Walking down the cobblestoned streets of Antigua, Guatemala, I looked at the sandy red roofs of the Spanish colonial-style houses. I watched stray dogs grovel on the streets as motorcycles drove by and the vendors sold freshly cut mango and passion fruit. I was a passing American foreigner trying to make sense of what I saw before me. The looming Volcán de Agua in the distance was a reminder that I was in a different world than the small-town suburbs of New Jersey where I grew up. But as I neared the community supermarket on Poniente Street, something familiar caught my eye: a clear set of golden arches on a dark brown sign hanging on a speckled red wall. It was a McDonald’s.
“Look at how many plants and trees and flowers they’re growing inside,” my Spanish teacher-turned-guide said as we watched customers order and pick up their food. “There’s even a large fountain for children to throw coins in and for families to sit around.” She was right. Gleaming in the sunlight, the McDonald’s fountain was the centrepiece of what looked like a miniature park. A life-size statue of Ronald McDonald sat on a bench next to the fountain looking over an outdoor plaza. “This may be the most lavish place in Antigua,” she concluded. There was a hint of disbelief in her voice, as though something wasn’t quite right. And yet her tone didn’t betray any cynicism or exasperation.
American reviewers on Trip Advisor seemed to agree with my teacher’s assessment, but not her tone. “The Most Beautiful McDonald’s in the World,” read one commentator’s proud title. Others called it a “hidden gem” and “a little bit of paradise for Antigua” with a “beautiful atmosphere and regular hamburgers.” A New York City visitor wrote that “if this place was named anything else, it would be in every guide book.”
McDonald’s wasn’t the only American fast food establishment on Poniente Street. Opposite the Golden Arches was a Little Caesar’s Pizza, and further up the road, a Burger King with all the same features. All three teemed with costumers – American and Guatemalan alike – sometimes trailing out of the front door. Indeed, Guatemala appeared as though it really had become “America’s backyard,” to borrow the lexicon of the US policymakers who plotted the 1954 coup in the country.