Guatemala

Charmed By Antigua, Guatemala in Only 72 Hours

Once the capital of Guatemala, Antigua’s colorful streetscapes are nestled between three volcanoes.

Easily, it’s one of Central America’s most charming destinations.

With a small, quaint vibe, you’ll want to throw any notion of an itinerary out, and just spend your time leisurely exploring.

At the end of our three days in Antigua, we found ourselves wishing we had even more time to spend sipping jugs of iced coffee in lush garden spaces, or on rooftop terraces, admiring volcano views and getting lost in a good book.

It’s the kind of place, where real beauty is found in slow moments around town. It’s not for travelers keen to hop from one activity to the next- Antigua is brillant for slowing down, chilling out, and reveling in the natural beauty around you.

WHAT TO DO

This list of ‘things to do’ is on the light side because, mostly, we just leisurely explored.

Antigua is small enough to see everything on foot, but large enough to spend a few days walking calles end to end.

Wander the Town: Pastel, colonial buildings abound. Framed by cobblestone streets and iron lamps, every calle is a treat for the eyes.

While you’re wandering, don’t miss:

  • Santa Catalina’s Arch: Arrive early for shots without hoards of people
  • Antigua’s Hidden Courtyards: As we wandered the city streets, it seemed like every other building opened up to a lush, vibrant courtyard. If you’re curious, we found most building owners were more than happy for us to pop in and peek around
  • Cerraro de la Cruz: On a sunny day, you can hike up the hill (about a ~15 minute walk) for amazing views of Antigua and Volcan de Agua. To find the bottom of the steps, walk across the east of the city, and then walk north up 1 Avenida, passing basketball courts. Soon enough, you’ll come to the foot of the steps you’ll need to climb
  • Chocolate Museum: We didn’t pop in here, but if you’re a chocolate fan, it’s a must. Must like its coffee, Guatemalan chocolate is hailed among the best in the region
  • Free Walking Tour: Check out Google for recommendations, but walking tours are always my favourite way to learn a city’s history and get a fast feel for town vibes

Visit the Historic Churches: There’s no way you can miss Antigua’s gorgeous churches- they abound in this small, charming city. 

Make sure you visit:

  • Catedral de Santiago
  • Iglesia de la Merced

  • Iglesia de San Francisco

Shop the Artisan Market: Markets like the one in Antigua make me wish I didn’t travel with such a small backpack. They’re great for picking up local textiles, art or leather products. And, in Antigua, on Saturday’s, there’s another local market along the far walls of Catedral de Santiago.

Chill Out in Antigua’s Leafy, Central Park: Parks in Central and South America are an epicenter for chilled out conversations, and afternoon hangs in the warm sun or leafy shade. Parque Central and Plaza Mayor are great for hanging and people watching.

Zen Out at Shakti Shala: Recommended to us as the best spot for yoga or an occasional sound bath in town, we were bummed there were no classes at Shakti during our visit. We did stroll past through, and thought it was just the cutest spot

Spend a Few Days in Lake Atitlan: We were meant to spend a few days in Atitlan during our time in Antigua, but changed plans when I decided to leave the city early to head to Orlando and hang out with my mom for a few days. 

We’d contemplated a day trip, but since it’s 3.5-4 hours each way from Antigua, we decided it’d be better to stay in town and just relax.

If you’ve got more time in Guatemala than I did though, Lake Atitlan sounds like an incredible place to spend a few days. 

In the Maya language, “Atitlan” means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors”. 

It’s the deepest lake in all of Central America, surrounded by three, huge volcanoes, and dotted with Mayan villages around the lake edges.

About 98% of the population of people surrounding the lake are indigenous, so it’s an awesome chance to meet local people and experience different cultures.

We’d planned on visiting-

  • Panajachel: It’s the largest town in Atitlan with buses arriving from other parts of Guatemala. We’d planned on taking a GuateGo shuttle from Antigua to Atitlan, and then catching a boat from one of the docks here to other towns 
  • San Marcos La Laguna: A hippie town, said to be one of the most beautiful on the lake
  • Santa Cruz La Laguna: Close to Pana, the town oozes secluded, tranquil charm
  • Jabalito: Described as its own little world, it’s known for being the least developed, biggest little town on Atitlan- read: tranquility 
  • San Pedro: Touted as a backpacker haven

From those who’ve been, I’ve heard them say Atitlan is the most beautiful lake they’ve ever seen.

WHERE TO DRINK COFFEE

Coffee has long been one of Guatemala’s top exports, but only recently, the country has starting cultivating its own cafe culture.

Nowadays, destinations like Antigua are brimming with modern, hip cafes brewing locally-sourced beans.

Even if you’re not a big coffee drinker, it’s worth popping into a few of these spots.

Not only are they relaxing, but most offer a full menu, array of healthy smoothies or juices, and either beautiful gardens to lounge in, or incredible rooftop volcano views.

