Antigua, Guatemala: The Ultimate Travel Guide
A blend of past and present
If you crave the hustle and bustle of modern city life but miss the convenience of a time machine, then Antigua is the place for you. Nestled among three unbelievably impressive volcanoes and overflowing with striking Colonial-era architecture in joyful hues, this 500-year-old Guatemalan city is an incredible blend of past and present. Picture it: long days spent sauntering between historic facades; lively evenings enjoying traditional marimba music in jacaranda-laden squares; and nights out immersed in all sorts of contemporary culture.
Best things to do in Antigua
Best things to do in Antigua? Where do I begin?! Take a stroll past the iconic 17th- and 18th-century ruins, shop for handmade goods at the local markets, or enjoy a warm cup of coffee from nearby farms. Those with a taste for adventure can always hike up a volcano, or if you’re feeling brave enough – strap on your helmet and “fly” through the rainforest via zip wire! With all sorts of restaurants, boutiques, bars, and live music to explore – it’s hard not to want to stay for a while!
Dining – Colonial Style
Antigua is a paradise for gastronomes who wish to experience delights that fuse the traditional and creative. Guatemala has one of the most sophisticated restaurant scenes in Central America, so packing your appetite alongside your sense of adventure when visiting Antigua can guarantee one of the best things you can do here! All the restaurants are located in ancient colonial-style hotels, adding even more flavor to this entertaining culinary journey.
From exquisite European cuisine cooked with a perfect Antiguan twist, to attentive and professional service and stunningly impressive surroundings – dining in style has become not just an activity when visiting this region, but a full-fledged experience.
From paella and pasta to ceviche, local chefs here have put a perfect spin on classic European and Caribbean fare.
Hobbitenango, quite the mouthful to say, is the closest you’ll get to feeling like a real Hobbit.Every inch of this magical place screams form expert LotR fans and yet every piece has been so carefully kept in a sustainable fashion
Don’t forget to look out for that giant troll’s hand poking out of the mountain. ! It’s hard to miss the grass-covered roofs and iconic round doors of this incredible attraction high up in the hills.
This Lord of the Rings-themed park is amazingly located only 30 minutes away from Antigua Guatemala – so why not take a day trip and treat yourself to some spectacular views of volcanoes and a giant troll’s hand peeking out from the mountain?
Not so boring ancient ruins!
No matter your level of fascination with antiquity, I’d bet my last peso that you’ll fall madly in love with the colonial landmarks hidden behind the city’s walls. Depending on your front-loading schedule, I highly recommend exploring at least two sites.
The entrance fee to any ruins in Antigua is 40 quezales (around $6)
Since these majestic monuments remain relatively unknown to the swarms of tourists milling around town, take advantage of their seclusion and marvel over the beauty that many are too busy to even notice!
The massive convent was a shining beacon among the monastic Capuchin order from 1736 until an unfortunate seismic shake-up in the year of ’73. Since then, tourists flock to the ruins of this beautiful structure, eager to explore its picturesque walls and ogle at the artistically balanced colors and textures.
Led by a life of dedication and asceticism, the nuns were like poised flowers eagerly echoing their master’s teachings despite the more strict regulations they were bound to on a daily basis. Moreover, these fantastic structures featured very low ceilings that perfectly blended with its thick walls – quite possibly why Antigua’s signature patina has aged so magnificently over time!
Santa Clara Convent
Held together by the charm of their architectures and by the power of mother nature which somehow had mercy on them. Santa Clara Convent and Church is a great example, having been founded in 1699 by none other than nuns from Puebla in Mexico. The reputation earned was one shared by many well-to-do young women who saw joining the convent as an honourable fate, courtesy of its rather comfortable daily hardships.
Arriving at Sant Clara Convent on a Monday morning was like walking into an oasis of peace: apart from the sound of chirping birds and lazy butterflies, all that could be heard was total silence. This serene nature was only interrupted when I made my way to the courtyard with an inspiring fountain area, and finally reached the church with its underground tombs.
Visit a Volcano
Guatemala is an adventurer’s paradise! With over 37 officially named volcanoes, mostly located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, explorers can come face to face with the raw beauty and power of mother nature. What’s more, three of these volcanoes are still active today—Fuego, Pacaya and Santiaguito. It’s no surprise that local tour companies have set up a range of experiences to explore their fury.
Ambitious travelers can attempt a half-day hike to really get up close and personal with Guatemala’s roaring fire giants or go all in with an overnight excursion. Just make sure to pack your bravest shoes; this is one level of adventure that you won’t find in most first-world countries! For a personal account of my own volcano trekking adventure be sure to take a look at my post about climbing Acatenango.
That bit of history
Antigua is a city with a storied history. Founded all the way back in the 16th century, it served as the capital of the entire Spanish-controlled kingdom of Guatemala, stretching from Mexico City to Peru. Historians can only speculate why they chose such an idyllic spot - after all, what's not to love? Three volcanoes (including Fuego, who occasionally emits a puff of smoke) are visible from any street! Unfortunately for Antigua, this paradise was not meant to last; when a devastating earthquake struck in 1773, the capital was promptly relocated to Guatemala City.
