Our Hotels

A number of people ask me about our accommodations so I thought I would include  photos of my favorite places.  All of the hotels we stayed in were all clean, well located and comfortable but there are aways some that stand out as extraordinary.  The hotels in Granada, Panajachel and Antigua were among those. Our first night and only night in Managua, Nicaragua was at the Camino Real Hotel near the airport; this was not one of my favorites but it did had a lovely pool area.

Camino Real - outdoor dining

Camino Real – Managua, Nicaragua

From Managua we drove to Granada for an extended stay at the Casa del Consulada, a lovely old home that had been converted into a hotel.  The rooms opened to the pool and courtyard where we would meet in the morning for breakfast and each evening to talk about the day over a glass of wine before dinner at a local restaurant.  We had the place all to ourselves and it felt like home.  This was one of the top three in my mind.  It may sound strange but I really loved our large bathroom, high ceilings, a jungle scene painted on one wall complete, a striped beach chair and open shower with glass block window wall where the sunlight streamed in each morning.  Our double doors open to the pool; in the photo you can see the sitting area where we would congregate for breakfast and happy hour.  One of the rooms had a beautiful floor to ceiling stained glass window, sorry no photo.

Casa del Consulado - View from our room

Casa del Consulado – View from our room

In Panajachel, Guatemala we stayed at the Regis Hotel and Spa surrounded by beautiful gardens, the attached cabins shared a long veranda with rocking chairs and a table in front of each room.  In the garden was a hidden stone steam lodge and vine covered stone hot tub with a waterfall, very private.  Near the lobby was an outdoor terrace with tables and chairs and this is where we would gather in the evening for our happy hour before walking to dinner. Again this was ideally located close to everything in town and the lakeshore but sheltered from the noisy street, quiet and comfortable.

Regis Hotel & Spa - Cabin

Regis Hotel & Spa – Cabin

Another gem was the hotel in Antigua, Hotel Los Pasos, a little farther from the main plaza but still an easy walk, the rooms were lovely set in a courtyards; our room even had a fireplace.  The night it rained we moved happy hour from the rooftop terrace to our room, plenty of space for everyone.

Hotel Los Pasos - Antigua, Guatemala

Hotel Los Pasos – Antigua, Guatemala

In Santa Elena, Guatemala we began to feel the Caribbean influence with the hotel set on Lago Peten Itza, the rooms were nice but the lakefront setting made this hotel special.  Breakfast outdoors by the pool and in the evening warm breezes and sunsets.

La Casona del Lago - pool area

La Casona del Lago – pool area

The one in Antigua was my very favorite but then anything Antigua is my favorite.

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Lamanai

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Belize Waterfront, the nicer part of town

On entering Belize City via the East-West highway divides with part of a cemetery in the median and along one side of the road . . . poor planning or an omen?

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Cemetery in the median and along one side of the highway entering Belize City . . . ominous.

This morning, we explore the ruins of Lamanai, a Maya word meaning “submerged crocodile”.   The site is nestled amid thick jungle home to exotic birds and howler monkeys and accessible by a very long and unfriendly road or by boat.  We have added a Belizean guide to our group for this visit and during the hour ride north to Orange Walk he tells us about his country. From Orange Walk we travel leisurely by boat along the beautiful New River, stopping along the way to view any birds of interest and there are many that live along the river.

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Lamanai is definitely off the beaten track and we felt like we were the only ones on the river, lucky to be here on a quiet day.  The river is magnificent as it twists and divides its way through forest and lowlands en route to the New River Lagoon and Lamanai.

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The city of Lamanai, named for the thriving crocodile population, was one of the preeminent sites around 1500 B.C. with a population exceeding 35,000 at its peak.  It flourished, supported by a vast community of farmers, merchants, and traders with trading influence extending into Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Belize.

Some ruins at Lamanai are among the oldest in Belize dating back to 700 B.C.; only about 5% of the 700 structures have been excavated.

At the highest of temples some chose to climb the very steep steps, with the aid of a rope, for the magnificent view while others were content to sit in the shade and take photos.

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Our boat trip back to Orange Walk was much faster, and we marveled at how the driver effortlessly navigated the twists and turns in the river.

