Antigua, GUATEMALA – Ok, I admit it. Guatemala never truly hit my travel radar. That changed after seeing photos from a family friend who went to Antigua on holiday (thanks, Casey!)…and I knew I was missing out. So when it was time for my good friend, Dorina, and I to take our annual trip, we decided to go off the beaten path.
Check out Dorina’s blog here, The Colorful Chonicle
Our stay: 4 days
El Convento – this boutique hotel is located in the heart of Antigua and was the perfect choice for us. There are only 26 suites so the hotel stays very quiet, allowing you to fully disconnect and relax. Our room, “La Hermita”, included a fireplace, rain shower, and my favorite – a private garden. The staff was exceptional and we were even greeted with a welcome cocktail. Cheers!
Santa Catalina’s Arch – One of Antigua’s most notable landmarks located on the popular 5th Avenue. Get the best pictures with your back towards La Merced church – you’ll get views of the volcano under the arch!
Cerro de La Cruz – Antigua’s mirador of the city. Take a tuk tuk or hike up the hill for breathtaking views under the large stone cross.
Stumble upon the ruins of Capuchinas Convent, Santa Rosa, and San Jerónimo Church and Convent while exploring the city. And don’t forget to visit the San Francisco Church and famous La Merced Church.
Parque Central – This main park attracts both locals and travelers. It is often the meeting point for guided tours and offers several restaurants and shops just steps away. Located in the central square, you’ll also find the Palacio de los Capitanes, Palacio del Ayuntamiento (City Hall), and Antigua’s Cathedral. The cathedral suffered so damage from the past earthquakes that only the chapel stands today. For a small fee, explore the cathedral’s ruins directly behind (my favorite).
El Mercadito – we frequently visited this artisan market located in the central square. We quickly became friends with the ladies that were selling traditional “Huipil” blouses and they even gave us a custom fitting (look for them below on our Tikal trip). Each region in Guatemala has their own distinct style of handmade blouse, so it was interesting to see the different techniques used throughout the country.
This is a must see! Visit the market for huaraches (handmade shoes), bracelets, blouses, fabrics, and other souvenirs.
Café No Se: Mezcal lovers, rejoice! A favorite for locals and travelers, this dive bar specializes in “illegal” mezcal (still not sure why it’s illegal, but it’s good!) Look out for the small special entrance inside marked “2 Shot Minimum” and sip on a shot of Joven, Reposado, or Añejo mezcal. New to this smoky liquor? Try a Mezcal Mule!
La Casa del Ron: Great tasting experience! Ron Zapaca is a premium local Rum produced in Guatemala and well known throughout the world. We sat at the bar to get a preview of the aeration process as the bartender poured two shots of Ron Zacapa 23. Rum connoisseur? Try Ron Zapata Royal and watch as it gets infused a smoky flavor from a wood barrel. Delicious rum cocktails and light bites also available!
Tabacos y Vinos: Wine, cigars, chocolate, and more! Located under the Santa Catalina Arch on 5th Avenue.
Lava Terrace: Head to this rooftop during sunset to get a perfect view of Agua Volcano.
Sky Bar: more rooftop volcano views!
Los Tres Tiempos: Not to be missed! This vibrant restaurant is located just steps away from the Santa Catalina Arch. The menu features traditional Guatemalan cuisine and is a perfect option for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Enjoy your meal in the colorful patio downstairs or head to the terrace to get a view of La Merced Church.
Cafe Condesa: Cute garden patio near Parque Central. We stopped here for breakfast to fuel up before our walking tour. We especially enjoyed the thick corn tortillas, black refried beans, and scrambled egg dish. Make sure to ask for salsa! Guatemalan cuisine isn’t known for being very spicy. Antigua Tours by Elizabeth Bell has a park office located inside the restaurant which makes booking the Cultural Walking Tour and Magical Tikal Tour easy!
Arrin Cuan: Traditional Guatemalan cuisine. We were able to try a bit of everything with their “Cuatro Caminos” plate. It included “Pepian de pollo”, or how we referred it as Chicken in Mole, “Jocon” / Chicken in Cilantro Tomatillo Sauce, “Kak Ik” / Turkey Soup, and “Hilachas” similar to tamales. Our favorite dish was the Tamilitos de Chilipin.
7A Norte Pizzeria: Instagram worthy! Relax with a cold beer on the terrace while overlooking the cities ruins. Our favorites were “Gallo” and “Cabra Reserva”.
Fonda de la Calle Real: Typical homemade Guatemalan dishes. Try the unofficial national dish, Pepián, traditional meaty, spicy stew rich in flavor. We were surprised how many aromatic spices were used in Guatemalan cuisine – bold flavors without making the food spicy like their Mexican neighbors. However, this restaurant won our vote for best green salsa…we like it hot!
DAY TRIPS FROM ANTIGUA
*Named UNESCO World Heritage Site*
We booked a day trip with Antigua Tours by Elizabeth Bell to explore the Mayan ruins of Tikal. The tour includes round trip shuttle service and airfare from Antigua to Flores, lunch, entrance into Tikal National Park, and local guide. The quick 45-minute flight allows you to return to Antigua by dinner time.
Tikal is one of the most important archaeological complexes left by the Maya civilization and holds major significance in Pre-Columbian history. Research shows the first settlers arrival around 800 B.C. to the last stages of historic occupation around the year 900 – wow!!
You’ll visit principle monuments such as palaces, temples, ceremonial platforms, residences, ball-game courts, roads, and plazas. Many of the temples and pyramids have yet to be excavated, but can be clearly identified by large grassy “hills”. You’ll hike through the jungle, explore the inner complex, and climb Temples II, IV and V. Wooden stairs have recently been built on the side of the temples for easy access.
Don’t forget to pack non-aerosol bug spray and sunscreen (ours was confiscated at the airport), water, snacks, and wear comfortable tennis shoes! Your visit in the jungle will last approximately 4 hours. And if you’re lucky you may even spot some howler monkeys!
Fun Fact: Today, 50% of Guatemala’s population is Maya.
We spent three days admiring Guatemala’s several volcanos from a distance, so the time finally came to hike one! We booked the Payaca Volcano Tour with Mayan Tours in town which offers two tours a day: 6am and 2pm. The tour includes shuttle service to and from Pacaya and the local guide. Entrance fees will be paid once you arrive at the National Park.
The climb up the active volcano isn’t terrible difficult, but it does include long stretches of steep inclines so your heart will be pumping. Horses are available if the journey gets too tough or if you are traveling with small children. Local guides lead you to the top of the 8,373-foot peak where you will roast marshmallows in the geothermal heat from the volcano. What a fun reward! The views of Lake Amatitlán below are wonderful, even shrouded in fog near dusk. We opted for the 2pm tour, but it was dark during the descend around 6:15pm. The morning tour may provide more visibility of the lagoons, city, and other volcanoes.
Fun Fact: Guatemala has 37 volcanoes. From which 3 of them are active, including Pacaya.
More day trip options:
Chichicastenango – an indigenous town that is famous for Thursday and Sunday markets where vendors sell handmade crafts, food, flowers, pottery, and most importantly traditional hand-woven blouses.
Lake Atitlán – explore small Mayan villages around the beautiful water filled volcano crater.
Antigua is a city full of color and adventure. I’m so glad we decided to explore this hidden gem.
Next stop, Buenos Aires!