Travel Guide // Antigua, Guatemala

april 30, 2017

Do you ever visit a new place and immediately feel at home? You’re ready to cancel your return flight and begin a new life. Antigua, Guatemala filled my heart in such a way. In Antigua, wander and get lost on the charming, cobblestone streets. Marvel at the colorful buildings, with flowery vines spilling over the walls. Stop into one of the many cafes or restaurants, most of which have either a terrace offering views of the nearby volcanoes cradling the town or an intimate garden patio furnished with indigenous plants. Loose a day in Parque Central with the company of friends or a good book. Have a glass of wine under the notable Yellow Arch. Finger colorful woven cloth, which carries the tradition of thousands of years in it’s threads and patterns. This is my place. This is my home away from home. I’m very excited to share it with you.

Side note: I happened to be in Antigua during Easter festivities - so the city was flooded with amazing decorations, processions, and Guatemalans taking part in the celebrations. I definitely recommend coming during this time, but keep in mind that a lot of local establishments will have limited hours.

See // Do

  • Parque Central is truly the heart of Antigua. It is a lovely square plot, with numerous benches and a majestic fountain, framed by 16th century buildings, including the Palace of the Captain Generals.

  • Arco de Santa Catalina (aka the Yellow Arch) charms every one of us into taking the obligatory travel selfie. Located just off Parque Central, the arch frames a looming active volcano in the distance.

  • Speaking of volcanoes, Antigua is surrounded by several. Dominating the skyline is the most prominent, Volcan de Agua. While many are too dangerous to climb, you can arrange a tour to hike Volcan Pacaya, which takes about an hour and a half.

  • Museo Casa de Tejido was the highlight of my trip. I am fascinated by cultural perspectives of dress, and Guatemalan weaving traditions were a huge factor in coming to this country. But even if you’re not a textile nerd, this museum is a great visual and cultural experience. It only costs $2usd and you get your own knowledgeable guide to show you around and answer questions.

  • There are beautiful churches all over town, many of which date back to the 16th century. A few of my favorites were Antigua Guatemala Cathedral (a World Heritage site, located across from Parque Central), Iglesia de La Merced (of Baroque-style, painted a lovely shade of yellow), and Iglesia y Convento de la Compañía de Jesús (the remains of a 16th century Jesuit school and church, stricken by earthquakes in the 18th century).

Eat // Drink

  • First off, buy yourself some fresh cut fruit from one of the street peddlers. Grab a bench in Parque Central and snack on nature’s bounty of mangos, papayas, watermelon, and more.

  • Helados Exoticos fulfilled my wildest dreams in terms of unique ice cream flavors. They are definitely taking advantage of the bountiful tropical fruits at their disposal in this region of the world, but there are also playful adaptations of worldly flavors, such as Maple/Hazelnut & Pistachio/Cardamom. I went twice in 24 hours - it was that good. The first time around I tried Merlot/Strawberries (I have no words for how amazing this tasted), and the second time I tried Chocolate/Habanero. This one was perfectly balanced, the spice was very prevalent, but balanced by the cool temperature of the ice cream and the rich chocolate. Next time, I want to try Mango/Basil.

  • Bella Vista should be your go-to breakfast + working outpost. Head upstairs to the roof for an unimpeded view of Volcan de Agua. They had a super yummy veggie sandwich and fast, free wifi.

  • Union Cafe is the place to go for all the good-for-you yummy stuff! Smoothies, vegan snacks, organic coffee, craft brews, and more! I took a tasty green juice to-go as I wandered the city on my first morning.

  • Cafe Sky is lovely for a drink at sunset. Head up to the terrace for a panoramic view of the city and Volcan de Agua. They have a pretty extensive food menu, reasonably priced, but just-okay tasting, in my opinion.

  • Por Que No was one of the most unique dining experiences I’ve ever had. To put it in their own words, “The minute you arrive, you can’t help but feel the excitement and enchantment of fellow travellers who’ve come to sample some of the best dishes in town… Come for fun, come for food, come for the love and leave with an incredible sense of having lived Antigua to it’s fullest. Because sometimes, life’s best food experiences are off the beaten path, and this is indeed one of them!” Nuff said.

