This article has been updated on July 4, 2021.
Antigua Guatemala is an old colonial town in Western Guatemala. From the tourism point of view, we’re talking about a pretty UNESCO World Heritage site with a rather vibrant social life. The city furthermore often serves as a base for travellers to explore numerous attractions in the region, which altogether gives Antigua a great variety of options, especially if you are into adventure, eco-tourism, or history and culture.
La Antigua Guatemala
La Antigua Guatemala (The Old Guatemala) is located in Panchoy Valley at 1500 metres above sea level, only about 40km from the capital Guatemala City. The present-day Antigua had been founded in 1543, after two enforced relocations in less than 20 years. The city served as the third seat of the Kingdom of Guatemala, which covered the territory of what is now Chiapas (Mexico) as well as Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
In its time, Antigua was, therefore, an important economic, political as well as a cultural centre for a large territory and this has been reflected in the city’s impressive landmarks. In 1773, the city was however largely destroyed by an earthquake, which led to a massive exodus of its inhabitants. After almost a century of being nearly abandoned, Antigua caught a new breath and over the course of 300 years, the city was rebuilt in an Italian Renaissance style, while the ruins of the principal Baroque monuments of the old city were preserved as ruins.
Antigua‘s population peaked at about 60 thousand people in the late 18th century, however, continuous earthquakes and other elements led to a decline in the city’s population as well as influence in the region. Today, Antigua has 46 thousand inhabitants. The fertile region mostly lived of agriculture in the past and while there are still many coffee farms in the area, the 21st century has witnessed a steady rise in tourism, which has re-shaped and boosted the local economy quite significantly.
Things to do in Antigua
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As mentioned above, in addition to the impressive colonial monuments and local hospitality, the region also offers several attractive trekking options and other various interesting tourism activities to check out. Furthermore, as opposed to the hot Pacific coast, Antigua is blessed with a pleasant climate, which makes it also one of the favourite locations where many travellers decide to take a little break from their travels to study Spanish. The numerous language schools located in the town apparently come with a good reputation.
The city appears to be worth’s its name at the first sight, only after taking a stroll through the town’s picturesque cobbled streets lined with historical landmarks, houses, shops, restaurants and cafés. At the heart of the city, there’s Parque Central, AKA Plaza Mayor, where locals like to socialise and chill out. Except for the vibrant life, the main square also comes with very few architectural landmarks, such as Palacio de Los Capitanes Generales and plenty of pretty arched pathways which add to the beauty of the place.
When it comes to monuments, Antigua is a rather wealthy location to explore. The most iconic and photographed spot in town is Arco de Santa Catalina (see the featured image) on Calle de Arco that turns into a market where the indigenous ladies sell their products during the weekends. Like in every colonial town in Latin America, then there are numerous churches to admire. Perhaps the most popular is the dominant Iglesia de La Merced, a church with a fountain in its courtyard.
Other notable churches would be Santuario San Francisco el Grande with a selection of antique paintings. Then there are also the above-mentioned ruins from the pre-1773 earthquake city. Among the most popular ones to check out are Convento de las Capuchinas, the town’s former cathedral Catedral de Santiago, or the church of El Carmen. And last but not least, I’d recommend checking out is the public laundry place Tanque La Union for its rather unique atmosphere.
If you want to see the city from a nice viewpoint, there’s a great option to walk up the Cerro de la Cruz. It’s under a 30-minute stroll from the centre of the town through a beautiful park and it’s definitely worth it 😉 Furthermore, some guides also list shopping for artisanal products in Antigua as a popular activity. While there certainly is a large choice of scarfs, bracelets, hats and things like that, if I were you, I’d personally leave it for Lake Atitlán‘s Panajachel, where you’d get even better selections and much better prices, in case you have decided to purchase few gifts for your loved ones 😉
Art lovers should perhaps consider checking out La Antigua Galeria de Arte (site) with Guatemalan folk artworks and souvenirs. The pressure to make a purchase when looking at those products in this place isn’t as bad as if you were to do it on the street market. Other places to consider are Casa Santo Domingo, a 17th-century convent converted into a fleshy hotel with a spa and a museum (site). Furthermore, to explore the local colonial art as well as another pretty building, consider visiting Museo de Arte Colonial.
