How To Discover Antigua, The Forgotten Capital of Guatemala
Walking Antigua’s cobblestone streets, it feels like time has stood still.
When flying the short 1.5-hour trip from Mexico City to Guatemala City, make sure you score a window seat. Peek out over the plane window, and you might spot the tip of a volcano, should the thick blanket of cloud start to part from around the peak.
Antigua, the Spanish colonial town and UNESCO World Heritage site, is surrounded by three large volcanos. Acatenango, Fuego and Agua dominate the western horizon. What makes these three peaks special is their proximity to the town and fame for being constantly active (at a low level). Steam is visible from Feugo’s crater almost daily.
It’s hard to imagine the town was once the capital, before a series of earthquakes forced the Government to move the title to Guatemala City. Walking Antigua’s cobblestone streets, it feels like time has stood still. There’s 17th century ruins in the middle of the town, left untouched. The nearly 500-year-old town is peppered with low, colonial-era buildings painted in the earthy colours of mustard-yellow, maroon, red, orange and washed out purpley blue.
But it’s the intersection between old and new that gives Antigua its uniqueness.
Meander down the colourful laneways, browse the Mayan craft markets and sip some famous Guatemalan coffee from a local street vendor, as three musicians play Spanish flamenco – grins as wide as their instruments. Once you’ve got your local fix, put your feet up in one of the dozens of restaurants, boutique bars or terrace hangouts.
And all of this is less than an hour away from the airport in Guatemala City. Hire a private driver for approximately 300 Quetzal (AU $53-55) and enjoy the ride into the beautiful valleys. It’s a relatively quiet airport, especially compared to other Latin cities, so it’s easy to find transport upon arrival.
You can do as much or as little as you want in Antigua. Spend your days exploring the nooks of this town, eating, shopping and getting your markets fix. See Iglesia de La Merced, the 17th century church. Walk down to Santa Cantalina Arch and take a candid shot with the volcano behind it. Explore the San Francisco Church and Santo Domingo Monastery.
Try local coffee and chocolate, then work it off, walking up to the lookout, Cerro de la Cruz. If you have time, visit Earth Farm, the eco-lodge and avocado farm that’s approximately 15 minutes from the lookout. And a trip to Antigua isn’t complete without hiking up an active volcano.
The best coffee and eats in Antigua
For the coffee lovers who love to spend hours in cafes, visit Bella Vista. Head to the terrace to sip a local brew, looking out to volcanoes and ancient buildings. Bella Vista sources their beans from their own 100-year old local farm run by the Zelaya family. Some of their blends include Reservation, Expert, Connoisseur, and Beginner. Try a cold brew, iced latte, mocha, Americano or many other coffee styles. The dishes are equally as gourmet, like the San Agustín. For Q29 (AU $5-6), you’ll get served a plate of unique Guatemalan flavour scrambled eggs with fried black beans from the highlands, slices of fresh cheese and plantains.
Pull up a seat in Roots, order a smoothie or fresh falafel salad and get comfortable.You won’t pay more than Q75 (AU $13-14) for this combo. This café is connected to a cute artisan boutique, stocking one piece of everything. All items are sourced locally and made by Guatemalan women. The chocolate-making shop across the road adds to the ambience. There’s also an outdoor courtyard garden area that extends to a number of small bars.
There’s more eateries than there are meals in the month, so wander around and try all the different places – the organic cafes, luxury restaurants, markets and street food.
The best accomodation in Antigua
There’s accommodation for every budget. You can treat yourself to something upscale ($200 per night) or keep that money in your pocket, spending just $15.
For a luxury experience, head to Palacio de Dona Leonor. This five-star boutique hotel is a restored 16th century colonial mansion. It’s two-minute walk from the Cathedral de San José and six minutes from the Santa Catalina Arch. One night will set you back $150-178.
For a more traditional stay, two-star Hotel Casa Antigua offers views of Volcán de Agua and is a three-minute walk from Central Park’s fountain and nearby cafes. Nightly prices start at $41.
Earth Lodge is a beautiful place to stay, if you’re okay being a short drive out of town. AirBnb also offer affordable options, where you get a whole house for less than AU $50 per night.
This charming colonial town is the type of place you visit for three days but stay 10. Some people never leave. When asked how long I was there for, I would always receive the same response: “You’ll get ‘Antigued’. It happens to all of us. There’s just something about this town that pulls you in.”
Published 30 November, 2017