Antigua is truly a city of color.
Its hodgepodge of multi-colored colonial buildings and churches contrast pleasantly against a green backdrop of forested hills and epic volcanos. Antigua’s parks and plazas are lined with the vivid purple flowers of its many Jacaranda trees, while many locals sport the rainbow-pattern garb of their Mayan ancestors.
If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, you’ll undoubtedly end up in Antigua. It’s far and away the most touristic city in Guatemala, and for good reason. It’s beautiful, it’s safe and it’s full of fantastic food, lodging and attractions. It’s a city that’s small enough to walk …..
Of course, not all travelers would agree that Antigua is the “must-see” destination in Guatemala. Some rovers may prefer to escape the “gringo trail” all together – opting for a more remote or organic travel experience.
As for me, I couldn’t get enough of the city’s quaint charm and ease of access. I even canceled my stay at a hostel I’d pre-booked in Guatemala City just so I’d have an extra day to kill in Antigua.
Despite it being Guatemala’s most expensive destination, I found the colonial city is quite affordable to those on a budget.
Volcano Treks – Antigua has a duplicitous relationship with its three surrounding volcanoes – Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. On the one hand, the volcanos are a deep part of the Antigua’s identity. The three sisters are one of the city’s biggest draws to tourists and adventurers. The volcanos even appear on the city seal. On the other hand, proximity to volcanic and seismic activity have caused Antigua and its residents much suffering. All over the city, visible scars remain from three massive earthquakes in the 18th century, and another in 1920.
There are several companies around Antigua that offer treks of Acatenango and Fuego. Both hikes can be done in one day, however, I’d advise an overnight hike. The overnight option allows climbers better visibility, more time to rest and an overall richer experience. While some hikers choose to make the venture without a guide, it’s much safer to make the journey with an experienced guide who knows the mountain. Tour prices can range greatly – anywhere from $30 to $175 per person. I hiked Acatenango with Old Town Outfitters. While the price was more expensive than many companies in the area, the quality of our campsite and food was well worth it. Not counting breaks, it me took about 13 hours of walking – eight up and five down, to complete the trek.
Want to see a live volcano but don’t have the time or stamina to commit to an overnight hike? Try Volcán Pacaya. Almost all the travel agencies and hostels in Antigua offer daily tours and shuttles to Pacaya, which takes about three-five hours to fully hike. The terrain is less demanding than the aforementioned treks. Still, hikers sometimes have the chance to roast marshmallows over flowing lava. How cool is that?
Coffee and Chocolate Farm Tours – The foothills of the volcanic mountains surrounding Antigua provide the rich soil and high elevations needed to grow world-class coffee and cacao. Plantations in the area have begun to capitalize on Antigua’s tourism by offering visitors a unique and educational look at the local agricultural practices. While several large corporate farms like Filadelfia offer cheap tours, I’d recommend paying a little extra to visit the De La Gente co-op. De La Gente provides tours of local farms that are 85 percent organic and family owned. Visitors get to witness every aspect of coffee production – from farm to table – and they can participate in the process. Guests are even invited to have lunch and freshly ground coffee with the farmers and their families. Tours are 200Q per person (additional 50Q for lunch) and include a 1-pound bag of coffee.
The Chocolate Museum near the Santa Catalina Arch offers similar tours of a local chocolate plantation. Inside the museum, you’ll find a wealth of chocolate products, but also a wealth of knowledge. I didn’t have enough time in Antigua to take a chocolate tour, but I’ve heard nothing but glowing reviews from other travelers with first-hand experience.
Food and craft tours – The folks at De La Gente also offer cooking classes, peanut butter making, ironworking and Mayan weaving classes. As with its coffee tours, proceeds from the tours go to benefit the local business owners and their communities.
Go to church – I often make the joke that my small rural hometown has more churches than people. Well, Antigua has more churches than Homer, Georgia. That’s A-LOT of churches. Some of Antigua’s most beautiful cathedrals fell to ruin due to earthquake damage. On Sunday, you can peak your head into service at Iglesia de La Merced. I stopped in for a bit to listen to the choir, then went on my way. Other churches of note are Iglesia de San Francisco and the Cathedral de Santiago.
