Getting Around: Driving In Antigua Guatemala

driving antigua guatemala

Antigua Guatemala is a small city of under 40,000 residents. Most people get around Antigua on foot or using a patchwork network of privately-owned public transportation.

Many residents own motorcycles or scooters to get around town. Those who can afford it prefer cars for trips to the city and nearest big-box stores and supermarkets.

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Driving in Antigua Guatemala – Roads and Rules

Cars drive on the right side of the road and have the driver’s seat and steering wheel on their left side. The legal minimum age in Guatemala for driving is 18 years. Road signs and rules follow international standards, and signs on the main roads are in Spanish.

Drinking and driving are strictly prohibited. Seat belts are mandatory, but it’s rarely enforced in Antigua. The use of a mobile phone while driving is prohibited, but again, this is rarely enforced in Antigua Guatemala.

cell phone and driving guatemala

Operating a cell phone while driving is supposed to be prohibited

The standard speed limits are 80 km/h on expressways, 50 km/h in town. Due to Antigua’s cobblestone streets and uneven pavement, it’s recommended that drivers slow down – those who don’t want to damage their vehicle’s suspension at least.

Nearly all roads in Guatemala are toll-free except for the expressway that leads from Palin, Escuintla to the Pacific Coast.

Children’s Car Seats

Currently, there are no laws in Guatemala requiring the use of car seat for children of any age. However, for the safety of children, visitors should provide them with car seats, and requests the same when renting vehicles at local car rental agencies.

Drivers are aggressive and don’t tend to be considerate towards pedestrians. Drivers also frequently disregard stop signs and have a tendency to speed.

International Driving Permits

Visitors are allowed to drive in Guatemala with their home country’s driver’s license for the first 30 days. You’ll be required to carry your passport to prove you’re staying legally in Guatemala.

Foreigners staying in Guatemala for longer than 30 days can drive here with an International Driving Permit (IDP). Guatemala does not issue IDPs – you should purchase yours in advance. To obtain one, visit your country’s national automobile association (in the US, that would be AAA). Guatemala only recognizes IDPs based on the 1949 Geneva Convention, which is issued by many countries. Having an IDP alone is not sufficient to drive in Guatemala – you must show IDP and a valid driver’s license and passport if requested.

If obtaining an IDP is a challenge, there is an alternative way of driving past 30 days in the country. The Guatemalan National Civil Police will issue “permisos temporal” (temporary permits) to foreigners who hold valid driver’s licenses from another country and who want to drive in Guatemala beyond their initial 30 day period in the country.

Permisos cost 30Q per month of validity, and are only issued for the duration of the applicant’s legal stay in Guatemala. When driving with a permiso, you’ll also end to carry your valid foreign driver’s license. You can obtain a permiso at:

Departamento de Transito

Galerias del Sur
Calzada Aguilar Batres 34-70, Zona 11
Tel. (502) 2320-4545
US Embassy in Guatemala

Gas Stations

Gas stations are found all across Guatemala. In Antigua proper, there are four: One at 4a Calle Oriente and 1a Avenida Norte, another a block away, in front of La Concepción Convent, a Shell Station in Santa Inés, on the road that leads to San Lucas, and a Texaco Station in front of Soleil Hotel, on the road that leads to Ciudad Vieja.

The vast majority of gas stations provide full service – in Antigua, all gas stations are full service. Gas stations close during the night. A liter of regular gasoline costs roughly 22Q (as of May 2018). High octane gas and diesel are widely available, and payment is possible by credit card or cash.

gas station antigua guatemala

There are four gas stations in Antigua, not a single traffic light

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Getting gas at a full service is easy. When you pull into the station, an attendant may direct you to a stall. Just park, open your window and shut off your car. Tell the attendant what kind of gas you want (e.g. “regular”), how much (e.g. “lleno” for a full tank) and how you will pay (e.g. “credit card”). He will ask for your NIT number (to fill out a receipt for tax purposes, which you can decline). Make sure the pump counter start at all zeroes.

