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To anyone with a passing familiarity with Spanish, the fact that Antigua is ancient is no surprise. What I didn’t expect is just how incredible it would be.
Much of the town centre retains its distinctive colonial era buildings, and as a result has been awarded UNESCO world heritage status. Whilst much of the colourful stucco is chipped and fading, it is easy to see just how ornate the town would have been in its heyday – back when Antigua was the capital of Guatemala. The lack of new buildings can make for some jarring experiences – like when a Burger King is in a building built before your country was even on the map!
Whilst a destination in its own right, Antigua is often overlooked in favour of the hippie backpacker towns of Lake Atitlan, the markets of Chicastenango, or the pyramids of Tikal. However this charming town has a lot to offer – even with a tight timeframe. If you are considering a trip, some of the highlights from our trip included:
Chocolate making classes at Choco Museo:
I’d highly recommend these classes, which take you through the history of the bean’s cultivation and how consumption has evolved over time. Cacao was a huge part of Maya culture, where it was an integral part of social and religious life, so trying Mayan cacao tea and making some yummy chocolate is a true Guatemalan experience.
Visiting the Catalina Arch:
If you have browsed other travel guides or Instagram while researching Antigua, the Catalina Arch is sure to feature. For the majority of our trip, the skies were overcast and the mountains behind were harder to see, but on a clear day the contrast of the sky, yellow arch and volcano behind would make for a dramatic shot.
Strolling El Parque Centrale:
Great for a lunch stop, the park has some delicious cafés and restaurants on its fringes, which are perfect for people watching. We stopped by one evening and street performers were performing traditional Mayan dances in full costume, as well as more modern hip-hop. Antigua is known for its churches – my favourite was the iconic La Iglesia de la Merced.
Shopping at the market.
The central market has a variety of handicrafts that range from the traditional to the functional. Common products include beautiful glassware, carved wooden masks representing wildlife (lots of quetzals and jaguars), embroidery, and worry dolls. Whether you are trying to keep your pack light or an avid shopper, its certainly worth a browse. However, prepare to haggle!
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hike while visiting Antigua due to an unfortunate bout of illness picked up on the way out of Mexico (perhaps the legend of Moctezuma’s revenge is real?). However, a lot of others we spoke to couldn’t speak highly enough of climbing Pacaya or Acatenango. There are a lot of good guides and youtube blogs available to help you decide which is best for you, as they are vastly different in terms of length and required fitness.
Antigua’s understated charm certainly made it a highlight of our Central America trip, and I wholeheartedly recommend spending a few days eating some of Guatemala’s best food and exploring all the city has to offer. I certainly plan on making my way back in the near future!
Also check out Living in Ecuador.