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Later that afternoon, I retired to my room at Hotel Cirilo, an art–filled boutique hotel in the quiet Candelaria neighborhood. Although not quite as luxe as Panza Verde, the other Culture Xplorers hotel choice, Hotel Cirilo offers subdued elegance a distance from the noisy fireworks of the Quema del Diablo festivities. The sense of tranquility is accentuated by its setting within the bougainvillea–draped ruins of a 17th century chapel.
"You're welcome to explore some of our signature experiences in Antigua such as a hike up Pacaya volcano or an exclusive tasting at Los Nietos, a family–owned working coffee plantation," offered Adolfo.
Although I opted for independent exploring, I appreciated Culture Xplorers' up–to–date knowledge of safety and noise conditions. As I walked the cobblestone streets, there was no escaping the charm of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1543, its open–air markets burst with exotic produce, well–preserved colonial architecture, and rich cultural traditions.
A few hours later, I was immersed in experiencing these unique traditions first–hand. The Burning of the Devil ceremony dates back to pagan times and symbolizes the ritual cleansing and banishment of bad spirits to usher in the Christmas season. Although other Guatemalan communities celebrate by burning tires in the streets, in the Concepcion neighborhood of Antigua a paper–m?ché effigy of the devil serves as a hub for a giant communal bonfire. We arrived early in the evening, first browsing the food stands offering bunuelos (deep friend donuts drenched in anise–scented honey), rompope (eggnog) and tortas (crusty buns stuffed with meat and crisp vegetables) and then chose a vantage spot to watch the festivities.
Rubbing shoulders with locals, we watched as a 10–foot tall devil, crafted by artist Pablo Godinez Pichiya, got soaked with an incendiary fuel. Then, a costumed announcer stepped forward and, to the sound of a full brass band, renounced various transgressions committed by politicians, before a torch set the effigy alight. Sparks flew into the night sky, cameras snapped and shouts of enthusiasm rose from the crowd. It was a bacchanalian celebration merging Guy Fawkes Day and Halloween.
Coffee and Chocolate Culture
The next morning, we began our day with a personal cacao workshop at Fernando's Kaffee, an artisanal chocolate producer, where I was scheduled for an exclusive opportunity to learn about the bean–to–bar chocolate craft. Located on a quiet corner near La Merced church, itself a confection of Baroque architecture, the aroma of fresh ground coffee welcomed us as we entered the shop.
Meandering our way through a pretty patio dining area to the chocolate–making facility, we met up with owner Fernando Arias.
"Without care, it's very easy to ruin this product," he explained as he demonstrated roasting cacao beans, removing the cacao husks by hand and grinding cacao nibs.
Much as with the coffee sold in his cafe, his philosophy is to focus on quality. He sources criollo cacao beans from Finca Los Ujuxtes in the department of Suchitepequez, a Guatemalan producer trained by Venezuelan experts in quality production.
The exacting standards and diligence in tempering — dissolving chocolate crystals below 20 microns — has paid off. The chocolate is complex in flavor and velvety smooth. Fernando's future plans include creating bonbons using Ron de Zacapa, a premium rum distilled from the first pressing of sugar cane and considered by many rum aficionados to be the best in the world.
As I sipped a thimbleful of fine hot chocolate, I was pleased to learn that Culture Xplorers gives back to the communities we'd visited. Their CX Foundation supports micro–credit projects as a way to help break the cycle of poverty. This is immensely important in Guatemala, where 69% of children under five years old within indigenous communities are malnourished — the highest rate in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As my tour wound up, I reflected on my experiences. Culture Xplorers had passed the test and delivered an authentic, tailor–made journey without compromising comfort. They'd even delivered a few delightful surprises along the way. If you've ever participated in a group tour and wished you could spend more time pursuing your own interests rather than those of the group, then a more intimate Culture Xplorers journey is for you.
If you go:
Culture Xplorers offers small-group and custom 7– to 10–day tours of destinations in countries including Peru, Northern Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Northern Spain, and Northern Portugal. Intergenerational family tours are also available. Visit www.culturexplorers.com
Story and photos by Michele Peterson.