If you are into local history, then think about paying a visit to Museo Santiago de los Caballeros that exhibits the pieces tight to the city’s past. Another interesting place that’s connected to history is Museo del Libro Antiguo, with some very old books on display, including the first edition of the second part of Don Quixote de la Mancha as well as a replica of 1660s’ Guatemala’s first printing press machine. If you were looking for something rather different, you could perhaps consider taking a workshop in the local Choco Museum or visiting the pretty historical Cementerio General.
Things to do nearby Antigua
Among the most spectacular adventures, every fit-ish traveller should consider when visiting Guatemala is taking up the Acatenango Volcano trek to witness a breathtaking sunrise on the top that is further boosted by the neighbouring Volcan Fuego activity. Please note that this jaw-dropping experience isn’t easy to achieve, after all, you’re about to hike up a 3976m/13 041ft tall steep peak. The 6-8hrs long Acatenango Volcano trek is therefore a bit tough but the rewards this unforgettable experience offers beat the physical as well as mental challenge big time.
An adventurer that doesn’t feel comfortable with the difficulty of the Acatenango Volcano trek could consider a plan B, which is to reach Volcano Pacaya, the peak of which is at a little lower altitude than the one of Acatenango. Pacaya Volcano trek is a 5km/4hrs moderate trail, where you can get to admire the stunning panoramic views, incl the sunset as well as sunrise options from the elevation of 2552m/8373ft. Another option for people who are keen on hiking is Corazon de Agua, which is an eco-park that features few trekking options with stunning views and apparently quite excellent birdwatching opportunities.
If you are into eco-tourism, you could also perhaps consider visiting Caoba Farms (site), which yet another popular day trip from Antigua, during which you can learn about organic farming after which you could have a great time enjoying the farm’s restaurant with a pretty garden, excellent vegan meals, beer selection as well as live music. Furthermore, there are also plenty of other local coffee farms you can visit. For something rather different, you could look into your inner Hobbit and visit an eco-lodge Hobbitenangohh (site) to relax and enjoy the stunning views of five volcanoes.
If you wanted to get some beach time, then there’s Playa de Monterrico. Except for the stunning sunsets, this popular small party beach town is only about 2,5 hrs away from Antigua. To a certain extent, Monterrico beach comes with nearly the full menu every place popular with surfers offers, although things mainly kick in during the weekends, when the locals from Guatemala City turn up to the party. The midweeks are therefore a bit quiet but in between the hangovers, you could still opt for witnessing the releasing of the baby parlama turtles into the Pacific or visit the nearby mangrove swamp.
Well, and last but not least place to mention in this little list is Lake Atitlán, a stunning lake surrounded by steep hills and volcanoes as well as numerous Mayan villages, great views and excellent treks. I’ve prepared a separate piece about this magic place that was popular even in many hippies in the early 70s with some North American hippie crowds. To find out more about the lake’s vibes as well as what there is to do, places to visit and popular treks, please click here.
Go out in Antigua
During the weekends, Antigua turns into a bit of a local yuppie haven AKA a social playground for the capital’s top ten thousand youth. If you’ve been to Brighton or Valencia during the weekend, you know what I mean. I personally can’t say that it’s my scene but if you search only a bit harder, there are several cool spots to enjoy the alternative crowd as well as the soundtrack that almost fits my non-mainstream requirements – to mention at least one of them – check out Cafe No Sé (site) if you are around 😉
Then there are few cool rooftop bars, such as Antigua Brewing Company, Rooftop Antigua or Café Sky I’d recommend not to miss out. For some live music, perhaps check out the fcbk page of Cerveceria 14 Brewery that’s a bit out of town but worth visiting, especially after your afternoon visit to the neighbouring Ciudad Vieja, the neighbouring former capital of the country that has been destroyed by Volcano Agua.
