Antigua, Guatemala: Our Favorite Things to Do
The city of Antigua is without exaggerating the most beautiful city in Guatemala. Do you want to know how is Antigua like and what are the best things to do when in Antigua? Read our guide as we've handpicked our favorite things to do in the city close to the volcanoes.
Antigua in Guatemala (do not confuse it with the island in the Carribean carrying the same name) is the most beautiful city in Central America and one of the most beautiful cities we've ever set foot. It was a place where we felt totally safe and having arrived from El Salvador, one of the most murderous countries in the world we really could see and feel the difference.
Antigua is a captivating place and no wonder that you will meet here more foreign visitors than you had met during your travels - Antigua is simply a city not to miss, and altogether with Tikal Ruins and Semuc Champey is on a backpacker's must-do list when in Guatemala.
And why Antigua has enchanted us as many others before? It was probably the idyllic atmosphere what we liked the most. Unlike other touristy places with many expats running their businesses, Antigua honestly did not feel the way like most heavily visited places do. You can still see in the city center many indigenous people wearing their traditional cute dress, wander Antigua's incredibly peaceful cobblestone streets lined with charming colorful houses, while respectfully watching the volcano looming behind.
Yes, you can object if Antigua is not yet another tourist trap, but believe us, we have seen many, and although every visitor to the country stop by here plus Guatemalans from the nearby capital Guatemala City flood Antigua on weekends, Antigua maintained to keep its charm.
Sure, there are many overpriced gringo restaurants, but walk only a couple blocks away, and you will find reasonably priced eateries where locals eat (or you can find cheap food on the market in the city center). Also, many bars are open at night offering expensive cocktails and beer (we are from the Czech Republic where until recently beer was cheaper than water, so we never buy beer in the pubs abroad), but who forces you to go there?
Centuries ago, Antigua was the capital city of Guatemala, but because of the nearby volcanoes causing eruptions and frequent earthquakes which destroyed buildings in the city, the capital was moved 40 kilometers away to a place which is now known as Guatemala City. This was yet another factor which has helped retain Antigua's colonial charm.
Do you want to get the most of your time in Antigua?
Here are the best things to do when in the city.
THINGS TO DO IN ANTIGUA
For how long should you stay in Antigua?
We think that two nights is minimum to really soak in the city's vibe, but if you are planning on visiting Lake Atitlan for a day or want to climb a volcano or two, you can stay here even longer without getting bored.
SANTA CATALINA ARCH
If there is one thing you cannot miss in Antigua, it is an iconic Santa Catalina Arch.
This beautiful sight has a bright yellow color, and when the weather is clear, you can see Volcano Agua just behind it which makes for a perfect photo. If you want to have a higher chance to enjoy this Antigua's icon alone, you need to visit it early in the morning as everyone in the city will eventually stop by here including many sellers. As we visited Antigua during Easter, we also witnessed the creation of 'decoration carpets' right under the arch.
There is a passageway inside the arch, which is inaccessible to the public, but back in days was used by nuns who wanted to discreetly get from the monastery without being seen.
Antigua has many churches some are well-preserved, or they have a new facade, some are ruins which still can remind you of the destructive force of earthquakes.
Among the churches in a good state are San Francisco Church, Iglesia de la Merced or Antigua's Cathedral, but honestly, we liked the non-perfect churches much better, one of our favorites was Catedral de Santiago, or rather remains of Catedral de Santiago.
WALK THE COBBLED STREETS
It might sound cheesy, but walking the cobbled streets of Antigua, especially after coming from Santa Ana, El Salvador was liberating.
We could walk wherever we wanted, and every street headed to even cuter and narrower street than was the previous one. One or two-story houses line the streets, and it seems that it is prestigious to have a nicer and more colorful house than your neighbor. Streets of Antigua reminded us a bit of those in Granada, Nicaragua they were only busier.
Plaza Mayor alias Parque Central is the heart of Antigua.
It is a place where people meet, where you can taste the country's best coffee in one of the coffee houses lining the square, get your shoes cleaned or admire the colonial architecture. It is impossible to miss the central park of Antigua as it seems that all streets lead here and we often found ourselves there without knowing it.
You can find several markets in Antigua.
One focused on meat, fruits, and vegetables, one dedicated to clothes and one artisan market. We like visiting markets, although we very often don't have any intention to buy anything, except for fruits. It is just a habit to have a look around as often we can find on the market something unusual we've never seen before.
CERRO DE LA CRUZ
There is not a better view of Antigua than from Cerro de la Cruz, a hill only 30 or 40 minutes from the city center.
It is a popular spot for sunset chasers, but you can come here anytime during the day to admire the city of Antigua and Volcan Agua from above.
You don't need to go far from Antigua to see the volcano. Agua Volcano is a dominant of the city looming on its south side which you can see basically from everywhere, so the volcano is also a great orientation point when wandering around the city.
Also, the perfect postcard picture from Antigua is the one of Santa Catalina Arch with Agua Volcano behind. You can hike the volcano, but armed robberies are not uncommon (although the city of Antigua is considered safe for tourists), so either leave your belongings in the hotel or make sure someone will accompany you.
If you are up to an adventure, hiking Volcan Acatenango is a popular choice among backpackers. It is a two days hike with one night in the camp from where you can watch an active Volcano Fuego and climb Acatenango for the sunrise. This hike is not for faint-hearted people, plus you should be aware of cold conditions and the possibility of altitude sickness.
The most accessible volcano near Antigua is Pacaya Volcano, in case you want to enjoy some hiking, great views but want to take it easy.
WHEN YOU CAN VISIT ANTIGUA DURING EASTER
Traveling during days such as Christmas, New Year's Eve or Easter can be painful for your wallet, but if we should choose the best celebration when to stay in Antigua it would be Easter. We happened to be in the city a couple a days before Easter, a celebration which is taken seriously in this part of the world and it was an interesting and unique experience.
Antigua, as a matter of fact, is home to one of the largest Easter celebrations in the world!
Every day there were processions of clocked people in purple and black robes carrying floats with large sculptures of Jesus on their shoulders, the air was filled with incense, and we could feel the excitement supported by the marching band playing a loud and sad melody which gave us goosebumps. Another thing you can see in Antigua during Easter are colorful carpets made from sand and colored sawdust which together create amazing pictures right on the streets.
Definitely an interesting experience!
The only downside of celebrating Easter in Antigua are higher prices, so if you know you'll be around about this time of the year, book your accommodation in advance.
DAY TRIP TO LAKE ATITLAN
You don't need to leave the comfort and services of Antigua when you want to see another Guatemala's gem, Lake Atitlan created by volcanic activity. It is pretty easy to find tour operator in Antigua organizing a day tour to the lake.
Lake Atitlan is 2.5 hours drive from Antigua, so it is a nice escape combining nature and authentic experience as most of the people living in the area are indigenous and still live their lives as many years ago. You can go either with a tour or on your own by shuttle or public transport.
If you decide to stay by the lake for longer, there is a decent choice of accommodations.
If you are looking for a place where to practice your Spanish or where to start learning from scratch, Antigua is the place.
You can find here several quality language schools to choose from, usually located in houses with cute courtyards where you can enjoy your coffee during lessons (Guatemala is a rich coffee region), and it is also a place where to meet travelers from all around the world. Lessons are usually in the morning (4 hours is optimal per day), so you will have plenty of time in the afternoon to explore Antigua beyond the tourist trail.
Do you have more time in Antigua?
No worries as there are other activities to keep you busy such as cooking classes, coffee farms, chocolate museum or yoga classes - basically, everything people like doing when on holiday!
WHERE TO STAY IN ANTIGUA
Despite the popularity among foreign and domestic travelers, Antigua still keeps its charm, but to serve the demand, many houses in the center of the city became restaurants and hotels.
Although it might seem that you won't have trouble finding a room, the city is a famous gateway for people from Guatemala City, and there is a shortage of accommodation especially on weekends and during celebrations such as Easter.
To make sure you will find a place within your budget, make your reservation at least a couple of days ahead.
Budget | Hotel Casa del Cerro - An astonishing place with a garden, patio, and spacious rooms. This hotel offers the best deal in Antigua for all budget travelers.
Mid-range | Maya Papaya - This place in the heart of Antigua has an exceptional rating, so when it is available, you should quickly save a bed here. You can stay in either private room or dormitory and enjoy the hospitality and services.
Luxury | El Convento Boutique Hotel - Fabulous setting in a refurbished convent makes this hotel unique altogether with well-appointed rooms with an eye for detail.
HOW TO GET TO ANTIGUA
Headed to Antigua?
Well, it seems that there is not another destination in Guatemala which is easier to reach. There is an extensive network of tourist shuttles in Guatemala, and you can easily book one to Antigua from any place such as Lanquin, Flores, Lake Atitlan or Rio Dulce.
When traveling by public transport, Antigua is accessible as well you will only sometimes need to change buses in Guatemala City which is less than an hour away.
If you want to get to El Salvador, we recommend you to take a shuttle for about $25 (to Santa Ana) - it is a much faster and safer way how to cross borders to another country.
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