Antigua, Guatemala is fast becoming one of the premier vacation destinations not only in Latin America but the entire world. Here is a town that knows how to do it all. From the spicy, Latin American culture and Spanish-colonial architecture, to the myriad of truly great restaurants and majestic views of the surrounding volcanoes, there is something special to be found hidden down every cobblestone street. You can spend your days casually strolling through the local markets, full of fresh produce and hand-made niche’ items or simply sit in the Parque Central for hours, watching musicians play some of the best Spanish guitars that Central America has to offer.
The city is a UNESCO world heritage site and the minute you set eyes on it, you’ll know why. Antigua is a great city to live the high life for a fraction of the cost of other similar world-class destinations. Any time spent in this gorgeous city set in the highlands of central Guatemala is time well spent. You can laze around for days or do all the sightseeing your heart desires and you will never grow tired of this cozy little town. Below we have outlined for you a trip that you will not soon forget but beware if you visit this magical city once, you’ll be bound to return again and again for the rest of your life. Below is your guide to an enchanted getaway in a city in which history lives all around and you will never run out of things to do.
How to Get to La Antigua
Located about forty-five minutes south of the capital, Guatemala City, Antigua is an easy destination to reach and there are several different modes you can take to get there. A taxi, direct from the airport (La Aurora International Airport), will cost you roughly $35 and is a quick forty-five-minute ride through the mountainous central highlands. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, try out a chicken bus. Chicken busses are North American school busses converted into public transit busses and are a Central American staple. Any ride on one of these decked-out, no matter how long or short, is bound to be an adventure. Chicken buses are by far the cheapest mode of transport from the city to Antigua, costing around $1 for the journey, but be prepared to ride for a little longer, as these are local busses and make many stops along the way. The trip should take you about an hour and a half, in total.
The return trip to the airport is similarly easy and cheap, and most hotels will offer a shuttle service that will take you door to door for $20-$30 dollars. If you’re looking to get a taxi from La Antigua back to Guatemala City, your hotel should be able to recommend a driver, or you can head to the Parque Central where you will find plenty of taxis parked along the outskirts of the square and will offer competitive pricing on a ride back. Expect to pay slightly more when returning to the airport (approximately $40), as Antigua is a tourist town and therefore, the prices are a bit higher.
1. Walk Around and Enjoy the View
La Antigua, Guatemala, literally translated as ‘Old Guatemala’ is a former capital city of Guatemala and easily the most beautiful city in the country. Founded in 1543 by Spanish conquistadors, the city features Spanish Baroque-style architecture and walking down any of the cobblestone streets is sure to yield many great photo-ops. As you walk down the storied streets of La Antigua, you’ll get a feel for the vibrancy of the Latin American culture at its best. Each building is painted in a different color, giving the city a Caribbean vibe and the smells from cafés and restaurants are sure to make your mouth water and your stomach grumble. It’s not to worry though, as Guatemala is one of the cheapest destinations in Latin America, and the bang for your buck is sure to allow you the freedom to enjoy all this wonderous city has to offer.
The city is situated in a valley surrounded by three volcanos and you can find breathtaking views of all of them from any one of the many rooftop terraces the city has to offer. Though the city is affordable it doesn’t have the feel of a discount vacation. As you wander the city, you’ll notice high-end boutiques scattered in with local tiendas (shops). This city truly has something for absolutely everyone. Spend the day walking the ancient streets of Antigua and walk among Spanish-colonial ruins of days past, or simply pop into the many shops and boutiques to find anything from fine jewelry to hand-made bracelets.
Antigua also boasts many truly great markets, called Mercado, in which you can find everything from farmer’s markets in the morning to electronics, handmade textiles and more. Walking down any given street, you’re bound to find a seemingly unending story laid out before you, displaying the history of the Mayan people through the Spanish-colonial period and well on into the modern-day. Step into almost any restaurant and they will most likely ask if you’d prefer to sit on the roof; always say yes. The rooftops of Antigua offer the most stunning views of the city and a 360-degree view from above will help you to orient yourself after getting lost in the beauty of the city.