Leaving our guide in Orange Walk we returned to Belize City to pack and say our farewells at a final dinner together.  Hector made a little stop at a small nearby grocery.  He disappeared inside for a minute, emerging with a cold beer for everyone, delightful!

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In our two days in Belize we became quite enamored of the bar tender at our hotel, Diane, a delightful woman, welcoming, warm and friendly sharing stories and laughs with everyone; we meet one last time in the bar to begin our goodbyes.

This has been an extraordinary trip for so many reasons.  First the group itself came together quickly, a fun-loving group from diverse backgrounds we shared views on world travel, politics, adventure and good humor, oh so important when traveling.  The trip was filled with surprises thanks to our guide who was simply outstanding; he was a warm and caring individual with a good sense of humor and he very soon became part of our family.

The Mayan sights each offered something unique and their jungle locations were amazing adding a sense of timelessness to the visits.  I loved all of the exotic flowers and birds with the background roar of the howler monkeys in the jungle and along the two rivers. Cruising among the islands in Lake Nicaragua late in the day was so peaceful and a delightful break from the heat and humidity of the city.

I love the small owner-run business we visited and seeing the handmade crafts, the colors of the Maya and the idea that they have been able to keep traditions alive and well in the small towns and villages, especially in Guatemala.  I have rekindled my love affair with Guatemala on this trip, the stunning beauty of the country, the hills laced with terraced fields and foot paths connecting settlements, the volcanoes, the uncertainty of life with the looming threats of eruptions or devastating earthquakes, the warmth, resilience and endurance of the people.  There is so much need here and such horrible poverty but there are also many, many volunteers in country who are doing what they can to help these people develop ways that will sustain them, it is inspiring.

Yaxha

On a limestone ridge overlooking Laguna Yaxhá (green-blue water) Yaxhá is a compelling and rewarding Maya site to visit. Of all Guatemala’s ruins, only Tikal and El Mirador surpass the sheer scale and impact of this site that includes forty stelae, numerous altars, soaring temple pyramids and two ball courts. The dense jungle, howler monkeys, toucans and lack of crowds add to the special atmosphere of the place. _1010913 Relatively little is known about the history of Yaxhá, partly due to a relative lack of inscriptions and the fact archeological excavations have only recently begun to free Yaxhá from the grip of the jungle. Most of structures date from the Classic era but there are also Preclassic structures. The sheer size of the city indicates that Yaxhá was undoubtedly an important force in the central Maya region and shares several archeological similarities and close ties with Tikal about 20 miles away.

Ball Court

George and Bill climbed to the top of this temple and were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the surrounding jungle and the Laguna Yaxhá.  Climbing up was not easy but it was much easier than coming down the steep uneven steps.  The rest of us were happy to watch from below.

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 Laguna Yaxhá

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 Trogon

Yaxhá

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Ceiba Tree

As we drive out of the park we stop at a dwelling and immediately kids coming running out. The two-room dwelling has thatched roof, dirt floor, sides are partially open to the elements and there are no doors. Hammocks swing from the support posts, there is a scrawny dog running about, a chicken and green parrot. The family lives a real hand-to-mouth existence eating mostly what the father is able to hunt. In the yard sits a cage with dinner perhaps, a large constrictor and when I say large I mean long, it did not look like it had eaten recently. The father also earns a little money from his woodcarving; the son goes to show us some carved pieces and as he opens the cloth covering them a scorpion darts out.   I bought a set of salad tongs.