The attendant may also offer to wash your windows, check your tires’ air pressure. They can also verify the vehicle’s oil levels if requested – attendants accept tips.

Parking

Parking in Antigua’s streets cost 10Q a day – you can buy the “marbete” (permit) from Municipal transit agents stationed at various points in town. If you’re driving a vehicle with foreign license plates, you won’t be required to purchase a parking permit. There are secure parking lots in town, each costing about 10Q an hour.

Parking is prohibited for vehicles where the curb is painted red, white (reserved for motorcycles), blue (reserved for the disabled), in front of garage entrances, and wherever there’s a no parking sign (“Prohibido Estacionar” – big E with a line through it). Don’t block driveways either, or your car may be towed.

Parking in Antigua Guatemala

Parking? Be prepared to pay the extortion fee

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If driving a car registered in Guatemala, you can obtain a “calcomania” (parking decal), which cancels the need to buy parking permits.

If you’re renting in Antigua, you can get the parking sticker at Mini-Tesorería Municipal (5a Calle Poniente #46, Centro Cultural Cesar Brañas), open Monday through Friday, from 8 am to 5 pm, and Saturdays, from 9 am to 12 pm. You’ll need the following documents:

  • Documento Personal de Identificación (DPI) or passport.
  • Rental contract for your living space, in your name.
  • “Tarjeta de circulación” (Vehicle registration card) in your name.
  • Boleto de Ornato 2017 (tax receipt) issued in Antigua Guatemala. The cost of this tax certificate is based on the applicant’s self-declared monthly income – the fee can be anywhere from 10Q to a max of 150Q.
  • Vehicle’s title in your name.

Car Minders

In Antigua, you’ll be almost sure to encounter the hated “cuidacarros” (car minders), people who’ll offer to help you park and will look after your vehicle for a fee.

Cuidacarros operate illegally – most prominently on weekends, often extorting drivers for fees as high as 50Q to ensure nothing “accidentally” happens to the car. Those who don’t pay the fee can expect to find that their car was broken into, or damage done to the paint and/or side mirrors.

There’s a plan in the works to rid the street of cuidacarros, but other than occasional spot checks by the Police, nothing has been conclusively resolved.

Notify local Police if accosted by a cuidacarro, or avoid them altogether by parking in a public lot.

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Want more tips about living in Antigua?

Check out the Living in Antigua section.

Central Park, Antigua Guatemala: Visitors Guide

Antigua Guatemala Central Park

Parque Central is as old as the city, but while everything in the city suggests that for once time stood still, this park continues to evolve. Today, it’s one of the best places to people-watch and a favorite meeting place for locals and tourists alike.

From the city’s inception, the plaza was designed to be the center of social life. For a long time, historians have thought that Italian architect Juan Bautista Antonelli designed the layout of the city – historical records cast doubt on this assertion – Antonelli never traveled to the Americas. In any event, the founders conceived the capital in the classical colonial Spanish design – the main plaza at the center of a grid layout.

Antigua Guatemala Central Park

Central Park, Antigua Guatemala

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The Many Names of Parque Central

Parque Central, as it’s most commonly referred to nowadays, has had many other names. It was known from its inception as Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza), which denotes its importance compared to all other plazas. Also known as Plaza Real (Royal Plaza) because official celebrations and announcements took place here as well as public punishments and executions by hanging – later by firing squad.

Headquartered at the Palace of the Captain-Generals was a royal regiment was known as the “Dragons,” consisting of 100 soldiers or so – the plaza was a convenient location for military exercises and parades, hence the name Plaza de Armas (Armaments Plaza).

The name Parque Central was a 20th-century designation when the local government changed the plaza into a garden-like setting, reminiscent of those found in Europe. The park once had statues of Greek goddesses placed throughout – later removed and some set in a small park near La Candelaria Church.

