Antigua, Guatemala, not to be confused with Antigua in the Caribbean, is a beautiful small city that is bordered by volcanoes in southern Guatemala.
Antigua is famous for its Spanish colonial buildings, many of which were restored after an earthquake in 1773. That same earthquake is what ended Antigua’s 200 years of being Guatemala’s capital. However, with Guatemala City being the capital of Guatemala now, it’s allowed Antigua to remain a charming little city, which feels more like a town, a great base for traveling out to other parts of the country, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Many locals live outside of Antigua in smaller villages where the cost of living is less expensive, but you still see the local women walk the streets, selling their goods, and dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing. Since Antigua is under an hour drive from the Guatemala City airport, it makes for an easy trip, and also the place where most travellers head first, especially with Guatemala City not having the best reputation.
I visited Antigua for a few days in September at the beginning of my trip to Guatemala. I always expect to not like the “cities” as much when I travel versus the smaller, more off-the-beaten-path destinations, but Antigua was nothing what I expected. I loved the historical, colourful charm Antigua still had, something very rare to find in many tourist hotspots, whether it’s a big or small city. I had a lot of fun in Antigua and I would love to return. From my trip there, combined with my research, here is a guide to making sure you have as good of a time as I did.
A Few Things to Know:
- The Guatemalan currency is the quetzal which you can get from an exchange place or ATM at the airport, or an ATM in town.
- The tourist season in Guatemala is from November-March, and it is considered the country’s dry season.
- Tourist shuttles are the most common and easiest mode of transportation between towns and from the airport. They can be arranged and booked in most hotels.
- Antigua is extremely walkable, you likely won’t need a car or have to take a taxi to get to the main spots if you stay centrally.
- Antigua is safe, but use your common sense. Also, the streets aren’t well lit at night, so bring a flashlight, or stay in the busier areas after dark, especially if you’re alone.
Where to stay
Let’s talk a bit about where to stay when you arrive. Here are some of my recommendations based off my research. Note that I’m a budget traveller who still likes comfort, and there were so many budget-friendly options in Antigua that had dorm rooms for the true backpacker, and private rooms for those people like me. I don’t recommend super expensive hotels because: a) I’m not even sure if there are any in Antigua, but b) I wouldn’t stay there.
- Maya Papaya: This is a budget friendly option where you can get dorm or private rooms for a great price. It’s central, super clean, cute, and is where I stayed when I was in Antigua. Rooms range from around $17-$125 USD a night.
- Selina Antigua: A super cute hostel with beautiful private rooms too located a short walk from the main drag. Rooms range from approximately $11-$80 USD a night.
- Hostal Antigueno: Another popular budget option with a variety of dorm and private rooms ranging from $11-$66 USD a night.
For a larger list of budget accommodations, check out this guide.
If you’re looking for a unique place to stay, and for whatever reason don’t want to stay central to Antigua, you can also look at staying at Earth Lodge. Earth Lodge is an eco-friendly lodge on an avocado farm located about 8km away from Antigua. You stay in beautiful tree houses while there, eat at community dinners, and the lodge gives that sort of community/retreat vibe. However, this isn’t for everyone, and isn’t walking distance to the major sites, so it’s entirely up to you and the type of vacay you’re looking for!
Where to eat
Antigua, like any “city” is full of great spots to dine. However, I did find the food prices much more expensive at the bulk of the restaurants around the city centre versus other places we visited in Guatemala. We ate at some great places during our short time in this city though including a few of the ones included on the below list:
- Por Que No? Is a fantastic restaurant that is a hole in the wall located on a side street. The decor is super cute and rustic, and they don’t have many tables which makes it really intimate. You could watch the chef whip up your meal from their delicious menu filled with unique dishes, as well as more typical items like quesadillas. A definite must-do, but try and call ahead to make a reservation or go early.
- Antigua Brewing Company is a great place to grab a snack and try some locally made craft beers. They have a fantastic rooftop patio with great views of the city and the surrounding volcanoes.
- Mezon Panza Verde is a great place for a high-end meal set inside a beautiful cave-like atmosphere with a menu loaded with all sorts of dishes.
- Rincon Tipico is a go-to for local cuisine which can be shockingly hard to find around the main streets which are lined with super cute, more touristy, pricey restaurants. Rincon Tipico is central, incredibly cheap, and serves simple dishes of various types of meat, salads and vegetables.
What to do
Guatemala is a religious country, primarily Catholic. Since Antigua used to be the capital, the city still has a large amount of monasteries, convents, and churches even though many were destroyed in the 1779 earthquake. Santa Clara Convent is one of the ruins that still stands today and has a beautiful courtyard to stroll through. Iglesia La Merced is another popular spot as this church is incredibly photogenic with it’s yellow and white colour, and beautiful architecture.
It’s no secret that Guatemala is known for their coffee. Due to their temperature, as well as altitude, the country is one of the top producers of coffee in Central America. Coffee production began in the 1850s and is still very important to the country’s economy, as Guatemala falls in the top ten countries in the world for coffee production.
Antigua offers many great tours you can take just outside of the city to local plantations. Learn all about how coffee is grown, and drink some of the best. Honestly though, I don’t drink coffee, and haven’t ever, but while in Guatemala I drank it every day.
Volunteering and giving back always seems like a great idea when abroad, especially in a third world country, however, it’s something I’m always skeptical about because there are so many ways that it can actually do more harm than good. Although we didn’t actually have any time to volunteer while in Antigua, I did come across and consider doing a tour with Ninos de Guatemala. This organization provides underprivileged children with an education. It runs two primary schools, plus a secondary school. They offer several different tours such as volunteering for a day, a coffee workshop, visiting the schools, and even the volcano treks I mentioned earlier. The best part is that you get to experience Antigua, and all the profits made by the tours goes back into the schools. A way to give back in a responsible way!
Volcano tours and treks are also popular for those in Antigua, Acatenango Volcano is the more challenging trek to opt into it. It is considered Guatemala’s 3rd highest volcano and most treks are overnight as it takes about 8-9 hours to reach the summit. Many local tour operators and hotels can arrange this for you, our hostel, Maya Papaya, even offered free gear rental for your trek if you don’t want to travel with it.
Pacaya Volcano is the volcano we opted to do because we didn’t have enough time, and also weren’t too interested in the 9 hour hike up Acatenango. Pacaya is easily accessible from Antigua, with many tours taking you there for cheap, and only takes a couple hours to hike. The tour is usually from around 6am-2pm, including the drive there and back which is about an hour each way. Pacaya is also one of the only few volcanoes in Guatemala that is currently active. We booked our hike through Viator.
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