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“I just fell in love with this place, with this scene, and the general magic of Antigua,” says Sagan Jacobson. The singer-songwriter, who moved here from Illinois eight months ago, speaks with a lyricism that echoes the phrasing in his songs and in his strumming. Sagan knows Guatemala well. His father was born here, and throughout his young life, the guitarist has visited often. “This is where the light is.”

But just what is this magic? If Antigua casts a spell — and it does — that incantation is about an enduring sense of discovery. Its streets are paved with cobblestones, so no one is getting anywhere fast. It’s best to pause and notice as much as you can. Horse-drawn carriages weave their way among the cars, the scooters, and the local women who balance baskets of tamales and textiles atop their heads. The women fill the colonial city with the multicolored stripes of their traditional dresses, and they pass by walls bathed in yellow ochre, dusty rose, and della Robbia blue. Antigua’s stucco patinas look seductively cinematic, evocative of another time, a simpler time. They are interrupted here and there by heavy wooden doors bracketed and studded with formidable ironwork.

On the other side of those doors is the real Antigua, lush and lively and secreted between the formal grid of streets. You don’t want to adhere to a schedule or an agenda in this town. Antigua is all about discovery. So give your feet a rest from the cobblestones and trade them in for a stroll on the smooth local tiles behind the walls. Watch as a woman makes tortillas beside a thriving garden of roses and canna lilies at Posada de Don Rodrigo (and sample the ceviche).

Let yourself be drawn into Casa Blanca, to stretch out on a sofa and listen to the jazzy piano melodies of Nelson Lunding. Sagan praises Antigua’s more established musicians like Lunding. “It’s interesting to be here right now with the quality of musicians who are in town,” he says. “At no other time has it been like this for me. I really want to make a record with everybody.”

Sagan carts his guitar around on his motorbike, from The Londoner Pub to the hip Café No Sé to the 30-year-old Panza Verde, which was one of the city’s first modern structures built to evoke the traditional style. But it was designed with a few twists: Unlike most other colonial courtyards, Panza Verde’s open interior is asymmetrical with a meandering stone pathway. Go deeper into the property to find poolside tables set under Gothic arches. On a little stage, Sagan sings masterfully in a strong, slightly twangy tenor about young heartbreak.

Before we get too far inside, it’s necessary to pay tribute to what isn’t behind Antigua’s stately doors. La Merced, the 250-year-old cathedral so often photographed, draws you to its assertive yet fanciful uniqueness — to its flowery white scrollwork standing out against the yellow columns and façade. The gleaming church isn’t just Baroque; it looks like a confection, a fondant cake decorated in royal icing.

A few blocks away (everything is a few blocks away) and painted in the same yellow and white as La Merced is the city’s most iconic architectural landmark: Arco de Santa Catalina, which stands as an indelible symbol of the city. It seems designed to make one smile, and the ambience — from the church bells to the men playing various flutes and percussive instruments— encourages one to linger.

For visitors, the arch stands as a helpful point of orientation. The street it hangs over — Avenida 5a — runs past the western edge of shady Parque Central. The park’s borders are lined with horse-drawn carriages, and its vendors sell crafts around the so-called Mermaid Fountain. There are helado (ice cream) carts and boys pushing wheelbarrows full of peanuts.

A few blocks in any direction offer still more of Antigua’s most lovingly tended hidden courtyards — the open-air, flower-filled showplaces of cafés and restaurants, inns, boutiques, and galleries. Just walk in, compliment the proprietor — muy bonita! — and have coffee or lunch, or don’t. You can just snap some photos. Don’t be surprised if someone offers to show you around. Take the opportunity. I always feel so moved by the level of detail in the design and landscaping in these family-run places. At Casa Blanca, for example, even the drainpipes are artistic, sculpted with animal faces above the spouts.

And then there’s the hospitality. You can learn about Guatemalan chocolate and enjoy a cup of the country’s finest at ChocoMuseo. You know it’s the real thing because they serve the chocolate, the milk, and the sugar separately, so you can mix your concoction to taste — and at your leisure. No one rushes you by bringing a check, anywhere.

Boutiques and galleries are also arranged around scenic colonial courtyards. At La Antigua Galería de Arte, studious Gabriel, a recent transplant from the U.K., tells me about the sensual pieces by local sculptor Sergio de Gandarias. Nearby, Jades Antigua specializes in a bright “quetzal” jade, but also look for the stone in mint, lavender, and translucent “moon.” A saleswoman named Tania helps me choose a black jade pendant that corresponds to my birthday.

“And the year?” she asks.

“Oh, we’re not going to be that specific.”

My charm is called Aq’ab’al Batz — and according to a wall chart, it reflects my personality: “What they propose, they do... does not hide things or ideas... realistic about life... stays young all the time.”

I’ll take it, and I’ll also take everything about this modern version of the Spanish colonial lifestyle, with its easygoing ways, its living, breathing art behind every door. And I’ll take it because, as Sagan aptly noted, this is where the light is.

Find more information about Holland America Line's  Panama Canal cruises that explores beautiful areas such as Antigua and more.