Our family of 5 (3 teenagers aged 14, 15 and 17 years old) just returned from spending 11 days in Guatemala. Our first stop was 3 nights in Antigua Guatemala.
Antigua Guatemala is a beautiful colonial city surrounded by amazing natural beauty. Fundamentally, it is a tourist town. That is not to say that we saw hordes of tourists descending from overweighted buses. We didn’t even see one group tour or a restaurant with pretty photos of food outside its entrance door. On the contrary, we very much felt like we were sharing Antigua with only other Guatemalans or families from neighbouring countries. However, in its essence, Antigua, it’s colonial buildings and churches, cobblestone streets and services are there to attract and satisfy tourists.
Is that bad? I would argue no. Guatemala isn’t any one thing. It isn’t just a poor country that relies heavily on agriculture for its survival. Or a stunningly beautiful country that is 60% mountainous from volcanic eruptions over millions of years. Neither is it just jungle, Mayan ruins, home to endangered jaguars, panthers and pumas, or magnificent lakes and beaches. It also has an exquisite colonial city, beautifully preserved and refurbished that everyone should visit when they explore Guatemala.
1. It has an interesting history
Antigua was founded in 1543 by the Spanish. It was the capital of Guatemala until 1773 when a devastating earthquake seriously damaged it. Thereafter, Guatemala City became the capital and everyone was ordered to leave. Accordingly, Antigua is jammed pack with beautifully preserved and refurbished Spanish architecture, in particular colonial churches, monuments, fountains and ruins. In fact, there are over 30 churches representing most religious orders that existed in Spain in the 16th and 17th century.
2. It is close to Guatemala City and Aurora International Airport
Antigua Guatemala is between 35km – 40 km from Guatemala City and Aurora International Airport. This makes it an easy destination to reach from both places. Before we arrived, I had read numerous times that Guatemala City was dangerous and best left alone. Accordingly, Antigua was for us, and for many travellers, the destination to which you go upon your arrival in Guatemala. It is also a popular destination for Guatemalans in Guatemala City for the same reason – easy to get to and safe.
For these corresponding reasons, traffic to Antigua Guatemala from Guatemala City or the airport can be heavy. Even though it is a short distance between the two, it can take up to 1 1/2 hours to travel.
3. It is flat, easy to get around and surrounded by natural beauty.
Antigua Guatemala is 2.25 sq. km or 560 acres. It is spectacularly pretty. Antigua is totally flat but surrounded by lush green volcanos everywhere you look. At the moment, none of them are active (phew!). The city is laid out on a rectangular grid system aligned with a compass. Most buildings (that are not a church) are one level, with a brightly painted but plain front, with an elaborate front door.
I loved walking around Antigua Guatemala. We found it easy and relaxing with lots of shops, restaurants and historical buildings to explore. Cars drove slowly on one way streets. We never felt like we had to be overly aware of our surroundings to stay safe. However, the sidewalks were often uneven and the roads were mostly cobblestone. If you are physically challenged in some way or need to use a stroller, Antigua could be difficult place to navigate.
I also became easily lost while there. Normally, I don’t have any problem figuring out a new city, quickly learning my way around. However, I found that the perfectly laid out streets in north to south and east to west patterns, and the uniform looking buildings made it tough to use landmarks to find my way. Nevertheless, we loved walking and exploring Antigua.
4. We felt safe.
Safety was a huge concern for us before we left. However, we never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe during our 11 days in Guatemala. While we were there, Antigua Guatemala was busy with a terrific and fun energy. We explored during the day and went out to different restaurants every night sometimes walking from one side of the city to another. Everyone we met was kind and helpful.
5. Antigua Guatemala is very different from any other place in Guatemala
We spent 11 days driving and exploring Guatemala. That included 3 days at Lake Attitlan, a day at Chichicastenango and 4 days around Flores and Tikkal. We loved our itinerary. Every region was very different from each other and we did a lot of very interesting, exciting and diverse activities in each place. However, in all of our travels in Guatemala, there was no other city or town that was anything like Antigua Guatemala.
Antigua is a beautiful colonial city. In many instances, on the surface, it felt like time had stopped in the 18th century. But then, we walked past sophisticated hotels, restaurants and shops and were reminded that we were very much in a modern vibrant city.
Every other town that we visited in Guatemala was much more of what you would expect when you think of Guatemala. The towns looked poor, with cement buildings next to dilapidated ones. They were functional places where people bought their food and supplies. Dogs were everywhere, and horses were as welcome on the road as cars, buses and motorbikes. No other city or town that we visited or drove through was particularly pretty or inviting.
6. We stayed at a beautiful small hotel in Antigua Guatemala
We stayed at a charming boutique hotel called Posada del Angel. This 7 room hotel felt more like a luxurious home than a formal hotel. We booked two rooms (the “blue” and the “yellow” one), both of which were huge, with large comfortable beds, and beautiful bathrooms. Every room was beautifully decorated. There was a lovely small pool, a gorgeous shared living room and breakfast room, and a roof top deck. The staff were wonderful and the location was excellent.
The one thing that we missed was a hotel bar. We were only a few blocks from the main square and the choice of dozens of restaurants and bars. However, at the end of our day, my husband and I enjoy coming back to our hotel, getting the kids settled in their room, and then, sneaking off for a drink and a recap of the day. We weren’t able to do this here and we definitely missed that.
7. We had some terrific meals in Antigua
When we travel, we like to eat well. Fortunately, Antigua Guatemala has many restaurants from which to choose. If you have the chance, I would recommend two restaurants. The first is Bistro Cinq and the other is Las Antorchas.
We celebrated New Years Eve at Bistro Cinq and had an amazing four course meal. From pork rillettes (similar to a pate) to a shrimp and bean soup to a seared duck or sea bass, it was simply delicious.
Our tour guide took us for lunch to Las Antorchas. We had a wonderful meal there with the octopus and the hamburger as the standouts.
8. Tourism and Infrastructure
There is a lot to do in Antigua, Guatemala. One day we took an amazing ATV tour with Simmon Tours into the countryside and up the mountains around Antigua. We saw dramatic natural beauty and visited a small town called Santa Maria de Jesuz where the style of dress and day to day life of the villagers looked like nothing had changed in hundreds of years.
On another day, we hiked up Pacaya Volcano, one of only three active volcanoes in all of Guatemala. Pacaya Volcano is around 50 km from Antigua or 1 1/2 hours drive. The hike up the volcano took 80 minutes. We climbed 2350 metres over 5 km and were awarded with a stunning view of the top of Pacaya Volcano above and the lava field below. In addition, we had awe-inspiring panoramic views of all over Guatemala. This was one of our absolute highlights of our trip.
For more information about our hike up Pacaya Volcano, please refer to Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala: Hiking up an Active Volcano.
Finally, we explored Antigua itself. We took a 1 1/2 hour private guided walking tour of the city and loved it. There is so much history and fantastic architecture that it would be a shame to miss that.
Sin Fronteras Tour Operador is a local travel company that helped us with all of our transfers and tours all over Guatemala. I will be writing more about our excursions in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, they were amazing, easy to work with and quick to respond with answers to my questions.
Antigua Guatemala is unlike any other town or city in Guatemala. It is a beautiful colonial city that welcomes tourists with gorgeous cobblestone streets, and sophisticated hotels and restaurants. It is close to Guatemala City and the international airport, easy to get to and safe to walk around. A trip to Guatemala would not be complete without seeing Antigua and learning about its colonial past with Spain. There are many things to do and see in or near Antigua that I would highly recommend that you include in any itinerary. Antigua is the perfect place to start or finish what will be an extraordinary trip to Guatemala.
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