Wow, Antigua! What can we say, we were absolutely enamoured with this gem of a city. After over a year of travelling in Latin America we don’t think that we’ve found a city that can compare to Antigua. Of course there were nice ones like upmarket postcard-perfect Cartagena and the sleepy step-back-in-time town of Mompox in Colombia, and also the mega-colonial wonders like Cusco in Peru, but Antigua just felt right. Hopefully we can explain why you should visit Antigua and around…
Antigua is an attractive alternative to the daunting traffic choked sprawl of Guatemala City (the nation’s capital and the most populous city in Central America), which we only skirted around on route elsewhere. Antigua town, whilst still being fairly large and vibrant, is captivating for its beautiful colourful single storey buildings, huge historical compounds and the vast array of churches and convents, some of which are merely ruins due to destruction caused by earthquakes. All of this is topped off by Volcano Agua in the distance silently and eerily watching over the city. As a result, almost every photograph you take in Antigua will be pretty as a picture.
Antigua’s other appeal is it’s milder Spring-like climate due to the highland altitude of 1000m above sea level. This altitude is not enough to provoke any altitude sickness, and it provides a welcome respite from the intense heat and humidity of the lowlands.
The town seems to be a firm favourite for tourists as it is rich with language schools and acts as a safe and comfortable gateway to other parts of the country. It is said to have a European feel which is evident in the diverse cuisine of the restaurant scene and the myriad of trendy coffee shops and gringo-run businesses. That said, Antigua is also a great place for experiencing indigenous Mayan cultures as you will see many Guatemaltecas in traditional dress and be able to see and buy their handicrafts.
So, to experience all of the above and get the best of this beautiful city, what should you visit?
A good starting point is the spacious and green Plaza de Armas which really comes to life in the early evening. Here you can admire the white architecture of the cathedral, the City Hall and the Captain General Palace against blue skies.
From here it’s an easy walk to the main tourist street which you will immediately recognise because of the famous yellow arch of Santa Catalina. On a good day you can photograph Volcan Agua peeking through the arch. Along this pretty street there are many street vendors of textiles, a cigar shop, a chocolate shop and the Nim Pot shopping hall which is a good place to gain an understanding of the wealth and breadth of Guatemalan textiles and handicrafts.
However, if you are looking to do some serious shopping then you should head for the artisan market which is over by the bus station. This massive market contains so much artisania, be sure to haggle hard. As we have mentioned the bus station it is worth noting that this should be a tourist destination in its own right, and in a way it is. Many will know that ‘chicken buses’, former US school trucks, are famous in Guatemala. We’d been seeing them since Panama but in Guatemala they managed to take them to a whole new level of eccentricity and were the most beautiful, colourful and well looked after. We still have not actually been on one, but we imagine that the experience is better from the outside anyway!
Needless to say there are many colonial churches in Antigua, most with impressive Baroque facades and the presence of the church can be strongly felt throughout the city and its god-fearing inhabitants. We particularly enjoyed the imposing San Cristobal, which used to be a whole religious complex including a hospital. Only the church is still used, the rest of it is ruins. San Cristobal even has an interred saint, the first saint ever in Central America: Hermano Pedro de Betancourt.
Whilst not over excited by saints, we wandered around the church for a while and were able to see many Guatemaltecas from different cultures arriving to pray/ask for favours, as well as buying candles, amulets and various religious paraphernalia. This is not unlike what we witnessed at the Shrine of Maximon (see below) or in Copacabana, Bolivia. Mainstream religious practices mixed with local folklore and superstitions are certainly a defining feature of the Latin American hybrid form of Christianity.
Of the earthquake-ruined convents and churches, we chose to visit the Santa Clara convent for a late afternoon stroll. It is very well maintained with pretty gardens and perfect for some arty photography.
Walkable from the town are two other points of interest worth a visit. First is the Cerro de la Cruz, a hill with a cross which overlooks the town. It’s a great perspective to gain and you can also get some good shots of Volcan Agua. The guidebook warns of robberies here, but when we went there was a police presence, so it looks like, at least during normal hours, this is a safe place (the only robbery was the price of the car parking ticket!).
