Antigua, Guatemala is an entirely unique experience. This small city is a masterpiece of Spanish colonial architecture, a cobblestoned, pastel-toned, massive-stone-edifice dotted dreamscape. What’s more, Antigua is plopped poetically in a valley surrounded on three sides by volcanoes. The views of decorative architecture backed by volcanic peaks is simply unmatched.
As a result of being so picturesque, Antigua is Guatemala’s biggest tourist town. It’s dotted with chic restaurants, high-end coffee shops, boutique clothing stores, and other hallmarks of privileged western culture. The expat community runs rampant in Antigua, coloring everything with an unique international feel.
Still, the city is surrounded by traditional Mayan villages and the Guatemalan influence cannot be missed. Top tier Italian restaurants look out over street corner fruit vendors and luxury cars jostle with tuk-tuks for road space. Not quite authentically Guatemalan, not quite bleached globalized culture, Antigua lives in the middle, accessible and astounding and more beautiful with each turn.
There wasn’t enough time or breathing room during my bombastic Semana Santa experience to see the city in depth, so I spent a few days in the town after the celebrations to get a less hectic view.
One of the more striking characteristics of Antigua is its generous sprinkling of gorgeous, crumbling ruins. Many of the oldest Spanish buildings and churches collapsed during a series of earthquakes in the 18th century. You’re bound to come across dozens during your stay, many without names or information attached to them. You’ll be walking down a cobblestone street when you turn a corner and BAM! A collapsed stone monolith sits in front of you, beautiful in its dilapidation.
One such ruin is the St. James Cathedral (Catedral de San José), which has undergone many renovations and rebuilds over the years. In fact, its functional edifice is still the most central and notable cathedral in town. Walk half a block behind the building, though, and you’ll come across the ruins of the older iterations of the cathedral.
Another is the Convento de las Capuchinas, a crumbling old convent with many fun nooks and crannies to explore. We found a donut-shaped underground room with incredible acoustics and a circular open air dormitory surrounded by identical tiny bedrooms.
There are so many that some of the more notable ruins have become privatized. The old ruins of Santo Domingo, a beautiful sprawling monastery, have been converted into a high-end hotel. The campus now features multiple museums, restaurants, shops, and even a few scarlet macaws! The grounds are free to explore, and it is worth spending at least half a day strolling through the beautifully manicured, ruinous courtyards.
Important note: one of the Santo Domingo museums features a skeleton in a basement that is lit by motion sensor lights. Do not stand still and stare at the skeleton for too long. You WILL be plunged into darkness and forced to run screaming from the building. Just sayin’.
The Food and Drink
Everything is a little fancier and a little more expensive in Antigua. Normally, as a budget traveler, that would annoy me. But I prepared myself beforehand and I was able to embrace Antigua as a somewhat luxurious stop on my trip.
Some of the best traditional Guatemalan food I had in the entire country was at Rincon Tipico, a popular and relatively affordable restaurant. There is no real menu here: they only serve one type of meal at a time. It’s known for its fire-roasted chicken, and at peak hours (like during Semana Santa) there are fifteen or twenty chickens roasting at a time. They are buttery and crispy, and served with unbeatable guacamole, roasted potatoes, and green onions.
I had the best drinks of my entire trip at Alquimia, a tiny bar a few blocks off the central square. The bartenders were fun (if flirtatious), giving us small tastes of local rums and explaining the difference in the production. The schtick of the place is that if you explain to the bartender what you normally like to drink, they’ll make you a new drink that you’ll love. The drinks held up against some of my favorite U.S. cocktail bars and the environment was spectacular.
Day Trips from Antigua, Guatemala
For all its charm, Antigua is quite small. However, there are many worthwhile places to visit nearby.
My mother and I took a chicken bus to the nearby village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes. San Antonio is known for producing some of the most intricate and beautiful hand-woven textiles in the area. The quaint village is home to a large textiles market where you can watch Mayan women weaving and purchase directly from them. If you’re in the market to buy some Guatemalan fabrics or simply curious to see more authentic towns near Antigua, I highly recommend checking out San Antonio!
Another great half day trip is Cerro San Cristobal. Cerro San Cristobal is a restaurant and organic farm perched on a hill overlooking the valley. The restaurant has a free shuttle that takes you there from downtown. When you’re done enjoying your food with a view, you can explore the farm or the quaint village nearby!
During my time in Antigua, I was still suffering from the sprained ankle that plagued my travels weeks beforehand. As a result, I had to make the very difficult decision to refrain from my most anticipated activity in the surrounding area: hiking Volcan Acatenango. At the time, I was distraught about this. Happily, a few weeks later I ended up briefly returning to Antigua to hike the volcano. Expect a post about that incredible experience shortly!
The Best Part?
Perhaps the best part about my time in Antigua was that my solo travels came to a close. My mother departed after Semana Santa and the next day my boyfriend arrived. We had been long distance for 8 months beforehand while I first worked in Belize and then began my travels. After 50 days of solo travel, he joined me in Antigua for the last half of my trip! He arrived with little experience with budget travel and no knowledge of Spanish. Needless to say, I was excited to see him and ecstatic to introduce him to my style of travel.
And what a place to begin his experience! Antigua, Guatemala is perhaps the most accessible and romantic town I visited during my travels. It was a wonderful place to explore hand-in-hand and an excellent gentle introduction to the crazy experience we were about to have together. We took a few days to soak up Antigua’s beauty before gearing up for our next stop: the infamous Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands!
Planning a trip to Antigua? Don’t miss the spectacular Semana Santa celebrations that occur around Easter every year. Here’s a photo gallery to help convince you.