Antigua Guatemala Central Park

Fountain of the Sirens, Antigua Guatemala

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Evolution of the Plaza

Though a bit hard to envision now with all the trees surrounding it, try to imagine it as it was, almost 500 years ago. Just a barren, all-purpose dirt lot – no fountain (added later in 1617), only a water reservoir for horses and men alike off in the southwest corner (tank added 1555).

The plaza at the time was a hub of activity, as sellers from all regions came to offer their wares in the newly established capital. Even in the post-colonial era, the plaza served as the city’s market well into the 20th century and as the main bus terminal.

Wisely, both market and bus terminal relocated to the outskirts of the town in the later part of the 20th century.

Fountain of the Sirens

Architect Diego de Porres began the process that remade the was commissioned to build a new fountain, which he finished in 1738. De Porres installed the fountain at the center of the plaza.

Named “Fuente de las Sirenas” (Fountain of the Sirens), it earned praise for its design and craftsmanship. Reportedly, Porres was inspired by the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna, Italy.

While his first choice was to incorporate dolphins into the fountain’s design, he settled for water buffaloes instead – the architect wasn’t familiar enough with dolphins, and Google Image Search did not yet exist. You can spot the water buffaloes partly submerged under each siren. Get a full view on weekdays, when the fountain is emptied and cleaned.

Original sirens, Captains-Palace Museum

Original sirens, Captains-Palace Museum

The sirens now adorning Antigua Guatemala’s Parque Central were replaced in the mid-20th century. To see the original sirens in person, you’ll have to visit the museum at the Palacio de Los Capitanes-Generales, south of Parque Central.

The First Mercado

The market mentioned earlier was located on the plaza’s northern edge, facing Palacio del Ayuntamiento. Crude stalls, called “cajones” – literally “big boxes,” sold all manner of produce, fruit, meats, and housewares – regatonas (female adjective for someone who haggles), manned these stalls. They made their money wheeling and dealing with merchants at the entrance to the city and reselling goods at the plaza.

The plaza continued to be the hub of commercial activity, especially after the earthquakes of 1773, when many buildings around the city were heavily damaged. The market grew so unwieldy and busy that it obstructed the circulation of carriages and laws were passed to address the situation.

fountain of the sirens antigua guatemala

New sirens, Parque Central

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In 1912, the market had moved a block away to the then-abandoned convent of Compañía de Jesús, which they occupied until the earthquakes of 1976 made the building unsafe.

The park was also the main bus stop for Guatemala City-bound buses until they were moved to the edge of town. In the early part of the mid-1900s, a kiosk, in the style of traditional Mexican plazas, was erected atop the fountain, later removed due to complaints from residents.

Plaza Mayor Antigua Guatemala

Easter decorations, Parque Central

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The Plaques of Parque Central

At the park, look for the plaque honoring Quirio Cataño, on the southwestern corner, one of the city’s greatest sculptors of religious imagery.

On the side of the park nearest to the cathedral, look for a plaque – installed in 1946, commemorating the Antigua Guatemala – California avocado connection, as avocados were imported from here to give birth to California’s avocado industry.

Scientology, Antigua Guatemala

L. Ron Hubbard plaque, Antigua Guatemala

The latest addition to the park is an oddly out-of-place plaque paying homage to L. Ronald Hubbard, Scientology’s founder. Hubbard, as far as I know, never made it to Antigua. I also feel like mentioning – I’m sure it’s totally unrelated – that the Mayor of Antigua at the time, Adolfo Vivar, is currently in jail due to corruption and money laundering charges to the tune of almost $3 million dollars.

Why Lactating Sirens?

It’s common to find sirens used as decorative touches on fountains, doors and even church facades in Antigua – architect Diego de Porres was fond of them and popularized their use. However, the lactating sirens of Parque Central are said to have roots in Mayan folklore.