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Green Parrot

Boa and Scorpion

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Tummy Time

One member of our group, a biologist notices a skull that peaks his interest; it is a jaguar skull, again probably providing food for the family or perhaps the father sold it, it is hard to tell. At any rate he wanted to purchase it and the son sold it to him. How will he get it back into the states is what most of us wonder but he doesn’t seem concerned.   P1230738 We thanked the kids and returned to the van; Hector reached into his pack and pulled out a bag of what looked like what we know as Chex mix with pretzels, nuts and chex. As he went to the door and held up the bag the youngest girl’s face lit up with a smile and she jumped with excitement. He motioned for one of them to come down to get the bag of treats and told them to be sure and share. About that time someone noticed a police car parked behind the van, had we done something wrong or were they also stopping to see this family? As we pulled away so did the police car. There was a little buzzing amongst us about why they were following us and then finally we asked Hector about it and he said not to worry. By the time we reached the paved road again they were still following us, of course there was no other road so maybe they were just going the same way. I held that thought until we stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch and they also pulled in. Finally Hector confessed that OAT had hired them to get us safely to the Belize border. Apparently there are problems in this area on occasion with highway bandits so we all settled down to enjoy lunch as did they, at another table. We sent them some extra desserts in hopes of garnering goodwill. They remained our shadows until we neared the border at which point they turned around and returned to their normal duty. The border crossing was pretty easy, the only oddity was that the van had to be completely emptied of all luggage and we each had to pay $1 to the porters who unloaded it. It was then inspected as we walked through immigration and customs and were all reunited on the other side . . . welcome to Belize.

Border crossing looking more like a car wash than a checkpoint.

There is definitely more of a Caribbean feel once we cross the border. Belize City and the Caribbean is still a 2 hour drive. I actually begin to recognize a couple of places along the way that I visited in the past; a hand crank car ferry across the river near Xuantunich is still one car and hand cranked. The little town of San Ignacio where I saw an exhibit of Mayan artifacts laid out on plywood and sawhorses in an open sided arena, one guard. I have been to Belize City twice before and could not wait to leave both times; it has not changed. Belize City is not particularly attractive even though it is on the Caribbean and is not a very pleasant place due to problems with drug trafficking. Most visitors come to Belize for the diving and snorkeling so fly in and out of the city to the cays in the same day. We will be here just two nights in order to visit our last Mayan site, Lamanai.

Santa Elena and Tikal

Arriving in the dark last night we didn’t really get to see the setting of our hotel but when we came down at breakfast we felt that we had been transported to the Caribbean, a very different feel here in Santa Elena.

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Massage by the lake anyone?

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View from the upper deck

After breakfast we head to the Mayan city of Tikal, about an hour drive north and not far from the border with Belize.  From the van I snapped pictures of some caution signs leading into the park, missed the monkey sign.

 So many signs, so many restrictions, at the entrance they should have had one that said . . . We hope you enjoy your visit!

Have a nice visit!

Have a nice visit!

Tikal is magnificent, a 1,800-year-old complex considered one of the most important urban centers of its time.  The expansive site is surrounded by jungle with 3,000 structures including temples, pyramids, tombs, palaces, ball courts and terraces.  The tallest temples rise above the canopy.  At its peak Tikal was home to an estimated 100,000 Maya.

With a guide we toured the main area of the park visiting the Great Plaza, Temple of the Jaguar, Tomb of the Mayan ruler Moon Double Comb, Plaza of the Seven Temples, an unusual triple ball court and El Mundo Perdido “Lost World” where 38 structures surround a central pyramid.  Awesome!

Nature will prevail

Nature will prevail

Pay attention

Pay attention

 

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The top of this temple, encased by scaffolding, had recently been damaged by a lightening strike.

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We spent nearly the entire day here, climbing a couple of the temples for dizzying 360-degree views high above the canopy.

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The jungle surrounding Tikal is home to a variety of flora and fauna, exotic flowers and birds, jaguar, wild turkeys, snakes, coati, spider monkeys and the raucous howler monkeys to name a few

Ceiba "Tree of Life"

Ceiba “Tree of Life”

Flycatchers

Howler Monkey

Howler Monkey

Toucan

Toucan

Coati

Coati

We returned to the hotel and found ourselves sitting on the deck overlooking a gorgeous sunset, enjoying a glass of wine and loving in the warm breeze; a beautiful end to another great day.

