I first visited Antigua back in 2004, sometime around mid June. I remember it being an old fashioned colonial town, with mostly quiet streets, certainly some tourism but mostly of the backpacking kind, and it was wet. It was raining as I got off the chicken bus, it rained the next three days I was there, and while I did enjoy my time I would certainly have preferred better weather.
Ten years later I reached Antigua on a chicken bus once more despite having read online that there are “normal” buses, an interesting ride up the hills from Guatemala City which I did explore for two days (one too many) this time. The air got cooler as we reached higher altitude, leaving the traffic noise behind as well as another bus minus its rearview mirror that ours had smashed off while on a rat race to pick up more passengers. But it was all good. I looked out the window trying to recognize the town I had been in a decade before – but I just couldn’t.
I vividly remember how the bus stop was ten years ago, but the new one was nothing of the sort. Just a big parking lot covered in sand and dust and about another fifty buses parked under the hot sun. Traffic was such that after not moving for 10 minutes our driver suggested we get off and walk to town, just across the market adjacent to the parking lot, and so we did. Welcome to Antigua.
Visiting Antigua: What to See and Do in Town
Antigua was Guatemala’s first capital city, but it was destroyed several times throughout history by earthquakes and today remains as a classic colonial town. The first thing you’ll want to do is to walk around, reaching the Plaza Mayor sooner than later. From here you can see the Arco de Santa Catalina, perhaps Antigua’s most famous landmark, and you’ll definitely want to take a picture of it (I recommend you take it during the morning and from its Eastern side, as the sun will be behind you and you’ll also be able to include the Volcan de Agua in the composition). There are also many churches to stop by including la Catedral, Iglesia de Santa Clara and Iglesia de la Merced, though most of them have been destroyed by the earthquakes. My favorite by far and large was Iglesia de Santo Domingo; I was struck not only by the dichotomy of the indigenous ladies selling their handcraft in front of a no longer withstanding Catholic church, but what’s left of the church itself is now a market as well with several galleries where to look for your favorite souvenir and then bargain for.
Other places to check out are the market by the bus station (nothing extraordinary but it’s worth the walk), any ongoing exhibition at the Spanish Cultural Building and of course a brief hike to the Cerro de la Cruz ( to do before 5 pm because of safety concerns) from where you’ll overlook the city of Antigua. All things considered Antigua itself can easily be visited in full in one day with plenty of time to spare for a long lunch and an afternoon coffee break- or two.
Where to Stay
When in backpacking mode I seldom book any hotel, knowing that in mid to small towns it’s relatively easy to find a place where to sleep on your own. In fact sometimes you don’t even have to look for one; let me explain . If you’ve traveled around Central and South America you may have noticed that it’s very common at bus stops for strangers to walk up to you offering to take you to places where to sleep. Most people are weary about this and chose to ignore, but I still have to encounter my first problem.
As expected Antigua was no different, and as soon as I crossed the street that divides the market from downtown Antigua a man walked up to me asking if I was looking for a hotel. I told him that I was interested in a good budget option, and after checking out a couple of places I chose to stay at Posada Orvisa. The place is simple; I picked the only room left at 100Q (shared bathroom) but it has a nice patio with chairs and tables, free Wi-Fi, and the owners also have a tour business at the front desk which would provide to be very handy during my stay.
This said Antigua has changed a lot in this sense. When in Antigua a decade earlier there were only a handful of hotels, and most accommodation options implied basic posadas. Today however, tourism is very big, and not of the backpacker kind only. There’s over a dozen good to very good boutique hotels where to stay at if not in a budget, and most posadas are no longer on the cheap side. I did check out a few while I was there, and can say that El Convento Boutique Hotel, Posada del Angel and Meson Plaza Verde seemed to offer a fine hotel experience rather than just a bed where to sleep in.
Where to Eat
If there’s something that Antigua does not need is places where to eat. There’s plenty of options to choose from, ranging from expensive bistros meant for wealthy foreigners to local shacks where to eat cheap Guatemalan food like the locals do. I tried a few different options during the days I was there, and of all there are three I will recommend.
