Guatemala is a stunning country. The vibrant coloured clothes that the local people wear are so beautiful. The country is like a rawer and rougher version of the US – their public buses are old school buses from America, which they paint with amazing colours, some cover them in flower garlands and play really loud music! At every stop, street sellers get on and sell snacks and drinks. People can bring on almost anything they like to transport with them, from small children to chickens and dogs and even small pigs!
Antigua was one of the first stops on my travels around Guatemala and it’s a beautiful colonial style city surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. The cobbled streets and terracotta coloured houses make it a very atmospheric city. There are numerous markets selling brightly coloured embroidered clothes and bags etc and the main square/park is one of the best places to hang out and people watch. It has a massive fountain in the centre and seems to be where locals come to relax at the weekends.
Antigua is the hub of traveling in Guatemala. It’s a mere 45 minutes from Guatemala City, and it’s a lot safer. It also has good connections to everywhere else in Guatemala, as well as all nearby countries. You should never have to stay in Guatemala City, even for your flight. Antigua is so close and it’s a much safer option than Guatemala City.
Antigua is the perfect base for those looking to slow things down and relax in a nice town, or for those looking to pack as much adventure into each day as possible.
I stayed at the beautiful Casa de Stela which I booked via Air B&B. It’s a funky chilled out place to stay, that’s centrally located and beautifully decorated with murals of Freda Khalo painted by previous visitors, lots of hammocks dotted around to relax in and a beautiful boutique on site selling locally made and high quality clothes and bags.
Sightseeing in Antigua is easy, as you can walk from one end of town to the other in just a few minutes, and although the city’s colonial architecture is kind of the main attraction, you might want to check out a few of these places in particular:
- Relaxing in the Parque Central, the main plaza of the city. Its popular with locals and tourists alike. The plaza has the Cathedral on one side of it and a large fountain in the center, with many trees, and a bustling atmosphere, makes for some nice people-watching and photo opportunities.
- Religious structures of note include the aforementioned Cathedral, along with the Convento do Las Capuchinas, Convento de Santa Clara, Iglesia La Merced, Iglesia de San Francisco, Casa Santo Domingo, La Recollection, and the Arco de Santa Catarina. The churches and convents of the city are all in varying states of disrepair, though many are still in use, despite the collapsed ceilings. If you want to know a little more of the history behind these structures, a more organized walking tour is probably a good idea.
- Antigua has a number of small museums that might be of interest to visitors, most notably the Chocolate Museum, whose hands-on classes are a popular activity with visitors. The Town Hall on the main square houses a military museum, and an old printing press and book museum; others in the city include a textile museum, and Casa Popenoe, a restored 17th-century house.
- Shopping at the market is a fun way to peruse the traditional handicrafts of Guatemala. The woven textiles in particular are a famous regional creation, and although souvenirs like these can be found all over town, wandering through the tourist market to the west of the main square will be quite a colorful experience. It’s also located right next to the local market, where “real” people shop for food and household goods, which also makes it a good place to get cheap meals.
- Wandering up to the Hill of the Cross offers a great panoramic view of the city, and its neighbouring volcano off in the distance. The 30-minute hike up the hill is worth it for the view at the top of the still active volcano!
Day trip and excursion ideas in and around Antigua:
- Pacaya Volcano. This is the top-billed activity in Antigua, and for just reason — it’s neat. It can be dangerous, however, so be careful. When booking, ask around to find out if there is visible lava at the site that week. This post shares my Pacaya Volcano trip and tips on what to bring.
- Acatenango Volcano. If you are a more adventurous hiker then this might be a good option. Josh shared about his sunrise hike here.
- Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm. A mere 15 minute chicken bus ride out of town. This is a great way to spend a morning. They also have a commitment to sustainability and a fantastic mission to help lift locals out of poverty. The owners have lived in the community for decades. So worth a morning. They have delicious macadamia pancakes —go for breakfast and go hungry! I wrote about my visit to Valhalla’s Macadamia Farm and you can find directions on their site.
- Finca Filidelphia Coffee Plantation. This is well worth the price (around US $20) if you’ve never toured a coffee plantation. The tour takes you from coffee cheerier to darkly roasted coffee. They include a complimentary coffee or expresso at the end! It’s just outside of town. Recent reports from readers indicate that they also offer birding, paintballing, and ziplines. I shared a bit about the tour. You can book services directly through Finca, or through your accommodation.
My next stop was to Lake Atitlan. This is a hugely popular spot in Guatemala, and for good reason. It’s stunningly pretty, fantastically affordable, and has a range of fun activities. Many travellers are there to learn Spanish, others just to relax, and there are also a number of yoga retreat and consciousness development centres in various towns around the lake. I went to the mahadevi ashram on Tzununa.
Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. Imagine an immense lake, sparkling in the sunlight, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes covered with blooming wildflowers. It was almost like a scene out of Jurassic park! Thick jungle covering huge volcanic mountains. Stunning! It has many small towns dotted around the lake, and to get to them there are regular little speed boat taxis to transport people around.
Jaibalito was a small town next door to the town I was staying in. It was a little almost secret town that not many people know about. I’m so glad I discovered it though as it had a great venue to relax in – Club Ven Aca which has its own hot tub and infinity swimming pool with swim up bar. Perfect place to relax and unwind with a spectacular view of the neighbouring volcano.
San Marcos is another slightly larger and busier town, known as the more ‘hippy’ town, with lots of healers, yogis and mystics. It also has great shops for clothes and food and many cafes and restaurants serving delicious traditional and western food.
San Pedro is another great town to visit whilst at the lake. It’s a slightly larger town than the others and seems to be the most popular for backpackers. It has lots of shops and places to eat.