Guatemala City has not always been the capital of Guatemala. From 1543-1776, Antigua served as the capital city of the Kingdom of Guatemala, an outpost of the Spanish Empire. It actually only ceased to be the capital after multiple earthquakes forced the abandonment of the city.
The combination of a Spanish conquest, abandonments and resettlements, a combination of colonial and Mayan influence and drastic seismic activity has left behind a jewel of a city. Found in the highlands about an hour out of Guatemala City, each brightly coloured street hides a different secret. Whether it is a monastery, a ruined church, a beautiful archway or just one of the incredible views to the mountains seemingly found round every corner, Antigua is full of surprises. It is a must-visit, and this is how we did:
Antigua is well connected to all of Guatemala’s tourist hubs via the shuttles that go all over the country. It is also close to Guatemala City, the country’s only major airport.
We came to Antigua direct from Flores on an overnight bus. These are not cheap (about 350Q), although they do save you the cost of a night’s accommodation. It took about 8 hours to Guatemala City and then another hour on a smaller bus to Antigua. The bus was a luxury coach, not entirely befitting of Guatemala’s windy and unkempt roads. A little tip, if you do find yourself on a coach, don’t sit up front – trust me when I say ignorance is bliss with regards to Guatemalan driving.
The city is big enough to have a lot of things tucked away, but small enough to walk everywhere. It is conveniently laid out on a grid so navigating is quite easy. My only suggestion is to bring some footwear that is a bit sturdier than flip flops, the cobbles and the ancient pavements combined with them is a recipe for a broken ankle.
Antigua certainly does not lack for options for a place to crash. There are so many tourists and backpackers in the city that there is something for every budget. We stayed in an Airbnb hosted by a local called Federico and his family, which was really nice, and a few nights in the Three Monkeys Hostel nearby, which I can also recommend.
Our favourite thing to do in Antigua was simply to wander about. There is so much to take in on foot that it seems churlish to list a load of places to see. I truly believe that the best thing about Antigua is discovering something unexpected. There are countless galleries and museums, monasteries, convents and churches. All of them cost about 40Q to get in, so if you really want to take in your history then do a little research and pick one or two.
Antigua is also located near some pretty amazing volcanoes (hence the aforementioned earthquakes). A few are hikeable:
- Pacaya – this is a few hours’ drive away, then a short but steep 2 hour hike up. It costs about 80Q return transport there, and 50Q to get into the park with a guide. The guide is necessary due to the fact you are walking on an active volcano. The hike itself isn’t really difficult but if you are unfit or have dodgy knees it’s probably not for you. Highlights are the views and toasting marshmallows on the warm earth – touristy and tacky but still good fun.
- Acatenango – again, a few hours’ drive away, this is a bit more intense. The hike is normally done as an overnight excursion, and tour companies give you all your equipment (a tent, sleeping bag, food etc.) for about US$25 per person. You have to carry all your own stuff and it isn’t easy, but the view at night to the erupting Fuego volcano is one of a kind. If you are fit enough and have the time it is a must-do.
Food & Drink
I couldn’t possibly do a full list of restaurants, bars and cafes in the city because there are literally thousands. However a few I can recommend are:
- Rincon Tipico – A traditional Guatemalan BBQ. 25Q a person, plus another 10 for a bottomless iced-tea. Either chicken or pork (the chicken was better), rice, potatoes, beans… an absolute bargain. They don’t speak English there but they were very patient with our dreadful Spanish.
- Toko Baru – Definitely aimed at backpackers but with a deserved reputation for amazing food. We had falafel burritos (45Q) and a giant plate of sweet potato wedges (38Q) and were full for an entire day.
- Y tu Pina Tambien – Fantastic coffee shop just around the corner from Toko Baru, 10Q for a fantastic Americano.
- Taqueria Dona Lupita – The 20Q nachos here were outrageous.
- The Three Monkeys Hostel – Every Friday they offer Argentinian BBQ (steak, sausage, garden and potato salad) along with a drink for 55Q. Available to anyone, you just need to pop your name down earlier in the day. Cracking meal at a very reasonable price. We suggest nipping to the supermarket for a 30Q bottle of vino tinto to go with it.
We found the Bodegona supermarket to be the best place to do shopping, especially for alcohol. Beers were a few Q each, wine for less than 30Q and a litre of rum set you back about 60Q. It was also good for re-stocking on stuff like bug spray and suncream, not amazingly cheap but with enough stock to keep you bite and burn-free for another few weeks