It’s been over five years since I first stepped foot on the cobblestone roads of La Antigua Guatemala, more commonly referred to as simply Antigua, and there are still times I am walking down 5th Avenue and have to stop and pinch myself. There is magic in this city, and it’s hard to miss it. Ironically enough, during my very first visit to Antigua I was unable to fully grasp what the city was all about, I went home knowing I had missed out on something. Luckily, upon returning from that initial 10 day trip I felt the intense urge to go back and try again and I couldn’t be more happy to have done so. It changed my life.
So, in an effort to spare future travelers a 10 day trip to Antigua without “getting it” I bring to you:
The suPer BASICS
Bit o’ History: Antigua is a small city nestled in a valley between volcanoes in the central highlands. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it once served as the capital for the entire Central American region. The beautiful cobblestone streets house Spanish Baroque architecture and impressive views of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. The city has an estimated population of 35,000 and is a major hub in the Guatemalan tourism industry.
Language: The primarily language spoken is Spanish, along with a variety of other languages spoken by the indigenous Maya population , such as Kaqchikel. English is also widely spoken as there is a strong community of foreigners who call Antigua their permanent home and throngs of travelers and tourist passing through on a regular basis. It’s not uncommon to be in a bar and hear English, Spanish, French, German, etc. all at the same time.
Currency: The local currency is the Guatemala Quetzal which is roughly Q8 to the dollar, of course the exchange rate is constantly fluctuating but if you’re lazy with math you can get by alright with small purchases if you think 8Q to the dollar, or Q100 being between $12.50 – $13.00
Weather: The climate is pretty ideal with temperatures typically between 60 – 80 degrees and an average daily relative humidity of 75%. I talk more extensively about weather and what to pack in The Ultimate Packing Guide for the Smart and Stylish Traveler.
Antigua is conveniently located just 45 minutes outside of Guatemala City, although traffic getting out of the city can be intense during rush hour, so be prepared for a slightly longer ride. Upon arriving at the airport I would take one of the shuttles offered inside the airport, if you don’t already have transportation organized through your lodging, school etc. Another option is to grab a taxi outside of the airport, but this will likely cost you more if you are traveling by yourself as you will be charged Q300 – 400 where as the shuttle charges $10 per person. I don’t recommend taking the local bus from Guatemala City to Antigua, especially with baggage.
WHERE TO STAY
This photo is from Hotel Mesón del Valle’s website. If you are the photographer please contact me so I can give you your well deserved photo credit!
Antigua is full of hostels, budget hotels and home stays leaving the budget conscious travel with an abundance of options, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Hostels tend to be a great value and provide you with an instant group of new best friends, but you won’t have as much privacy. If studying or working are you goals, the hostel party life might get distracting. Budget hotels are going to cost you more but they you offer privacy and more luxurious accommodations.
Lastly, home stays are a fabulous way to have a more authentic experience and are typically easy on the budget. However, for people planning on an extended stay, living in another family’s home can get tiresome if you are trying to make your own life in a new town.
Tropicana Hostel & Bar is fairly new to Antigua and is co-owned by four individuals, one being a hot Irish guy I met early in my travels in Guatemala. He was a fellow traveler, turned hostel owner who along with his friends has created a truly epic spot. The only hostel with a pool in Antigua, Tropicana offers great prices, a fun environment, live music, and a full restaurant. Shared rooms start at $7 a night and they have semi private and private accommodations available as well.
Antigua’s Voyager Support is a great option for a homestay. It is run by a super lovely pair from El Salvador who have called Antigua home for years. Joaquin and Patsy will ensure you stay happy, healthy, comfortable and well fed, seriously they get 5 stars for their food alone. They can also help to arrange all your travel needs from Spanish schools, volunteer organizations, weekend excursions and more.
Hotel Mesón del Valle is perfectly located on 5th Avenue South, just a few blocks from Parque Central. If you are willing to spend between $50 – $70 a night you can enjoy peace and quiet in this small boutique hotel.
WHAT TO EAT
Lunch at Rincón Típico #nomnom
If you go the homestay route you are likely going to be eating pretty delicious traditional Guatemalan food on a regular basis. Be ready for lots of rice, beans, plantains, fresh fruit, tamales/chuchitos, stews, chicken, pork, beef and tortillas, among other things. Not only does Antigua offer wonderful authentic dishes it also boasts a wide variety of international cuisine options. If you are just passing through Guatemala for a week or so I would recommend steering clear of street food (it’s not worth the risk of getting sick on such a short trip), however, if you are planning to stick around for awhile the flavors and the prices found on the street carts are well worth strengthening your stomach.
