Our flight left LAX at 1am in the morning, by the time we arrived for our connecting flight in Mexico City, the Missus was exhausted. Unfortunately, we had a six-and-a-half hour layover. The Missus, who had worked seventy or so hours in the previous six days up to our trip was totally fried. Thank God for the American Express Lounge!
The Missus collapsed from exhaustion on one of the couches, while I checked the internet, and managed to catch a couple of movies...all of which I'd seen before, but it helped pass the time. Another benefit, which didn't become apparent until later, was that we were the only folks in the lounge. This minimized contact with anyone who could have been carrying the dreaded swine flu, which had not yet become major news.
We arrived, bouncing over the cobblestone streets of Antigua to our hotel, the Hotel Casa Florencia (more on that later) at about 430 in the afternoon. The first thing we did after stowing our bags was to take a walk around the city. Central Antigua itself is not very large, and easy to navigate. The streets are set-up in a grid pattern, the Avenidas go north - south, the Calles go east - west. As with most cities, towns, and villages, the center of town is marked with a Parque Central.
The town itself is colorful, and picturesque, but there's one landmark that seemed to always be in view. It is the Volcan de Agua, which rises over the beaming, bright, and vivid city.
Located to the south, Volcan de Agua seems part guardian, standing protectively over Antigua, and yet, it also seems to loom somewhat menacingly above the city at the same time. Mudslides, eruptions, and earthquakes play a very large part in the history of Antigua. The city was once the capital of Guatemala, but after a large earthquake in in 1717 which destroyed over 3,000 structures, followed by a whole series of earthquakes in 1773, the capital was moved to the current location of Guatemala City, and Antigua was mostly abandoned. You can still see many ruins about and around the city.
You can always find your way in Antigua, by finding Volcan de Agua.....just look south.
Parque Central is the heart of the city, with the Cathedral of San Jose, and the central fountain.
With its lactating maidens.....
Of all the structures around Parque Central, I was always drawn to the Palace of the Captains General, which borders the entire south side of Parque Central.
Once the Spanish Colonial Government was located in this building, which has been destroyed, damaged, and rebuilt after several earthquakes, the last of which was in 1976. Perhaps it was the 27 arches that lined each floor, or the play of light and shadow........
And yet, one just had to glance south to see....
Another symbol of Antigua is the famed Arch of Santa Catalina.
First completed in 1693, it was built to allow Nuns of the Convent of Santa Catalina to fulfill the conditions of cloister, out of public view and contact, to access a vegetable garden across the street.
And yet, the Volcan de Agua looms above this Antigua icon as well.
One only need look up while navigating the cobblestone streets....
Somehow that volcano managed to get itself into most of out photos of Antigua.
In the mornings, when I opened the door of our room at the Casa Florencia, guess what greeted me?
Even now, as I look south, I fully expect to see Volcan de Agua in the the distance......
And then there's Pollo Campero.....which seems like an inauspicious first meal. But one must remember that many folks consider Pollo Campero to be Guatemala's gift to the food world. Founded in 1971, Pollo Campero is literally translated to mean "Country Chicken", and now has branches in 11 countries, including one in Shanghai! Now I've had Pollo Campero in the states, there are several locations in the LA area, and truth be told, I was underwhelmed by greasy and dry chicken. But, I had been told that PC in Guatemala was a different story; and seeing all the folks with bags of PC at La Aurora Airport was an affirmation.
After stowing our backpacks, I spoke to the very nice young lady at the front desk of our hotel. Like many folks we ran into in Guatemala, they found my questions about food, a bit well strange and humorous. The young lady brought one of those handy dandy maps out from under the desk, and marked off some of the important places for us; the banks, the large grocery in town, and of course the two Pollo Campero locations. There was one caveat, we were assured that the 5 Avenida Norte location was much better than the location next to the market. The 5 Avenida Norte outlet is just down the block from The Arch, and you can either get in line for "para lleva" (take0out), or take a seat in the pretty large dining area.
The Pollo Frito at Campero has a distinctive smell.....much like In-n-Out, you can pick up the scent blocks away. As we entered PC, we suddenly realized that in addition to being exhausted.....we were pretty hungry as well, and went a bit crazy ordering.....
The Missus wanted some greens so we started with the Ensalada de Casa (House salad - 35Q/$4.25):
A fairly routine salad, topped with what seemed like "Pechuguitas" (chicken breast strips), which were mildly spicy.
We also ordered a "Torta Sensasion" (Pollo Torta - 15Q/$1.85).
A basic chicken sandwich.......one thing we noticed in Guatemala, is that they like their bread really dry, and crumbly. We never quite got used to that. The Missus, who is not fond of frijoles, instantly fell in love with the way frijole negro is made in Guatemala. It is rich and creamy, with a nice flavor. Still, this was just a chicken sandwich.
There was something on the menu I just had to try......the Campero Dog (10Q/$1.25). I saw folks buying dozens of this.......the PC outlets in Flores and La Aurora Airport even had 2 for 18 Quetzal specials.
It seemed like this dog had been finished in the deep fryer. Topped with guacamole, coleslaw, and ketchup(!), this just looked wrong. It was pretty good, especially topped with PC's "Salsa Picante", the green stuff, which was tangy, spicy, and mildly sweet....we ended up using it on everything...even as pseudo-salad dressing!
I'd eat it on shoe leather! The ketchup however, was not our thing, it was waaay too sweet.
And of course we had some chicken...."traditional" (2 pieces - 23Q/$2.75):
Man was this better than in the states....crisp, non-greasy, with a wonderful flavor! It tasted close to broasted.
Another thing that PC in Guatemala has over those in the states are these ladies:
In front of every Pollo Campero you'll find ladies sitting with wicker baskets covered with cloth. These ladies are selling tortillas. Which sell for about 4 tortillas per Quetzal (12 cents).
Wrapped in brown paper, these tortillas are a perfect partner to Pollo Campero's Pollo Frito....heck, I even just ate the tortillas with the salsa picante on them. On several nights....tired from a day of hikes or travel from town to town, we settled in for two pieces of Pollo Campero, tortillas, and of course, salsa picante.
If you want to do it one better, a few streets away (actually everything is pretty much a few streets away in Antigua), you can find a Tortilleria like this one:
These shops are usually tiny windowless rooms with a hot comal constantly going. The heat is oppressive, and it is usually a young woman making the tortillas....the constant stacatto "patt-patt-pat-pat-pat" heard outside the door.
In Guatemala, tortillas are made with only masa and water. The young lady in this shop, named Susanna, was very nice, and explained that there are three basic types of tortillas in Guatemala, white, yellow, and black.
Susanna was only seventeen, and worked in these conditions everyday, we could imagine how hot it got in the room.......it was a humbling experience. We ended up sharing one of our tamals with her. A few days later we walked by the shop, Susanna saw me, and gave me a big smile, and a hearty wave....I guess we kinda stood out here.
Pollo Campero is not cheap by Guatemala standards, but we've seen those women selling tortillas getting on Chicken Buses with boxes of Pollo Frito. That says something. We ate at five different locations of Pollo Campero on this trip, and this location was the best, the Flores location the worst(stay away from the Papas Fritas)....it was like the stuff I had in LA. So what makes the chicken at PC better in Guatemala...who knows, maybe it's the "manteca" (L-A-R-D)? But it is better.
Folks in Guatemala sure love their Pollo Frito.....but lest you think that's all we ate......stay tuned!