According to local legend, in this valley once lived a Mayan chieftain, Ataví Pamaxanque, – a fair and wise ruler according to his people. One day, as Pamaxanque made the rounds, he noticed a few babies crying. Inquiring as to why the children’s mothers weren’t tending to them, he learned that said mothers were refusing to breastfeed them. Enraged, he ordered the four women be tied with reeds, taken to the springs in the valley – where the park is now located, and be left to die as punishment, forever to serve as a warning to other mothers who dared refuse to look after their children’s well-being.

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Antigua Guatemala Spanish Schools: A Guide

Antigua Guatemala spanish schools

Antigua Guatemala is a popular destination for Spanish-language learners, as there are excellent schools here, at good prices.

Beware, however, that not all schools are created equal and the quality of instruction varies. Here are a few pointers to help you choose the right school to achieve your educational goals and to help you make the most of your learning experience.

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Antigua Guatemala Spanish Schools

How To Choose a Spanish School

  1. First, try your teacher out before committing to a week-long learning schedule. Sign up for an hour or two of classes, and if you are compatible with your teacher, go ahead and commit to a longer timetable. Switching teachers is not frowned upon, so if you’re not comfortable with the first teacher assigned, request another one – or even switch schools.
  2. Second, set clear expectations about what your goals are. You may want to learn a few key phrases to use during your travels, or set out on a lifelong learning adventure. Either way, this may drastically alter the methods that the teacher uses to impart knowledge, or even the school you choose – leading to my third point.

Types of Spanish Schools

Spanish schools in Antigua divide into roughly two camps, with some overlap – formal and informal.

  • The schools offering formal instruction tend to emphasize a rather strict approach to learning, focusing on proper grammar and preparing you to eventually use Spanish to conduct business or to use it in an academic setting – these schools are a tad more expensive.
  • Informal teaching takes a more casual, “fun” approach – students are taught the basics to help them carry on casual conversations without getting too hung up on the rules. It’s really up to you, as some may prefer a structured approach, while others may thrive in a more casual environment.

Formal Spanish Schools in Antigua

If you’re interested in formal learning, visit top-notch Christian Spanish Academy (6a Avenida Norte #15). This school doubles as a DELE (Diplomas of Spanish as a Foreign Language) exam center.

If you want things to be a touch more on the fun side, but still receive academic instruction, check out Don Pedro de Alvarado Spanish School (6a Avenida Norte #39) – homestay programs available.

Maximo Nivel (6a Avenida Norte #16) is also a popular, though expensive choice.

Informal Spanish Schools in Antigua

If you want an effective school, but not in a very structured setting, along with personal instruction, there are quite a few schools in town that could accommodate you. Among them, we recommend  La Union (1a Avenida Sur #21), Tecún Uman (6a Calle Poniente #34A), and Ixchel Spanish School (9a Calle Oriente #5).

Probigua (6a Avenida Norte #41B) is also a very solid school. Your tuition fees support their library bus, which visits rural communities (more on Probigua below).

Proyecto Linguistico Francisco Marroquín (PLFM) (6a Avenida Norte #43) is another great option if you’re looking for one-on-one instruction with occasional group activities mixed in.

About Probigua

If you’re interested in lending a hand to improve Guatemalan children’s access to books, consider attending Probigua in Antigua Guatemala. Their Spanish academy helps fund the creation of libraries in rural areas in Guatemala, along with the operation of their cool library bus, which serves villages and towns surrounding Antigua.

Antigua Guatemala Spanish schools probigua

Probigua bus, Antigua Guatemala

Founded in 1998, Probigua’s library bus began providing services with a little over 600 books, mostly donated – today, the library bus has over 3,000 books. In 2001, Probigua won the “Access to Learning Award” given by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also came with a $250,000 grant.

The library bus makes scheduled stops weekly, as previously arranged with schools that request it. Most of the learning material in the bus is geared towards students in primary and middle-school grades. Library services are offered free of charge and fees collected from the Spanish school help keep the bus running and to provide ongoing maintenance.

