Guatemala is crazily beautiful in all the ways you’d imagine a Central American country to be.
You’ll see brightly painted chicken buses overloaded with passengers, blaring reggaeton tunes and firing their horn like it’s going out of fashion. But this country is as tranquil as it is colorful. The people, so warm and welcoming, bring a sense of calm that is contagious, and the scenery is spiritual in its beauty. And no place is better to experience all that Guatemala has to offer than the traveler haven, Antigua.
Antigua is like finding an old jumper that you haven’t worn for a while – it fits perfectly and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. The town is small enough to navigate easily, which means that it quickly becomes familiar, and you can’t help but feel at ease as you stroll among its cobbled streets. Centuries-old Spanish architecture and crumbling churches sit amid vibrant markets, inviting restaurants, bohemian cafés and countless bars. The towering peaks of the surrounding volcanoes provide a perfect backdrop, and are easily accessible for day trips or longer hikes.
Fancy sunrise from the top of a volcano? How about toasting marshmallows on lava? Then coming back to your favorite cozy café to journal about the experience? Welcome to Antigua.
What to do in Antigua #1: soak up the history and architecture
The first thing that will strike you about Antigua is how photogenic it is. Pretty much anywhere with cobbled streets does well on Instagram. But throw in some colorfully-painted Spanish churches and arches, with the silhouette of a volcano as a backdrop… it doesn’t get much better.
Historically, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was the capital city, and that’s where the beautiful buildings originate – the influence of the Spanish is still very present – with Baroque style arches and rustic tiled rooves. In the 19th century, volcanic eruptions and devastating earthquakes triggered the relocation of the capital to what is now Guatemala City but thankfully, despite nature’s threats, the city has stayed largely intact and well preserved. What remains now is a beautiful relic to the past. The Santa Catalina arch is iconic, and the Cathedral by Parque Central is gorgeous.
Be sure to also visit Convento Santa Clara, Casa Santo Domingo and the Iglesia de San Francisco if you get the chance.
What to do in Antigua #2: embrace the café scene
The region surrounding Antigua has a long history of coffee farming thanks to its year-round temperate climate. In fact, Guatemala has some of the best coffee around, which is why Intrepid’s sister company Urban Adventures offer a day trip to fincas just outside the city so you can understand more about the history of the bean. (Plus, see more day trips they offer in Antigua here!)
If you’re not out exploring the farms, there are ample cozy spots within the city to sit back and simply indulge in a few cups. Café Boheme is a café with a conscience – its biodegradable straws put it ahead of some Western countries in terms of environmental awareness, and its vegan grub is highly recommended. Similarly ethically driven, Rainbow Café hosts talks every Tuesday by local NGOs, which help to raise awareness of local needs (plus they have live music every night of the week).
Though not hosting events or spearheading any environmental movements, my personal favorite was Café Refugio. For one week I took Spanish classes in Antigua, and every afternoon would wander down to this spot and set up on their comfortable red sofa to revise what I’d learnt with a beautifully decorated latte. It doesn’t seem like much from the outside and is only small, but the baristas make you feel so welcome and are genuinely passionate about coffee, happily explaining their blends and making recommendations.
What to do in Antigua #3: enjoy the bar scene
When the sun goes down, the town comes alive. If you fancy something familiar, Reilly’s Irish Pub is good fun, especially on Quiz Night. For somewhere a little livelier, Por Que No (translation: Why Not?) is where you can dance the night away.
But expat favorite Café No Se is the place to go for true character. Expect to have a good long chat with either the barman or the person beside you in dimly lit, moody surroundings that make for the best memories.
What to do in Antigua #4: browse the markets
There are a number of different markets to check out, even in such a small town. Some offer Guatemalan textiles and carved wooden souvenirs. The most vibrant, authentic and local is the Mercado in the north of the city. You could easily spend half a day browsing – they have everything from colorful fruit and veg stalls, to pirate DVDs, watches, and children’s toys.
During one of my Spanish classes, my teacher took us to the Mercado to point out the best fresh snacks and drinks – the best way to experience local cuisine! By far my favorite part of this market is the clothing. Keep walking to the far north end, and you’ll find piles and rails overflowing with clothes. It’s the best thrift shop you’ve ever seen. A lot of the clothing has been cast off by Americans and sent south, so you’ll find recognizable brands as well as random gems, for bargain prices.
What to do in Antigua #5: explore the volcanoes
The most memorable thing about Guatemala is its nature, specifically its volcanoes. These adventure playgrounds are beautiful to look at from below, but trust me, the views from the top are moments that will stay with you for life. The bit in the middle – the climb – can be tough for sure, but you can find a volcano to suit you.
From Antigua, Volcan de Pacaya is achievable for any age, any physical ability, and is very accessible, therefore the most popular. When the conditions are right, you even get the opportunity to roast marshmallows on the hot ground. Those up for a challenge should sign up for Volcan de Acatenango. She’s a steep beast, and you’ll be out of breath within the first 30 minutes of the six-hour ascent, but at the top you’ll be able to see the whole of Antigua below, as well as a few other volcanic peaks, including Volcan de Fuego beside you, which erupts almost continuously.
Sat around a campfire on the slopes of Acatenango, my group watched (and listened to) one of nature’s most impressive displays as Fuego erupted to our right, while a thunderstorm danced in front of us, above the twinkling lights of Antigua. After a few chilly hours of sleep, our smiling guide roused us in the dark, in time to shuffle out of our sleeping bags and witness one of the most stunning sunrises I’ve ever seen.
On the last night of our stay in Antigua, I hiked with two friends up to the Cerro de la Crux. Only a 40-minute walk from the cobbled grid of the town, up a hill on one side, this viewpoint is a perfect place to look over what lies below and reflect on the fun you’ve had there, and probably plan your return.
Ready to explore and delights of Antigua? Check out Intrepid Travel’s range of tours in Guatemala.
(Volcano sunrise image c/o Jen Welch. All other images c/o Intrepid Travel.)