Museums – Antigua itself is a UNESCO heritage site. Still, there are plenty of historical sites and museums around to give travelers a better grasp of the antique city’s colonial roots. Convento de las Capuchinas, Convento Santa Clara and Templo Santa Teresa De Jesus – all former monasteries – are three antiquity sites worth visiting. Admission is dirt cheap, especially for students. However, if you want to truly explore these historical sites, it might be best to hire a guide (most are available on site). Antigua also has a museum of fabric (tejido), a museum of colonial art and a primitive art gallery.
Take in the sights – Antigua is a photographer’s dream. A quick stroll around the city’s cobblestone streets could provide enough great shots to fill up a memory card. The plaza mayor is an excellent place to slow down. Eat an ice cream. Read a book. People watch. If you still have a thirst for exploration and great views, walk to Cerro de la Cruz – a large cross with a splendid view of the city.
Refacciones y Pupusas Odilia – This place is about as local as it gets. There’s no menu and there’s hardly any seating in this small storefront. But one glance at the sizzling skillet that was practically on the sidewalk, and I was sold. Pupusas are technically Salvadoran, but these little pies are made with a touch of Antigua – topped with fried black beans and ranchero sauce. Chicharron (pork rind) and queso are common fillings, but the menu changes daily. Most of their daily dishes and ingredients are in plain sight, so if your Spanish isn’t great, just point to what looks good. Average cost for a meal: 15Q (lunch)
Rainbow Café – An expat favorite, Rainbow Café is a hip, earthy joint located in the back of a book store. It’s not the cheapest place to eat in Antigua, but it has a nice atmosphere and certainly seems to appeal to other backpackers/tourists. It’s also a solid place to grab a drink and enjoy some live music. Menu items include a number of different sandwiches. Breakfast and Lunch: 40Q, Dinner 55Q. Beer: 18Q
Café Condesa – Location, location, location is the main draw of Café Condesa. With two storefronts (one for takeaway) on the main plaza, the café is a great place to grab a snack. You’ll find delicious cakes and coffee and gigantic fresh fruit smoothies for a reasonable price. Café Condesa’s farm-to-table breakfast and lunch dishes are great as well, but priced for tourists. Average cost: 50Q for breakfast, 40Q for lunch.
Doña Luisa Xicotencatl – If you’re looking for some fresh-baked bread or pastries, Doña Luisa is the place to go. I sat down to eat breakfast and ended up leaving with an armful of pastries and a loaf of banana bread. Their bakery really shines, but Doña Luisa has delicious options for breakfast and lunch as well. I’d recommend the fruit and yogurt bowl and a glass of freshly squeezed orange and carrot juice. Cost of a pastry and coffee: 15-20Q. Full breakfast: 40Q.
7A Norte Pizza – True to its name, this pizza joint is located on 7th Ave., right next to the ruins of San Agustin Church. The terrace here has a nice view of the ruins – especially at night. I know, I know…pizza isn’t very adventurous. But when I stay in a country long enough, I tend to get a little tired of eating traditional food over and over. Besides, 7A Norte’s pizza isn’t just good, it’s some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. I recommend the House Special. Dinner and drinks for two: 130 Q
Street food – If you want a light lunch or snack that delicious and easy on the wallet, I recommend heading over to Parque La Merced and stopping by one of the many street food vendors. You’ll find fresh fruits, baked goods, fried chicken and more here – not to mention some beautiful architecture
Local Market, Tiendas and Super Mercados – If you’re on a tight budget, you can always make your own meals in your hostel. Pick up fresh fruit, veggies and meats at the local market. There are also tiendas (convenience stores) on almost every corner. You can pick up snacks, beer and other essential items in a tienda. But if you need something specific, you can always head to the super market on Poniente, three blocks from the plaza.