MY TOP CULINARY PICKS On A BUDGET
El Rincón Típico – The best place in town for typical Guatemalan food. Filling and affordable, it’s where many of the locals eat. Some favorites are pork adobada, pollo asado, pepián and hilachas.
Rainbow Café – They have a super fun menu at great prices from delicious rice and beans dishes to grilled cheese with tomato soup. Additionally they screen films, have really cool guest speakers, live music and open mic nights! *Good for vegetarians*
Cactus Grill – It may seem counterintuitive to seek out Mexican food while in Guatemala but this place is too delicious to pass up. Not to mention, it’s located across the street from one of town’s best little (literally the size of a driveway) bars!
Sobremesa Exotic Ice Creams – If you are looking for something sweet and unique head to Sobremesa’s adorable little ice cream shop on 4th avenue, a half a block up from the park. The owner, Alex, is as talented as he is quirky and since he is a painter/chef/author he is sure to delight at least one of your senses! If you are looking for a full blown meal for a special occasion I highly recommend his restaurant, Sobremesa, just around the corner from the ice cream shop.
Metíz Delicatessen y Bistro – It might not be the best bargain in town, but the quality here is pretty outrageous for the price. Their handcrafted sandwiches use the finest local and imported ingredients to go or to eat inside their hip little eatery, just a half a block up from the park. My personal favorite is their carpaccio.
Toko Baru – One word: DELICIOUS I love everything I’ve ever tried at Toko Baru and the prices are fabulous, their shawarmas being high on my list of must have eats whenever I am in town. It doesn’t hurt they are just a few doors down to my all time favorite watering hole, Café No Sé. *Good for vegetarians*
Pitaya Juice Bar – If you are looking for something fresh and rejuvenating look no further than Pitaya Juice Bar. They offer a large variety of juices, smoothies, wraps, salads and more. I love all the cool add-ons you can mix into your smoothie, especially bee pollen! *Good for vegetarians*
Chermol – Tucked away in an enchanting courtyard off the street, this new addition to Antigua has a unique menu that highlights Latin American flavors. I haven’t had a chance to eat at the restaurant just yet, but I have had the privilege of eating many meals cooked by the man behind it all, Paco. I know this place will not disappoint.
Y Tu Piña También – From the same people who bring you the one and only Café No Sé comes Y tu Piña Tambíen, the best place in town to nurse a hangover (or order a little hair of the dog) with pancakes, huevos rancheros, a breakfast pizza or more. If I am town you can probably find me there in the afternoons typing away (they have good wifi) and eating one of their ever indulgent brownies.
WHERE TO DRINK & GO OUT
Street view of the notorious Café No Sé This photo is from Café No Sé’s Facebook page. If you are the photographer please contact me so I can give you your well deserved photo credit!
I was 19 when I first arrived in Guatemala and lived there right up until I turned 22. Therefore, I learned how to order drinks and handle them in the bars of Antigua instead of a dorm. It was definitely a trial and error kind of learning experience, but I am so glad that my early drinking days consisted of red wines, smoky mezcals and the occasional Q4 rum and pineapple juice instead of chugging PBR from a red cup. Bonus, I sorta, kinda, learned how to salsa dance.
Essentially, there is something for everyone to do every night of the week in Antigua so there is no excuse to ever be bored in this town.
Top SPOTS FOR gOING OUT iN ANTIGUA
Lava Terrace Bar & Burgers – A rooftop bar basically overlooking Parque Central. Good music!
The Snug – Fun, laid back little hole in the wall bar. Great for day drinking.
Café No Sé – There aren’t quite words. Just go. It’s got a dark, dirty, old feeling that’s both ominous and enchanting. If that’s not enough, there is live music 24/7, drinks served by attractive bartenders and the best Mezcal around. Just go!
Monoloco – Known for having the best ladies’ night in town (Tuesdays), on any other night of the week Monoloco is the place in town to watch a game, grab some Tex-Mex and connect with other foreigners from all around the world.
Sunset Terrace – If you are looking for a fun, rooftop environment, somewhat reminiscent of the bars back home, head to Sunset. Tip: They card at the door, something that almost no other bar in town does, so make sure you have your ID.
La Sala -If you are looking for good drink deals, live music, and a place to dance , particularly salsa, look no further than La Sala. Thursday is ladies night!
