Pros: Compact city, easily walked about, inexpensive.
Cons: A few inconveniences such as pick-pockets. It is a relatively safe city.
Antigua Guatemala invokes images of conquistadors, catholic missions, and the hope of finding El Dorado somewhere in the nearby mountains. Well, there you go! Antigua is like stepping into a time-warp, the 1500’s to be exact.
Antigua Guatemala, or “la Antigua” or simply “Antigua” is the third former capital of Guatemala. The “new or third Guatemala”, known as Guatemala City, came to be when an earthquake practically destroyed la Antigua.
On the subject of earthquakes: yes, the underground is alive, waiting to explode, and if the conquistadors back then had access to seismic studies, they would have better planned the location of their cities. First, they could have stayed further away from the many volcanoes, and then, they could have built the cities a bit further apart from each other. Since they didn’t know any better, after each earthquake they would rebuild, a mere 20-30 miles apart from the city that just crumbled. It seems as if they kept placing their cities almost in a circular fashion, never really avoiding earthquake prone locations. Practically all of Guatemala, as is Central America, is a hot bed for earthquakes.
Why Visit Antigua Guatemala?
Well, I chose a photo journalism tour that took place in the “ancient Guatemala”. Since, it was not too far from Houston, I opted for this tour, a 13-day tour to be exact, which included several quaint cities in Guatemala. La Antigua was our point of beginnings and departure, and we spent a total of three days here.
Antigua is known for its preserved architecture and its indigenous people. The government is doing a good job preserving Guatemala's history, and whereas in the past the local Mayans were forced to integrate into the "Spanish" societal norms, now they are encouraged to preserve their cultural roots.
Reaching Guatemala’s La Aurora International Airport is easy. One can fly non-stop from most major US cities, such as Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and New York. By the way, US citizens get a free, 90 day visa on arrival.
My contact picked me up from La Aurora around 3:30 pm, on a Friday afternoon, and the traffic was heavy. Antigua is slightly less than 20 miles from the capital city, and it is a place where wealthy Guatemalans go to for the weekend. It is also a tourist’s mecca.
With the heavy traffic, it took us almost one-and a half hours to reach the Posada de don Rodrigo, the hotel where I met the photography group.
First Impressions of La Antigua
I found the drive to Antigua extremely pleasant, as the surrounding landscape is green, lush, and very mountainous. Upon arrival, we stepped into colonial times, with ancient buildings and cobblestoned streets.
Founded in 1543 by the Spanish conquistadors, Antigua is nowadays a very tranquil town, where life has a pace of its own (slow). Antigua showcases amazingly well-preserved architecture, in spite of the fact that it is repeatedly shaken up by earthquakes of all magnitudes. The impressive ruins of colonial houses and churches from those days are everywhere. The perfect image of this lovely city is completed with the volcano Agua towering over Antigua.
Walking About the City
Early in the morning, we set out to walk around the city. The “assignment” was to see this lovely city through the lens. There are many interesting buildings and ruins to photograph, and it’s difficult to decide which one is best. However, one charming and captivating aspect of La Antigua is the indigenous people that live in the nearby surroundings and come to Antigua at the crack of dawn, dressed in beautifully crafted outfits, to peddle their goods, be it hand-weaved cloth, things made of wood, bijoux trinkets, postcards, fruits, mini-cakes, you name it.
The peddlers mentioned above tend to loiter in the city streets, parks, outside of restaurants, churches, and hotels, as well as bus stops, etc. Their outfits are beautifully crafted and these vendors attract much attention, and are difficult to ignore. In the end, how could we possibly disregard them? We came to Guatemala to learn about and witness the indigenous culture!
Sadly, the initial love affair with the natives quickly fades, as we realize these vendors are ruthless and relentless, even an 8 year-old, cute kid. I can almost promise that you cannot walk away without buying something. I must have greatly contributed to the economy of Antigua, as many times I caved into the incessant pleading.
Besides Antigua’s cultural riches, the possibilities are endless. If you would like to explore beyond Antigua, you may need at least an additional seven days. Guatemala is not very large; it’s probably similar in surface area to the state of Tennessee, so getting around is not extremely difficult. Take your time to enjoy the charming towns; enjoy the sights and sounds, all requiring only a genuine interest to learn about our cultural differences. It costs very little money to travel around.
