City Guide: Antigua, Guatemala
About an hour west of Guatemala City, you’ll find Antigua. Officially known as Antigua Guatemala (“Old Guatemala”), Antigua was the nation’s capital for well over 200 years, until a massive 1773 earthquake badly damaged the city. This prompted the Spanish colonizers to relocate the capital to present-day Guatemala City three years later. Several churches in Antigua show signs of destruction from that earthquake as well as others that have struck throughout its history. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and arguably the cultural capital of Guatemala, you will find everything from a vibrant Mayan cultural presence to Domino’s Pizza.
Antigua is not a particularly large city, barely holding 50,000 inhabitants. However, it offers plenty of activities and serves as the perfect base of operations for a lot of what southern Guatemala has to offer.
Where to Stay
Very many travelers make Antigua their base of operations while in Guatemala, and this has lead to a wide spectrum of housing options in the city. While you won’t find too many five-star accommodations, you’ll find plenty of hostels, locally-run hotels, and Airbnbs.
I like staying in hostels, and I can wholeheartedly recommend Hotel Burkhard, which is centrally located, inexpensive, and run by friendly people.
If you go the Airbnb route, I would advise that you double-check with your host regarding location, amenities, and noise level. You may be able to find a family willing to let you stay for Q100/night ($13/night), but then arrive at an out-of-the-way neighborhood that is very loud at all hours of the night, with no warm water and no electrical outlets. This may not deter some travelers but for many people, it is worth it to shell out the extra quetzales for a better night’s rest.
What to Do
In the City
Wandering the historic district of Antigua is an activity in and of itself. There are myriad ruins, architecturally inspiring points of interest, and shops to explore.
The ChocoMuseo is a fun time for couples or families. You will get to make your own different types of chocolate while learning about the history of chocolate cultivation and its importance to the indigenous Mayan people.
Additionally, if you want to practice your Spanish, there is a very high concentration of language centers here for learning and conversing in the language. Guatemala is known for being the “Midwest of Central America,” meaning that the average Guatemalan speaks with a fairly neutral, easy-to-understand accent, making Guatemala one of the best places to learn the language.
Outside the City
Volcan Pacaya is an active volcano about an hour’s bus ride outside of Antigua. This is a popular excursion from Antigua and there are plenty of stalls to get a shuttle bus there and back, usually for about Q100 per person. The shuttles usually leave early in the morning but stop at cafes to grab to-go breakfasts and coffee. Hiking Volcan Pacaya is a 3.5-mile round-trip and isn’t very difficult to do. If you want, though, there are locals who will offer you a “taxi” ride up on horseback, for a small fee. At the summit of Volcan Pacaya, you will find awesome views of a former lava flow, a Volcanic Rock gift shop, and the ability to get within inches of rocks containing actual molten lava!
Probably the single most popular excursion from Antigua is heading west to Lake Atitlan. Lake Atitlan has been called the “most beautiful lake in the world,” and it’s easy to see why. Its blue waters are ringed by tall mountains and picturesque villages, many of which are majority Mayan. In particular, I would recommend San Juan la Laguna. This beautiful town with commanding views of the lake, and home to an indigenous female-run weaving co-op.
Atitrans is a reputable shuttle company and should have you there within three hours.
Where to Eat
For breakfast, I have to recommend the eclectic Rainbow Cafe. Here you can get a hearty desayuno tipico (lit. “typical breakfast”) of eggs, bacon, toast, cheese, black beans, and coffee or juice, for only Q39. This place is very relaxing in the mornings and very fun at night when they often host live music.
Pollo Campero is a chain of fast-food restaurants founded in Guatemala. They may sound similar to Kentucky Fried Chicken, but Pollo Campero is tastier and less greasy.
One of Guatemala’s national dishes is pepián, a semi-spicy stew with a large piece of chicken in the middle, served with rice and miniature tamales. My advice is to drink the soup while eating the rice and tamales, then go in on the delicious chicken. Arrin Cuan does this dish especially well, and they have a relaxing outdoor courtyard to dine in.
Lastly, if you’re just plain craving a taste from back home, there are plenty of American fast food stands all across the city. I will always encourage everyone to eat the local specialties, but sometimes you just gotta have your pepperoni pizza. It’s all good.
Getting around Antigua is not difficult. The historic center is laid out in a grid, and there are many volcanoes and churches to serve as landmarks. This part of town is also very easily navigated on foot.
Like in the rest of Guatemala, Uber is common, safe, and cheap. I’ve been driven from one end of Antigua to the other for under two dollars. Because the rides are so cheap, please be sure to tip your driver well.
If you want a more unique experience, flag down a tuk-tuk.
Also known as mototaxis, these motorized, covered trikes offer a bumpy but memorable ride through Antigua’s cobbled streets. Most tuk-tuks arrive secondhand from India, although any Guatemalan town of a certain size has fleets of them zipping about. The backseat is just big enough for two people and their travel backpacks. While a lot of locals do use them, they’re very popular with tourists, and so the cabbies (tuk-tukkies?) price accordingly; we typically had to pay Q20 (~$3 US) to get across town.
When to Go
The week of Semana Santa (Holy Week, in the Catholic faith) is both the best time and the worst time to go to Antigua. Semana Santa can either be in March or April, depending on the year, and it can get extremely crowded. However, that’s also when Antigua is at its most lively and most colorful. Book accommodations well in advance and you should be fine.
You’ll see lots of locals gathered in the street working on alfombras, or “rugs.” These “rugs” are made of colored sawdust and other materials, arranged in colorful, vibrant designs. Think of them sort of like big, rectangular mandalas. They are an incredible sight, and if you pick the right Airbnb, you may even get to work with a local family to help make one!
Other Notes on Antigua
Many of the local Mayan women sell their wares around the city, particularly in the central park. Their crafts are as cool and as colorful as the hand-woven dresses they wear. However, you may not be as enthralled with them after about the 57th vendor that walks up to you that day. The vast majority of them will leave if you politely tell you’re not interested. Some of them may allow you to photograph them, but they will most likely ask for one to five dollars (about Q7-35). You can certainly haggle with them.
I should probably mention that while Antigua does receive many tourists, it’s a pretty ethnically homogenous area. If you are anything that isn’t conspicuously Latino or Indigenous or a White visitor, then you will almost certainly notice a lot of people staring. This is 99.999% of the time completely innocent.
The Guatemalan people are generally very polite. They are generous and will help you out however they can. On the other hand–and I mean this in the nicest way possible–they are usually not great at giving directions (no one’s perfect!). Stop a local on the street to ask where the pharmacy or supermarket is and they will invariably tell you the Spanish equivalent of, “Oh, it’s down there.”
Lastly, I would recommend having an idea of how much your items are going to cost when you walk into a pharmacy. We only had this happen to us once, but one particular shopowner near the central park tried to charge us literally twice the price for some sunscreen and drinks. Just something to be aware of.