The colorful and culturally-rich Parque Central of Antigua is home to a bustling marketplace: native Indians displaying their expertly-woven fabrics. Handmade blouses, shawls, and bags (which have been tailor-made for visitors) brighten up the square with splashes of vibrant color. The people selling these beautiful garments descend from the ancient Mayans who still hold more than half of Guatemala’s population – pretty impressive! The intricate designs of the blouses are proof of the talent present amongst Artisan, who hail from nearby villages like San Antonio Aguas Caliente and Santa Maria de Jesus where each district has taken on its own unique patterning and palette. You can easily spot a local wearing their traditional attire – just make sure you don’t try and read their mind as you’re bound to need clarification!
40% of Guatemala’s population are descendents of the ancient Maya who continue to create beautiful traditional handicrafts with a distinctive and vibrant aesthetic. Shopping in the town’s abundant markets, you’ll surely come away with one-of-a-kind products like bead jewellery, traditional textiles, pottery and artwork that’ll make your suitcase overflow with personality.
Going to the Mercado de Artes in Antigua is like soaring your way through beautifully crafted masterpieces from all over Guatemala. With an abundance of pottery, amazing beaded jewellery of unmatched quality, and textiles adorned with the vividness of Latin colortheory – it’s a color fiest. It’s right by one of Antigua’s biggest supermarkets – La Bodegona .
The town’s centerpiece is a beautiful plaza with an exciting tourist attraction: the Fountain of topless women! Allegedly created by a sculptor in the 18th century, the Fountain is said to be shaped as mermaids – a charming way of dispelling any indecency claims.
Take a day trip to Chichicastenango
If you are looking for a unique experience, the largest and most interesting market is Chichicastenango. It’s about three hours from Antigua, so the early morning starts don’t come as a surprise! This market has everything: live chickens, guacamole and machetes, colorful Mayan textiles, and coffee beans.
Here you can find adults gossiping about their children and church life. At the same time, youngsters learn the ropes of bargaining with strangers, carrying heavy containers and weighing coffee beans on their little heads. All in all, it’s an unforgettable experience.
Go to Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan is the answer if you really want to get away from it all. From its rolling green hills and eleven-mile-long shimmering length to the dozen tiny Indian villages that encircle it, this serene water oasis will surely make you forget about all your worldly woes.
So if a canoe trip in search of authentic Indian culture sounds like the ideal way to spend your vacation, Pack shakas and swimwear and take a motorboat over to Santiago del AtitaIlan for some real lake living. That aside, if Tikal is where your sights are set, just remember an airline ticket will save you more than 10 hours on a bus!
Almost very roof in Antigua is put to good use, some more useful than others. Whether it’s a chic cocktail lounge or a cozy cafe perched atop the terracotta rooftops, there’s no shortage of rooftop activities in this vibrant city!
But the best way to experience Antigua is undoubtedly at sunrise; the blazing red sky provides the perfect backdrop for Fuego Volcano billowing smoke in the distance and the melodic birds create an atmosphere like no other. And what kind of morning would it be if you couldn’t follow it up with a delicious breakfast?
If you want to indulge your sweet tooth and learn something about traditional Maya techniques in the process, a visit to the Antigua Choco Museum is an absolute must.
Here you can take a free tour and sample some delicious creations made from local cacao, or get hands-on and take a workshop that teaches you how to make your own guilt-inducing treats. Who said learning couldn’t be sweet?
Just a few minutes out of Antigua, there is La Azotea, the perfect place for a respite from the bustling streets. With traditional coffee farming behind it and great restaurant and beer garden options in front, this 150-year-old resident has the best of both worlds. Immerse yourself further by taking a tour on how coffee is grown – there’s not excuse not to know your oil belly beans from your espresso! When you’re done, take a leisurely stroll around tropical eco grounds so picture.
Absorb the quaint atmosphere tucked away in a 150 year old coffee mill and plantation – just minutes away by cab or tuk-tuk. Test your inner caffeine connoisseur on the coffee farm while learning all the secrets behind producing some of the best coffees in the world. Plus, satisfy alternative cravings with two lovely restaurants, beer garden, and chocolate making shop with tastings.
If you want to experience one of the best things to do in Antigua, head up towards the hills above and find the Santo Domingo del Cerro Cultural Park; a free outdoor sculpture gallery. Here, your perspective will be changed with the vibrant contribution of late artists, architects and Guatemala’s very own Picasso – Efraín Recinos. His bright works feature on some of Guatemala’s most important buildings – including La Aurora International Airport, where his mural provides an inspiring backdrop as you take off worldwide. So if you’re keen to applaud this imaginative genius, add this cool spot to your itinerary when visiting Antigua.
When you get there, you’ll see boys playing on their homemade toys – hula hoops made of old scrap metal, and kites they created in November. You won’t find many other playthings here; girls usually don’t even have dolls – but it’s likely that they’re caring for real babies. Boys instead turn to construction with stones they’ve gathered. And when it’s harvest season, half the village goes up to the mountains to pick coffee beans – even kids as young as three or four head up with no parents in sight and bundles of younger siblings! It’s not all work in Panajachel, though – women stroll around in traditional dress balancing baskets filled with bread, pineapples, eggs and chocolate on their heads.
How to get around in Antigua
Getting around in Antigua, Guatemala, is a breeze. Designed with a classic grid pattern inspired by the Italian Renaissance, the city is perfect for walking- even if you don’t have a GPS. Alternatively, amp up your adventure and hop on a Tuk-Tuk! Taxis are cheaper, and any hotel or restaurant will call you a cab. The best way to get around Antigua is Uber. A ride anywhere around Antigua will cost you approximately 20 q.