7 Things to do in Antigua Guatemala – a gem of a city in a country of cheap junk

The streets are dusty and charmless. Chicken buses squeeze themselves through the hospital corridor-sized streets of busy markets, whilst bus boys shout out destinations. Hawkers sell cold, mushy fries and breaded chicken, individual candies, fruits in plastic bags and bottled drinks that are kept cold in an ever-melting ice bucket. There are so many taco stands that you wonder if people eat anything else. At least they have a choice between beef and chicken. Music blasts through speakers at eardrum rupturing volumes. Shops don’t sell anything but Coca-Cola products and dozens upon dozens of different mini packages of corn chips. There are a million pharmacies and hardware stores, but not a single bookshop, nor a café where you can drink a non-instant coffee. Trash lies on every street corner.

Behold, the average mid-sized Guatemalan city. Puerto Barrios, Rio Dulce, El Estor, Purulha – you name it, we’ve probably been there. Yes, for quite a while, we assume that every Guatemalan city looks like that.

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Until we enter La Antigua Guatemala (or just Antigua) and that image shatters in no time. We walk through cobblestoned alleys and passed delightful parks and gardens, encounter brightly coloured colonial buildings, cross a central plaza that makes us whistle between our teeth, see ruins from another era and an Instagram-worthy façade around the corner of each street. All of the above comes with a perfect cone-shape of a volcano looming over the city, Volcán de Agua, a mountain like a child would draw it. If this doesn’t inspire postcard makers, they should probably call it quits and find another job. It is like we are teleported to another Guatemala. Antigua is a 24-carat nugget in a country of cheap junk jewels.

A street in Antigua Guatemala, with Volcán de Agua in the background.

But as everyone minus Kanye West knows: looks are not everything. The real question remains – does Antigua offer enough to keep you entertained for a while? Why, yes. Here’s a list of things to do in Antigua Guatemala.

1. Discover Antigua’s past as Central America’s capital

For many decades, this region was the playground of different indigenous groups of Maya until a gang of Europeans with silly silk roll collards knocked on the door. The compasses and orientation of the Spanish conquistadores might have not been optimal, but unfortunately for the Maya, the Spanish guns were all the more effective (not to speak of their germs). In no time, the Spaniards ruled over Central America. The need for a colonial capital arose.

Let’s just say that the Spaniards were as good at picking capitals as they had been at setting sail for India. The first choice, near the old Kaqchikel Maya capital Iximche, lasted barely 3 years. No, the local persevering Maya didn’t like it very much that a bunch of gringos held the sceptre on their turf. They bullied the Spaniards so badly until they left. The second attempt was better- slightly. A lahar from Volcán de Agua destroyed present-day Ciudad Vieja 14 years after its inauguration as capital.

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Third time’s a charm. In 1543, the Spanish conquistadores founded Antigua as the chair of the overseas colony. For more than 200 years, this was the cultural, religious and economic centre of the kingdom of Guatemala. Mind you, the kingdom of Guatemala wasn’t yet the itty-bitty handkerchief it is now. No, the country stretched from Chiapas in the south of Mexico to Costa Rica.

Alas, a series of earthquakes in the 18th century threw Antigua to the ground. The Spaniards had to look for another capital and they found it in a tiny town that was once the Maya settlement Kaminaljuyu. Now, it is known as Guatemala City. So let’s be happy for once about the natural violence, or otherwise, Antigua wouldn’t look like a fairy-tale, but like a sprawling, gang-infested metropolis.

A tuk-tuk wheezes by a ruin in Antigua Guatemala.

And although the Antiguans largely abandoned their city after the earthquakes, itis now rebuilt according to an Italian renaissance-styled grid pattern. Which you can nicely contemplate from the Cerro de la Cruz (see number 6).

2. Look at boobs in the Central Park

Yes, I knew I’d get your attention like that, dear reader. But it’s true, in the Parque Central you can really see boobs. Okay, okay, they belong to a fountain but still, it’s quite quirky to see how this siren holds her bosom with water squirting out of it.

The Parque Central is the heart of Antigua, the middle of the grid pattern of the city. It’s a meeting place as much as a resting point, a respite from the feet-destroying cobblestones. After a long walk through the city, grab a cone of shaved ice from one of the vendors, slide down on one of the metal benches and see the world go by.

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Indeed, this is one of the best spots for people watching. Maya ladies in traditional garments merchandise souvenirs and shoeshine boys polish cowboy boots, whilst nut sellers walk by with their wheelbarrows full of peanuts, cashews, walnuts and almonds. Often, a band of marimba players provides live music. Guatemalans view the marimba – a wooden version of the xylophone – as an important symbol of their culture.

Once you’re rested, you can make a short walk northwards, to the most famous landmark in Antigua Guatemala:

3. Strike a pose in front of the Santa Catalina Arch

Arco de Santa Catalina in Antigua Guatemala

Let’s be honest, it’s rather photogenic.

There is a line that splits Guatemala in half, a border that runs all the way through the country. The whereabouts of the border aren’t exactly determinable. Rather, it’s a soft, fluid boundary. On one side of it, hotel rooms boast pictures and paintings of Antigua. On the other, they show Tikal, the most famous Maya ruins in Guatemala.

So when I mentioned that we had no idea that a Guatemalan city could be picturesque, I was not telling the entire truth. For weeks, we had been getting clues about Antigua’s beauty. And most of those clues featured el Arco de Santa Catalina, a mustard-yellow arch spanning over a cobbled street, with Volcán de Agua in the background.

