(This is the second part to my article on Antigua, Guatemala. You may want to read Part 1 first)
Perhaps one of the best things about Antigua’s location is that you can easily reach several other nearby villages that have unique attractions. All of them can be reached by public transportation, and while this is the cheapest option hoping on tourist vans will cut travel time by a half paying only around 2-3 USD extra per hour on average. As much as I like to travel with locals wherever I go it just didn’t make much sense to delay getting from one place to the other without a purpose, and I booked all my van trips with the help of Onvisa Tours, the folks at my posada in Antigua.
The Market in Chichicastenango
It only happens on Thusdays and Sundays, but is well worth visiting. Get there sometime around mid-morning and walk around the narrow alleys set between posts where local indigenous people buy and sell handcrafts, produce, food and more. As expected tourists are constantly targeted, but in a polite and non-rude manner. While walking around make sure you reach the Iglesia de Santo Tomas, and stop by for a visit. Its interior is devoted to the many saints locals worship, and the stairs outside provide a good opportunity for some very interesting pictures.
Chichicastenango doesn’t have much more to offer other than the market (which finishes by 2 pm) so spending a night here is not required. I got here from Antigua at around 10 am and left at 2 pm after a relaxing one hour lunch and believe this the best option.
Lake Atitlan (Panajachel)
Once an oasis for backpackers from around the world Lake Atitlan has become one of Guatemala’s most relevant attractions, if not the most. Its unique setting surrounded by volcanos makes it a fantastic town where to get away from it all and relax for a few days, and if looking to spend a night somewhere away from Antigua this is your best bet. As for things to do there’s not much other than walking to its waterfront and enjoy the views of the lake, taking boat tours to the other villages around the lake, or simply relaxing and spending some quality time on your own or with your traveling partners. There’s also some handcraft shopping to be done and plenty of places where to eat pretty much everything under the sun.
After checking a few hotels my final choice was Hotel Kakchiquel, a great choice if on a budget. At 200Q a night the room was clean, had a private bathroom with toiletries, free Wi-Fi and included a very fulfilling breakfast at its restaurant. I do recommend spending a night in Panajachel (or Pana, as locally known) if only to unwind and check out the lake during the morning and perhaps visit other towns around the lake. If you want to visit nearby Santa Cruz you can get there on a pick up truck (3Q) instead of a public boat (25Q).
While it was my intention to visit this town I did not have the time to do so, but have decided to include it for information purposes. It is Guatemala’s second largest city, off the main traveler’s trail and is vaguely reminiscent of an industrial town in northern England – grey and cool with friendly, down-to-earth inhabitants, who have a reputation for formality and politeness. At an elevation of 2330m, Quetzaltenango is always cold in the early mornings.
The city is an important educational center, its universities and colleges attracting students from all over the country, while its Spanish schools are internationally renowned. More and more development projects are also basing themselves here, and this growing outside influence is steadily adding a cosmopolitan feel to the city’s bars, restaurants and cultural life. Many overseas visitors settle easily into the relatively easy-going pace of the city; it also makes an excellent base for exploring this part of the country, making day-trips to villages, basking in hot springs like Fuentes Georginas, or hiking in the mountains. Locally, the city is usually referred to as Xela (pronounced “shey-la”).
Re-thinking about my itinerary, how things came to be during my trip, and how most travelers are weary about spending any time at all in Guatemala’s capital city I can recommend making Antigua your base camp and visiting Guatemala City as a day tour from here. Hotels are much more expensive in Guatemala, surprisingly there are not many decent eating options available, and generally speaking the city itself is not visitor friendly. This said there are some historical attractions to be visited, and understanding what happens here will help you understand why the country is where it is at today. I did visit the city and have some recommendations on what to see and where to stay in Guatemala City.
If adventure is your thing hop on a chicken bus to Guatemala City and then grab a taxi to the Centro Historico where the city’s attractions are only to return later in the day, otherwise you’ll be much better off getting a return trip with a tourist shuttle bus (saving you time and money).
In a Nutshell
Travelers who visit Guatemala only for a week or so will probably get the most out of their trip by staying in Antigua and doing short trips from this city, even if they include overnight stays (which I highly recommend you do). If you have more than a week then Antigua still makes sense as a hub to some of these nearby attractions, but with more time in your hands you’ll be able to wander around and explore more on your own. For what it’s worth my itinerary to explore these nearby towns was Antigua-van to Chichicastenango- visit the market until 2 pm- van to Panajachel- overnight in Panajachel- drive back to Antigua at 5 pm. In any case there are many attractions near Antigua worth visiting that will give a more compelling view of the country and allow a much better travel experience. Despite what other travelers say Antigua is certainly worth visiting and should be on any travelers map. Make sure you do hop around and do visit lake Atitlan no matter what!
Have you visited any of these towns? What did you think about Antigua and Lake Atitlan? Any other recommendations? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and this post too if you think others may find it useful!