Editor’s note: like Sam, I also loved Antigua so much that I keep looking for a good time to go back, even after spending nearly two weeks there. You can read about my experience here. For more of Sam’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.
When I travel to Latin America, some of my favorite places to visit are old colonial cities. There are some cities like San Juan and Havana that have colonial districts with sprawling modern cities built around them. Then there are cities like Cuzco, Peru and Merida, Mexico that have a lot of their old charm, but also have the hustle and bustle of a 21st century city. The cobblestone streets, old churches, and plazas with ornate fountains in the middle of them feel as though you are back in time. Yet, of the many colonial cities that I have been to, the most iconic one has to be Antigua, Guatemala. Antigua was founded in 1524 and lives up to its name that means “ancient.” It was the original Spanish capital of Central America and the old capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. Today, Guatemala’s capital is Guatemala City. There are affordable and relatively short redeye flights to Guatemala City from the United States. While Guatemala City is a huge city with a population of 3 million people that has a rough reputation, Antigua is very safe and is a quiet town of 50,000 residents located only 45 minutes away from the Guatemala airport.
When I think of Central America, I typically think hot and humid; however, this does not at all describe Antigua. At roughly 5,000 feet, Antigua has a year-round average daily temperature in the 70’s Fahrenheit and is surrounded by forests and mountains. The city sits at the base of the Volcano de Agua and is in the midst of a chain of volcanos, which has led the city to be victim to numerous intense earthquakes that have at times left a path of destruction. While intimidating, exploring the local volcanos is a must while visiting Antigua. One of the most popular and accessible is the Pacaya Volcano, an active volcano that is currently erupting, located an hour south of Antigua and standing at over 8,300 feet of elevation. Pacaya’s many eruptions have created a landscape that looks more like you are walking on craters on the moon than something from our own planet. The volcano hike offers many spectacular views, a variety of landscapes, and lush forests. However, one of the most iconic things to do on your volcano hike is to find a geothermal vent, where you might even be able to see glimpses of hot magma and roast a marshmallow on a stick over the intense heat from the center of the earth.
After descending from the mountain, go to the Santa Teresita Spa for the remainder of your day. This beautiful spa has a variety of pools, many of which are heated by geothermal springs. I highly recommend getting the combined massage and spa treatment plan, which includes an hour-long massage, 75 minutes in the thermal pools and a fruit smoothie all for about $60. In the United States, this same experience would cost hundreds of dollars, yet one of the great things about Guatemala is that it is one of the most affordable countries in the Americas; gourmet restaurants and classy hotels in colonial buildings are at prices cheaper than you ever thought was possible. At the spa, be sure to do the circuit treatment in the various pools. Each pool is a different temperature, from some that are freezing cold, to others that are very hot. An instructor there will direct you towards the various pools and time you in them before telling visitors to rotate, while insisting that this regimen will be the best for your muscles and rejuvenation. While it is at times excruciating (especially going into the cold pools), afterwards you will feel completely refreshed and relaxed. I cannot remember a better spa experience, and especially not at a better price, anywhere in the world.
Back in the city of Antigua, there is so much to explore. The iconic site of the UNESCO World Heritage Site city is the 17th century Santa Catalina Arch, a yellow archway with a church tower atop of it and a clock. The arch connected the Santa Catalina convent to the school across the street. Antigua is an easily walkable city, and full of history, with a lot of the buildings dating back to the 17th century when the city was at its peak. On your first day in Antigua, I recommend doing the 30-minute hike up to the Cerro de la Cruz. The moderate hike goes through the forest on the nearby hill, and at the top is a giant cross that overlooks the city. Unfortunately, I went on a rainy day, but on a clear day, there are not only spectacular views of the entire city, but of the volcanos that surround it as well. In the town, much of the city revolves around the small, but nice Parque Central. You might see Guatemala’s legendary chicken busses go by; these are old school buses that have been made into forms of transportation for locals at very cheap prices. (Editor’s note: read about the chicken buses here.) These buses are painted and have accessories added onto them, including lights that make them look more like party buses. Essentially, if you want to see the coolest, tricked out, old school buses anywhere, head to Guatemala. Around the Parque Central there are a number of high class restaurants serving delicious Guatemalan food and also great souvenir shops. The best places to souvenir shop, though, are the local handicraft market, which takes up three blocks, and also impromptu markets, like the indigenous one that I found in front of the ruins of the El Carmen Church.
In visiting the historic sites of the city, the ones that you do not want to miss are the ruins of the El Carmen Church, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. It was after this earthquake that, tired of having to rebuild the city so frequently from earthquakes, the capital was moved out of Antigua. While you can only really see the outside of the church, its columns carved out of marble are still impressive. For a church you can go into, visit the Saint Joseph Cathedral, which was first built in 1541, but has been rebuilt many times because of earthquakes. Another beautiful church to visit is the Iglesia de Merced, which is from the 18th century and is painted yellow. Outside this church at night is a night market with street food vendors, serving filling and very cheap local Guatemalan delicacies. While there are plenty of other old buildings that are a part of the UNESCO city, my favorite to visit was the Convento de la Capuchinas, a church and convent that housed hundreds of nuns. While it too was abandoned after the 1773 earthquake and was heavily damaged, you can still tour the grounds and imagine life that was once there. You can see inside the now bare massive church, and also see the quarters where the nuns used to live. Visiting this site gives a look into the history and importance for the colonists of Antigua.
From Antigua, I flew up to Flores and visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal, which will be an article for another time. While I often cross places off my list after visiting them, I am not doing so for Antigua. Due to limited time, I was not able to visit, a couple hours west of there, Lake Atitlan, often called the most beautiful lake in the world, and all of the indigenous markets and villages that line its shores. While this makes me sad, it gives me a reason to go back, and when I do so, I am going to make sure I take a few days to repeat this trip. A visit to Antigua combines culture, history, nature and relaxation, all for a very cheap price, and we could all use a few more days with those things in our lives.
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