Lunch – Walk over to Iglesia de la Merced along 5 Avenida, and right beside it you’ll find an entrance to what appears to be a souvenir shop. While this is true they also have a fantastic little restaurant set in a small grass covered patio. Their food options range from simple burger menus to local Pepian, Caldo de Gallo or Platano con Mole at very competitive rates. Very relaxing and with a cool breeze I found it to be an absolutely fabulous little restaurant.
Breakfast and/ or Coffee Break- Café Condesa at Plaza Mayor is very well known, and pricey. Yet people come here not only because of the good quality of its coffee and desserts but because of the colonial building it is in, reminding you at all times that you’re away from home.
Dinner– Sure, there are plenty of places where to eat pretty much anything (including a McDonald’s), but if you prefer a tasty, home made meal at the unbeatable price of 35Q check out Gate 25 on 7 Calle Poniente. The service is great and once the sun has set it is cool enough to allow for a comfortable eating experience- specially if you don’t want to overspend.
As charming and easy it is to spend time in downtown Antigua I highly recommend you participate in at least one of the many outdoor activities it offers. There are tours for all ages and physical abilities which include:
- Zip lining
- Mountain biking
- Trekking- There are many trails and paths around Antigua, and while it’s all OK to go on your own I recommend going with a guide for a better and safer experience.
- Volcano trekking- The most common volcano treks are the 5 hour trek to CArrr volcano which is no longer as interesting as it used to be, or the more physically demanding one or two day treks to Acatenango volcano. With its summit at 3975m above sea level it is right in front of adjacent Volcan de Fuego, one of the most active in the world. I did the two day trek with Old Town Outfitters which includes a night at 3750m facing active Volcan de Fuego, a fantastic experience I recommend only to fit travelers who enjoy the idea of walking uphill for several hours and spending a night at a tent with the possibility of not being able to sleep because of altitude.
- ATV tours
- Rafting tours
I have to admit that one of the main reasons I returned to Guatemala was the Acatenango trek, which turned out to be as fun and challenging as I expected it to be, and having tried all the other activities in other places I recommend participating in those that make the destination you are in unique.
A lot has changed in Antigua since I was last there ten years ago. I remember being in a street at 8 am on a cloudy waiting for my van to take me to Panajachel in Lake Atitlan when a cop car pulled over and asked me what I was doing. After explaining they told me to wait inside my hotel as it was not safe to be outside alone when the streets weren’t busy.
Today things are very different. As a cop pointed out on this trip it’s very common to see foreigners drunk on the streets at 4 am and they don’t have much to worry about other than tripping along the cobbled streets. This said it is not recommended for people to walk to the Cerro de la Cruz after 5 pm (it’s when the local police stop patrolling for the day) or even trekking nearby Volcan de Agua as you could run into trouble.
One of the best things about being based in Antigua is that you’re very close to many other nearby villages and attractions in Guatemala and reaching them is far easier from Antigua than from Guatemala city. Some of them are Chichicastenango, Panajachel and Lake Atitlan, Quetzaltenango and more. I cover these destinations in the second part of my visit to Antigua in Guatemala.
Is Antigua Overrated? What Do I Think?
Antigua has become a very touristy place, hands down. Sure, it may not be the same kind of tourism as you might expect in New York or Sydney, but there’s plenty of the adventurous kind. It is true as well that Antigua has lost part of its charm during the past decade- the fact that there’s Subway, McDonald’s and a Burger King confirms that times have changed. But other things have improved: it’s cleaner, safer, and there’s more options when it comes to eat and sleep, though I identified a lack of mid budget hotels (40-70 USD). So is it overrated? In my opinion it’s not. It may not be for everybody, but Antigua certainly has a lot to offer to the independent traveler, families and anybody who wants to visit a country in Central America.
What do you think? Is Antigua Overrated? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or continue to Part 2 of this post!