7 best ways to explore Antigua Guatemala

Pip
February 01, 2016

It’s one of Central America’s most beautiful cities and the start or end point of tours in and out of Guatemala. Antigua, oozing charm and faded glory, is not a destination you want to rush. From wandering through the magnificent architectural ruins along cobble-stone streets to experiencing the bustle of local Guatemalan life, the city is a living, breathing museum of its Spanish colonial legacy. It is a place where tourists visit and wish to stay longer, lured by its beauty and the range of activities on offer. Whether you are just passing through or looking to extend your visit, here are a few of the reasons Antigua keeps people coming back for more.

1. Explore Antigua’s Spanish colonial heritage

Between the 16th and 18th Centuries, Antigua served as the colonial capital of the America’s Spanish Empire, with grand buildings constructed that reflected its power and wealth. While the earthquake in 1773 destroyed or damaged much of the city, and the capital moved to nearby Guatemala City, the ‘ruinas’ that remain are steeped in history and faded elegance, resulting in the city being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

As you wander the streets of Antigua, particularly around the Main Plaza, you will come across many of these impressive structures, built to serve the colonial government’s needs. Don’t miss the Palace of the Captain Generals, the former residence of Spain’s governors that was originally built from 1549 and later rebuilt in 1936. In addition, the City Hall on the north side of the plaza stands in faded glory and while built before the earthquake in 1743, it suffered little damage.

As you wander the streets of Antigua, particularly around the Main Plaza, you will come across many of these impressive structures, built to serve the colonial government’s needs.

2. Hike one of the surrounding volcanoes for views across Guatemala

Walking around Antigua, it is hard to miss the volcanoes, both dormant and active, that provide a spectacular backdrop to the city. For outdoor enthusiasts, it’s possible to hike a number of these and take in the stunning views on offer over the surrounding landscape, as well as the tumultuous activity of the volcanoes themselves.

The trek to Volcán Pacaya is by far the region’s most famous, with the starting point located around one and a half hours from Antigua. It allows you to stare down into the volcano’s belly that is in an almost constant state of eruption. Pacaya rises to just over 2,500 metres and it is around an hour and a half walk to the crater rim before a step ascent and scramble over the scree slopes to its summit where hot volcanic gases and steam belch from the depths. It’s best to visit during the late afternoon/early evening when you can see the lava illuminated red in the night sky.

For those who prefer a long hike, the summit of Volcán Acatenango, the highest in the region, offers unparalleled panoramas over the surrounding area. Despite being a long and arduous 8-10 hour hike to the almost 4,000 metre summit at Pico Mayor, the views are worth it. If you camp out overnight, you will also be rewarded with a spectacular light show from the fiery pits of its neighbour, Volcán Fuego, the region’s most violent volcano.

3. Witness Guatemala’s Catholic religious legacy

Catholicism is by far the dominant religion throughout much of Latin America and the importance and wealth of the church throughout the Spanish colonial period is reflected in the grandiose cathedrals, churches, convents and monasteries that dot the city of Antigua, many of which are considered architectural masterpieces. Of these, Las Capuchinas, formerly known as ‘Convent and Church of Our Lady of the Pond of Zaragoza’ and consecrated in 1736, is one of the most impressive. Today it stands partially in ruins, but it is possible to wander through its ‘Tower of Retreat’, containing the cells of 18 nuns where they practiced both piety and poverty.

Also worth visiting are the ruins of the Convent of Santa Clara, founded in 1699 by Clarisa nuns, which features elegant double arches around an open cloister, as well as the white-washed Cathedral of Saint James, begun in 1545 and once containing the remains of conquistador Pedro de Alvarado.

But perhaps the city’s most famous religious structure is the Santa Catalina Arch, built to connect the convent of the same name with a school across the road so the nuns didn’t have to walk out into the street. Today its mustard-colour and clock tower have become a symbol of the city and its street-scape, backed by Volcán Agua, is one of the most photographed.