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No one was very hungry but Hector suggested a pupuseria for a light dinner and that got our attention.  He knew a family that had had a restaurant across the street from the hotel.  On inquiring he found they had moved but no problem . . . it was just a few blocks but pouring rain by this time.  A few of us were up for pupusas so we climbed into a couple of tuk tuks and headed out in the dark and the rain through back streets, totally turned around but were delivered to a home in a not so quiet neighborhood somewhere in Santa Elena.  There were a couple of tables and a grill in front of the home and a canopy covering the area.  Hector went inside to make sure this was the right place, it was.  Across the street was another home restaurant with music blaring at over 100 dB, apparently to “attract” customers.  Despite the noise we had a great time, the pupusas were superb and the beer cold, what more could you ask for

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Pupuseria

 

When we were ready to go back to the hotel Hector called for a tuk tuk to pick us up . . . oops, they stop running at 7 p.m. on Sundays.  We look at each other, the dark street and the heavy rain; we have no idea where we are and then Hector disappears into the house for a couple of minutes and returns saying no problem, the husband will be happy to take us back to the hotel in his jeep but he will have to make two trips.  The daughters bring out rugs to put in the back and we climb in the back.  The husband is very nice, speaks a little English and we enjoy his company on the ride back and learn that he had lived in Connecticut for a few years before he was married working for a landscaper.  At the hotel, we thank him for his kindness and pay him what we would have paid the tuk tuk ($1 each).  He was very gracious and we were very grateful then off he went to retrieve the other three members of our group.

 

Sumpango

Hector has another surprise for us today, a return visit to Sumpango for “dios de los muertos”, the day families gather at the cemetery to honor and pray for loved ones.

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Families streaming into the cemetery

Streaming into the cemetery

 

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Arriving with flowers

Family members, young and old, are busy clearing plots of debris, mounding dirt over the graves, applying a white powder or paint and long pine needles to be topped with flowers and wreaths.  It is a very touching to see the love and thought that goes into this ritual.

Kids are playing or helping decorate the graves, they are comfortable here in the cemetery, sitting or standing on graves, flying kites off of the higher tombs. The Mayan belief is that kites represent a link between heaven and earth.

 

Elegant

Elegant

Patiently waiting

Patiently waiting

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Along the roads leading to the cemetery food vendors were busy preparing scrumptious looking food for the hungry.

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Fresh fruit juices

This was, by far, Hector’s best surprise but he wasn’t done with us quite yet.  From the cemetery we joined the crowd hiking up a very steep hill, not really knowing what to expect.

At the top of the hill we walked onto an enormous open field filled with tall bamboo poles and giant kites some over 10 feet in width and height.  The kite frames were made of bamboo and the kites themselves made of tissue paper, designs are colorful, incredibly intricate and often hold a political message.

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So many photo ops

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So many kites

 

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So many people

 

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Unique designs

 

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Colorful designs

Sumpango is one of three cities in Guatemala that host a kite festival and I feel so lucky to be for this incredible sight. There is excitement in the air, music, dancing, food and general celebration. The giant kites are raised for all to admire while people fly small colorful kites waiting for dusk when the giants will take to the air.   Sadly we won’t be able to stay to see the giant kites fly but I would not have missed seeing this for the world –  incredible!

Time to leave and we pass by the long line of food vendors to rejoin our group and my goodness the colorful foods tempt us while the tantalizing aromas fill the air, it all looks so good!

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Grilled delights

 

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Grilled corn

Beautiful foods simply prepared makes me so hungry!

Back in the van we leave Sumpango and re-enter the highway only to be met with a traffic jam that looks like I-5 at rush hour.  Traffic is stopped and parked cars line both sides of the road on.  People are walking along the edges; did I mention this is the Pan-American Highway?  We are forced to go in the opposite direction of where we want to be until Oscar convinces a police officer that we are not going to Sumpango but need to reach Guatemala City for a late afternoon flight.   The officer halts traffic allowing Oscar to make a U-turn over the median, can’t see that happening on I-5.

Finally we are headed in the right direction.

Turned around heading in the right direction

Turned around heading in the right direction

We have an uneventful flight to Flores, except for the take off.  I am looking out the window at the propeller and as we begin to taxi down the runway I am acutely aware that the propeller on my side is not turning, the propeller on the other side is doing its job, why isn’t mine?  Now, I am not a nervous flyer but aren’t they both supposed to be turning?  As we turn to take off it is still idle, this can’t be good and I am getting a bit concerned as we pick up speed.

The idle propeller

The idle propeller

Finally!  It kicks in and we are off, feeling somewhat reassured that this is all normal . . . is it?

We arrive in Flores after dark so because of the late hour we head straight to dinner – did I even have lunch today, don’t remember?

