Longing to visit Europe, but can’t afford the expensive flights and euro conversion rates? Founded in 1524 Antigua Guatemala is a UNESECO World Heritage Site. Antigua is famous for its Spanish Baroque architecture and cobble stone streets. Here’s 15 reasons why its one of my favorite destinations.
Take A Walking Tour
The architecture in Antigua is spectacular. Even on a tight budget you can spend days meandering it’s iconic streets, with the nearby mountains framing your shots.
Parque Central or the city center is a great place to orient yourself and kick off your journey. Many street vendors sell local fruits, and the center is surrounded by cafes and gourmet restaurants. This an ideal location to people watch, from families and tourists, to artists and journalists.
Cafe Condesa located just across the street from Parque Central is brimming with old world charm. Sip local coffee and indulge in delectable pastries while surrounded by cascading fountains and lush gardens.
The Arco de Santa Catalina is one of the most distinguishable landmarks of Antigua. It’s located on 5th Avenue North and is within easy walking distance from the city center. It’s hard to picture visiting Antigua and not stopping to lay eyes on the arch.
La Merced the first male monastery in Guatemala, is the most ornately decorated church I have seen in Central America, its absolutely beautiful to behold and free to look at. Its easy to find from the City Center and the shops nearby posses cool wares.
Casa Santa Domingo is both a hotel and museum. It’s my favorite place to visit in Antigua. If your on a budget you can explore the grounds by promising to purchase chocolate from the chocolatier in the back and then slowly meander your way there. You can also take a free shuttle from here up to another resort where you can purchase a gourmet lunch for less than 20.00 USD.
Convento Santa Clara is the only paid attraction I included on the walking tour, the price should be fairly low (less than 10 USD), but it’s a steal. The convent is an ideal backdrop for weddings and you often see professional photographers doing their shoots here.
The Choco Museo is a must. I can’t stress this enough. You need to get a typical hot chocolate. Locally grown cocoa is roasted, and hand ground into powder. Then mixed with warm milk, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This is not store bought sugary syrup. Its thick, and rich, and very filling. When Mayan’s thatch houses they sometimes prepare, and serve hot chocolate as a meal replacement for the workers.
The hand woven fabrics, locally hewn jades, and multitudes of leather goods are enough to make any shopper go crazy. Store owners from all over Central America come here to buy. Half the goods sold in Belize originate somewhere in Guatemala. Antigua itself has great markets, or if you feel so inclined, you can catch a bus to Chichicastenango where the market is the size of a small town. We spent hours exploring and still couldn’t look at all the stall’s. Markets are Thursday’s and Sunday’s. This is a full day trip.
Volcan Pacaya checked off an item on my bucket list, lava. Guides bring marshmallows to roast over the molten rock. Sometimes it’s too active to summit, but when we climbed it, we were within a meter of the lava flow. Icy cold gusts of wind rush up the side of the volcano and mix with the blistering air from the flow, creating layers of multicolored air, which both bakes and freezes you.
My only warning is that Pacaya is not as safe as Antigua. My guide friends have been mugged repeatedly, so bring the minimal amount of currency needed, and consider carrying only one camera for your party to minimize loss.
Panajachel can be seen from Antigua in one long day trip. You can pay to take a private, direct bus for about 10 USD. The duration of which is about 2.5 hours. I have a love hate relationship with this place. Lake Atitlan itself is breathtaking, and the drive, filled with mountain vistas is amazing.
What’s the downside? It’s almost impossible to relax and enjoy the azure waters and hazy backdrop with all the peddlers that swarm you. Many of which are sad looking children and worn women pleading for you to help them out.
One of the best things about Guatemala is the conversion rate. So even on a budget you can enjoy fantastic treatment and luxury services.
Spa’s offer great deals. My friend and I got a 60 minute deep tissue massage, 45 minute full facial, manicure, and pedicure for about 75 USD PP. Just make sure you tip. These women work very hard.
Local buses are dirt cheap and alarmingly crowded. Charter buses, while still full, are relatively inexpensive, and offer a less claustrophobic experience. Decent clean hotels can be rented for as little as 14USD a night off of travel sites like trip advisor.
Even the McDonald’s in Antigua is beautiful.
True Cultural Experience
Guatemala is a diverse country, with its own indigenous cuisine, art, and music. Many of the indigenous Maya have their own distinct regional dress and language. It’s truly fascinating to immerse yourself in it. Many people move to Antigua to learn to speak Spanish as well.
Even though some places in Guatemala can be dangerous, Antigua isn’t. If you see soldiers walking around the city it’s for your protection. They detour muggers and shoplifters.
While I’ve never personally been on a coffee tour in Guatemala, I would highly recommend it to anyone as obsessed with this beverage as me. Also, overnight and multi-day excursions can be booked to Semuc Champey and Tikal from Antigua proper. Two places that should be on everyone’s bucket list.