-speaking readers than what they were listed in the local classifieds.

To avoid being gouged, try two simple strategies when renting in Antigua Guatemala:

1) As I mentioned, search Guatemala online classifieds. The drawback will naturally be that they will often be in the native language, though not always. Fortunately, rental descriptions are pretty easy to figure out (number of bedrooms, bathrooms, neighborhood, and utilities –if any– included).

2) The best investment you can make, money-wise, is to learn the local language. If you or a friend (local or expat) speaks the local language, you’re less likely to be charged a premium if you let them inquire about the property first. You or they may even be able to bargain the price down if you don’t sound like a foreigner. Foreigners are usually thought to be loaded with money.

3) Not all rental agencies – or even real estate agents – are created equally. Because there’s no regulating body for rental agents in Guatemala, anyone can jump into the market and fish for tenants. Marketing agreements are nonexistent, so the same property can be advertised by multiple agencies, with often substantial differences.

Since agents draw their salary from commissions (usually the first month’s rent if a tenant signs a one-year contract), they’re likely working against your interests, looking to get you into the highest-priced property they can.

Don’t rely on their word that the rental price quoted is the lowest price possible the owner will agree to, or that there aren’t any cheaper properties on the market.

It’s Worth Paying a Little Extra if Utilities Are Already Included

Utilities may be hard to hook up if not already in place. I learned this the hard way when I moved into the property I’m at today.

I rented a property with the understanding that hooking up Internet service would not be problematic. I won’t rehash the details, you can read that here, but it wasn’t as easy as was portrayed by the people I rented from.

Keep in mind that to obtain service, you will sometimes need to show proof that you’ll be renting the property for a while. Often you won’t be able to get service at all if you’re a foreigner, for lack of a required document or local bank account.

Save yourself a headache and get as many utilities included in the rental price as possible.

Don’t Rush Into Renting Without Getting a Lay of the Land

At first, it all will seem exciting and new. You’ll want to be in the middle of everything, which is fine IF you’re on a short vacation.

Once you live in the place for an extended time, you may start gaining a new level of appreciation for peace. The crush of tourists usually gets annoying when you cease being a tourist. That cool, happening bar half-a-block away will drive you insane a month later when you need to catch up on some sleep.

Also, desirable locations tend to be much higher priced than cheaper neighborhoods a mile or two from the center of the action. But discovering those rental property gems that combine affordability with accessibility and safety will take a bit of time.

What do I recommend?

Stay for a month in a hostel or hotel that offers monthly rental rates. Not many hotels advertise monthly rates, though some do. You can also try AirBnB.

It never hurts to ask the hotel owner what sort of deal they will make with you. Sometimes you’ll even get daily breakfast thrown into the deal.

Try to bring the rate down by requesting maid service only once or twice a week instead of daily visits. They’ll be very much open to hearing your proposal, especially if it’s the off-season.

Your Rental Deposit May Not Always Be Refundable

In the US, it is often customary to get your deposit back if you leave the rental property in good shape. Understand ahead of time that depending on the country, your deposit may be as good as gone, and you may not see a dime once you move out of the property.

For that reason, be suspicious of owners asking for more than one month’s deposit, or any other exorbitant sum. Be prepared never to see your deposit again, be super grateful if you do get it all back.

Be Wary of Rental Contracts You Don’t Understand

Don’t enter solely into a verbal agreement. Obtain proof, in writing, that you are the occupant of the property, for the length and rate agreed. Having legal backing will protect you in the case the owner decides to raise the rent midway through your stay.

It will also protect you if someone else claims they want to sell the property and need you to move out. By law, they won’t be able to do anything until your lease runs out, provided that you are paying on time and have receipts showing so.

Keep in mind that the contract will likely be in the local language, so bring along someone that knows the language and can translate it for you, if necessary. Also know that in some countries, like Guatemala, a contract written in English is not valid legally, therefore unenforceable and useless.

Hopefully, these tips save you from making an expensive mistake and help you avoid an unpleasant experience overseas.

What has been your experience when renting abroad?

I’d love to hear your comments!