The restaurant was busy, on the water with open sides and thatch roof; we entertained ourselves feeding the fish who knew where to come for a handout. Dinner was good and we were actually pretty hungry. By the time we reached the hotel our luggage had been delivered to the room and it wasn’t long before we fell into bed . . .  another fantastic day.  My dreams were filled with color.

Antigua

Station of the Cross

Station of the Cross

This morning, we head out to more fully explore Antigua’s narrow cobblestone streets  and churches. From our hotel on Calle de Pasos (street of the steps) we can begin a walking route that is the site of processions during religious celebrations.  The route includes a series of 13 small buildings with vaulted ceilings depicting the Stations of the Cross, Number I starts from San Francisco, and XIII ends at the El Calvario Church (Calvary Church). All stations are identical in form but the last three located inside the El Calvario Church have additional decorations and a baroque tinge.

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Ruinas del los Remedios

Antigua has no shortage of churches; some in ruins with collapsed roofs and crumbling walls, evidence of the damaging earthquakes in this region.   Here are a few.

Iglesia de Carmen

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La Ermita de la Santa Cruz

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Ruinas San Jose el Viejo

La Merced

Between 1542 and 1666, the Dominican order built one of the largest, richest and most important convents in the colonial city; however, during the 1773 earthquake, both the convent and church were destroyed and the buildings were looted for construction material. The site was acquired as a private residence in 1970 by an American archaeologist, who performed extensive excavations before it was taken over by the Casa Santo Domingo Hotel.  The hotel imaginatively restored it for visitors and the beautiful grounds include the picturesque ruined monastery church, the adjacent cloister with a replica of the original fountain, workshops, courtyards and beautiful gardens.

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Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo Grounds

Casa Santo Domingo Gardens

After all that church seeing it was time for lunch and we found an eclectic little place with the best quesadillas I’ve ever had!

Tretto Caffe

More walking, walking, walking and near the bus terminal we found San Jeronimo.  I had seen a glimpse of some ruins the day we rode the chicken bus to Jocotenango but didn’t really know what it was.

This little oasis of tranquility was began in 1739, a small church and school dedicated to St. Jerome and completed in 1759.  While it did not last long as a school it did serve as a customs house, barracks and stables. After the 1773 earthquake, it was abandoned, inhabited only by families who moved in without the permission of the authorities. In the 1800’s it was a tannery and a granary in the 1930’s before being restored. Today, it’s a peaceful haven in a bustling area of town. The maze of fallen masonry is beautifully contrasted with flowering weeds cascading from the crevices between stones; n the background is Agua Volcano.

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San Jeronimo

San Jeronimo Grounds

San Jeronimo Flowers

It was quite a hike back to the hotel and by the time we reached the main plaza street entertainers were out and the children dressed in their Halloween costumes were beginning to appear.


We were ready for happy hour but it was raining by the time we returned so our rooftop perch was not desirable but we all managed to fit into our little room.

Oh my, oh my and another wonderful day, I love Antigua!

Last Day of School

We have seen the colorful painted school buses a.k.a. chicken buses all through our travels; they are typically jammed with people and merchandise piled on top; this morning we ride one into Jocotenango, “sin pollos”.

Chicken Bus

Chicken Bus

 

Antigua’s “transit center” is near the market and early in the morning it is a chaotic scene with people scurrying to find their bus, loaded buses pulling forward or backing up, narrowly missing one another, throw in a few pedestrians and bicycles and my advice – be alert.

 

Transit Center

Transit Center

 

In Jocotenango we visit a school located on land leased from a large coffee plantation; across from the rather dreary entrance is a beautiful grassy field where horses graze, quite beautiful.

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The noise and energy levels are high, this is the last day of school and the kids are at recess when we enter.   The students come from a very poor hillside farming community, about a 45-minute walk away. Their homes have no running water, have dirt floors – I can only imagine what that might be like during Guatemala’s long rainy season.

The school serves about 500 children, grades 1-12 and a few graduates attending university who return here in the evenings to use the computers.  Without support these children would not be in school.  While education is free students still have top pay for books and supplies, an extra cost many families just cannot afford.  The kids also receive vitamins, two nutritious meals and showers in addition to an education.  While they are lucky to be here it still breaks my heart to know that even with this step up their futures are still very uncertain.  Our own children and grandchildren have no idea how difficult life can be.