The second place is the Azotea organic coffee plantation. We went for a wander round their museum, premises and plantation and it was an interesting little trip although we were the only ones there! Unfortunately the coffee they served us at the end was weak and lukewarm so we didn’t really get the chance to say whether it was good or not! Coffee in town however is excellent and made using the correct coffee machines. Coffee is a big thing in Guatemala, it is one of their biggest exports and the people pride themselves with it being one of the best in the world. We certainly did sample some exquisite aromas in various cafes round the city. They are also big consumers of coffee with a strong coffee culture that can only be compared to that of Italy.
Ever ready for an interesting cultural experience, we decided to visit the Shrine of Maximon (also called San Simon) in the otherwise unattractive town of San Andres Itzapa. We’d read a little insert into the guidebook about this curious place (one of many in the highland area) which pilgrims visit in order to ask for protection or favours. Maximon is sort of an ‘evil saint’, but he is certainly not authorised by the Catholic Church. His origins are Mayan but over time the iconography has become mixed up with that of organised religion. The idea is that his bad intentions must be appeased with offerings such as alcohol and cigarettes, but he does also have the power to grant less than noble requests at the expense of others. One could draw parallels with the cult of Santa Muerte, most often found in Mexico or El Tio of the Cerro Rico in Potosi, Bolivia who we wrote about in this post.
The hall in which he resides appears to be much like that of a church, with candles and incense burning. The walls are adorned with plaques from the faithful thanking him for events which they attribute to his power. Whilst we were there a young lady was receiving some sort of ceremony which involved being beaten with bunch of herbs at the altar in front of the Maximon effigy. No doubt she had also left offerings, many of which can be bought outside the complex from a series of specialist stores, offering up specialised ceremonies, votives and charms, not unlike what we saw in Copacabana in Bolivia.
When people think of Guatemala, colourful and skilful artisan textiles often spring to mind. For the best experience of these textiles and other crafts, the 2000 metres above sea level highland town of Chichicastenago is probably the most famous, especially for its twice weekly markets (Thurs & Sunday). The population of this area is 98.5% Mayan K’iche so be prepared to see most people wearing colourful and intricate traditional indigenous clothing and speaking K’iche rather than Spanish.
Chichi (as it is commonly known) was a long drive to and from Antigua, taking more than 2 hours each way on winding hillside roads, and along mountain ridges. If we did it again we would probably have used Lake Atitlan as a base for a few days, but unfortunately we were running out of time in Guatemala. There are some good view points of Lake Atitlan along the drive but as we were keen to get there we decided to leave them until our return journey. Big mistake! The mists rolled in and we never did get to see Lake Atitlan!
As soon as we arrived and parked up in Chichi (in basically a holding pen for pigs and piglets!) you could sense the bustling atmosphere of the town. The market takes over the main square and sprawls out into the adjoining streets and it’s really quite overwhelming as there is just so much stuff! The famous white church of Santo Tomás on the main square, built over a pre-Colombian temple, is where the flower sellers rock up, the scene making for some enchanting photographs.
We just strolled around for a couple of hours taking in the atmosphere and eventually the time came for us to have a go at buying a few things. Jess bought a necklace and had a little haggle on the price, so far so good. She then bought a tapestry from a lady carrying round a huge bundle of them on the street and was happy with the little money she’d managed to negotiate off. It was then that about another 10 such ladies appeared, clearly encouraged by the sound of her little purse creaking open. These Mayan ladies, all pretty as a picture and laden down with beautiful goods encircled us and then wouldn’t leave even though we were trying to make our way back to the car. Their pleas grew stronger and their prices plummeted by the second and it was at this point that we understood that we had not bargained hard enough on our previous purchases.
Jess made one more purchase and her purse was then only jangling with spare change. The ladies only became more insistent and we had a couple following us all the way to the car. Whilst this is an amusing little story it obviously highlights the desperation that some of these women exhibited in their desire to sell their goods. It was clearly very important for them to make a sale that day as they were dropping their prices so far that it would not have been ethical to purchase their goods for so little. If we’d had infinite resources then no doubt we would have made a purchase from every single one of them!