  • Tabacos y Vinos is a very small wine bar, easy to find, as it is located directly beneath the Yellow Arch. Although they have a limited selection of wine by the glass, their prices are pretty fair, each about $4-5usd/glass with a discount the more you buy! I sipped a couple glasses of Junta Carmenere, a light-medium bodied red with rich cherry notes, and touches of black pepper and rosemary. I enjoyed my first glass of wine as I partook in a bit of people-watching, and then settled in with a book for the second glass. What a way to spend an afternoon...

  • Queso y Vino literally translates to “cheese and wine,” and, as if that isn’t enough to draw me in, there is a lovely outdoor patio AND it’s dog friendly. ¡Si, por favor!

  • CAFÉ NO SÉ is the place to be after hours.This dark, hole in the wall and the adjoining Illegal Mezcal Bar are brimming with interesting stories and people. Seriously, go and chat with the staff and the patrons, while enjoying live music and the softly-lit interior. I spent a good 5 hours here, where I met a local who worked for Habitat for Humanity, one of the bartenders who served 21 days in jail for smuggling Mezcal into Guatemala, a former Guatemalan consulate to Portugal, expats from all over the world, and 3 dogs (because everywhere in Antigua is dog-friendly, even at 1am).

Shop // Splurge

  • Antigua Mercado de Artesanías has all the cool and interesting souvenirs you want to bring home. Be prepared to haggle (a local told me to offer half of the first asking price) if you want a bargain.

  • Shooga and other boutiques on 5 Calle E merchandise contemporary womenswear and resortwear, with prevalent Central American patterns and embroidery in the details.

  • Shops selling jade jewelry are a dime a dozen (p.s. the jade is not). Pick out something pretty to remember your trip and remind you of the ancient Mayan decorative traditions of Guatemala.

  • Ceramica Antigua, located on 5 Calle E, has an impressive collection of ceramic tiles in traditional Latin American styles. Come in to source for your custom home renovation - or just to look at all the pretty things (like I did!).

  • DYSLEXIA Libros is a tiny bookstore with used books of both the English and Spanish variety - spend 40GTQ ($5.50usd) and get a free beer next door at Cafe No Sé.

  • El Reposo Spa offers a quaint and organic spa experience at super reasonable prices. The Full Body exfoliation (on special for about $20usd during my stay, normally $30usd) was much needed after a week spent in the sun.

Stay // Sleep

 

  • Budget - Tropicana Hostel is centrally located, and has a pool, terrace, garden, bar, and arranged tours to nearby landmarks and sights. (private rooms from $30usd/night, dorms $12usd/night)

  • Mid-range - Hotel Boutique Casa Santa Ines is located just outside of the city in a colonial building with ample outdoor space. (from $65usd/night)

  • Luxe - El Convento Boutique is located in town, offering luxury amenities, including an onsite spa and heated pool. (from $150usd/night)

 

Getting Around // Getting There

Pretty much everything you want to see in Antigua is in walking distance, and walking around the city is a treat in of itself! The colorful buildings and smiling locals make the walk a cultural experience.

 

In terms of getting to Antigua, Guatemala City houses the closest airport. I took an Uber from the city, which cost me $17usd. Yes, there are cheaper ways of getting around by bus, but this was super convenient for me, especially because I wanted to maximize my time in Guatemala. I was able to be picked up and dropped off right at my hotel and destinations, which saved time and stress of hauling my luggage around. Additionally, the charges went straight to my credit card (Capital One, which has no foreign transaction fees), so I didn't have to fumble with the local currency or worry about the USD to GTQ exchange rate.

 

I had a lovely 45 minute (I heard it was 1.5 hours by bus), air-conditioned ride with an English-speaking driver who pointed out landmarks along the way and hugged me upon our parting. You can take an air-conditioned shuttle for $10usd, or the chicken bus (repurposed and brightly painted school buses, which are the most authentic, albeit less comfortable) for a few dollars. Shuttles depart from the airport, and both can be found at bus stops in town,

 

Side note: Many guides recommend skipping Guatemala City and going straight on to Antigua or another destination, yet I highly recommend staying in Guatemala for at least one night. Guide to Guatemala City coming soon...