2. Hike a Volcano
One of the most stunning features of Antigua is surely the three volcanos that watch over the city, Acatenango, Agua and Fuego. Guatemala is home to 37 different volcanos, many of which are active. The country is seated on the eastern edge of the Ring of Fire and as such, opportunities to see one of these wonders of nature is sure to be an amazing experience. A volcano hike is a great way to get a little closer to these magnificent natural monuments and several companies offer both overnight and day hikes for a reasonable price. The cost does vary somewhat depending upon which package you choose but you can expect to pay between $15 for a day hike to around $60 for an overnight hike with meals provided. Many tours can be booked through your hotel, but with just a quick walk down any of the main streets, you will easily find several tour companies offering competitive prices. These hikes can be a little difficult at times, but the tour operators cater to their clientele and there are plenty of opportunities to rest.
You can hike Volcan de Fuego which overlooks the city, but the volcano is very steep and the route somewhat treacherous, so it’s recommended that only the fittest and most experienced hikers try to take on these slopes. While Volcan de Pacaya isn’t one of the mountains that loom over Antigua it is, however, the most popular for hiking trips. During your hike on Pacaya, you’ll see magnificent views of the surrounding terrain and even get to roast marshmallows over lava. Yes, you read that right, lava.
If you do the hike up to the summit of Acatenango, you’ll get to watch neighboring Volcan de Fuego erupt (most likely) and many tour companies will offer volcano boarding. While sliding down the face of a volcano on a toboggan may not be for the faint of heart, if you’re up to it, it is a worthwhile experience that you will never forget.
Hiking up a volcano will not only leave you with memories that will last a lifetime, but your adventure is also sure to make all of your friends back home jealous!
3. Take a Coffee Tour
Guatemala is known for its world-class coffee and taking a coffee plantation tour to Finca Filadelfia should be at the top of your to-do list. You’ll have a guided walk through the plantation that will be as educational as it is caffeinating. After walking through the rows of beautiful coffee plants, you’ll get to sit in style and sip some of the best coffee in the entire world. The tour costs $20 and is about two and a half hours long. There are several companies offering tours and they will usually pick you up directly from your hotel. The plantation is a short way outside of Antigua and the drive through the mountains is full of spectacular views. The tour operators speak both Spanish and English, so you won’t have to worry about missing any of the deeply interesting histories as you flip through your phrasebook.
4. Walk to the Cerro de la Cruz
The Cerro de la Cruz, translated as the ‘Hill of the Cross’, was constructed in 1543 shortly after the city of La Antigua was devastated by an earthquake. The cross sits perched above the city and is perfect for a day-hike to get a birds-eye view of this gorgeous Ciudad.
The hike isn’t overly strenuous, but it is enough of a walk to work up an appetite for lunch. There is no admission cost and the walk from the city center to the cross is roughly an hour. Walking down is much easier and only takes an easy forty-minutes to get back down.
If you’re hungry after your short jaunt to the top, make sure to buy some fresh, homemade food from one of the many vendors selling their Comida (food) at the top. While you’re at the top snapping memorable selfies above the colorful city, take a minute to stop and feel the history living all around you and try to imagine conquistadors walking on the streets below you and the monks that made the same hike as you, hundreds of years before.
5. Go Shopping at One of the Fabulous Markets
The markets in Antigua are surely something to be seen. Row after row of vendors sell their wares under a large tent structure and the shade provides a bit of respite from the mid-summer heat. The markets are large and full of everything you could ever want, there are even great local restaurants in the center of most of them, so make sure to stop and grab a traditional Mayan meal after you’ve shopped till you drop. The Central Market off of Alameda Santa Lucia is one of the best markets in all of Central America. Walk around and get lost in a myriad of stalls, all under one roof. From clothing and handmade goods to electronics and souvenirs, you can spend an entire day walking around and haggling with the hundreds of vendors housed within.
If you get to the market early, you won’t want to miss the fresh markets that open around 5 a.m., every morning. The meat and veggies you’ll find inside are the best the city has to offer, and you’ll bump elbows with some of the premier chefs for the best restaurants in Antigua.
