Antigua Travel Guide
[This is a brief excerpt from pages 108-134 of Eric Larson’s travel guide to Guatemala, published by Other Places Travel Guides.]
Once the center of Spanish power in colonial Central America, La Antigua Guatemala (Old/Ancient Guatemala) is a gem of a city with pristine cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and magnificent architecture. One of the few places in the country where city ordinances are respected and enforced, one could never say that Antigua is a typical Guatemalan city. However, its magnetic charm, impressive history, and near-perfect climate make it a must-see stop for any traveler. Only an hour from the airport, Antigua is often the first stop for visitors and an easy place to set up camp before venturing out into the rest of the country. An entire weekend is the bare minimum needed to explore Antigua and get a feel for the city, but many tourists end up staying much, much longer.
There are plenty of transport options (public bus, private shuttle, taxi, car rental), all of which are covered in detail in the guide. For those seeking a direct connection to Antigua from Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport, our recommended mode of transportation is to schedule a ride with Atitrans (www.atitrans.net) or Turansa (www.turansa.com), two reliable, cheap shuttle services. At the airport, other tourist shuttles leave every hour or two and cost Q100. Airport taxis to Antigua will charge around Q200. If you want to save a few bucks, take a taxi to the Hotel Tikal Futura on Calzada Roosevelt. Across the street, board an Antigua-bound camioneta (Q9, 1hr, 35km).
It is not recommended to take the public bus from the airport to Antigua. In fact, public buses with direct service to the airport simply do not exist.
Get Your Bearings
Central Park marks the center of Antigua, between 4a and 5a Avenidas and 4a and 5a Calles. Avenidas (avenues) run north-south and Calles (streets) run east-west. Streets are divided at Central Park into two halves: east-west (oriente-poniente) or north-south (norte-sur). It’s easy to get around Antigua – it is one of the few Guatemalan cities where most streets are marked. Buildings have addresses, which include a street name, direction, and number. For example, 6a Avenida Norte 35A is located on Sixth Avenue, north of Central Park, at number 35A. If you get lost, Volcán de Agua to the south of the city provides an enormous landmark. To the north is the white cross at Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). As easy as it is to get around, lovers of architecture will be in colonial bliss wandering the streets of Antigua.
See the Sights
Antigua is a traveler’s dream to explore and experience. The majority of sights are within walking distance from Antigua’s Parque Central (Central Park). In fact, our guide details over 30 spots to experience, organized by location from the park. Here, we have chosen our top, must see sights…but a visitor could easily spend two days just wandering around the cobblestone streets of this charming town. (If you are planning to visit Antigua in March/April, check out our post on Semana Santa in Antigua. It’s a must-do!)
Parque Central (Central Park)
Smack in the heart of Antigua’s perfect grid is the idyllic Central Park, centered around the risqué Fuente de las Sirenas (Mermaid Fountain). First constructed in 1936, it is a common backdrop for picture-taking locals and tourists alike. Its designer, master architect Diego Porres, is responsible for many of Antigua’s notable structures. Jets of water flow from the bare breasts of its sculpted sirens into the pool below. Once a hectic marketplace, Central Park is now a tranquil, tree-lined promenade with flowers perpetually in bloom. At night, the park and its surrounding buildings are tastefully illuminated. During the day, street artists and shoe-shiners work hard for a few bucks, but will not bother you (too much) as you as you enjoy a cup of coffee or people-watch from a park bench.
Casa Popenoe (1a Avenida Sur #2)
The spectacular Casa Popenoe (1a Avenida Sur #2) was purchased by United Fruit Company employee Dr. Wilson Popenoe in 1924. Previously, it was owned by Don Luis de las Infantas Mendoza, a Spanish official in the 17th century. All aspects of the mansion, even the kitchen and servants’ quarters, have been restored in painstaking detail. You can tour its plant-filled grounds Mon.-Sat. 2-4pm for Q80 or Q40 for students.
Casa Santo Domingo (3a Calle Oriente #28)
The rooms and corridors of this massive site have been converted into a luxurious hotel among the best in Central America, but you can check out the grounds without staying the night. Open 9am-6pm with an entrance of Q40, highlights include colonial relics, crypts, a beautiful monastery, indigenous Mayan art, and modern glasswork. The entire complex is absolutely worth a visit.
La Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas
On the corner of 2a Avenida Norte and 2a Calle Oriente are the ruins of La Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas, the largest convent complex in all of Antigua. The site is open daily 9am-5pm for an entrance fee of Q40. The convent was established by the devout Capuchin nuns from Madrid in 1726, and despite being some of the strictest around, the fountains and courtyards of their cloister are amazing. These nuns lived simply and in almost complete isolation from the outside world, sleeping on wooden frames and greeting visitors through metal grates. The most interesting part of the site may be the tower, the top floor of which is divided into small rooms that scream austerity. The convent was destroyed in 1773, but restoration efforts are ongoing.