The importance and wealth of the church throughout the Spanish colonial period is reflected in the grandiose cathedrals, churches, convents and monasteries that dot the city of Antigua.

4. Take in the panorama over Antigua from the Hill of the Cross

On the northern side of the city lies the Hill of the Cross or Cerro de la Cruz, one of the closest spots to take in views across the beautiful cityscape of Antigua. It’s an easy 30 minute walk up a set of stairs, from where you can look down at Antigua, nestled between its spectacular volcanoes. While the route used to be notorious for muggings, there is now a permanent police presence on the hill and the pathway during the day, ensuring it remains safe for tourists to enjoy. There are stalls selling drinks and snacks at the top and shaded areas to rest along the way.

5. Visit the bustling Mercados of Antigua

While you can purchase handicrafts at shops throughout the city, you can’t beat the range and atmosphere on offer at the Mercado de Artisania. Here, artists, sculptors and designers from across the region sell their uniquely Guatemalan wares on the western side of town. From jewellery to clothing to masks, it offers the largest range and, subsequently, best bargaining opportunities in the city when it comes to handicrafts. If you’re not sure about pricing and whether you are getting a good deal or not, ask around at a few different stalls and the price will be quickly knocked down if they want to make the sale without losing you to a competitor! But be reasonable too as this market provides a livelihood for many Guatemalans living on very little.

Adjacent lies the bustle and vibrancy of El Mercado, the immense produce and goods market where locals come to shop. There is everything from fruit and vegetables to furniture and DVDs and, even if you are not in the market for these items, it is a great place to experience the local Guatemalan way to shop, far from the glitz of the shopping mall. Here it’s possible to try some of the exotic fruits you may not get back home, such as tamarind, jocotes and sour-sop, as well as the huge variety of beans and corn (Guatemalan staples) that are on offer. The market is open Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, although a few stalls are often open on ‘off-days’ if you want a glimpse of the action.

There is everything from fruit and vegetables to furniture and DVDs and, even if you are not in the market for these items, it is a great place to experience the local Guatemalan way to shop.

6. Hone your language skills during a Spanish course

Antigua has made a name for itself as one of the best places to learn Spanish within Central America. It’s beauty, coupled with an abundance of language schools to choose from, has lured countless visitors to spend the time either at the start or end of their trip, learning to converse with the locals. There are both group and one-on-one classes available for almost any period of time you desire and half-day options allow you to get out and about sightseeing the rest of the day.

While English is widely spoken throughout popular tourist areas of Latin America, if you really want to get to know its people and immerse yourself in the culture, a little bit of Spanish will go a long way. Learning within a Spanish-speaking environment (versus learning at home) is also far more enriching, allowing you to get out and about and practice your language skills immediately with those around you.

7. Learn how to produce Guatemalan handicrafts with a local artisan

While there is ample opportunity to purchase the beautiful handicrafts on offer in the city, what about learning to create them yourself alongside some of Antigua’s most talented artists and designers? There are a number of community-based tours that take you to studios and workshops around the city to get a hands-on look at what goes into the production of textiles, woodwork, jade, wrought iron and hand-made cosmetics. Under professional guidance you will learn the secrets of these trades and at the end of the session, take home your own unique creation.

It is also possible to visit local coffee farmers surrounding Antigua and learn step-by-step the processes that go into making your morning brew. From harvesting to fermenting to roasting, meet the farmers that make Guatemala’s famed coffee and work together with them to produce your very own.

Community-based tours can take you to studios and workshops around the city to get a hands-on look at what goes into the production of textiles, woodwork, jade, wrought iron and hand-made cosmetics.

Antigua’s historical allure meets a dynamic present

While the city’s colonial legacy adds an undeniable charm, Antigua is not just about the past. Its beautiful streets are home to vibrant markets and talented artisans ready to pass on their skills, while language schools are equipping travellers with the ability to understand more and travel further throughout Latin America. Whether you are just visiting or looking to extend your stay in Guatemala following a tour, Antigua has plenty to offer.

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