STAY LONGER –
Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel – Located centrally, Cucuruchos’ is hands down the most aesthetically pleasant hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It has a rustic and cozy atmosphere that makes the place feel like home. The facilities are clean and comfortable. The beds have privacy curtains and the terrace has a spectacular view of the city. But even more impressive than the facilities is the accommodating staff. From the front desk to the kitchen employees – Cucuruchos’ staff goes out of its way to take care of you. A delicious breakfast is available for 30Q, while water, coffee and cake are free, daily. While not a party hostel, the common area is large and provides ample chance of meeting other travelers. My only complaint was that quiet time seemed to come a bit early – around 10:30 p.m. Of course, Antigua seems to be an early-to-bed town, in general. Average cost per bed: $11-15 (80-110Q)
Three Monkeys Hostel – While the atmosphere isn’t quite as comfy and cozy as Cucuruchos, Three Monkeys is an excellent option for travelers on a tight budget. Three Monkeys has private rooms and 4-8 bed dorm rooms available for as low as $9 per night (66Q). The hostel has a friendly staff, a beautiful terrace, a patio with hammocks and a lively bar for those looking to meet and party with other travelers. One disadvantage to Three Monkeys is that it’s a bit far from the main plaza. Still, Antigua is small enough that everything is within walking distance. Not to mention, Three Monkeys has a beautiful resident cat that’s ready to provide you with purrs and lap-sits free of charge.
Earth Lodge – Looking for a more private retreat – somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of antigua, closer to nature? Look no further than Earth Lodge. A Canadian-American couple started this beautiful retreat back in 2003. The property is located on an avocado farm in a small mountain village outside of Antigua. At 6,000 feet above sea-level, Earth Lodge’s cabins provide incredible views of the valley below and the volcanos that surround it on each side. Earth Lodge currently has seven private cabins, a dorm cabin and multiple campsites. Organic breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily, while beer, coffee, tea, smoothies and snacks are available from the bar during operating hours. There’s also a sauna on site along with darts, billiards and other recreational activities. Rates vary from 90Q-525Q. Click here for a full list of lodging options.
TRAVEL SMARTER –
Antigua’s a small enough city to walk from end-to-end without breaking too much of a sweat. However, if you need to make a quick trip or get outside of town, there are tuk-tuks available for hire on almost every corner. A ten-minute ride will cost you about 20Q.
Of course, for an even cheaper option, you can try hopping on one of Guatemala’s infamous chicken buses.
Because so many people exploring Guatemala base in Antigua, there are tourist agencies all over the city. These agencies offer shuttle service to destinations all over the country, including Flores, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, Guatemala City, Semuc Champey and more. Shuttles typically run around four times per day, to-and-from Antigua. Prices vary, but you should typically be able to reserve a shuttle seat for around $12 one-way.
On the whole, Guatemala has a poor reputation when it comes to public safety. It consistently ranks among the top ten countries in national crime and murder rates. However, those numbers are skewed heavily by gang violence and drug crime. Foreign nationals are rarely targeted by these groups. Moreover, Antigua is much safer than Guatemala City and some of the country’s more remote regions.
I never once felt threatened or uncomfortable while traveling in Guatemala. I’d previously read some posts by bloggers that advised to refrain from walking around with expensive camera equipment. However, I felt no reservations walking around with my DSLR – especially in the day time.
I would simply advise the same precautions that I take when visiting any new urban area. Exercise smart situational awareness and don’t make yourself an easy target. Try not to walk around at night alone. Don’t get wasted and stumble out into the streets. Keep your passport and other valuables in your hostel/hotel locker. Keep a tight grip on your purse/camera/etc. Be aware of pickpockets. And if by some unfortunate chance, you find yourself being mugged, just calmly hand over the goods. Then thank your stars you bought travel insurance.
Have you traveled to Antigua? Did I miss something? Please let me know any of your awesome experiences in the comments below. I’d be happy to have your input and discuss how I can make these guides more helpful and more complete. Thanks for reading!
Also published on Medium.