What to do in Antigua, Guatemala?

by Deborah Durrfeld

Antigua is one of the most beautiful cities in Guatemala. Colonial buildings, where a new world opens behind every door, ruins of churches, nice shops, restaurants and fantastic views of the surrounding volcanoes. Antigua is located at the foot of the 3750 m high Agua volcano and a large open-air museum. You can walk around for days and enjoy the pleasant atmosphere. This is a list with the best tips and things to do in this beautiful city.

Welcome to Antigua

Antigua was founded by the Spaniards in 1543 and is the former capital of Guatemala, hence the name Antigua Guatemala. Because the city was destroyed by earthquakes several times, the capital was moved to the current Guatemala City in 1776. Today Antigua, with around 50,000 inhabitants, is one of the most visited places in Guatemala. Antigua is a big open-air museum. The center is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and consists of several streets and squares, including colonial houses, churches and monasteries. Many buildings, destroyed by earthquakes, are left behind as ruins, but in a beautiful preserved way, with lots of greenery and flowers. Nowadays i’s possible to visit these places. From the center you have a beautiful view of the volcanoes. You often see smoke and at times you even see the orange and red lava flowing! In this article you’ll find the best tips for exploring this beautiful city.

1. Explore the colonial center | Tips for Antigua

The center is well-organized with the Plaza and the cathedral as its central-point. One of the most photographed places in the city is El Arco de Santa Catalina, a yellow facade that runs along Calle del Arco and was part of a former monastery. On one side of the arch you have a view of the Agua volcano. On the other side, you’ll see the monastery La Merced, with one of the largest fountains in the courtyard.

2. Hike to the city’s most beautiful viewpoint | Tips for Antigua

You can see this place already from the city center: the Mirador Cerro de la Cruz. Upstairs you have a beautiful view of Antigua and the Agua volcano. In the morning it is clear and the view is the best. If you go straight on Avenida 1, you will get to a path with stairs, guiding you all the way up, within 15 minutes. The path is guarded between 7 am and 6 pm so make sure you are on the path only between these times. Once you’ve made it to the top: Go for a walk, find a spot and enjoy the view!

3. Stroll through the ancient ruins | Tips for Antigua

The earthquakes have left their mark on the streets of Antigua. This can be seen in the many ruins of the city, which were left on purpose. Most of them are still in the original collapsed shape, others are transformed into a new church, hotel, or museum. The surrounding greenery andflowers, create a beautiful setting. El Carmen was the old nun monastery of the Capuchinas. The former Santo Domingo church and monastery is now a 5 star hotel with a lovely garden. At the very end of the garden you will find the remains of the church and the monastery. I personally find the ruins of Colegio de San Jerónimo and the Convento de la Recolección on the Calle de la Recolección worthwhile. It is quiet and wonderful to walk through.

4. Take pictures of Guatemala’s chicken buses | Tips for Antigua

Guatemala is known for the typical chicken buses. Are you looking for a nice photo spot? Head to the local bus station, at the central market. There is always something going on here, but the colored buses in particular are nice to observe and capture.

5. Enjoy or hike an active volcano | Tips for Antigua

Visit at least one volcano during your stay in Antigua. Depending on your physical condition and motivation, there are different options:

a. Enjoy the view of the volcano “El Fuego”

The Fuego volcano is the easiest to visit. At the end of the day you’ll drive to a viewpoint and make a short walk to observe the volcanic activity. Whe you are lucky, you are even able to see some eruptions! This is the most easy and relaxed tour.

b. Hike to the top of the volcano “Pacaya

Your most spectacular option is a hike to the Pacaya volcano. In about 1.5 hours you walk up a solid steep road with solidified lava. The walk is easy for anyone with a normal physical condition. The Pacaya volcano is 100% active. There is a good chance that you will experience eruptions and even see the hot red lava flowing. Depending on the activity, safety rules apply and you can walk until a certain height. Make sure you are well informed in advance and leave early in the morning. Then it is still quiet and you have the best chance of clear views. Don’t forget to bring warm clothes. It can be quite cold in the morning. Good shoes are recommended, you will sink a few meters back in the sand at some places.

c. Go for a multi-day hike to the Acatenango volcano

If you want to go on a multi-day volcano hike, then visit the Acatenango volcano. You have to be a bit more “active” and “motivated” for this, since it involves hiking for several hours and days, including an overnight stay “along the road” on the mountain.

6. Take salsa classes | Tips for Antigua

Do you want to dance salsa? New Sensation Salsa is your place to be. Your teacher will be one of the nicest and best teachers from Antigua, Nancy Gudiel. Both as a beginner and advanced, it is best to book a private lesson.  One-on-one lessons, mean that you can take major steps in a short amount of time. In café Las Palmas you can practice your new moves during their weekly salsa parties.

The best restaurants and coffee shops of Antigua

Antigua has so many nice places, you could discover something new every day. Here are my favorite places for dinner, lunch, coffee, cake, entertainment and working on your laptop:

  • Luna de Miel has the most delicious crepes! Make sure you find a place on the roof terrace. Here you have an amazing view of the smoking volcano!
  • Doña Luisa Xicotencatl is an all-time-favorite place for many people. It’s a nice place for lunch and you can sit in the lovely garden. All products are super fresh: From rolls, juices to banana and carrot tarts.
  • At Artista de Cafe you can settle down for a cup of coffee or tea. It’s the perfect place to work on your laptop!
  • For fresh rolls, head to El Viejo Cafe, a real French bakery. You can sit in the nice garden and enjoy breakfast, lunch and cakes.
  • Ganache is the best tea room with the most beautiful cakes, in Antigua.
  • Posada de Don Rodrigo is a colonial building, including a hotel, restaurant and inner gardens. Every evening you can attend a typical Guatemalan music performance. Several men perform on the Guatemalan xylophones and dancers show traditional dances. Of course this performance is mainly for tourists, but it is a nice way to getting a glimpse of the local dance and music.

Do you want to read more about Guatemala? Discover the famous market of Chichicastenango and beautiful boat trip on the Rio Dulce to Caribbean Livingston. Interested in archaeology? In this article I’m taking you to Quiriguá, a smaller and less visited Maya site with beautiful Maya stelae.

This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)

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