Cerro de la Cruz
Further north, just outside of the city, Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) provides a beautiful view over Antigua rivaled only by those of El Tenedor and Earth Lodge (both establishments are detailed in the guide, on pages 124 and 127). While police officers are stationed halfway up, there are still very occasional robberies, mostly at night. It is recommended to go with a group and leave the valuables behind, but don’t let the minimal risks dissuade you from visiting this gorgeous spot. The tourism police located on the park’s southern end in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales offer escorted hikes up to the viewpoint (a 30-minute hike) twice daily.
Also, check out our post on volcanoes around Antigua…you might just want to climb one!
You can find almost any kind of food in Antigua, from Texas BBQ to falafel to Mexican tacos. Places to eat include cafés, set-menu comedores, and upscale restaurants. Ironically, cheap comida chapina can be harder to find than real pizza. There are plenty of fine dining options, but only those truly worth the splurge are included in the guidebook. Below is a small selection of our top picks and recommendations.
Doña Luisa Xicotenatl: A huge, well-decorated colonial house with breakfast, salads, and sandwiches. Also serves good coffee and has a fantastic bakery next door (try the banana bread), and sells ice cream upstairs (4a Calle Oriente #12; 7832-2587; Q30-60).
Rincón Típico: The pollo a la leña is Antigua’s best deal for lunch, hands down. Cheap, delicious comida chapina with a pair of giant tortillas. The breakfast beans are a little soupy. The menu is set and once it’s gone, it’s gone (4a Calle #3; breakfast Q15, lunch Q20-25).
La Canche: An unknown hole in the wall, you must walk through a small store to get to this character-packed comedor. Run by an adorable woman with white hair (aka La Canche) who serves up some of the best typical Guatemalan food around. Her pepián and chiles rellenos are to die for. Meals include avocado, juice, and tortillas (6a Ave Norte #42; lunch Q25-35).
Epicure: Beautiful restaurant serving gourmet food at reasonable prices, including the amazing Portobelo burger. The owner provides job training and English classes for his employees. There is an organic store in the front (3a Ave Norte #11B; 7832-5545; Q60-120).
Mesón Panza Verde: Arguably the best fine dining in Antigua, this European restaurant is worth the price. Beautiful courtyard and awesome desserts (5a Avenida Sur #19; Q80-150).
Terrace Hostel (La Terraza): This relatively new but already well-established hostel is always spotlessly clean. The rooftop bar overlooks the city, and you’ll be welcomed with a free drink. Free breakfast, in-house restaurant, and twice-weekly family dinners (3a Calle Poniente #24B; 7832-3463; www.terracehostel.com; dorms Q70, double Q240).
El Hostal: This colonial house is conveniently located near the bars with real hot-water showers and comfortable rooms around a pretty courtyard. Dorms are available, and you can even book online (1a Ave Sur #8; 7832-0442; www.elhostal.hostel.com; dorms Q80, privates Q120).
Posada Burkhard: A great option with cozy rooms, hot showers, and excellent customer service. They recently added a small restaurant. It is easy to miss – look for the sewing machine in the front window (3a Calle Oriente #19A; 7832-4316; double room/Q150).
Porta Hotel Antigua: One of Antigua’s most famous, this elegant resort spares no expense when it comes to decoration and ambiance. Gorgeous rooms surround lush gardens and a colonial fountain (8a Calle Poniente #1; 7832-2801; www.portahotels.com; double $150-225).
Antigua has plenty of options when it comes to drinking and nightlife, ranging from quaint dives to sports bars and night clubs. The party tends to get started early, as drink prices shoot up after happy hour ends. Unfortunately, most places close around 1am. From there, popular but questionably legal after-hours parties take over.
Lava: Located on the second floor of a two-story complex near the park, there is a happy hour from 6 to 7pm on a beautiful terrace. The restaurant has good burgers but disappointing chicken wings (4a Ave Norte #3).
La Sala: One of the best places to dance in Antigua, the crowd is a pleasant mix of Guatemalan and foreign. Live music weekly and salsa on Sunday (6a Calle Poniente #9).
Mito’s: Complete with strobe lights and bathrooms that may fall apart any day, this is Guatemala at its finest. A little rough around the edges, but always a good time (5a Ave Sur).
Las Vibras: This nice new bar became popular very quickly. Food is served, and the spacious dance floor in back that gets crowded every weekend (5a Calle and 6a Ave).
Want more information and recommendations for Antigua and traveling in Guatemala? This page is a small sample from our 398-page comprehensive travel guide for Guatemala. Written and researched by a long-time resident and Peace Corps Volunteer, the book is quickly becoming the go-to resource for travelers looking to get off the “Gringo Trail” and experience the real Guatemala. Click here to learn more about the book and what others are saying about this unique travel guide.