6. Visit Iglesia de La Merced
La Merced is a cathedral located at the head of the main street in Antigua. The Baroque-style cathedral was built in 1751 and is one of the most beautiful structures in the city. The cathedral still hosts mass, as it is an active Iglesia or church, so remember to be respectful of those that have come to worship. The bright yellow outer walls of La Merced are great photo opportunities and the ornately decorated interior elevates the structure to more than just another church. Walking inside, you can feel a sense of reverence. Take a seat in one of the pews and simply admire the amazing works of art that adorn every surface. You are allowed to take photos of the interior of the church, but only during certain times when there is no religious service in progress. On the weekends and during holidays and festivals, the grounds around the church lend themselves to vendors, artists, and musicians, all of which you’re sure to enjoy.
7. Eat Like a King (Or Queen)
Antigua boasts a seemingly never-ending supply of great restaurants that come in all shapes and sizes, featuring cuisine from around the world and sure to fit any budget. This city knows how to make a great meal and you will never be disappointed. Whether you opt to try out some great street food outside of La Merced or decide on a fancy sit-down meal, every bite will be something to remember. Walking down the streets of this beautiful city, the smells of truly great food are sure to make your stomach rumble and your mouth water. Though Antigua is a relatively small city, every avenue is dotted with more eateries than you can visit in ten trips.
At Monoloco, an expat bar, and restaurant near the city center, you can have one of the best Cuban sandwiches ever known to man. Stop in for a nice Rebel IPA and make sure to order the homemade French fries to go with it. If you’re in the mood for a little lighter fare, you don’t want to pass up the Rainbow Café. They have amazing fruit salads served with yogurt and the falafel is truly a work of art. If you want something a little more high-class, you will love the culinary expertise of Como Como. From beef tartare to shrimp and salmon served with cauliflower puree, this is the place to go if you’re looking for an experience instead of just another meal. Below are some of the best restaurants in the city. Loosen your belt and dive right into gastronomical delight.
- Por Que’ No? Café
- The Rainbow Café
- Como Como
- Pupsueria Salvadorena
- Hector’s Bistro
8. Have a Fiesta at a Festival
Every year, Antigua plays host to so many festivals, it is likely you’ll run into at least one no matter when you plan your trip. One of the biggest festivals of the year is Semana Santa, which is the Latin American equivalent to Easter Sunday, except that instead of one day of celebration, the festivities go on for a full week. During the holiday, Iglesia La Merced hosts activities every day and night, and the courtyard in front of the cathedral is jam-packed with merchants and food vendors, musicians, and entertainers of all sorts.
The Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival is a highlight in any Latin American country but this is especially true in Antigua. Parades of costumed skeletons dance down the main streets followed by musicians and spectators loudly cheer for the best dancers and floats as they pass by. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Antigua in late October, you won’t be able to miss the celebrations and before long, you’ll find yourself shimmying along with the locals.
Being a predominately Catholic country Christmas time is the hallmark holiday and is sure to showcase some of the best celebratory jubilations of the entire year. During the Christmas season, there are various festivals and parades for nearly the entire month of December. On Christmas day, you will be awoken by loud blasts but don’t worry, it’s only the sound of massive firework demonstrations that go from early in the morning to well after the sun goes down. The city encourages these explosive displays and even lights its bombastic explosives by pouring gunpowder down the middle of the street and leaving a string of small fireworks left to explode after the trail of gunpowder has been lit.
It doesn’t matter what time of year you find yourself in Antigua, you’d be hard-pressed to miss the seemingly constant string of festivals in the city. The purpose of each festival may differ, but they all hold striking similarities, such as the costumes, music and electric feeling in the air for every festival of the year. The Parque Central, or Central Park, is often the endpoint for the many parades that dance through the streets during almost every jamboree. The park also offers great food from the many street vendors and restaurants, great drinks from bars and plenty of opportunities to buy a few homemade souvenirs from all of the merchants that set up during the festivals. In Antigua, you can have a fiesta all day and the best time to do it is whenever you are there; there will always be a festival right around the corner.
So, there you have it, Antigua, Guatemala is a city that you have to visit at least once in your life and once you do, you’ll never forget it. Now that you have the inside track on one of the truly great cities of the world, the only thing left is to buy the ticket and take the ride to Antigua Guatemala. Book your next trip as soon as you can, it doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, Antigua is always the place to be for those in the know.