Whichever bright-spark decided on the locations for Guatemala's first capital cities should've taken a few more geography lessons. A previous choice succumbed to mudslides, precipitating the change in 1543 to a city surrounded by volcanoes, prone to flash floods and the odd earthquake. It therefore could not have come as a surprise that they eventually had to pack up and leave Antigua in 1774.
However, what the first settlers lacked in climatic awareness, they made up for in aesthetic perception; you will struggle to find vistas to match those enjoyed from a roof-terrace here.
Antigua has evolved over the past few decades from a 'pit-stop' for backpackers to get a hot shower and western comforts, into a colonial town offering something for visitors of all means. Honeymooners, budget backpackers, wealthy ex-pats and weekenders from nearby Guatemala City will discover trappings to fit their divergent wants and needs.
At any given time of the year, the streets of Antigua are teeming with tourists and whether you spend a couple of nights or a week in this beautiful city, there is much to do.
Three large volcanoes surround Antigua, the highest of which, Volcan de Agua, was responsible for decimating the original capital city in 1541. To the west of the city lie Acatenango and Volcan de Fuego, the latter famous for being constantly active at a low level, and therefore one of Guatemala's most famous tourist attractions.
Whilst you can climb all these volcanoes, either on day or overnight trips, given the elevation (they are all nearly 4000m), these should be reserved for the fittest trekkers.
A more accessible option to toast your marshmallows is Pacaya (2,500m). A day trip, including transport, lasts approximately six hours and costs around $60 USD.
Antigua is one of the top-three locations in Guatemala to study Spanish (alongside Quetzaltenango and Lake Atitlan). Students will find a number of excellent schools on offer for short or long-term periods. For more information, click below:
walking around, camera in hand
Antigua packs a lot in, despite you being able to cover most of the sights in an afternoon on foot. A designated UNESCO Heritage site, it is home to dozens of churches, museums, ruins, a bustling Central Park and thriving cultural scene. Coupled with the paint-peeled walls, colourful clunking local buses on every street and the iconic cobbled street with the yellow clock-tower, it's a visual treat.
Plan a route, include pit-stops at some of the excellent coffee shops, and you'll slowly fall in love with someone or someplace.
excellent day trips
From the chaotic bus station next to the market, you can avoid over-priced tours and enjoy a cheap day trip. Within a short distance, there is an organic macadamia farm, a number of coffee plantations and a multitude of interesting villages to visit.
If you're not on a budget, you will enjoy the number of excellent restaurants scattered around the town. Wine bars, high-quality international cuisine and intimate settings provide a romantic ambience. So if this is your thing, pack some heels and a crisp white shirt (gender optional).
There are also a surprisingly large number of beauty spas offering pedi/manicures, facials and massages. These will often have special deals on, so you should never have to pay the full-price.
and don't forget...
In addition to the above, a must-do in Antigua is a visit to the thriving local market. Although busy everyday, it is Monday and Thursday that attract the biggest crowds and the most traders. The boxes, baskets and bags of fresh produce provide a vibrant backdrop to your shopping, surpassed only by the colourful traditional outfits of the vendedors.
For those staying in a hostel or apartment with their own cooking facilities, the cheap and fresh produce on offer will provide the opportunity to cook some excellent meals.
places to eat
As we were on a tight budget and had access to excellent cooking facilities, we ate out very little in Antigua. However, this site provides a good overview.
places to drink
For international backpackers, Antigua is unquestionably a party town and there is a never-ending list of drinking venues to suit every budget and predilection. Our favourites were:
The Terrace: A more-expensive backpacker hostel with a moniker reflecting its excellent roof-top bar. With an undisturbed view of the volcanoes and a good happy hour ( 12-8p.m usually with a number of decent beers at 10Q), it's a great place to chill-out and watch the sunset.
A more salubrious experience can be had if you join their infamous pub crawl, starting at 3 p.m and ending...whenever you choose. Address: 3a Calle Poniente.
Cafe No Se: One of the coolest bars we've encountered. Low lights, graffitied walls and an excellent soundtrack, this is a great place to start or end your night. There is live music a few times a week (while we were there it was an excellent ageing blues band replete with a killer harmonica player) and you can order a cheap and delicious pizza until midnight.
It prides itself on the Mezcal Bar, accessible by the hobbit-sized door, but our budget tip is to order the local rum by the bottle for 38Q which comes with your choice of soft drink. Address: 1ra Avenida Sur.
Tabacos y Vinos: Under the iconic yellow arch you'll find a small venue with a big wine list. Occasional 2-for-1 offers (whisper to the waitress if it applies when it's raining) and a happy hour where every subsequent glass of wine is cheaper than the last. Address: Under the Arch.
Almacen Troccoli: A decor and wine-list giving the impression that it has been transported brick by brick from the streets of Paris, this is a classy joint and the prices reflect this. Address: Calle del Arc y 34, Calle Poniente Esquina.
For those on a budget, the large supermarket is also very well-stocked with some excellent bottles of white or red at only 30Q.
Unfortunately, Antigua's licensing laws, like many other towns in Guatemala, require bars to stop serving at 1 a.m. As last orders are being shouted, it is not uncommon to receive an invite to a house-party, but please exercise judgement particularly if you are travelling alone.
However, there are two legit establishments willing to serve anyone who knows of their whereabouts, behind locked doors after-hours.
El Coyote Rojo (7a Avenida Norte, No. 2E), although lacking a sign, it is distinguashable by a graffitied red wall to the right of the entrance. The other is Red's Sports Bar (1a Calle Pontiente), opposite Antigua's yellow La Merced church. If the door is shut at either, sometimes all you need to do is knock.
places to sleep
Antigua has lots of upper-end hotels and backpacker dives. Those on a budget can expect to pay between 120-150Q for a double room in cheaper accommodation. We stayed at Hostal Imperial and would definitely recommend it.
Given that Antigua is on almost every backpacker's route, there is a never ending stream of shuttles travelling between here and Guatemala's main tourist attractions. Although these are significantly more expensive than public transport, if you are planning to cover a long distance in one go, they are often the least time-hungry option.
If you favour the cheaper chicken bus and local interaction (which you definitely should), from the main bus station there are frequent buses leaving in every direction, providing you with connections to the rest of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Maker. Antigua on a budget is certainly possible. However, with the creature comforts, quality of nightlife and activities on offer, you may be tempted to break it or tag on an extra couple of days/weeks.