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Antigua is probably the most popular tourist destination in Guatemala. It is also a popular location to go learn Spanish. Min of Fuglee Studio recently went and here are his practical travel tips.
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Antigua, as its name suggest, is an ancient city rooted in culture and history of colonial Spain. A walk down the cobblestone roads will lead you to once great churches that are now historic ruins. The Parque Central is filled with tourists wandering and couples mingling. It has all the romance of a European town but much easier on the wallet.
The Guatemalan currency is Quetzal and it is about Q 7.5 to 1 USD. Like most places in Central America, merchants will readily accept USD and give you change in the local currency. However, they will not accept currency from any neighboring countries and banks will not convert currency either. You will need to go to a dedicated money changer, and even then they will only accept bills and not change. Larger places may accept credit cards but be prepared to pay cash or hit up the ATMs.
Antigua is about an hour from the Guatemala City Airport by private automobile. Tour companies servicing Antigua, like Adrenaline Tours and Rainbow Travel Center, will also offer airport shuttles. If you are coming from other parts of the country, the most cost effective method is probably by the slow and grueling chicken bus.
When looking at locations for lodging, the sweet spot is a few blocks out from Parque Central. It is the heart of the city but can also be a bit loud late into the night. Backpackers or anyone on a budget can find plenty of decent hostels for around $20/night. If you’re staying more than a few nights you can possibly get a cheaper rate, which was offered at the Posada Juma Ocag. At that rate, they offered a room with WiFi and a desk, a private shower with hot water, and access to a communal kitchen. Beware of the death showers common in these parts of Central America — they are electric shower heads that can shock you if you touch it.
Travelers demanding more luxury should look to Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. On the property is not only a hotel, there are also a chocolate museum and three restaurants. Even if you are not a patron, you can still wander the premises and enjoy the garden. The place is glamorous enough to host weddings and should satisfy the most discerning traveler. Cost hovers around $120-180 per night; while high for the area, it is comparable to a nice hotel in major US cities.
Hotel Casa Santo Domingo also offer a free shuttle every hour to and from their restaurant, El Tenedor del Cerro. The shuttle shares the same funky canopy architecture that you will find at the restaurant. Beneath the canopy is floor-to-ceiling glass, offering open views of the hilly landscape. Here you will find classy Italian and Latin cuisine at a reasonable price of about $10-20 for dinner, excluding drinks. The surrounding garden is a good place for families to wander. There are many art installations, a zipline, and a chocolate shop.
Those homesick may enjoy Monoloco, where you can find all types of bar food and perhaps catch a local game. Of course, soccer is the game most watched here but you may catch other major sporting events, like the NBA finals as well. What they are known for is their ridiculous nacho plate. It is meant to feed four so bring company.
As for drinks, Gallo is probably the most well known Guatemalan beer. However, in Antigua, the most well known drink is from Café No Sé. There is a bookstore next door but it is not a cafe in the traditional sense; rather, it is a dingy speakeasy hidden behind a fridge door. Story goes that it is the birthplace of ilegal mezcal, a brand of distilled liquor smuggled from Oaxaca, Mexico, back when it was not certified for export..
For those wanting coffee, the high elevations of the region are ideal for growing high quality coffee beans. Top of the list is Fernando’s Kaffee. In addition to good coffee, they also have good chocolate. Getting a cup of mocha here along with breakfast is the best way to start your day. They had a quaint outdoor seating area, where a local woman was making and selling traditional crafts. Café Condesa and Rainbow Café (yes, right next to Rainbow Travel Center) also come highly recommended.
There are numerous tours to destinations near and far like Lago de Atitlán, Volcán Acatenango, or even the ruins of Tikal if you have a few extra days. For those with only one day, you can visit Volcán Pacaya (a 3.5 km hilly trek in wet slippery conditions). Upon arriving, there will be kids selling you hiking sticks and locals offering you horse rides along the way. I was too hardheaded to give in to such assistance but did feel winded enough at the summit to see the values of the hiking stick and horseback for those in questionable health. Upon reaching the summit, the tour guide will give you marshmallows to roast at the volcanic rocks.
A more modest hike is up to Cerro De La Cruz. It is probably the best view of the city with the giant cross in the foreground and Volcán Agua in the background. There are some reports of robberies along the way, so go in daylight hours. The hike is about 45 minutes on paved roads from the center of town. Best of all, this hike is free. Of course, at the top, there are merchants selling crafts and snacks.
For most parts, Antigua feels safer than surrounding major cities. It is not as desolate and there is not as much graffiti but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. As with most of Central America, muggers and pickpockets are prevalent. It is not uncommon to see armed guards even in mundane places like restaurants. Do not stay out later than you need to and do not carry more cash than you need for the day. Take pictures of your passport and other important documents, leave those in a safe place like your hotel, and carry a photocopy unless you need the original.
Shops and Gifts
There are shops everywhere peddling more or less the same merchandise. The local market near the bus terminal have some of the most generic stuff. You will find more genuine products in Nim Po’t. Products cost a little more here but it is supposedly made by locals. Here you will also find an altar dedicated to the devilish deity Maximón. Along 2a Avenida Norte, outside of El Carmen, there is a makeshift market featuring he most unique items.
The easiest gifts to bring back are coffee and chocolate. If you opt not to pay admission for the chocolate museum in Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, you can go to ChocoMuseo instead. It is really more of a store that has an educational room about chocolate. They will welcome you with chocolate flavored tea and offer you samples. If you are concerned about chocolate melting in your luggage, you can also buy whole cacao beans or nibs or other incarnations of chocolate here. Pair that with some coffee beans from any of the aforementioned cafes and you’re set.
For photographers, the most well-known landmark is the Santa Catalina Arch, which frames the Volcán Agua in a picturesque view. Once a passageway for nuns, this landmark is now the subject of paintings or a backdrop for newlyweds. If you want to visit a church that isn’t so touristy, visit Iglesia de San Francisco El Grande. No photography is permitted inside but the half fallen façade tells tales of its resilience through many earthquakes. Around the corner of every block, from Convento Capuchinas to San José Catedral, is a piece of history that is Antigua.
About the Author:
Min Lee is an artist, photographer, and videographer. Min spent a few months as an artist-in-residence in Central America using art and photography as a means of promoting conservation. You can find Min tinkering in his Fuglee Studio or wandering the world in search of a meaningful way of putting his skills to use. Follow Min’s work at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or his website Fuglee Studio.
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