1. Visit Antigua’s Mercado
A visit to the local market, early in the morning is a must. The vendors arrive laden with the freshest vegetables and fruits, as well as the most beautiful flowers. Be aware that the market is packed with shoppers and vendors, and pick-pocketing is at its all-time high. We know. I had my little hip zipped-pouch picked, and someone stole an expensive lens filter, which was of no use for the thief. Another group member had his trousers’ slashed in the hope his wallet would drop to the floor, and so on. Other than that, it’s relatively safe!
2. Relaxation or Adventure?
Besides Antigua’s cultural value, it is also possible to undertake various exciting, adventurous or relaxing trips. From here, one can take a day-trip to Lake Atitlan, though, that would be tiring, and an overnight trip is recommended.
Spas ~Relax your body and soothe your feet fatigued from walking all day on cobblestoned street at the several thermal spas near Antigua. We went late one afternoon to visit the Santa Teresita Spa, only 35 minutes by taxi ($10 taxi ride for 4 of us). The sulfuric thermal waters from the Pacaya Volcano will leave you quite relaxed. There are five different pools to relax in. The Spa also offers various body treatments. The price to use the thermal pools is insanely cheap, Q55, 00 or less than US7.00. This is not the only spa in the city, I seem to recall there are about 5-6 in the surrounding area.
Zip-lining~ has become very popular, and you only need about three hours to do it. Get there: 20 minutes, zip-line 1 hour 30 minutes(getting prepped and zipping), and then get back to your hotel. The setting is pretty scenic. Set back $30 per person.
3. Spanish Immersion Schools
I noticed that Antigua is quite popular with folks wanting to learn or perfect their Spanish language skills. We met many such students while we were going around the city. The majority of them tend to be young Americans who are taking time off to travel around.
4. Cooking Schools
A popular trend is to visit a cooking school offering culinary lessons in the preparation of Spanish and Mayan cuisine. Most schools teach in various languages, such as English, French and German (the most popular tourists). Classes are inexpensive, starting around $45 per person, for half a day, including a delightful lunch with beverage afterwards. Some people travel to Antigua exclusively for culinary lessons and spend there at least a week, and live in a Spanish home (very quaint, I’d imagine).
5. Arts and Crafts Schools
Have you ever seen the intricate weavings made by indigenous people of Guatemala and marvel at the beauty of these handiworks? Well, drool no more! You can attend a local workshop, usually at a local family’s home.
As part of our photography tour, we visited a weaver family’s home, and they showed us how the weaving was done, tried our hand at it, and of course, took tons of photos.
The tour was arranged by: Art Workshops in Guatemala, Email: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. A little Spanish knowledge goes a long way, and it helps to bring a small dictionary, and lots of smiles!
There is no shortage of accommodation, from the humble youth hostel, to the luxurious 5-stars Posada del Angel. We stayed at the Posada de Don Rodrigo, a 4-star hotel selected by our tour operator.
Hygiene is the word of the day, and staying healthy is of utmost importance in Guatemala. While eating in an expensive restaurant does not guarantee you will not experience stomach upsets, we frequented only places that were highly recommended. Usually reputable hotels have very good quality foods, though a main dish may set you back anywhere from $12-20, without a beverage. The choices are vast, and if you are brave, there are many quaint eateries around Antigua, where you can eat for around $3-5 per meal.
There are so many cultural venues to visit in this lovely city. Would you like to learn about coffee, chocolate, jade, ancient Mayan artifacts? All of these museums are present in Antigua. However, do remember that every ancient church; ancient building found in the city is a museum in itself. Arm yourself with a good guide book and you’ll learn a lot about this historical city. Most national buildings are open to the public, and licensed guides can be hired on the spot.
You can find ATM’s near La Plaza or the Square. There are also a few banks in the general vicinity that can exchange your dollars, as well as your hotel. The best exchange rate is always at the cash machine. When we were there, we were warned about a theft scheme where one’s ATM passcode is stolen (after a transaction) at certain ATM’s. Thankfully, no one in our group experienced any losses.
You can do as little as you like, such as taking walks around the city, visit the many churches, markets, local wash pool (Las Pilas) and observe life unfold, as it has for centuries.
La Antigua Guatemala is a marvelous place to visit, a place where time stands still; the spell broken when you pass a Café Internet or Cajero Multi (ATM machine) in and around the city, you then realize you are not in Spain’s domain any more.