As the last remains of a 17th-century nunnery, nuns used the arch to cross the street without risking attracting an unwanted audience. Nowadays, it’s the most photographed spot in a city remarkable full of photo ops. Antigua’s neo-colonial walls in pastel colours, its plazas with fountains and picturesque ruins are a wet dream for Instagram whores. Even fast-food chains have to adapt to the Antigua style.

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4. Overpay for (almost) everything

We spend four months in this country and have even visited Guatemala’s equivalent of Mol, some hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere. But most tourists limit themselves to Guatemala’s Big Three – Antigua, Lake Atitlán and Tikal. Being used to having every place to ourselves, Antigua’s old town is unusually touristic for us. Not that it bothers us that much – at least we are finally reminded of what a white face looks like – save for one sorry consequence: Antigua Guatemala is vulgarly expensive compared to the rest of the country.

And I’m not just talking of the fancy restaurants, where you can consume Belgian waterzooi, Austrian schnitzels or coffee valued higher than the average Guatemalan’s daily wage. It goes further. I keep the necessary quetzals ready in the shop, to pay for my Ice Dorada, when the clerk dryly exclaims that the price for this trashy beer is double of anywhere else in Guatemala. When I ask him why, if it is for his beautiful eyes that I have to pay so much, he simply states, “It’s Antigua.” I want to knock down his counter, but instead, I run to the big supermarket, Despensa Familiar. That’s what Antigua does to me: instead of supporting local small businesses, like I’ve done everywhere else in Guatemala, I revert to the Big Capital enterprise.

Café in Antigua Guatemala

A cute café, but you probably need a mortgage to drink a coffee here.

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We’re travelling long-term and so we have to keep an eye on our budget. After a long and excruciating walk through town, we find shelter in some kind of broom cabinet hotel room. It still charges us double of what we’re used to, but at least the breakfast is included. The next morning, the manager tells us that our requested breakfast isn’t available. A colleague has locked the storage room and didn’t leave the key. I tell him it’s simple: he can either give us our breakfast or a discount.

He doesn’t budge, so I make a scandal. He grins arrogantly, threatens to call the police and makes a handcuff gesture at Anete. Go ahead, I tell him, call the police. Whilst the men are bickering, the kitchen lady runs to the corner shop to buy the necessary ingredients. A solution so simple, but it hadn’t come to mister manager’s mind. It’s just one example of the tourist-weariness that blankets Antigua, the arrogance of the self-evidence that tourists will keep coming regardless of how you treat them. O, dear reader, remind me sometime that I still have to review Hotel Casa San Francisco. I owe the manager that.

5. Destroy your belly

Luckily, we always find our way. We head for Parque La Merced, in front of a fine Catholic church, where food stalls serve dirt-cheap sandwiches with cold salads, empanadas, tostadas, tacos and all the other grease bombs your heart and stomach desire.

When it comes to street food, I’m careless. I eat everything. (For the spry reader: no, I don’t mean this literally.) I know that some travellers are more careful with street food and other things that have the potential to cause a battle in their innards. Some avoid street food altogether, they leave the fresh veggies and salads untouched or they ask for drinks without ice. Others even bring their own plate. Really!

I don’t do any of these things. What happens, happens. The idea to impose such limits on my eating habits, to walk around paranoia like a turkey on the eve of Christmas, is much more unpleasant than to spend a couple of days hugging the pot. Considering the next point, I do, however, regret that the inevitable has to happen in Antigua Guatemala. Sorry if that’s TMI.

6. Hike a volcano (or stumble upon a molehill)

Tom at Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua Guatemala

Look at the boy’s grin – he’s suffering.

This is the land of volcanoes. A bunch of volcanoes surround Guatemala’s old capital and a bunch of others are within a chicken bus ride’s distance. Not all of them are climbable. Hikers on Volcán de Agua expose themselves to kidnapping by gangs. That volcano’s fiercer brother, Volcán de Fuego, spewed its lava as recent as July 2018, killing dozens of people. Having said that, volcanoes such as Acatenango and Pacaya offer ample alternatives for itchy hikers’ feet.

With our name Volcano Love in mind, we wanted to hike one of the volcanoes near Antigua. But alas, number 5 throws a spanner in the works. I feel as weak as the average dishcloth, incapable of putting more than ten consecutive feet in front of one another. Anete nonetheless proposes to walk up to Cerro de la Cruz, the hill of the cross, “a pleasant, moderately strenuous 30-minute walk to the cross from Parque Central.” I can tell you: when your stomach feels like the Guatemalan civil war, it’s not.

But okay – with courage and perseverance, the snail reaches the arch.

7. Drink until you don’t remember which parish you’re from

No Sé. I don’t know. That is the answer of plenty a gringo to the question what happened last night at Café No Sé. According to our guidebook, No Sé attracts literary types, so this is where we headed when my stomach revives. And yes, the mescal cocktails are strong in this dark speakeasy, atmospherically lighted by candles and decorated with curtains made of coffee sacks. Via a secret door, patrons can enter the mescal lounge.

Anete in Café No Sé in Antigua Guatemala

“I’m pretty sure the answer is Lasnamäe, Tallinn.”

The legend says that the American owner used to smuggle his bootlegged merchandise over the Mexican border dressed as a priest. No idea if that’s true, but it’s a good story and reinforces my idea that if you ever want to become a terrorist, you simply have to pretend you’re a monk or a nun.

(Once, when I left the United States by plane, I witnessed how the group of nuns in front of me were barely checked. They could even keep their cross necklaces on when passing the metal detector. The travelling punk band behind me, however, almost had to strip until their underwear.)

And if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got a parish to find.

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