It is either impossible or highly unlikely that any traveller would pass through Guatemala and not visit Antigua, the country’s enchanting, tourist-friendly and volcano-surrounded settlement south-west of Guatemala City.
Its name – translating to ‘antique’ in English – is befitting of a town containing so many colonial-era buildings, crumbling churches and ruins. The place is further enriched with a bustling street culture scene and colourful lively markets in central Plaza Mayor. English is widely spoken and accommodation options are aplenty. It’s also a great place to relax and regain a little energy after a few days in the Guate jungle or a day’s hiking up Volcano Acatenango or Volcano Fuego. It’s safe and it’s clean. In fact, it’s a perfect tourist town.
And that – many would argue – is its irrevocable downfall. But I don’t buy it.
I get why lots of backpackers hate places that have been re-sculpted to suit tourist needs and preferences, but let’s be honest – this is no Cancún or Playa del Carmen. It’s a lot more tasteful than that, even if some buildings quite blatantly have been constructed or re-constructed purely to add more tourism value.
But I think the notion that Antigua does not represent ‘real’ Guatemala – an opinion offered by several backpackers I met across the country – is misguided. Shannon, who blogs over at one of the most comprehensive travel blogs out there A Little Adrift, hit the nail on the head with this a few years ago in her post on exploring Antigua, and so this post consequently serves to reassert that argument I suppose.
Like Shannon, I met some Guatemalans of about my age in a bar – the very same bar in fact – in Antigua. Reilley’s on Avda. Norte 2 certainly has the appearance of an archetypal gringo watering hole, but inside you are just as likely to find middle-class Guatemalans knocking back the beers and shooting pool as you would backpackers. I got talking to a couple from Guatemala City who spoke excellent English and were open and candid about their views on tourism in their country. For them, it was important to avoid reinforcing the stereotype that they are ‘lacking’ what first world countries have, and frustrating that so many tourists come in to Guatemala and look past the wealth and modern development of their country, content instead on looking for something to pity. And there is nothing ‘fake’ or ‘artificial’ about a revelation like that.
I spent 6 nights in Antigua, which isn’t much compared with several other bloggers who’ve written up on it, but in that time I managed to draw a few conclusions which you may find useful…
What to do in Antigua, Guatemala
- The layout of Antigua is grid-like, with Plaza Mayor at its centre. This is a great starting point to begin an afternoon of wandering the streets and taking photos to your heart’s content. Plaza Mayor is full of colour and life, and the Arco de Santa Catalina (heading north) beneath which can be seen the towering Volcano Agua if you get the angle just right, provides that postcard-perfect picture. However, it’s the brief magical moments you encounter on the streets which really capture Antigua’s amiable character. For that you need patience…
- Just outside of town, you can visit coffee plantations and nut farms for the day either through tour companies or by taking the chicken bus out there yourself. Check out another of Shannon’s posts, this one on her visit of a local, sustainable Macadamia nut farm (alittleadrift.com).
- Antigua is perfectly situated for thrill-seekers. Looming over the city are volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Acetenango. The latter is open to the public and offers stunning panoramic vistas from its summit of 3,976m. Volcán Fuego – the only active volcano of the three – is right beside Acetenango and in near constant eruption. On a clear day, there isn´t a better view in Guatemala. Check out my post on hiking Volcano Acetenango for more details and a fanciful memoir 😛
Antigua Eats. Where to eat in Antigua?
I didn’t eat out much in Antigua, partly due to an ever-diminishing budget but also because of how delicious the street food is there. You can usually find something tasty by a park or church any day of the week but on Sunday Plaza Mayor’s food market explodes into life. From freshly baked chicken and pineapple empanadas to grilled cheese steak sandwiches, you can dine at this market for around $3.
There was, however, one place I kept going back to:
- Café Boheme (C/ 5a Poniente). The chicken/avocado croissant-sandwich is the bomb and their smoothies are textbook. You can get lunch here for $5. (tripadvisor.com)
- Bagel Barn (C/ 5a Poniente). Great for breakfast. Offers free Wifi and wide selection of toppings for your bagel! (tripadvisor.com)
- McDonald’s (4a C/ Poniente). I can’t believe that I am actually going to say this, but Antigua’s McDonald’s is actually worth a visit. If not for the food then just for the design and décor, which it has to be said is quite impressive! The courtyard is very chilled and comfortable. (tripadvisor.com)
Going out in Antigua. Where’s the party!?
You’re never short of options if you’re looking to party in Antigua, Guatemala. There are plenty of bars and a couple of clubs too. The liveliest of these are south of Plaza Mayor and stay open until late. Here are some of the most popular:
- Reilly’s Irish Tavern (5a Avenida Norte, #31). Popular among gringos and Guatemalans, this place always fills up at the weekend and for big sporting events. There is a pub quiz on Sunday which can get pretty rowdy! (tripadvisor.com)
- Hops & Tales (3 C/ Oriente #19). One for craft beer lovers, this place, which is hard to miss, boasts a wide selection of both artisanal and micro-brewery beers that have been loaded up with hops and barley wheat. The owners are very warm people and eager to get to know their customers. (tripadvisor.com)
- Lucky Rabbit (5 Avenida Sur #8). Many a night out will end at the Lucky Rabbit, a nightclub which doubles as a games room. Beer pong is taken seriously here, as is oversized jenga (rarely completed due to middle-of-dancefloor positioning). They do good cocktails and cheap shots. Gets busy but fun if you are with competitive friends! (tripadvisor.com)
Where to stay in Antigua?
I stayed in Three Monkeys hostel, which I would recommend highly. For as low as £6/night, you get your dorm bed, Wifi, kitchen facilities, bar, access to a large terrace and hammock-filled garden (perfect for peace and quiet), laundry facilities, private bathrooms and access to a very comfortable chill room with a large TV and wide movie selection.
The hostel is well-located – about 5 minutes’ walking distance from Plaza Mayor – and they offer very good rates for tour packages. For example, the Volcán Acetenango hiking tour, which tour companies in town were charging 300 GTQ ($39) for, was priced at 250 GTQ at Three Monkeys. They will also arrange private shuttles to other spots on the backpacker circuit like San Pedro or Semuc Champey for the best possible rates.
The place was clean, the staff were very friendly and spoke good English too. The atmosphere here was fantastic and I’d definitely stay again. You can check out reviews and make a booking with Three Monkeys on hostelworld.com.
Could I live in Antigua?
Before commencing this trip, I’d wondered whether I would find somewhere in Central America where I could see myself living – my criteria was already quite specific after living in Granada, Spain for 4 years – and Antigua was the first place to actually tick most of my boxes. Beautiful architecture? Check. Low cost of living? Check. Good transport links? Check. Great food? Check. Warm, approachable people? Check. Decent nightlife? Check. An adventure playground on my doorstep? Check!
Actually, it smacked of Granada, if you trade in Moorish for Spanish colonial and mountains for volcanoes, so I’m not surprised I felt a sense of belonging. It might not be the ‘real’ Guatemala according to the ‘real’ backpacker, but I would quite happily live in Antigua if I moved to Central America. Besides all my other criteria above, it has all the modern comforts I need, if and when I need them, and a gringo community to be a part of, if and when I want to become a part of it.
Hell yes I could live here.