- Visited December 2018/January 2019
Antigua, a small gem of a city surrounded by volcanoes and known for its well-preserved colonial buildings, is an absolute delight to visit and stay. In fact many travellers come here for a few days and find themselves sucked in by Antigua’s charms and extend their stays, like I did. Antigua is a very easy place to be. There’s plenty to do and see and numerous restaurants/cafes and bars catering to tourists so you can have a good time here. Reminiscent of Mexico’s San Cristobal (which I also loved, see my post here https://wp.me/p9u5hw-1gl) but with generally a warmer climate, I spent most of my days just wandering the streets, visiting boutiques, churches and snapping lots of pictures as this is a particularly instagrammable city. The volcanoes provide an impressive backdrop, challenging yet rewarding hikes and spectacular views when you reach their summits. You haven’t really experienced Antigua if you haven’t scaled at least one volcano in the area and seeing lava cascade from a volcano at sunset is unforgettable.
If you want to climb a volcano there are two main choices. The most popular is a day trip hike to Pacaya which involves a very steep one hour 30 minute climb to the top (so you will need to be at least moderately fit). We did the 2pm pick up from Antigua to Pacaya (you pay the tour company for the bus – we paid 60 Q then you pay 50 Q for the entrance ticket when you arrive and a guide leads the group up) which meant we got to be on the volcano for sunset and the views were unbelievable. You get to toast marshmallows on hot lava rocks and then walk down in the dark (you can use a torch or your mobile phone to help you) which is atmospheric, returning to Antigua around 9pm. You need to take a warm layer of clothing with you as it can get cold and windy at the summit. The other option is to do the overnight trip to Acatenango volcano (which provides views of Fuego) and entails five hours hiking on day one, camping overnight, hiking up for about an hour on day two before descending. As I have the chronic medical condition fibromyalgia, I judged the Acatenango trip to be a bit much for me but really enjoyed the Pacaya day trip. I’ve been told that tour companies in the area provide coats, hats, sleeping bags, tents etc for hire for those that want to do Acatenango but again, you would need to take warm clothing with you as it’s very cold at night on the volcano.
In addition to the volcano views, you can’t wander around Antigua and not see a church. The main church that should not be missed is San Francisco el Grande, built in 1542 – the oldest church in Antigua still holding ceremonies. Within the complex you will find the church, the ruined monastery, the tomb of Hermano Pedro (a Spanish missionary and Guatemala’s only saint), and a museum dedicated to the man himself. Entrance to the church and tomb are free but it costs 8 Q to enter the museum and ruins. The museum is well worth a visit as it displays clothing and artefacts that belonged to Hermano and you really get a sense of how revered he is by the people of Guatemala. Other key city sites include the iconic archway Arco de Santa Catalina, the Iglesia de La Merced, Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas, Casa Santo Domingo, and the climb up to the Cerro de La Cruz, for a view of the city and Volcan Agua. The cavernous Mercado is an enjoyable way to pass time in the city, see the locals and pick up some bargains – you can buy everything in this market! Art lovers should stop by La Antigua Galeria de Arte, a free gallery which showcases 80% work from Guatemalan artists, and there is some great work on display on both floors and you could always pop in to Nimpot afterwards, a large warehouse of local arts, crafts and textile products, if you want to buy gifts. Items are marked with a price, rather than requiring you to haggle, so good for those who don’t enjoy bartering for a bargain. The rather dramatic Holy Week floats are sheltered opposite and also worth a look. The gate was only open one day I was in Antigua but you can see some of the floats through the gate and they are quite something.
If you tire of roaming the city streets, a fab option is to visit Santa Teresita Hotel and Thermal Spa. It’s around a 20 minute drive from the city but you can Uber it there and back without issue (there is free Wifi at the Spa). You pay for a package – we did the Piscine Relax package for 380 Q which gave us access to 11 thermal pools, the jacuzzi, and a 50 minute massage (one of the best I’ve had). We also got lunch at the cafe, thinking it would be just a small snack I ordered quesadillas, but the portion sizes were large and delicious. Overall, it was an amazing treat day. Highly recommended!
In terms of restaurants/cafes and bars, you are spoilt for choice in Antigua. Here are some I visited during my stay:
- Fridas – Frida Kahlo-themed restaurant. Had lovely Baja Fish Tacos for lunch one day. Service was excellent.
- Cactus Tacos – Great place with live music. Always busy. Loved my shrimp quesadillas. Our server was attentive and hilarious.
- The Londoner – decent pub grub and live music. Good for those missing a taste of the UK on their travels.
- Y Tu Pina También – This place offers all day breakfasts and I really enjoyed my Huevos Rancheros and smoothie after a late night out the previous evening. Service was not great unfortunately.
- Samsara – good vegan options and excellent smoothies in a hippie vibe. Service was OK.
- Rainbow Cafe – liked the quirky interior. Delicious Potato and Leek soup. Service was mediocre – pretty much ignored after my food was delivered.
- Monoloco – busy American Sports bar. Not cheap. Tasty food though (sliders, chicken fingers etc) and good service.
- Lucky Rabbit – perfect choice for those looking for a late night lively bar option (though places close at 1 am in Antigua). It has two rooms offering different music (latin pop in the main room and electronic house in the smaller room) and party goers can get the bus to the Saturday night after party (in a disused swimming pool) from this venue.
Antigua is a beautiful, though not necessarily cheap, city to visit so don’t be surprised if you don’t want to leave…
Selection of pictures from my stay: