Before you ask, I’m not talking about the small and possibly more well known Caribbean island adjacent to Barbuda & Monserrat – but the colonial city which resides in one of the more intriguing countries i’ve visited; Guatemala.
Nestled across the border from Mexico, ‘Guate’ as it’s lovingly referred to by those in the know is a country which offers seemingly endless bang for it’s buck. An array of adventure sports, stupendous volcanoes, eye-catching lakes; this is the relatively small country with a stature of one much, much bigger.
Formerly the official capital of this fine land, Antigua is a small but perfectly formed UNESCO World Heritage Site (as established in 1944) located in the central highlands, about 1 hours drive away from the nations official capital of Guatemala City. Surrounded by mostly active (gulp) volcanoes, the word ‘picturesque’ genuinely does struggle to do the place justice. The vast majority of the original 16th monuments remain preserved as ruins since a major earthquake hit back in 1773. It can feel very much like wandering through an entirely different period of time as you walk amongst the ancient cathedrals and buildings, aside from the rather large number of Western tourists who now visit in their droves.
I first arrived in Antigua on a questionable G:Adventures tour (sorry guys) where a minibus full of us were shunted from pillar to post for a period of 10 days. Collected in Cancun, Mexico and sent on my jolly way less than 2 weeks later following a whistlestop tour around some of the major towns & cities in between. We stayed in the quaint ‘Los Bucaros’ guesthouse, accessed via an inconspicuous wooden door just off one of Antiguas many cobbled streets. My double room was situated just away from a beautiful tree-lined courtyard, and was an air conditioned welcome relief from the searing heat outside. As my backpacker budget kicked in post organised tour, I checked out and found myself some much more affordable accommodation: at the lovable, yet slightly rough around the edges ‘The Terrace Hostel‘ just around the corner. I felt welcomed almost instantly by the friendly staff, and was ushered immediately up to their terrace bar – withtruly stunning views just casually overlooking one of the regions jaw-dropping volcanoes. We were encouraged to take part in one of the many happy hours on offer, obviously it didn’t take much arm twisting, especially with 5 Quetzal Tequilas (the equivalent of less than 40p)
Well, where to start? There is more to do in Antigua than you could shake a large piñata hitting shaped stick at. A lot of your decisions will no doubt be resigned to exactly how much time you have here. Whether you’re staying for the long haul or just passing through, you can generally find a time tailored version of what you want to do. For me, the number one activity in the surrounding area has to be one of the many volcano hikes on offer. Whether it’s a demanding 2 day hike up (and not forgetting, down) the 3976 metre tall ‘Acatenango’, an overnight stay on the highly active and challengingly steep ‘Fuego’, or just a day trip up to ‘Pacaya’ to toast some marshmallows – there is a trip for everyone seeking out their volcanic fix. I opted for option 1, and can honestly say that up until that point it was one of the hardest, yet most rewarding things I have ever done in my life. Especially seeing as in a rather large oversight, I decided it would be fine for me to do it in my already questionable Converse low-top trainers. TOP TIP: don’t be like me, and make sure you have walking boots! But more on that another time…
Sights & other activities:
There are many, many sights to see in and around Antigua centre. The architecture is truly stunning, and the best plan of action is to just pick up a map from one of the many local vendors and simply go and explore. Some of the particular highlights include the historic Santo Domingo Monastery – even though part of it has now been turned into a top end hotel – the rustic charm of the La Merced church, and a short but worthwhile hike up to Cerro de la Cruz for some stunning views out over the city. NOTE: whilst I was visiting, we were informed of a number of muggings along this walking route, so travel lightly and amongst a group, not alone.
If you’re in the mood for some more laid back navel gazing amid the epicentre of the town, then head down to the main square Plaza de Armas; where you’ll find a constant hustle & bustle of both locals and tourists alike, sitting around over a cup of coffee or lunch, as well as the occasional pop-up library which takes over the walkways that connect the four corners of the park. The outer edges of the main square are dotted with small (invariably overpriced) tourist shops, travel agents, bars, and cafes where you can take a pit stop for a bite to eat.
Antigua is widely regarded as one of the perfect places in Central America to stop off and learn some of the local language. Guatemalans are known for their clear pronunciation, and slower speech – making the country an ideal place to try and pick up some Spanish. Not to mention the fact that it’s one of the cheaper countries on the route, therefore also a more affordable option. After researching for weeks prior to heading on my trip, I decided on signing up for a 1 week residential course with the well reviewed Mundo Spanish School.
My language skills were poor to say the least, and my teacher Hilario had the patience of a saint… especially given that I turned up for my very first lesson with a terrible hangover and was practically falling asleep. Not much was learnt that day, but in the days to follow I was surprised at how much I had picked up. Staying with a host family was very much a baptism of fire, all to seen for me given my very, very poor grasp of the language at that point. Each evening I sat down for a family dinner where I understood little more than the niceties, then was set free to head to the local bar with my fellow classmates albeit under a strictly enforced curfew of 10pm. A great way to immerse yourself in the way of life to really help pick up the language, but possibly not for a rank amateur like myself.
Food, Bars & Nightlife:
It’s safe to say that you can find a good night out in Antigua, there are bars aplenty scattered through the city, some obvious and some not so. Most places tend to close at 1am, but that rule isn’t always strictly enforced with many places playing host to lock-ins which the local authorities tend to turn a blind eye to. Restaurants are two-a-penny here also, of differing quality and costs. The best places to find affordable eats are generally down one of the many side streets, there are Taco cafes aplenty with a very basic feel to them, yet churning out magnificent $0.50c tacos to backpackers and locals alike. One of the more affordable restaurants in town is the cozy Rainbow Cafe, which serves an alluring mixture of local dishes as well as western favourites. It also doubles up as a library. The Porque No Cafe is also a quirky little spot that serves great food, but can only seat around 20 people at a time – so get there early!
One of the best spots for something a little stronger to finish your night is the intriguingly named ‘Cafe No Se‘ (translated roughly as Cafe Not) which positions itself as an ‘illegal Mezcal’ bar. Lit only by candles, this cavernous little gem has a distinct backstreet feel to it and is a tricky place to stumble across after a few beers. Here you can find some of the finest (not to mention strongest) Guatemalan Mezcal the city has to offer. A must visit Another favourite spot amongst beer thirsty locals is Coyote Rojo, a cheap, sketchy dive bar with stripped back stone-work walls and dim red lights which welcomes everyone from backpackers to bikers through it’s doors. Although I’d advise not to outstay your welcome! A great place for meeting a cross section of weird and wonderful locals.
Another backpacker favourite was Roo’s. Yep you’ve guessed it, an Australian bar ran by the friendly Arianne and her Guatemalan partner. Cheap drinks, good music, and an anything goes kind of vibe; add to that the odd impromptu jam session from local musicians and you’re on to a winner. A very easy place to spend a long time. If you wanted somewhere a little different with more of a nightclub vibe, then the place to be is Las Vibras de la Casbah. Owned by the highly likeable Canadian turned Guatemala local Dustin, this is one of the nightspots in Antigua if you’re up for a bit of a dance.
Antigua is certainly a place I would love to revisit at some point, and I imagine it would be much changed the next time I do. You could never say that this is a place representative of the rest of Guatemala, but more of an oasis of fine architecture and modernity in this little corner of Central America.