16 things to do in Antigua Guatemala

I was having a conversation with my cousin this week and he asked to describe Antigua and what it would be similar to in his experience. I thought to myself … I’ve never really put together a high level description of the place or things to do in Antigua Guatemala … so here goes.

Antigua is something of a bohemian/backpacker/budget traveller hotspot in Guatemala. It’s also becoming a very viable wedding destination to North Americans (Shameless plug here for our wedding planning business : Wedding Chicas) because  of all the colonial churches, cobblestone streets, colorful markets, photo worthy ruins and more importantly … very, very affordable living costs.There are many people who visit and then decide to stay much longer than anticipated. We have stayed for a couple weeks here.

Geographically, Antigua is both highly accessible from Guatemala City (an hour away via shuttle) and just a couple hours from several other Guatemalan highlights (Panajachel, San Tiago Atitlan). This makes Antigua the perfect base for those looking to slow things down and relax in a nice town, or those looking to pack as much adventure into each day as possible. There’s plenty to do here, but doing nothing is fun, too.

Here’s a little history:

Things haven’t been great over the years to Antigua. It became the third (or fourth, depending on your source) capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala, a region spanning from Costa Rica to the Mexican state of Chiapas in the north, in 1543. This was after the second capital, Ciudad Vieja, was destroyed by a catastrophic volcanic mud flow, viciously hurled from the mouth of the nearby Volcán de Agua. For 200 years, fortune smiled upon Antigua: it became one of the richest cities in the Americas and the population grew to a height of around 60,000. A 1717 earthquake destroyed around 3,000 buildings, but authorities decided to rebuild the capital. Then, fifty-something years later, from July to December 1773, a 7.5 earthquake and series of aftershocks lasting five months methodically destroyed the capital, convincing authorities to once again move the capital of Guatemala to what is today Guatemala City. You can read more on the history over here.

After being all over Central and South America, I can say that Antigua is a truly pretty city with a lot of old world charm, in fact Antigua is one of the few Guatemalan cities that I actually found to be pretty as the Guatemalan government has made a significant effort to ensure that Antigua has retained its quaint, colonial charm.

Sightseeing in Antigua

… is easy

You can walk from one end of town to the other in just a few minutes, and although the city’s colonial architecture is kind of the main attraction, you might want to seek out a few of these places in particular:

  • Hanging out in the Parque Central, the main plaza of the city, is popular with locals and tourists alike, and is accompanied by a mix of modern shops and street vendors catering mostly to the latter. The plaza is surrounded by the Cathedral, and two arch-lined government buildings, which, along with the fountain, trees, and bustling atmosphere, make for some nice people-watching and photo opportunities.
  • Religious structures of note include the aforementioned Cathedral, along with the Convento do Las Capuchinas, Convento de Santa Clara, Iglesia La Merced, Iglesia de San Francisco, Casa Santo Domingo, La Recollection, and the Arco de Santa Catarina. The churches and convents of the city are all in varying states of disrepair, though many are still in use, despite the collapsed ceilings. If you want to know a little more of the history behind these structures, a more organized walking tour is probably a good idea.
  • Antigua has a number of small museums that might be of interest to visitors, most notably the Chocolate Museum, whose hands-on classes are a popular activity with visitors. The Town Hall on the main square houses a military museum, and an old printing press and book museum; others in the city include a textile museum, and Casa Popenoe, a restored 17th-century house.

  • Shopping at the markets is a fun way to peruse the traditional handicrafts of Guatemala. The woven textiles in particular are a famous regional creation, and although souvenirs like these can be found all over town, wandering through the tourist market to the west of the main square will be quite a colorful experience. It’s also located right next to the local market, where “real” people shop for food and household goods, which also makes it a good place to get cheap meals.
  • Wandering up to the Hill of the Cross offers a great panoramic view of the city, and its neighboring volcano off in the distance. The 30-minute hike has something of a bad reputation for petty crime, but on a sunny day, there are enough families with kids going up and down that it looks like this is a thing of the past. Just like our family here!

Learn a thing or two

If you’re not into tons of sightseeing and you want to exercise your brain and get some culture, Antigua has a number of activities for those who actually want to learn something, instead of just see something.

