On the way to Guatemala I stopped near the border in Honduras at a place called Copán Ruinas, the siite of one of the larger Mayan ruins in Central America. It's not as grand as say Tulum in Mexico or Tikal in Guatemala, but it's still an impressive place and you can access a lot of what is there, including some tunnels that reveal some of the walls of even earlier Mayan incarnations buried underneath. It didn't take long to walk around the whole site, but there were some nice atmospheric open spaces that reminded me a lot of some of the temples at Angkor Wat, with centuries-old trees standing upon ancient walls, their roots spilling over the sides and splitting the blocks apart. Copán town was a nice enough place, and one of the safest havens for backpackers in a country that is otherwise pretty sketchy.
Arriving in Antigua, Guatemala, two days later, this gorgeous colonial city was everything that I had hoped it would be. I ended up staying here for over a week and made friends with a great bunch of people who had all converged there to witness the infamous Semana Santa (Holy Week or Easter) festivities. A tico friend of mine, Omar Mendez, had told me that if I was in the region then this was not to be missed, and despite having to endure the crowds that filled the city that week it was a real privilege to experience it.
As soon as I arrived I made friends a super cool Swiss girl called Karine and she introduced me to two of her friends that were already living in the city, Mike and Justin - two travelling journalists who were producing a backpackers website www.worldtravelbuzz.com. These guys already knew the most tranquil spots to chill out in during the day, like the Casa Santo Domingo gardens and modern art gallery overlooking the city; and the best spots to sink some mescals at night, watch live music and soak up the bohemian vibe, like at Café No Sé - one of the best bars I have been to in Latin America. We wasted no time at any of the expensive tourist traps.
We amassed other friends at our hostel, which was called Jungle Party Hostal. I normally do my best to avoid staying at places with 'party' in the title, but this place had struck the balance just right and was a fantastic place to stay. In the day we would head out explore the city, try typical food from the stalls in front of La Merced church, and to take photos of the locals painstakingly creating the traditional alfombras that adorned the streets. These were large carpet-like creations made from dyed sawdust, flowers and pine needles, set into place using stencils and wooden frames. Some were fairly humble offerings made by local businesses and community groups, like the one we helped to make, whereas others were much more elaborate and expensive pieces set in front of churches that took teams of people many hours to complete, often working throughout the night. The processions, which took places several times during the week, were sombre affairs with hundreds of robed men and women carrying huge floats called 'andas' bearing various models of Jesus and Mary, and other key protagonists from that book, bearing crosses and crying about something or other. It is considered a great honour to be one of the carriers, or 'costaleros', and the pain endured is meant to represent the pain of Christ, and is supposed to relieve them of their sins, conveniently. The alfombras, of course, were destroyed by each procession, only to be replaced by new ones ready for the next procession.
Antigua then, was excellent. I would return there weeks later for a night's stop over on my way to Lake Atitlán, when I would discover an entirely different city - a ghost town by comparison, with much less of a sense of purpose. I had clearly chosen the right time to go to Antigua.