Volcano Pacaya is an easy day trip from Antigua. It takes about 1 hour and a half to reach and approximately 3 hours to climb (round trip).
The volcano is active, having had eruptions as recently as 2010 and 2014. It is these lava flows that you can observe and walk on during the hike. The crater is also constantly spitting out small rocks, which you can see if you look closely.
For safety reasons you must complete the climb with an authorised guide. Most people visit on a tour from Antigua but, preferring to be flexible with time, we drove ourselves and picked up a guide at the entrance. Here are the costs of the trip:
- Private guide (find them at the top of the hill, near the entrance). (excellent because you can set your own pace rather than be at the mercy of a group): GTQ400
- Entrance Fee to the National Park: GTQ50 each
- Walking sticks (we got talked into it but you probably don’t need them): GTQ5 each
- Parking: GTQ25
- Wear plenty of sunscreen even if it is cloudy, the elevation is 2,500 metres above sea level and the sun is strong.
- Long trousers stop all those pesky bits of volcanic gravel getting in your shoes
- Facilities: basic toilets and small shack with drinks at the car park. A couple of drinks sellers along the way.
The first portion of the climb is on loose volcanic stone paths and it is very steep and quite strenuous. It had us huffing and puffing also because of the altitude. Our guide was very patient and there were plenty of rest stops to take in the spectacular views. It’s worth mentioning that you can also rent a horse to do the hard work for you, but as one can never guarantee the welfare status of these animals, we choose not to.
After the initial slog the going gets easier. This section is marked by the view-point of the volcano and the 2014 lava flow. You can also stop the tour here, but we would encourage you to do the whole length as it gets much better after this point.
From this view-point you walk alongside the lava flow round to a ‘lava shop’ and rest area where there are trinkets and some refreshments for sale. This is also where you can walk on the lava flow and get a great view of the crater spitting out stones.
Walking on the lava flow you can perceive that the ground is still hot and there are various hot vents at the side where you can actually cook food. Our guide produced a packet of marshmallows and some sticks and we proceeded to toast said marshmallows and have a well deserved sugar stop!
From here there is a short steep climb up Cerro Chino for the best view of the volcano and crater. There is also a 360 view of the volcano complex, valley and landscape.
Our guide then asked us if we wanted to descend the ‘fun’ way. It turned out that this involved running down a gravel hill at high-speed. We did it and it was actually quite fun, it felt a little bit like you were bouncing on the surface of the moon. We then took lots of short cuts through the vegetation all the way back to the start point. Although going downhill is quicker, it is certainly just as hard on your muscles and we were destroyed by the time we got back to the car!
Simply put, Antigua was our favourite Latin American city so far, one that you could see yourself living in due to the eclectic mix of culture, ethnicities, stunning location and perfectly preserved colonial beauty. Clearly many gringos have felt this way too as the town is littered with European and international restaurants and cafes, and the atmosphere is that of a cosmopolitan European capital, but on a smaller more enchanting scale. In terms of greatly preserve colonial city the only other one that springs to mind is Cartagena in Colombia, but unfortunately the comparison does not hold once you leave the old town and venture into the new parts, which are pure Latin American unplanned chaos. Well, Antigua does not have that, it does not have modern suburbs or unbearably packed shopping malls. The government and the protection from UNESCO managed to keep this jewel intact and untainted by modern urban speculation to cater for an ever-growing population. We suspect that this is what Guatemala City is for.
Having said that Antigua is still a Latin American city and the worry is that as money keeps rolling in the town will lose its unique character and atmosphere, that which makes it special.
However, for once we feel positive about the future of this town, the government has gone to great lengths to keep its authenticity alive and the people have a sense of cultural responsibility and pride in their town (we even felt this among gringos) which makes us look at the future of this town and region with confidence. Could this be a blueprint, a layout to follow for many historical Latin American towns that want to preserve their character and personality without renouncing what good business and investment has to offer?