The Quiet of the Peripheries in Antigua

by Finnuala Brett

A solo traveler in Antigua tracks down a municipal pool on the city’s outskirts and watches as expats, locals, and tourists mingle in the dreamlike setting.

The spring months in Guatemala’s highland valleys are far enough from the end of the wet season that dust begins to settle, and the heat of the afternoons is sometimes just a little too much. There is still green in the verges of the streets, and flowers haven’t yet begun to wither; but when the wind drops, thick air collects in the streets of Antigua, blown down from the mountains and along the cobbles. After days of idleness and sweat, the idea of cold water and respite hovers in the mind like a mirage.

The Finca El Pilar is Antigua’s only municipal pool, tucked into the creases of the hillsides high above the valley floor, fed by cool streams that run off gullies and gurgle down amidst the trees. It lies right at the end of a long dirt road that winds away from the quiet outskirts of the city, the plazas full of bleary-eyed dogs and steep afternoon shadows. The road pushes deep into the folds of the jungle, parting the echoes of birdsong. Fragrant branches of bougainvillea hang low from behind an old stone wall on one side; on the other, the beginnings of dense foliage spill out into bright green shadow.

It’s a well-kept secret. Antigua is ridden with hostel and hotel pools, and these are where tourists congregate on the warm days. Few stick around long enough to wander beyond the sleepy market-town suburbs, and fewer still stumble across the Finca. Tourists don’t tend to ask Antigua’s inhabitants about such places; they are happy enough with the comfortable chain of knowledge passed on by last week’s tourists. I was bored and had lived in the city long enough to venture further out.

Late one restless day of heat and dust, I found the track through the hills and followed it to the Finca for forty-five long minutes. The unfamiliarity of the town, the country, and the language had worn me down. I missed my old routines, the pool at home.

As I walked up, alone, I clung to the shade, for the day was heavy on my skin and bright in my eyes. My sandals scuffed up brown eddies that spiraled into the air until a pair of iron gates, thickset and painted white, appeared where the dirt ended. The gravel compound inside felt strange at first. Antigua could not be heard from here, nor could the faded noises of wildlife. The place felt half-touched, the air static. I approached the reception window, uncertain, and was greeted smilingly by the woman on the other side, who scribbled on a ticket, tore it off, and handed it to me. I passed her back my carefully counted 35 quetzales, and she pointed up a slope with a few words that were too quick to catch.

Up past a tiny hut advertising fried plantain, around a scraggly patch of grass where a goat was tethered, the two pools lay still. One was nearly empty, the other full and glittering in the sunlight. Frayed lane ropes floated idly on the water’s surface. The valley opened up here, split into two eaves of thick green that stretched from the wire fence up toward ridgelines that cut the sky. I changed out of my clothes, rushing to keep up with the drifting sun, and slid in, squinting in the brightness. The water was icy, and as it tightened around my waist, I gasped. I swam for an hour, stiff from idleness, my arms propelled by the cold. I hadn’t swum since leaving England.

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The first time I found these pools, a crisp band of music drifted across to greet me, the first real music I had heard in Guatemala apart from the school radio’s reggaeton. A young man in swimming trunks was concentrating hard, playing a flute that caught the light as he sat on the steps next to the water. My Spanish was clumsy, but when he understood that I also played, he passed the flute to me and grinned encouragingly. I was rusty, couldn’t compare to his Cuban syncopation. All the music I had ever been able to play promptly vanished from my head. 

About a week later, swimming alone on a hot afternoon, I was accosted by an extraordinarily enthusiastic America. He could’ve been any age from 30 to 50 – I really couldn’t tell – and from his entourage of gear must’ve been a regular. “Your technique is really so great,” I was told. “How long have you been swimming for? What’s your 50m front-crawl time? Want to race?” It was a slightly bizarre interaction, but good-natured enough.

I didn’t mind making the journey up to the pools alone. It was therapeutic, and if I went alone, I usually met someone to talk to. Still, when the other lodger Elliot turned up a couple of weeks later, I was quite glad of his company. We made a trip up to the pool the day after hiking Acetenango, the volcano we could see above every rooftop. Dust had wriggled its way into every crevice and crack of skin, and our legs were sore and tight. The pool was quiet that day and by far the best place to sunbathe in Antigua. His face cast into shadow by a wide-brimmed hat, Elliot would settle down onto his back and squint at his book. I borrowed another book from him and positioned myself carefully on the bench below, sun-cream lathered onto the inches of skin that I could reach. The steps were made of gritty concrete and dug into my shoulder-blades.

Each afternoon, I swam and sunbathed until the sun reached the treeline and shadows began to creep across the poolside. By the time I had changed and reached the main road to Antigua, the light had fallen from the sky and settled onto the rooftops and telephone cables. A curtain of purple gauze pulled itself down and smeared the mountainsides into screen static. Volcan Agua, perfectly symmetrical, stood brooding a fraction darker than the sky behind it, hovering above the end of the road that met the horizon. I would watch it until the air grew cool against my skin and the silence faded into evening birdsong.

Eventually, I would arrive back at the homestay, in time for dinner, just as the last of light slipped away. After the swim and sun and long walk home, I was clean and calm and refreshed. I would hang my dripping costume out over the line in the courtyard, next to my towel and the washing, below the blushed pink wall and plants.

The place was, I felt, a strange mediation between Victorian baths and some tiny refuge in the Guatemalan hills. An in-between place, where a concoction of eccentric expats, local regulars, and the occasional tourist such as myself tentatively mingled. It was, in a strange way, a distilled, miniature version of Antigua. Antigua is very beautiful but felt sometimes half-real; the pool was equally dreamlike in substance, and though municipal, much like another provision for the tourist. The meandering road up there, however, took me out of the town and into suburbs and countryside that felt more genuine. Between the pool and the town, a few fragments of lives emerged that I hadn’t otherwise encountered. In the quiet evenings, walking back, the empty streets gently unfolded around me. Families brought their chairs out, gathering in the squares to chat and help themselves to huge metal dishes of tortillas and beans. The school buses, rattling, old, painted things, would pass and drop off pairs of siblings who glanced briefly at me and then tripped off down the street and disappeared around a corner. The heat that had squashed life into the corners had recessed slightly.

Although it felt like more, I only returned to Finca El Pilar a handful of times. It became an absent-minded characteristic of my time in Antigua. Now, these two years later, the hours spent up in those hillside pools lend clearer memories than many other places in the town. Those hours helped me not to feel so far from home. Some familiarity and comfort was found in the routine, and the lengths and lengths of meditative swimming, when I could wash the dust from my hair and skin. 

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