Flying into Guatemala City International Airport, I was one of many travelers making a beeline for shuttles to Antigua, bypassing the city entirely. I’d come back to explore later, but for now, my focus was on making my way to the most popular destination in the country. My sister was living there, working at a bar and for a tour company. I’d seen beautiful images of colorful houses with volcanoes in the background, so I added four days to my itinerary.
If you’re traveling in Guatemala, Antigua is the perfect place to start, easing you into the country. Shuttles run frequently and cheaply and many people speak English in town. There are also Spanish schools that offer classes to travelers, helping you with the language before you continue on to Atitlan, Flores, and beyond. Sevilla is just one of many, a short walk away from the San Francisco ruins.
Founded as the first capital of the country in 1543 by Spanish conquistadors, the previous capitals had been destroyed by volcanoes. Built on a grid, the city is still laid out in much the same way. Spanish Baroque style buildings are found on every block, draped in bougainvillea, along with churches built by the Franciscans. Many are in ruins because of the earthquakes caused by the fault lines. Today, the city is known for its religious celebrations, especially Semana Santa. It’s highly developed for tourism, especially cruise passengers and day trips to the nearby volcanoes. It’s also one of the safest destinations in the country.
Santa Catalina Arch is the most iconic place in Antigua and a photographer’s dream. At all times of day, you’ll see people posing underneath it. Parque Central is another, the meeting place for the city, surrounded by a fountain. You can tour the San Francisco Church Ruins, built in the 1600s, for Q7. They have a small museum about the area’s history with signs in English and Spanish. Make the steep walk up to Cerro de la Cruz for the best views of the city, pictured below.
Perhaps the most western-friendly (or gringa-friendly) city in the country, you’ll find all the comforts of home like co-working spaces like Impact Hub Antigua, gyms, vegan restaurants, and yoga studios. Free WiFi is also found everywhere, as are places to fill up your water bottle with eco filter-cleaned water. Guatejava, Refuge, and Unión Café & Juice Bar were my favorite places to grab a coffee, especially the homemade limeade with chia seeds at Union. Samsara, Toko Baru, and Y Tu Pina Tambien carry healthy and hearty dishes for cheap. Taco Doña Lupita was great for cheap tacos and El Barrio is a complex with multiple restaurants and bars.
Antigua was certainly charming, but I was looking for the “real” Guatemala, whatever that meant. To actually have to speak Spanish to get by and to eat what the locals ate, rather than Israeli or Thai food. But if you’re looking for a place to get your feet wet, photogenic Antigua is it.
Where to Stay
There are many great accommodation options in Antigua, but I recommend Cucuruchos Boutique Hostel, a small hip hostel with a rooftop patio. I also liked the look of Somos and Matiox as well as the food at Zoola hostel. Outside of town, Hobbitenango and Earth Lodge come recommended.