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All fired up in Guatemala

Published Dec 9, 2015

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Antigua, Guatemala - “Where exactly do they burn Satan?” I ask my guide. “Just here,” he says, gesticulating to a large cobblestone area around a dry fountain, worryingly close to the tiny petrol station at Barrio de la Concepción.

“They parade the Evil One down the street here,” he adds, “children let off fireworks and wear devil horns and all the households burn piles of garbage ... at exactly 6pm they set fire to him.”

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The people of Antigua, Guatemala have been kicking off Christmas with Quema del Diablo, or the Burning of the Devil, on December 7 each year since colonial times. Held to honour the Virgin Mary, the idea is to wipe the slate clean by symbolically burning the rubbish of the past year, and an effigy of Satan along with it.

This Guatemalan city has a history of resurrection. A gem of colonial Baroque architecture, clasped in a setting of three imposing volcanoes, the Unesco-listed city was once the capital of the Captaincy General of Guatemala under the Spanish crown. Antigua survived fire, floods, and volcanic eruptions until much of it was destroyed by the Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773. It was finally thought best to choose a more geologically stable site for the new capital.

Antigua was practically abandoned for nearly a century until the mid-1800s, when new investment effected the town's rebirth. Many of Antigua's civic and ecclesiastical edifices have since been renovated or repurposed - their ancient residents sometimes exhumed and entombed in Perspex in some of the city's museums - while other structures have been allowed to rest in peace, resplendent in their ruin.

The pristine La Merced Church is a magnificent example of the city's intricate architectural style, while the faded grandeur of the adjoining monastery, Convento de la Merced, still wows crowds with what is claimed to be Latin America's largest fountain and breathtaking rooftop vistas.

UNPACK

Part hotel, part museum, Hotel Casa Santo Domingo (00 502 7820 1220; casasantodomingo.com.gt) has breathed new life into a former monastery. Partially destroyed in the 1773 earthquakes, the space has been re-imagined as 128 suites, numerous dining options, and countless diversions from the swimming pool and spa to galleries spanning pre-Columbian artefacts through to modern art. Doubles from £93 (about R 1600), room only.

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The centrally located Hotel San Rafael offers boutique colonial opulence combined with all mod cons across its seven rooms (00 502 7832 9882; thesanrafaelhotel.com). Doubles from £65, B&B.

THINK LOCAL

The best things in life are free, so on a clear morning, take a hike up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) to savour the spectacular view. From here you can take in the town's signature Barroco Antigueño architecture along with three imposing volcanoes, Agua, Fuego and Acatenango.

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The De La Gente coffee tour (00 502 5585 4450; dlgcoffee.org/coffee- tours) will lead you a short way up Agua volcano and through its coffee fields, before you learn how to manually process, roast and grind the beans yourself, and share a cup with a coffee farmer's family.

EAT

As ubiquitous in tiny Antigua as McDonald's is in the US, La Fonda de la Calle Real is the top option for authentic Guatemalan cuisine (00 502 7832 2696; lafondadelacallereal .com). It has three locations around town. Much less mass-produced is the menu, however, with a lot of the produce coming fresh from Antigua's markets.

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The original location is still the best and, although it's right on the same postcard-perfect street as Arco Santa Catalina, the city's famed archway, as many local people as tourists come to sample its pepián (Guatemela's national dish - a red, spicy meat stew), and jocón (a green, saucy chicken dish of tomatillos and coriander).

DRINK

La Casa del Ron - which translates as The House of Rum, in English, rather than Ron's House, as you might assume - at first glance fits right in with the town's crumbling church ruins and Spanish façades. But beyond its quaint, pastel-shaded exterior you'll find yourself transported to a modern sanctum of a less-than-holy spirit (00 502 7832 4477; facebook .com/lacasadelronguatemala). The basement bar's contemporary chocolate furnishings set off the cocoa notes in Guatemala's finest rum, Ron Zacapa Centenario, which is particularly venerated here.

SPEND

Whether or not you believe in such things, The Original Maya Jade Factory and Museum (00 502 7931 2400; jademaya.com) offers an insight into Mayan birthday divination. Look up your date of birth to see what the future has in store, and pick up a clutch of jade Mayan calendar glyph pendants to take home.

DON'T MISS

When the Santa Catalina Convent found itself with more nuns than it could accommodate, the obvious solution was to buy the property across the street. To provide safe passage between the convent and the religious school, Antigua's most iconic landmark, Arco Santa Catalina, was built. This emblematic arch and skyway is insanely photogenic. It's a pedestrian-only zone at the weekend, so you'll want to take your camera there in the morning, when the scene is less crowded and the light more diffused.

GETTING THERE

A direct shuttle runs from Guatemala City's La Aurora International Airport to Antigua Guatemala priced at US$10 (about R100); travel time is around 45 minutes. A taxi for the same journey coasts approximately US$30.

Last Frontiers (01296 653000; last frontiers.com) offers a range of tailor-made trips, including a nine-day Classic Guatemala itinerary, which starts at £2,210pp, including three nights in Antigua. The price includes B&B, transfers and return international and domestic flights.

MORE INFORMATION

visitguatemala.com

visitcentroamerica.com

James Draven, The Independent on Sunday

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