George and I go into a 2nd grade classroom where the teacher introduces us and then divides her class into groups; we each join a group, on the floor.  George’s group of boys is working on a puzzle and my group of girls is working with flash cards, practicing their English.  They are familiar with the cards and we quickly invent a game, counting and then matching like items, all in English and with lots of giggles.

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I look over and see that George is patiently working a puzzle with them.  The children are engaged and receptive as you would expect 7 year olds to be, they are adorable.   After about 40 minutes their attention spans drift off and it is time for us to go.

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No Bullying

 

It was interesting to me to see the difference between this school and the one in Guatemala City; the first with a 1.6 million dollar annual budget and this one with about one-half million dollar annual budget, both serving between 400-600 children.  I can’t say enough good things about the young people who work and volunteer here, they make such a huge difference in the lives of these children and emerge changed themselves.

 

Shifting gears . . . from Jocotenango we drive a short distance to San Felipe to visit the workshop of artist, Cruz Enrique Espana, renowned for his ceramic birds.  The son of potters, he taught himself how to work with clay at the age of 6.  He begins with the clay gathered at the traditional site of El Tejar, Chimaltenango and as we watch he deftly molded the perfect likeness of a bird in a matter of minutes.  To complete the process the bird are baked and then painted with bright acrylic paints.

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His small studio is filled with his beautiful creations, photos and posters from exhibitions all over the world.  We brought home a few small birds for the Christmas tree.

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Workbench

 

 

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Continuing on, Hector stops in front of a nearby market and explains that we are going on a treasure hunt – we were each given some money and a piece of paper with the name of a product written on it in Spanish.  Our mission is to go into the market, find the item and purchase it for the family who will be providing our lunch this afternoon.   The vendors do not speak English.

This was a fun exercise, forcing everyone out of his or her comfort zone just a little, interacting with vendors who did not speak English but were more than helpful, sometimes taking us around to another stall if they did not have what we were looking for; everyone emerged from the market with their item and Hector explained what each item was and how it would be used in preparation of the lunch.  We had things like dried hibiscus to make a tea-like drink, kindling for the cooking fire, cilantro for the soup and a white powder to make a nutritious probiotic drink among other things.

One more stop before lunch to pick up Andy, Hector’s 10-year-old grandson; we had been pestering Hector about meeting his family so now that the school term has ended he arranged for Andy to join for lunch and he is adorable.

Hector and Andy

Hector and Andy

The host, an evangelical minister, and his family are raising money to build a new church by preparing and serving meals on Sundays after church.   We greet the family, present them with our contributions from the market and are seated at tables set in the courtyard while the kids play in the courtyard; Andy get the nod from Hector and quickly joins in.

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Wild Child

 

Don't get in their way!

Don’t get in their way!

The first course was an amazing soup and the fun thing was the ingredients were all beautifully displayed in baskets on the buffet table.  Now we only need to figure out the proportions.

 

At the end of the meal the wife went inside for a minute and came back with a beautiful little bundle of joy, her granddaughter just a couple of months old, so sweet.

La Niña

La Niña

 

WOW, such a fun day but wait, there’s more . . .  Valhalla farm on the outskirts of Antigua raises macadamia trees, the nuts are harvested and used in food, cosmetics, and a variety of organic products. http://www.exvalhalla.com/index.htm

The owner, Lorenzo Gottschamer, a 74-year-old retired fireman for northern California greets us.  As he talks about his farm he shows his passion for the environment, his farm and his dream to help reverse global warming through the development of sustainable agriculture and education.  He has developed an ungrafted Macadamia tree capable of surviving in the changing environmental conditions and is educating indigenous communities about the nutritional benefits of growing these in their backyards, showing them how to prune them as a source of firewood and as an alternative to slash and burn agriculture.

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Sorry, no photos except for this one of the outdoor restroom,  too busy have arms and legs massaged with oils, facials were also offered, very nice.

We returned to Antigua with time for a little time to explore before happy hour and dinner.  Another incredible day.