  • Fernando’s Kaffee: A coffee and chocolate shop, brews are roasted on-site. It’s a great place to pop in to either try a Guatemalan roast on the go, or spend some time, relaxing in their courtyard.
  • Stella: What started as a concept shop with gorgeous locally made textiles expanded into what we quickly identified as my favourite cafe as Antigua. It’s just the cutest place with delicious smoothies, a vibrant, beautiful courtyard, and gorgeous artesian shop. What’s even better- because it’s about a 10 minute walk from the centre of town, it’s also usually pretty quiet in comparison to some of Antigua’s more central cafes.
  • Union Garden Cafe: Boasting a fair trade coffee menu and loads of health food, including some great green smoothies, and a huge, leafy garden, plus tons of alfresco seating, Union was one of our favourite spots in Antigua. It’s great whether you’re there to brunch, catch up on work, or just read, surrounded by lush plants.
  • Bella Vista Coffee: The cold brew at Bella is good, but the real reason everyone visits is for the incredible rooftop terrace with a beautiful view of the city below, and three volcanoes looming in the distance.
  • Café Estudio: Cue the cute cafes that just won’t quit. We loved Cafe Estudio’s laid back vibes, it’s an absolute haven for chilling out with a latte diving into a good book.
  • Café La Parada: Seats may be sparse, but they’ve got a banging jar of iced coffee that can’t be missed. Come early, plan out your day over coffee and a croissant, and watch the town come alive in the cobblestone streets outside.
  • Y Tu Piña También: A quirky cafe with all-day breakfast? Say no more. We loved Y Tu’s coffee, mint lemonade, delicious breakfast sandwiches, and fun, tropical decor.
  • Guatejava: Sourcing high-quality Guatemalan coffee, Guatejava is Antigua’s rustic, onsite roastery. A must stop for strong, Guatemalan brews.
  • Amancer: The spot for fresh, made to order juices, smoothies and delicious smoothie bowls. We loved colourful, cute Amancer so much, we came twice during our stay in Antigua- great for breakfast or a mid-afternoon green juice pick-me-up.
  • Doña Luisa Xicotencatl: Another dope spot for smoothies in the heart of town.

WHERE TO EAT

We were surprised with how many healthy, affordable eateries abound in Antigua. Vegetarian friends, you’ll have no issues here.

In some ways, it felt like Bali Light with the abundance of fresh-squeezed juices, beautiful smoothie bowls, and vegetable laden fare.

Spots we loved:

  • El Refectorio: Delicious for breakfast
  • La Tienda de Dona Gavi: Best ice cream in town
  • Toko Baru: Loads of vegetarian options
  • Samsara: Hippie vibes, tons of veg
  • Rainbow Cafe: Another beautiful cafe with a veg-heavy menu, talk about dreams
  • Cafe Boheme: Ace for an endless array of vegetarian friendly eats with some traditional Guatemalan cuisine mixed in, all served up in a beautiful, alfresco courtyard setting
  • Vice: Mega upmarket, but the rooftop terrace is beautiful and the pizza is stellar

WHERE TO DRINK

We weren’t drinking in Antigua, but popped in a couple of places to check out their menus.

Spots we’d be keen on returning to for a tipple-

  • Antigua Brewery: Great for craft beer lovers, and we loved that there’s a speakeasy, cocktail bar called Ulew hidden inside a London-style phone booth
  • Cafe Sky: Cocktails with a fantastic view
  • Tabacos y Vinos: Great looking wine tastings, and cheese boards
  • Cafe No Se: Known for being the first mezcal bar outside of Mexico
  • Frida’s: Trendy eatery, popular for its margaritas

EXTRA ANTIGUA TRAVEL TIPS

Language: Transactional English is widely spoken, especially with the large expat population in Antigua. However, it’s helpful to know a bit of Spanish, or have Google Translate at the ready 

Currency: Guatemalan quetzal. There are a few banks in town, which you can withdraw from for smaller shops that may only accept cash. Every upmarket cafe or restaurant we visited in Antigua accepted card

Budget: Antigua was more expensive than some of Central America’s more ‘off the grid’ destinations, but we had no issue sticking to a general budget of ~$20 USD daily, which often covered multiple coffees, a smoothie, and two meals

Getting There: Chances are you’ll be flying into Guatemala City’s airport. We’d heard there wasn’t much to see or do in GC, plus had been warned about relative safety of some of its neighborhoods, so we decided to spend all of our time in Antigua. If you’ve got a group of people or budget isn’t a concern, take a taxi or Uber. For taxis, I’ve heard to expect ~$35 USD without much traffic, and for Uber, I’ve heard ~$25 without traffic. 

Otherwise, reserve ahead of time on a shuttle service- we used and liked GuateGo. Our reservations were ~$16 USD per person, and made the entire process of getting to/from the airport seamless 

Getting Around: We walked everywhere in Antigua- it’s small enough that doing so is totally feasible if you stay central. You’ll also see tuk tuks milling about, in case you’re not up for a stroll. And, if you need to go to other places in Guatemala, you can hop on a chicken bus (revamped US school buses) with the local crowd, or book a shuttle service (GuateGo runs to a few other places in the country from Antigua and Guatemala City). 

When to Visit: Guatemala often has a pleasant climate year round, but the dry season runs from November to April.

Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Guatemala, although we were told to expect a 10% service charge in nice, upmarket restaurants or fancy hotels. Everywhere we dined though didn’t add on tip, or expect it.

Where to Stay: We stayed in a basic, budget Airbnb in the heart of town, just around the corner from the arch.

WiFi Access: Most cafes we visited had WiFi, but it’s strength and connectivity potential widely varied.

SIM Card Options: Tigo and Claro are the two main SIM providers, and getting a card in Antigua is easy- we went with Claro because it was the first one we stumbled upon when out to buy one. I’d heard Tigo offered better 4G service, but we had no issues with our Claro SIMs during our stay. 

We had tried to get a SIM in the airport, but there’s not an option to withdraw money before you exit the terminal in international arrivals, and while the SIMs offered there are cheap in cost if paying in quetzal, prices were marked up 8-10x if paying in USD or by foreign card.

Would you ever visit Guatemala? Is Antigua on your list of places to visit? 

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2 comments

  1. I only had a day in Antigua when I visited last January, but I loved it so much that I would choose to go back! It’s a small place, but it holds so many hidden treasures that I can definitely see spending an extra day or two as worth it. Thanks for such an informative post; now I know what to expect the next time I go!

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