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Annie & Blue

In Guatemala, Antigua Leads To Learning

By Sandra Scott

After John and I arrived in Antigua, Guatemala, and moved in with our host family, we set out to rediscover the city we last visited 12 years ago.

Antigua, nestled between three volcanoes, one of which we can see spitting a red plume of lava at night, is a tourist-friendly colonial city where indigenous women sell their colorful handmade goods in the park. Our first stop was Posada de Don Rodrigo where the marimba band plays daily in the beautiful tree-shaded courtyard.

As we were leaving, Ken and Jane Richards, who live just a few miles from our Oswego County home, arrived from Honduras with an Elderhostel group on a Mayan culture tour. Monday evening we shared our travel experiences over dinner in a typical Guatemalan restaurant.

From Antigua they will visit Lake Atitlan and the Mayan ruins in Tikal before moving on to Belize.

Greeting the sun
The ancient Mayan city of Tikal is secreted in the jungle with the top of its tall temples bursting through the canopy. One of my favorite travel experiences occurred in Tikal during our first trip. Our cabin was near the ruins and about 5 a.m. our son, Jim, jumped out of bed with, "Yuck! Something was crawling on my stomach."

Unsuccessfully, we looked for the critter, which he said he heard hit the wall when he brushed it off! Sleep was impossible with the thought of creepy-crawly loose in our room, so I suggested, "Let's walk to the Great Plaza and climb to the top of Temple 1 to watch the sunrise."

Along the way we saw agoutis (a rabbit-sized nocturnal rodent) and coatis (a raccoon like carnivore) and heard the heart-stopping call of a howler monkey. Watching the sun illuminate the Temple of the Grand Jaguar from the top of Temple 1 was mystical, and it was easy to conjure up images of ancient ceremonies taking place in the plaza.

And, we owe it all to a 6-inch millipede Him found dried up in the bottom of his backpack when we returned home.

Learning the lingo
Antigua is the mother lode of language schools; there are about 70 in this city of 30,000. We attend classed for seven hours a day at Academia de Espanol Guatemala, plus we are living with a family.

The school provided many services including dance lessons and field trips to coffee plantations, jade factories and indigenous villages. Our school has 40 students receiving one-on-one instruction in private cubicles around the patio garden.

A step back in time
Our weekend getaway took us to a different century. One step through the portal of Hotel Casa Santo Domingo is a step back into the 1500s. The five-star hotel is built within the ruins of a Dominican monastery that was blanketed by 12 feet of earth until the 1980s when archaeological work and construction of the hotel began.

In the evening hundreds of candles illuminate the halls and patios, period music plays softly and the breeze whispers through the corridors like the swish of clerical robes.

I expected to catch a glimpse of one of the friars on his way to church. The altar of the church has been reconstructed, and, with more than 2,000 candles lighting the ruins, it is am exquisite place for an evening wedding.

On a Saturday night we watched the wedding ceremony of noted jazz drummer David Weckl. The hotel has its own candle factory and two museums. Religious statues and artwork from the owner's personal collection are scattered throughout the hotel.

Santo Domingo is my all-time favorite hotel, for it is more than a place to stay; it is a place to be experienced.

A week of classes, seven hours a day, one-on-one at Academia de Espanol Guatemala is $149 including day trips. A home stay is $60 per person with three meals a day. Rooms at Hotel Casa Santo Domingo range from $77 to $282 (for the Presidential suite).

For more information check www.travellog.com (Click on Guatemala, then on Antigua, then on the schools link to Academia de Espanol Guatemala); www.casasantodomingo.com.gt, www.travelguatemala.org.gt, or call(888) 464-8281.

In addition to Mayan ruins, Guatemala has villages where the traditional values and customs of the indigenous people remain strong, Plus, there are beaches and eco-adventures we would like to try, but we simply don't have time before leaving for Honduras.

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