BY DANIEL BENDER
You never know what you will find in Antigua during Lent. There are surprises everywhere.
I arrived in the Guatemalan city the last week of March to find it in full preparation for a Lenten procession, houses draped with bunting and streets closed to parking and traffic. The Church of Jocotenango was having its procession the next morning. Processions are daily during Holy Week, across flower-strewn streets and colorfully decorated carpetas of dyed sand or sawdust, but each neighboring town also takes a Sunday during Lent to have its own. This means walking from their home church at dawn to the Iglesia y convento de Nuestra Señora de La Merced, arriving after sunset.
Arising early for the procession also allowed Gavin Kern (former manager of the Club International and now a permanent resident of Antigua) and I the time to nip into Doña Leonor ‘s for a delicious breakfast of Eggs Benedict. This quiet retreat amid the cacophony of the procession was a respite to both mind and body. It would call us back for a pre-prandial at its classic bar before the day was over. It is nice to be able to fall back on the old customs and gentility that still remain in Antigua in spite of the rapid development of this major tourist attraction. And it is just that which causes me to write again about Antigua.
The city has become a weekend destination for young, well-heeled Guatemalans who are attracted to the new vibe that thrives among its cobblestone streets and 16th-century ruins. What was old is new again in Antigua! And really what do you do when you brought your grandchildren along and they just want to hang out with their friends at dinner? Now there are many answers to that question and they are all easy to walk to within the 9 square blocks of old Antiqua.
Pappy’s BBQ is a hip Texas barbecue spot in the most authentic style, with wooden tables and benches with roll paper and trays for plates. They serve 3 “traditional” sauces for you to put on top of your pounds of ‘cue: Carolina sweet, Tennessee sassy, and a typical spicy American sauce. (Of course, Texas barbecue is a rub and it is never served with sauce!)
One of the most delicious dishes of ramen that I have ever eaten in my life I had at Kombu Ramen Shop. The red-haired chef and owner looks like he just stepped off the boat from County Cork, but is a native Guatemalan who fell in love with ramen while living in Asia. There are five standard varieties of ramen on the menu, but you can also build your own from a long list of ingredients, or chose a sandwich or bao from the menu instead. What makes the ramen here so special is the broth! It is the richest broth I have even tasted, with a complexity of flavors and spices that will have you dreaming about coming back for more. It is outstanding!
It was hard to find Le Comedor on a side street going out of town towards Santa Ana, but it was worth the search. With only three entrée choices, you know that they need to be done to perfection for this restaurant to succeed, and they are just that. In hopes of getting one of its six tables, patrons line up by noon to avoid a 40-45 minute wait. We luckily knew to be there on time and got seated as the doors opened. However, it would have been worth the wait were we not so prompt!
The entrees were perfectly prepared with, as the name indicates, a French twist on entrees using locally sourced ingredients. The chef/owner was trained in France and has brought back all his skill and talents to provide Antigua with an excellent new restaurant. As we were leaving, a newlywed couple arrived on bicycles and told us that they had eaten there every day since arriving in the town. They were over the (honey)moon with this food!
After eating, do continue your walk out to Santa Ana village, about 20 minutes outside of Antigua. In this quaint small village a new contemporary art museum has opened called La Nueva Fábrica. The hidden gem in this tiny village, La Nueva Fábrica houses four rotating exhibits by international artists and the archives of Guatemalan photographer Lissie Habie. The walk is delightful and the exhibits refreshing, as too is the “café en bus,” the Felisa Café. Don’t miss it.
Many of the interior courtyards of old homes have been turned into stores, museums, cumin shops (did you know that cumin is grown in Guatemala and picked and roasted by hand?), and fun new restaurants. Apetito, located right off the main square or Plaza Central, is one of these inventive spots. I ended up there following a yearning for thin crust pizza and it did not disappoint: a crispy crust thanks to the wood-fired stove, fresh ingredients, and a textile market to look at while you wait. Fermente is another example. Its owner has come back to Antigua after opening a successful restaurant, Hector’s, in the capital. Fermente delivers a modern atmosphere in a totally converted 16th-century home. The bar has a fantastic vibe from about 4pm on and serves a varied tapas style menu. The adjoining restaurant is opening next week with larger plates and desserts.
Book that flight with the family to Antigua now. Even if you, like me, have visited before (I have been going down since the ’70s), there is so much more to see and do every year. Your favorites, like Santo Domingo, El Convento, Panza Verde, or Casa Palopó at the Lake, are still there, but there are so many new places to wine and dine your family and friends. Every year there are new discoveries at Tikal and new archeological sites that open to the public. Except for the occasional traffic jam that may remind you of L.A., Guatemala is still a land of peace and serenity with some of the friendliest people in the world.