ANTIGUA, Guatemala >> When I told my parents I was bringing my 3-year-old daughter with me on assignment to Guatemala City, I heard a gasp.
“What? Are you crazy?” my mother said over the phone.
She turned her attention to my father, who was listening in. “She’s taking Cora to Guatemala. Can you believe it?”
“She’s crazy,” my father said.
The water was bad, they said. There’s crime, they told me. What would I do if Cora fell ill? Got kidnapped? What if she contracted a parasite?
The list went on and on.
I was taken aback. This was coming from parents who were born and raised in Guatemala.
Never mind that they regularly took my siblings and me to Guatemala on vacation throughout the 1980s and early ’90s — during the throes of a bloody civil war.
Some of my best childhood memories were formed in Guatemala, where I was allowed to roam freely, surrounded by extended family and friends. I wanted my daughter to experience the same.
I had half-expected them to pepper me with recommendations on whom to visit and where to go. The worst-case scenario I had envisioned was persuading my father that we couldn’t possibly visit all his family in Jalapa during our week’s stay.
You’d think that at 39 I could muster enough courage to shrug off their concerns, but no.
My husband and my sister reassured me. As it turned out, Cora was more than fine. My daughter had the best time of her young life.
We mostly stayed with the Ramirez-Moino family — my lifelong friends with whom I spent most summers when I visited.
Dunia, Guisela, Isabella, Carolina and Agatha, all women, took turns caring for Cora and became the small village I needed, a luxury I don’t have in the U.S.
I worried a bit about how to keep Cora entertained, but I quickly learned that in Guatemala — as in most of Latin America — life revolves around children.
When we weren’t at the Ramirez-Moino family home in Guatemala City, we spent time in the old capital of Antigua. Some of my fondest memories as a child were spent in the beautiful colonial town.
Some of the city has changed since I visited those many summers as a child, but it’s still a gorgeous getaway. You can catch a clear view of the Volcan de Agua (Volcano of Water) from any street in Antigua during most mornings. Despite the gang violence in other areas that has caused families to seek asylum abroad, the city is friendly, safe and walkable.
Plaza Central is the heart of Antigua, a town square that serves as a gathering place dotted with benches, lined with trees and buzzing with vendors. Most days you’ll find large families with children playing around a charming fountain featuring four identical mermaids spraying streams of water.
Some of my favorite memories were of running around that plaza, sucking on Popsicles and guzzling atole, a hot maize drink. I would beg my parents to buy me the handmade wooden toys and cheap jewelry that vendors, dressed in rainbow-hued traditional garb from the region, were hawking.
The old women who peddled their street food have long been shooed from the plaza, but those selling trinkets remain. They pushed the same toys and jewelry I once desired. Cora begged me for a carved wooden flute and a metal necklace decorated with a pink heart-shaped stone. I gave in.
We stayed at the Porta Hotel in Antigua, perhaps the most child-centric hotel in town. It touts a pristine pool with a shallow area for toddlers and a kids club with regularly scheduled activities during the weekends.
Antigua is best explored on foot. Strollers have a tough time handling the cobblestones, so we left it at home. Cora was more than happy to take my hand and hoof it. She gleefully allowed me to show her the city.
I introduced her to the open-air markets and the canillitas de leche (candy made from condensed milk) from Dulces Dona Maria Gordillo, the same ones that made my mouth water as a child.
We were in Antigua on Sept. 15, Guatemala’s Independence Day, when the city is vibrant with decorations and musicians. At one point, Cora tried to join a passing school marching band and color guard, much to the delight of a nearby group of schoolgirls.
Our first stop was chocolate, of course. Guatemala claims to be the birthplace of chocolate. The Maya revered it so much they called it the “food of the gods.”
We went to one of the two ChocoMuseo locations in Antigua, a chocolate museum where we participated in a mini-workshop in which we crafted chocolate treats straight from the bean. Alma, our teacher, took Cora to see a cacao pod growing on a plant. She opened it to expose the beans, which are dried and roasted.
“Really? Chocolate comes from there?” Cora asked.
We started with a freshly roasted batch of beans, separating the hulls from the nibs by hand, before grinding them with a pestle into a smooth paste. At one point, Cora couldn’t help herself and shoved some in her mouth.
“This isn’t chocolate!” she said with disgust. “It’s sour!”
Alma and I laughed.
“You add sugar to make it sweet,” Alma explained patiently.
After class, we had freshly made chocolate that we had planned on taking home and sharing with friends. We quickly thought better of it, devouring it within minutes.
On the resulting sugar high, we traversed Antigua’s streets, exploring small shops where Cora found a pair of must-have shoes decorated with rainbow-colored Guatemalan textiles. She ran around the park and made friends with local kids at a fountain near the yellow-hued La Merced, a Baroque church.
Later that evening, fireworks celebrated the country’s independence. The popping sounds took me back to August 1983. I was about Cora’s age and visiting Guatemala City. We were in the middle of running errands with my family near the National Palace when gunshots rang out. My mother rushed me and my sister to a nearby store where we ducked for cover. Years later, I would discover that the gunshots were a result of a military coup that deposed then-President Jose Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemala’s most notorious dictator.
Since my visit, the country has faced numerous corruption probes but appears to have relatively calmed gearing up to its general elections in June.
Cora experienced the same freedom I enjoyed when I visited Guatemala as a child. I grew up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley and led mostly a sheltered suburban life. My parents rarely allowed me to wander beyond the confines of my front yard.
In Guatemala, they let me roam and explore. Cora chased the pigeons at the plaza, just as I once did. She danced to marimba music, just as I did. She scaled the trees and splashed the water in the fountains, as I had.
At one point, she marveled at a woman in traditional garb balancing a large stack of pink and orange roses on top of her head, hauling them to market.
When we returned, my parents were ecstatic to hear the trip had gone well.
Next time, they said, they’d like to join us.
IF YOU GO…
>> Where to stay: Porta Hotel Antigua, 1 8th Calle Poniente, Antigua, Guatemala; 011 502 7931-0600, portahotelantigua.com. Spotless and centrally located with pool. Deluxe rooms $165, including breakfast. El Convento Boutique Hotel, 11 2nd Avenida Norte, Antigua, Guatemala; 011 502 7720-7272, elconventoantigua.com. Luxurious hotel with small pool. Standard room with two double beds from $194, including breakfast. Hotel Cirilo, 11 Calle de los Duelos, Antigua, Guatemala; 011 502 7832-6650, hotelcirilo.com. Elegant boutique hotel. From $145, including breakfast.
>> Where to eat: El Refectorio (Restaurante Casa Santo Domingo), 28A 3rd Calle Oriente, Antigua, Guatemala; 011 502 7820-1220, casasantodomingo.com.gt. International as well as typical Guatemalan food offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals about $13. El Convento, 11 2nd Avenida Norte, Antigua, Guatemala; 011 502 7720-7272, elconventoantigua.com/fine-dining. Traditional Guatemalan dishes shine at this elegant eatery. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
>> What to do: ChocoMuseo, two locations in Antigua; 011 502 7832-0219, chocomuseo.com/antigua. Several chocolate-making classes are offered at various prices. Available in English and Spanish. Also, there is a chocolate museum one can enjoy for free. We took the 45-minute “mini-chocolate workshop” geared for children ($13 per person).
>> To learn more: Visit Guatemala, visitguatemala.com