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Antique, Alive
Escaping to the antique, but vibrant "museum cities" of South America is easy. Leaving is a little bit harder.

By Robert Isenberg

I turned a corner, and there it was: The Arch. I gulped down my surprise and walked down the cobbled street, toward the strange yellow structure. Plump women in patterned huipiles perched on the sidewalk with baskets of fruit.

“Mango?” they murmured halfheartedly.

I smiled and declined. I must have looked dazed, because I couldn’t take my eyes off El Arco. The Santa Catalina arch hovers above the narrow street like a Romanesque bridge; the structure is punctuated in the middle by a small tower, which bears an elegant clock and tiny crucifix. Its shadow fell over me as I walked beneath the ribbed vaulting, and when I reached the other side, I turned around and saw the view that makes El Arco famous: Beyond the rooftops loomed Volcán de Agua, a colossal volcano tinted blue-green. On a clear day, the clouds that shroud its peak burn away, and the Arch and volcano perfectly complement each other.

As I stood in the street, snapping pictures of the Arch, a street vendor approached and offered multicolored wristbands. When I said, “Maybe later,” she asked my name, where I came from, and what I did for a living. Her persistence was endearing.

“My name is María,” she said, then shrugged. “There are a lot of Marías here. But you will remember me. I’m a different María. When you come back, maybe you will buy one of these.” She held the wristbands aloft and smiled that beaming Guatemalan smile.

This was Antigua, the long-ago capital of Guatemala and one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited.



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