If you are visiting the country of Guatemala for the first time, be sure to include at least two or three days to explore the city of Antigua. Antigua or la Antigua as it is also called is just a short drive from Guatemala City and known for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque-influenced architecture. The former capital city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site which attracts more than a million tourists a year. Surrounded by the remnants of its 1773 earthquake, the relatively small and intimate town has a lot to offer including a trendy culinary scene, vibrant nightlife, and centuries of artistic expressions, all wrapped in tradition and historical charm.
Getting there is easy. The hard part just may be deciding on what to do which could easily keep you there for up to a week. An article in the New York Times shows you what you can actually do in 36 hours. Good luck. My trip this past April with the Los Angeles-based company Bella Guatemala Travel included a lot of great highlights that truly only whet my appetite to return making the four days I was there simply not long enough.
A little under 50,000 residents call Antigua home, this includes expats from around the world who consequently got lost in the city’s charm and never left. The city is also a destination for students from Europe, Asia and North America who want to learn Spanish through immersion.
The comfort of its more than 20 boutique hotels, of which the Porta Hotel where we stayed, is one that welcomes guests with amenities fit for a king and queen. From full-service restaurants and spas to poolside fun, you’ll find Central American hospitality at its best.
From a distance, you can see at least four of the country’s volcanoes in Antigua’s backdrop: Volcan de Agua (Volcano of Water), Acatenango, Pacaya and one of the most active, Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire). If you are feeling adventurous, you can book a tour to hike one for a little as $50.
Throughout the year, you can see locals going about their day, selling food and handmade goods in popular spots frequented by tourists. However, it is during Holy Week or Semana Santa that truly puts the spotlight on Antigua as it prepares for a week of religious processions the conclude on Easter Sunday. Streets are adorned with beautiful carpets made with colorful sawdust and lined with people waiting to see the big floats made of marble carried by either men and women. The processions take place day and night depicting the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This religious celebration was brought to the country by Spain more than 500 years ago and is still going strong to this day.
Nowadays, tourists like to get off the beaten path to explore a little deeper. You can certainly do that but it is the visual history of Antigua that intrigues those who travel near and far to see the buildings that remain as ruins, walk the cobblestone streets, stand in awe in front of monuments captured in time including the church Iglesia Y Convento De Nuestra Senora De La Merced that is considered to be the most beautiful church of Antigua.
Take a short drive just above the city to Santa Domingo del Cerro where you’ll be welcomed by amazing views including that of Volcán de Fuego. The hotel Casa Santo Domingo offers 130 rooms with amenities that include cable, safety deposit boxes, telephones with voicemail, an iron and more. Walk the grounds to discover sculptures from various Guatemalan artists. A mini outdoor market with vendors lets you get a little shopping in before or after having a bit to eat at El Tenedor del Cerro. The food here is absolutely delicious making this a must-visit spot while in Antigua. Be sure to make a reservation because it is just as popular with the locals as it is with visitors.
Back into the city, take in more history and culture by visiting one or several of the city’s museums. See work produced in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at the Colonial Museum, ceramic objects from the Classic Period (200-900 AD) of the Maya culture at the Archeology Museum and furniture that belonged to the Farmacia Oriental” of Guatemala City once used to keep medicinal products at the Pharmacy Museum.
Eat, Drink and Hang Out
Eating in Antigua is more than a gastronomy pleasure. Foodies will not be disappointed as the cuisine in Antigua is some of the best in Guatemala. Street food is all around which will give you a true taste of what the locals eat. Together with the restaurants, you’ll leave with a satisfied palate and appreciation for the authenticity and creativity that comes with each dish served. Mexican, Italian, French, Thai, and American are just a few of influences that you will see shine through the city’s culinary scene. We ate at so many great places, I can’t recall having one bad meal. A few to put on your radar include Frida’s, named and honoring the late Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Another favorite is Saba Rico. Don’t be fooled once you first walk in. Ask to be seated outdoors in the back of the restaurant. Once there, you’ll be surprised at the spacious dining area that is perfect for an afternoon lunch. While there, order one of Guatemala’s national dishes, Pepion. This hearty stew with slow-cooked meats such as chicken is said to be the country’s version of Mexico’s mole.
At night, take in dinner with a little entertainment at the Posada De Don Rodrigo Restaurant located inside Hotel La Posada de Don Rodrigo. Be sure to make reservations in the Restaurant Los Moros section to enjoy dancers performing Bailee de loss Moros, a Guatemalan folk dance.
End the evening with a rum tasting at La Casa Del Ron or The House of Rum, a boutique lounge and bar. Try a variety of rums as you sit back and take in the swanky atmosphere while listening to some smooth grooves. See what others have to say about where to go and what to eat through Trip Advisor which won’t steer you wrong.
There are also cute cafés and coffee shops throughout the city to just grab and a bit and do a little people watching which is always fun.
Nightlife is very much alive and active in Antigua with bars and clubs staying open to around 1 a.m. Kick back with a carefully crafted cocktail, beer or glass of wine while listening to music that crosses a variety of genres. If you get the late-night munchies before calling it a night, street vendors are happily waiting to provide a little nourishment.
For years, visitors have been captivated by the charm of Antigua. Whether you plan to pass through or spend few days, the reaction and admiration for most are still the same. I have to admit, I didn’t know about the city until I visited this spring. Now that I do, I can see why many go and many stay.
To learn more about Antigua, visit http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/65.