Reilly’s Antigua – Personally, I am not into large super crowded bars so full of sweaty people that you basically all stick together. That being said, I have had my fair share of fun at Reilly’s. Dancing on the bar is allowed, and often encouraged and this spot is popular with both foreigners and locals.
WHERE TO StUDY
Most people who stay in Antigua for more than a few days feel the need to buckle down and learn some Spanish, something I highly recommend to enhance your experience. In fact, affordable, quality Spanish immersion programs are a major draw for tourism in La Antigua Guatemala, meaning there is a large variety of options of where to study. These two places are my personal favorites.
Christian Spanish Academy – This school is widely considered the best in town, and while it’s cheap in US$s, coming in at slightly less than $10 a hour, (depending on which package you choose) it’s not the cheapest place to study in town. The results, however, justify the means. If you aren’t particularly Christian, don’t be turned off by the name. Though it was originally created to cater to the language learning needs of missionaries (and still does), they have developed numerous other programs where one can study in a secular environment.
Máximo Nivel – When you work at a place for as long as I did at Máximo you begin to see things differently, as the allure and the magic fades away. That being said, when I first went to Guatemala I was a student at Máximo Nivel and I absolutely loved my time there and feel that I got a lot for my money in terms of learning Spanish and later receiving my TEFL/TESOL Certificate to teach English. My teachers were always well qualified and friendly, the grounds are beautiful, and it’s a great place to meet fellow travelers. It’s common for people who stick around Máximo long enough to get offered a job, which can be a great way to start out if you want to call Antigua your home for an extended period of time. The schedules, however, are pretty intense and the pay isn’t huge, and that is something important to know going into it.
WHERE TO vOLUNTEER
Many people come to Guatemala to volunteer out of a desire to give back to a less fortunate community and to achieve some feeling of fulfillment and reward. Read more about my thoughts and advice for volunteering abroad in my post “5 Things to Consider Before Volunteering Abroad”. The key to making sure your volunteer experience is a positive one that helps both the local community and fills you with a sense of accomplishment and pride for your work is volunteering at the right place.
SUGGESTED VOLUNTEER PLACEMENT SITES
WHERE TO WORK
If you are staying around for any length of time I highly recommend getting a job. Not only will this help you financial situation, it’s a great way to make a good group of friends who are also planning on being around for awhile. Places that are likely to hire foreigners are bars, hostels, schools, and travel companies. In my time in Antigua I worked as tour guide, an English teacher, a bartender and managed a coffeeshop. Just ask around at any of the places mentioned in this post and you will be find something.
Bartending at Monoloco
HOw TO Get ARound
Getting around Antigua can seem a little daunting at first as you get lost in a sea of cobblestone streets and red and yellow walls, but it’s much easier than is seems. Parque Central is smack dab in the middle of town, which is perfect since it’s not only the physical center of town but also the social center. The city is laid out into avenues “avenidas” that run north and south of the park and streets “calles” that run east and west. If you get confused remember the large volcano towers over the city from the south. The park is centered between 4th and 5th Avenue and 4th and 5th Street. Anything above the park is north, and to the right is east. So if you are looking for 6th Avenue South it would be to the left of the park and down.
I recommend picking up a free copy of the magazine Qué Pasa, available all over town, as they have a fabulous map (more user friendly than the one above) and are also a great source of knowledge of the latest in greatest in town.
Antigua is extremely walkable but if you are carrying heavy stuff, in a hurry, or just getting tired I recommend grabbing a tuc-tuc. These Bangkok inspired taxis are a quick way to get around and a ride should NOT cost more than Q10 – Q15. Hold on to your lunch, as it’s bit of a bumpy ride.
If it’s after 9:30 pm and you are in need of a ride then a taxi is your best bet. I don’t recommend walking alone at night, or even in small groups unless you are on well lit streets and know where you’re going. Most bars can help you get a cab otherwise if you make your way to Central Park they are all lined up in front of the cathedral. A ride should cost anywhere from Q30 – Q50 depending on what part of town you’re headed to and mood of your cab driver.
La Antigua Guatemala, while perhaps not the most realistic representation of the country as a whole, is a beautiful spot to call home base during your travels throughout Guatemala. I hope these tips will help you on your upcoming adventure! Keep your eyes peeled for future posts on other fabulous destinations in Guatemala!
As always, comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome. So, PLEASE comment below!