If you’re after a colourful and fascinating feast for the eyes, then head to Antigua in Guatemala.
Antigua is full of colour, populated with beautiful buildings in the Spanish Baroque style, and surrounded by volcanoes – some even active.
Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala and dates back to the 1500s. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guatemala’s capital was relocated from Antigua to what is now present day Guatemala City after a severe earthquake in 1773. Many buildings have been preserved as ruins following this earthquake, making for fascinating sightseeing.
I spent hours just wandering the cobblestone streets of Antigua – taking in the colours, ruined buildings, and standing in awe of the nearby volcanoes.
Antigua is set in square grid pattern and is ringed by volcanoes – the most iconic is Volcan de Agua or volcano of water. Antigua is easy to get around on foot. It’s a small city and you don’t need a map to find your way around.
Just wander and you’ll come across the main sights. But if you don’t want to walk, you can take advantage of transport options such as a horse and cart or tuk-tuk.
For a great view of Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes, head up the hill to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). You can see the cross from most parts of Antigua and it’s easy to get there.
You can take a tuk-tuk up or it’s a short 20 minute walk from the centre of town. The steepest part of the walk is up the trail to the cross which you can only do on foot. There’s a few steps up but should only take you between five to 10 minutes up. The views are worth it. You can even see Volcano de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) issuing steam and gas from the cross.
Back in town, check out the ruins of a convent behind San Francisco Church. The entry cost is only 6 Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency) – just one Australian dollar. The convent was severely damaged by an earthquake and you can go through most parts of the ruin.
San Jose Church, Church and Convent of Santa Clara and the El Carmen Church are also worth a look. You can go inside the San Jose and Santa Clara churches. The El Carmen church looks like it’s permanently closed to the public, but there’s another market held here – at least on the weekends. In front of the Church of Santa Clara is La Union Park, framed with palm trees and a photogenic column structure.
Convent of the Capuchinas is located on the corner of 2a Calle Oriente and is worth the entry fee. Tickets are 40 Quetzales (A$7). It’s open 9am to 5pm daily. The convent was abandoned after the 1773 earthquake but is under restoration. I found this building fascinating. It appears to be fairly solidly constructed, particularly in the opening walkway, but some of this may be due to reconstruction works.
On entry, make sure you head up the stairs to the walkway to overlook a sunny courtyard, and also seek out the monk’s cells, set in a circle. The convent is bounded by overhanging bougainvillea vines and grassy areas, with some visitors taking the opportunity to sit down for a picnic during their visit.
For a meal with a view, head along to the La Casaca Café. It’s situated across from Plaza Mayor and has a rooftop terrace. It’s a relaxing spot to soak up some sun, get a view of the plaza and take in the bustling street life.
La Casaca has a range of meals to choose from including pancakes, waffles and omelettes for breakfast, smoothies and coffees, sandwiches and salads. I tried a papaya smoothie which was delicious – you’ll see papaya everywhere as it’s native to Guatemala. I actually find it nicer than what I can buy in Australia.
While it’s a bit of a gauntlet walking through Plaza Mayor and you’ll be approached by many people selling their wares, the mermaid fountain in the middle of the plaza is worth a quick look.
Another good spot for breakfast is Panaderia Santa Clara. Their meals are huge and well priced. They also have a sun baked terrace that looks out to Volcan de Agua.
For dinner, try La Cuebita de Los Urquizu on 2a Calle Oriente near the Convent of the Capuchinas. They have a choice of a buffet style meal between 80 and 100 Quetzales (A$14 to $A18) or you can get pupusas (a corn tortilla typically filled with your choice of beans, cheese or pork) starting from 20 Quetzales each (about A$3.50).
Looking for the iconic yellow arch with the volcano in the background that features in most pictures you’ll see of Antigua? You’ll find the Santa Catalina arch on 5a Avenida Norte.
Try and head to the arch early as it gets busy in the avenue, especially in the afternoon.
If you’re brave enough to try the street food, you’ll have plenty of options with fruit such as papaya and pineapple on offer, as well as hot food such as chicken or tortilla dishes in the park opposite 5a Avenida North.
This street seems to be the main tourist strip of Antigua with plenty of restaurants, a couple of agents offering short tours, and lots of Guatemalans selling their handmade wares on the street such as scarves, beanies and toys. There are also a couple of markets that go deep inside buildings full of colourful items.
You can also use Antigua as a base to explore nearby parts of Guatemala. There’s a couple of travel agents in the centre offering tours to Tikal Mayan ruins and Lake Aitlan, or hikes up nearby volcanoes such as Pacaya Volcano.
To get to Antigua, you will need to fly into Guatemala City unless you’re coming by bus from Mexico and visiting the Guatemalan Mayan ruins such as Flores and Tikal.
From Guatemala City Airport, take the Antigua Shuttle. As you head out of Customs, look to your left and you’ll see a stand for the shuttle where you can buy tickets. You can pay in Quetzals or US dollars. Cost is 80 Quetzals/US$10 – equalling about $A14. Allow up to two hours for the journey depending on traffic. Traffic can be very heavy in Guatemala City.
Accommodation is cheap in Antigua so even the most budget traveller can splash out on a basic hotel room. I was in Antigua a night before a tour started and stayed at Hotel Las Piletas. It was basic but was adequate for one night – be warned though, there’s no hot water. But even in winter, Guatemala is fairly warm with minimum overnight temperatures of around 13-16 degrees Celsius.
My tour started from Hotel Santa Clara – just around the corner from Hotel Las Piletas. This place was overall nicer – with large rooms, balconies and the all important hot water. It’s used by tour companies often so may be booked out on the dates you want.
Things you should know:
- Many places in Guatemala only accept cash, not cards – even hotels. It’s best to carry some quetzales on you, and US dollars can also be used at some places. There’s several money exchange stands at Guatemala City Airport. Mastercard owners may find they have trouble with getting cash out at ATMs, but Visa seems to work at most ATMs.
- A little bit of Spanish will get you a long way in Guatemala. It will be helpful learning the basics such as ordering food and buying entry tickets.
- Avoid drinking the tap water in Guatemala. Buy bottled water. Don’t even brush your teeth with the tap water. (Trust me, I learnt this the hard way in Peru)
- Be careful with the street food. If you have a weak stomach, avoid it. General rule of thumb is don’t eat any fruit or vegetables that can’t be peeled. Cheap food isn’t worth it if you end up with a stomach bug.
- Antigua is a fairly safe city but females will get some male attention – mainly just looks and wolf whistles. But if you’re going out at night, try and head out with someone. It’s also best to dress conservatively.
- Tours are good options to get around Central America – especially if your Spanish is limited and you’re on a tight schedule. There are many companies offering tours to South America.