In addition to the library bus, Probigua also provides needed school supplies. They also support the creation of additional libraries in remote areas (over 25 already).

Probigua has another library bus, which serves Chilmaltenango, which is currently out of service because of lack of funds to get it operational once again. If you’re interested in taking the DELE exam, I highly recommend you give Probigua a try.

*This is an excerpt of the Antigua Guatemala – The Essential Guide (2018) (Antigua Guatemala Spanish Schools), which you can find at Amazon.com.*

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Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua Guatemala: Visitors Guide

Santa Catalina Arch Antigua Guatemala

At first, it isn’t evident how much remains of the original Santa Catalina Virgen y Martir Convent. Because of its prime real estate location, most of what was once the church and convent has over the years been divided into private lots. The cloisters of Santa Catalina are now private property, owned by a local family and turned into Restaurant Hotel Convento Santa Catalina.

Ruins of the church nave – adjacent to the iconic Antigua Guatemala arch, are used to store procession andas. Closed to the public, except during Holy Week, when the former church is open to the public and allowed to get up close to the andas.

Santa Catalina Arch Antigua Guatemala

Santa Catalina Arch, Agua Volcano in the background

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History of Santa Catalina Arch

In 1609, four Augustinian nuns were authorized to start a women’s convent – the second in the city. It became popular given that the dowry required to enter was much smaller than at that of La Concepcion Convent. As the population of the convent grew, housing 105 nuns and 250 servants, the sisters thought it necessary to expand their building. Unfortunately, they were unable to secure a lot adjacent to the original building.

Santa Catalina Arch Antigua Guatemala

Calle del Arco, La Merced Church in the background

The closest property to the convent that nuns were able to acquire was the one directly across the street. The first solution proposed – closing the road to join both properties – was vehemently opposed by neighbors, who believed that closing direct access to La Merced Church would be a terrible inconvenience. The reason for the nuns proposal was simple – because of their vow of seclusion, nuns were forbidden to interact with the public – inevitable if they were to cross the street.

Eventually, an enclosed footbridge was proposed and approved in 1693, though some neighbors were still opposed. The arch was completed a year later.

Andas Santa Catalina Convent Antigua Guatemala

Processional andas, Santa Catalina Convent

The 1773 earthquakes damaged the convent and arch. Though partially restored, the convent was finally abandoned in 1776 and rebuilt much later, in 1850. The clock tower now adorning the Arco de Santa Catalina was added in the 1890s. The arch underwent another restoration in the 1940s. The clock suffered damages during the 1976 earthquake, and it remained unrepaired until 1991. Today, the arch is the city’s most photographed attraction and a traditional gathering place for New Year’s celebrations.

The Clock Atop the Arch

The clock and the tower atop the arch date back to the 19th century – it’s a Lamy & Lacroix French clock that needs to be wound every three days. Watchmaker Lorenzo Godoy initially maintained the clock, and the task of upkeep was later taken up by his son. Presently, Rodrigo Gaytan is responsible for winding and keeping the clock ticking.

Reloj Santa Catalina Convent Antigua Guatemala

Closeup of the clock tower, Santa Catalina Arch

The arch’s clock works via a system of weights – three to be exact, each weighing over 200 pounds each. The weights, attached to the clock mechanism by a pulley system and ropes, take three days to make the ropes unwind, at which point Gaytan returns the weights back to their original starting point. In the 1980s, the clock was due for repairs. Some city council members proposed the installation on an electric clock – a proposal which was rejected soundly.

Also, notice that the clock only faces the street on either side. Lean close to the wall on either side of the street, and you’ll see that both, the left and right sides of the clock tower, are adorned by placeholders.

