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I rounded the corner and gasped a little.
That sounds a little dramatic, but you’ll have to trust me that it was warranted.
Between the crumbling stone pillars, I had caught my first glimpse of the garden and the kind of beauty that makes you lose your breath for just a second.
Surrounded on all sides by stately arches bordering a broad, open-air cloister, the space was carpeted by soft, green grass except for a x-shaped walkway, converging at the masterpiece at center stage: a faded but stately fountain that sent delicate streams cascading down the sides. Behind, the Sierra Madre mountains, blue and green water color paintings from this distance, were framed through every aperture.
It was immaculate. I tried to remember the last time I had seen something so beautiful that it sort of hurt my heart (then I remembered it was less than a week ago at Lake Atitlán).
The sound of the water falling was magnified because except for a couple of maintenance workers floating around the edges of the complex and the cooing pigeons fluttering through the nave, I was completely alone.
Suddenly, I felt so fortunate to be right here, right now, gifted the opportunity to see the Convento de Santa Clara — a church and convent built at the start of the 18th century and preserved beautifully in the city’s core — as it was originally destined to be; peaceful, quiet.
I wondered if the pigeons knew how lucky they were to abide in such an incredible home.
Ah, I am finding that this is the magic of Antigua, Guatemala, a town so immensely beautiful and relic-filled, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been on my bucket list. The truth is, before picking Central and South America as a continent to explore, I really hadn’t thought much about it.
But here is a place where the ruins are housed right in the heart of the city. Here is a town, both old and new simultaneously, developing modern design, cuisine and coffee but declining to ever pave its streets, choosing instead to embrace the lumpy cobblestones that make the experience of taking a taxi akin to that of riding a horse.
Most strikingly, here is a destination where you can enjoy its bounty in the glory intended — free of the crowds and lines and selfie sticks that have always made visiting historical landmarks such a complicated proposition for me.
Here is a Rome or a Paris you can be alone with, you can live in, you can soak up, you can appreciate at its fullest.
With the blue morning sky contrasting against the cream and gray walls of the mammoth complex, I walked through Santa Clara’s arched niches and eroding confessionals; I sat for a moment on the cold stone pulpit. I descended into the crypts. I peered up through the gaping circular caverns in the roof, witnessing a sky that looked rather like the planet earth as seen from outer space. It felt like I was discovering something. It felt personal.
It was everything I’ve always wanted historical landmarks to be, and everything they never were.
But none of that needed to be acknowledged, really.
In the garden, where justicas and Birds of Paradise were blooming, I was simply enjoying the silence.