Well, Guatemala’s reputation regarding safety isn’t among the top contenders to win a Safety World Cup but if we narrow things down to the city of Antigua only, things are obviously different than in some rough suburb of Guatemala City. In other words, not only given the Guatemalan standards, Antigua is considered safe when it comes to violent crime.
Pickpocketing and theft are however concerns around here and you should be aware of that. In practical terms, the basic precautions of not advertising your valuables by flashing them around and not wandering drunk&alone into the dark alleys in the middle of the night and so on should do the job. More info, details and tips regarding safety when travelling in Latin America could be found here, in case you were interested.
How to get there and get around
Antigua itself is pretty much walkable. To reach the nearby attractions, you could use the local buses, but I’d recommend using the services of one of the local tourism agencies for some extra cash to make your life easier.
As for getting to Antigua, there are numerous shuttle companies one can take from Guatemala City’s airport straight to Antigua. The journey apparently takes from 45 minutes to several hours. I’ve travelled there from El Tunco (El Salvador) and the 8hrs/$12 journey through Honduran coastline was rather stunning – a word of advice – sit on the left side to enjoy the stunning views of the Salvadorian shores 😉
BTW, in case you wanted to listen to some cool tunes that would gradually bring you to sleep, here‘s a series of Spotify playlists designed for long-distance buses/or flights to give your journey a cool soundtrack 😉 In case you wanted to daydream only, here are few playlists that could possibly enhance your experience 😉
When to visit Antigua
The average temperatures in Antigua don’t vary that much. As mentioned above, the town is blessed with pleasant temperatures and that pretty much works all year round. The hottest (but still pleasant) months are May, April, and June.
Being a popular tourist hotspot, Antigua offers a wide variety of accommodation options, from flashy hotels to cheap hostels. I’ve personally opted to stay in La Quinta, which was the cheapest place for the private room in town. Because of the reviews, I’ve picked the room with a shared bathroom to avoid the smell caused most likely by an outdated canalisation system.
FYI, this place is more about serving a function, rather than offering much comfort. But getting my own room for $5.50USD didn’t have me expecting much either. It could get a bit noisy there the air could stink a bit from time to time but I can’t say that the place was unbearable. I’ve actually extended my stay ‘cos it did have some bizarre character, plus it was located rather centrally. But I admit that it might not be a place for everyone…
Sort of conclusion
To be honest, without exaggerating much, I would personally rank Antigua Guatemala among the top destinations in Central America when it comes to balancing between the weather, expenses, diversity of possible activities and social life. It is pretty, atmospheric and there’s plenty of things to do. I would certainly recommend visiting.
Although to explore the highlights the city and surrounding area offer in an efficient manner, I’d count on 7-10 days (incl few hangovers), many travellers grow fond of the city’s vibes and decide to take a little break from their travels here to take Spanish courses in one of the local language schools, before carrying on with their journeys around Latin World.
Useful and interesting links
- UNESCO page about Antigua
- History of Antigua Guatemala on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Tourism info: Around Antigua website with hotels, tours, tips and more
Other possible destinations in Guatemala
Only about 90km/2,5hrs journey away from Antigua, you’d reach a lake that many people including myself found to be a rather special place. Surrounded by steep hills and three volcanoes as well as numerous Mayan villages, Lake Atitlán comes with a lot of excellent trekking options with breathtaking views and a rich cultural environment that’s determined by the friendly and rather happy indigenous population. More details could be found here.
Perhaps the most iconic of all Guatemalan destinations to visit would be Tikal, which is spectacular ruins of an ancient Mayan city that’s located in the vast jungle in the northeast of the country, nearby the picturesque city of Flores. To find out about this mind-blowing “Indiana Jones-like” site as well as what there’s to do in Flores, please click here.
Semuc Champey is a beautiful natural area that consists of a series of limestone turquoise pools located in Central Guatemala that often serves as a perfect (and much needed) stopover between Antigua and Tikal Ruins. It’s rather a unique and hard-to-get-to place but if you are nearby, it’s definitely worth it to stop by and enjoy the atmosphere of this pretty valley and friendly locals for few days. Read more about Semuc Champey here.