Wallpaper Download

The arch is a must-visit attraction and a world-renowned Guatemalan icon. Don’t miss it! In the meantime, enjoy this Santa Catalina Arch wallpaper :)

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Marañon Jocote (Cashew Apple): Guatemalan Fruits

Jocote de Marañon Antigua Guatemala

If you’ve been to Antigua Guatemala’s Mercado (Market) lately, you’ve probably noticed your share of exotic fruits and produce. If in season, marañon will certainly catch your eye.

A widely available fruit when in season, jocote de marañon, better known outside Guatemala as marañón, is a treat. You might know the fruit by its name in English, “cashew apple”. Marañón’s scientific name is Anacardium Occidentale.

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Marañón Origins

This fruit, with origins in Brazil, is very popular here, though nowhere more so than in neighboring El Salvador – there, it’s known as “Fruta de la memoria” (memory fruit).

Health Benefits Of Marañon

Cashew apples are loaded with calcium, iron, and up to five more times the amount of vitamin C than your average orange. It’s used to make drinks, jams, chutneys, and even alcoholic beverages. The cashew apple is known as an accessory fruit, as the seed grows outside, rather than inside the fruit.

Where To Get Marañon

Since jocote de marañon is available everywhere right now, I figured I’d pick some up to photograph and figure out later what to do with it. I later learned that this fruit is in season during Spring and Summer, which is why I was able to bargain the price down easily, from three for 5Q, to four for 5Q.

Marañón for sale at the market

Jocote de marañon looks very similar to peppers, but the nuts give it away

Buying marañón at the Mercado in Antigua Guatemala

In season, you can probably buy cashew apples here for 1Q ($0.12) each

My wife picked up the best of the bunch. They felt a bit heavier than peppers – the seller advised us that when the fruit is too firm, it’s not quite ready yet – softer is sweeter. Once I got home, it was time for a quick photoshoot.

Marañon Wallpaper

marañon is popular in Guatemala

Such a colorful fruit!

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marañon comes in diferente sizes

You need about three cashew apples to make a liter of juice.

cashew nut atop a marañón fruit

Close up of the cashew nut

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How Cashew Nuts Are Obtained From Marañon

While you may not be familiar with the fruit itself (it bruises easily, so it’s hard to transport to northern countries), you probably recognize its seed, the cashew nut, which sits atop the fruit.

Each cashew nut contains exactly one cashew. Now, before you attempt to crack the nut, you should know that the inside of the shell is very toxic – it has an acid known as urushiol, which is the same component as poison ivy, and which produces the same skin-irritant effect. The cashew nut must be roasted at a high temperature to get to the cashew inside – the smoke is also toxic, which will get rid of the acid and destroy both shells.

How To Eat Marañon

It’s best to peel this fruit if you want to consume it raw, as the skin has trace amounts of urushiol. In some countries, cashew apples are boiled whole for five minutes to get rid of the toxic.

Since I had no idea, I sliced the fruit, skin and all, and took a bite. My wife cautioned me that it would “grab my tongue” – I had no idea what she meant, as it’s one of the phrases she uses that can mean anything. After taking a bite, I immediately knew what she meant by “grab the tongue.”marañón fruit pulp

Since the seed is on the outside, most of the fruit is edible

While sweet (it reminds me a bit of mango, pineapple, and a bit of lime), the fruit has an astringent taste – it will dry your mouth quickly, and you’ll feel your throat slightly close up. A strange sensation at first, but it quickly goes away – all which can be minimized if you peel the skin before consuming.

Marañon Juice Recipe

I found a Guatemalan jocote de marañon recipe online, which I adapted.

  1. Remove and throw away cashew nut and peel the skin.
  2. Cut cashew apple into 1-inch chunks.
  3. Blend pieces with about a cup of water for every cashew apple
  4. Add a teaspoon of brown sugar per apple
  5. Squeeze the juice of one lime.
  6. Use a blender to mix it all well.
  7. (Optional) Strain the mix to remove pulp.

It will be enough to make a bit over one liter of a delicious tropical drink. Serve over ice and enjoy!

fresco de Jocote de Marañon

Fresco de jocote de marañon

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