  • Coffee tours are a great way to learn just how much effort goes into a single cup of coffee, and quite a few businesses have realized that visitors enjoy learning about the process just as much as they enjoy the drink. Operations of all sizes, from sprawling estates to small, private farms, are happy to oblige.
  • At the Chocolate Museum, you not only learn how to make chocolate; you also make it yourself. Combining education with candy has, of course, turned this place into a visitor favorite. The shop also sells the chocolate, for those who don’t have time for the tour.

  • Niños de Guatemala provides a look into nearby village life, offering a tour of a carpentry shop, a doll-making lesson, a visit to a local school, and, perhaps most interesting of all, a tour through a chicken bus factory, where visitors can see how American school buses are turned into the colorful public transportation vehicles seen all over Central America. If you’re looking to experience Guatemala beyond the expat and backpacker circuit, this is a great way to do it. Still kicking myself for missing this one.
  • Guatemala is well known for being one of the least expensive countries in Latin America to study Spanish, and Antigua is no exception. Thousands of people come here every year to attend one of the many cheap Spanish schools in town. If you intent to travel throughout Latin America we highly recommend you take a few classes because knowing a few common Spanish phrases can come in handy.
  • Traditional Maya ceremonies still exist in Guatemala, both authentically, and as a tourist draw; you might feel a little odd watching a ceremony put on as a show for visitors, or you might find it educational. Antigua Tours by Elizabeth Bell organizes these Maya spiritual ceremonies for those who want a look into this side of the region’s heritage.
  • Antigua is an excellent spot to learn how to dance salsa and find your rhythm. Many schools in Antigua offer free salsa classes once or twice a week in the evenings. Just walk around town or look at bulletin boards and I am sure you will find a few signs advertising their classes.

Outdoor activities around Antigua

Because Antigua is surrounded by (volcanic) mountains and other scenery, visitors can enjoy quite a few easily-accessible hikes and other activities in the area:

  • Volcano hiking is quite popular, and with so many volcanoes nearby, there’s a volcano appropriate for seemingly every skill level. Pacaya is great for a short hike, and you can even roast marshmallows up at the summit; Acatenango is an all-day excursion, or an overnighter. Keep in mind that Antigua is at a higher elevation than you might be used to, so short hikes might still be challenging, particularly if you’ve just arrived.
  • Zip lining on a canopy tour is a great way to get the adrenaline flowing, and see the jungle from a completely different angle than upwards from the ground. The Dalton estate, which operates one of the coffee tours, is one of the places that sets up zip lining.
  • Birdwatching tours are perhaps less adventurous, but more relaxing; these are often located in the same places that house the zip lines.

How about learning to cook something Guate style!

Because Antigua is surrounded by (volcanic) mountains and other scenery, visitors can enjoy quite a few easily-accessible hikes and other activities in the area:

  • Explore the Mercado … At first glance this market may seem like a complete chaotic mess; Stalls everywhere, garbage on the ground, dogs roaming around, people begging. But dig a little deeper and you will discover a massive market filled with pretty much anything you need. The market is divided into sections; fruits and veggies, meat, fish, clothes, paintings, handicrafts. The big market day, and most crowded, is Saturday, but it is open every day of the week. It is easy to get lost in here, but thats okay, let yourself wander!
  • Attend a Guatemalan Cooking School … you’ll learn how to prepare traditional Guatemalan fare. Typically, you shop for the ingredients at the market and make 4 dishes (1 main, 2 sides, 1 dessert). Depending on the school you find, classes could be in Spanish or English. Hopefully, on this trip I’ll be able to offer a full review of both cooking schools.

Even with all that I’ve mentioned, it’s a good idea to check with hostels for listings, as these are the sorts of things that can change every once in a while.

About Rishiray

Rishi Sankar is a Cloud HRMS Project Manager/ Solution Architect. Over the past 15+ years, he has managed to combine his overwhelming wanderlust with a desire to stay employed, resulting in continuing stints with 3 major consulting firms (IBM, Deloitte, Accenture). He documents his adventures around the world on "Ah Trini Travelogue" with pictures and stories from the road/tuk-tuk/camel/rickshaw. You can follow him on Twitter at @rishiray and on Facebook at "Ah Trini Travelogue . He doesn't like Chicken Curry but loves Curry Chicken and is always trying to find the perfect Trinidadian roti on the road. He also doesn't like cheese and kittens ... and definitely not together. E-mail from his blog is appreciated like a 35 yr old Balvenie at rishi@rishiray.com

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