Timeless Old-World Charm in Antigua, Guatemala

 

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A man selling balloons for one of the many festivals

Antigua, Guatemala (not to be confused with Antigua & Barbuda – seriously) is not the only Spanish colonial-style town or district I have visited. I have seen it in places ranging from Cuzco to Panama City to San Juan, BUT there is something special about Antigua’s atmosphere which makes it one of my favorite places in the world. Unlike San Juan and Cuzco, the town does not feel like a tourist zoo. It still feels like a place for Guatemalan people where visitors are a welcome minority. As you walk the streets, you see mostly local people going about their business, with mostly an independent traveler or two every now and then taking the whole thing in.

 

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The iconic yellow Arco de Santa Catalina

Maybe that is where I will start. As a solo traveler for life, I tend to judge a destination a lot on how comfortable someone traveling on there own is, especially an introvert like myself. Antigua is surprisingly one of the BEST towns or cities I have found for solo travel. I was surprised, just wandering around town and eating out, how many people were traveling on their own (admittedly, there are probably some solo expats living in town as well), but either way, it makes you feel more welcome there, not like an oddball or outcast.

 

dsc_0874Getting back to what I loved about Antigua, Guatemala – it is not just one thing. It could be the temperate climate; It could be the stunning volcanoes that stand tall over the town; It could be the beautiful, colorful architecture all over town; It could be the incredible work of the ruined and non-ruined churches which dot the town; Perhaps it is even the beautiful culture of Mayan roots combined with well-heeled modern Guatemalan culture. When it all comes together, you have one incredible place that even I, a fast traveler, refused to rush through.

 

 

Welcome to Guatemala

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Parque Central, the heart of Antigua

Travelers have to fly in Guatemala City Airport (GUA), where taxis, shared or private shuttles can help you make the 45-minute odd journey into Antigua. Guatemala City has a less than pleasant reputation. One businessman I met told me he would not step out into the city without his guard, but a backpacker travel friend from Panama told me he usually stays in the more cosmopolitan zonas of the city and never has any problems. I left my experience with the city as nothing more than a drive-through because simply put, I just didn’t see anything to really draw me in.

 

The drive into Antigua heads up into the highlands, and as you arrive in town, the cobblestone roads turn every vehicle into a free massage chair. The town is extremely easy to navigate, both small and designed around the Parque Central, a small green space that directly faces the main cathedral, the San Jose Catedral. While not quite as interesting as some of the older churches in town, it is worth taking a look at as one of the primary places of worship in Antigua.

The main square is a hub of activity, from open-air concerts to the many banks that surround the park. At the time of my visit, an ATM skimming scam was running rampant in town, so I brought cash to be converted in one of the banks instead.

Hotels of Living History

Most of Antigua’s accommodation are admittedly rustic, but in a charming way (I mean it). During my trip, I stayed at two different hotels, Hotel Euromaya and Hotel Casa Antigua, both very close to the Parque Central.

Probably the biggest financial issue those of us traveling solo face are hotel costs. Not to worry, because the mid-range Hotel Euromaya cost me only $35/night, and Hotel Casa Antigua cost me $50/night. In Hotel Euromaya, I had a two double beds, a tv and full bathroom. Casa Antigua offered a smaller single room with a smaller bathroom, but again, for $50/night, it is pretty hard to go wrong. After all, besides a bed and working plumbing (including hot water), what do you truly need? The only disappointment for me was Wi-Fi, which hardly worked in Euromaya.

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Hotel Casa Antigua
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Hotel Casa Antigua

Lucky for me, nearby the McDonald’s a cell store sold SIM cards that offered me more than enough data for the Quetzal equivalent of $10USD. They even threw in a special offer of cake from the bakery nearby, and who am I to deny free food?

Not all glitters here. With courtyard style hotels, noise is a big, big, big problem. Every night, firecrackers were being set off continually through the evening. I never quite figured out why, but it does not help to sleep when you have no barrier from that kind of noise, not to mention traffic noise from three-wheelers, cars, etc…permeates without fail. I was definitely using some sleep aids in Antigua. Casa Antigua had the added misery of being right next to a bar – how about some salsa while you sleep? If you are a light sleeper, bring what you need!

Glorious Spanish-style Churches

For the independent traveler, I recommend the Rough Guide to Guatemala. You could take one fast-paced day and see everything in Antigua and be done, and that’s ok, but these churches are not the Sistine Chapel – you can actually find yourself alone in parts of them, so you can sit, breathe and really take it all in.

 

Iglesia La Merced, just north of the Arco Santa Catalina, is adorned in bright yellow and white trimming. The facade is incredibly ornate, but even more special are the ruined cloisters and garden, fitted with a tiered fountain once used to breed fish.

In the northeast of town lies the immense complex of Casa Santo Domingo, a convent-turned luxury hotel. It might seem odd to explore the grounds of a luxury hotel, but the attention to detail to make the structure still have the Spanish colonial feel is amazing. Some ruins are still left, but other components, such as some breathtaking fountains, have been restored.

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Convento de las Capuchinas

 

As if the sensory overload of fountains, ruined brick and symmetrical courtyards at Santo Domingo is not enough, in the same part of Antigua lies Convento de las Capuchinas. The former convent was infamous for its particularly strict rules.

 

 

 

In the southeast of town, my favorite is Iglesia San Francisco. The facade is a stunning white dotted with religious figures, but for me, the fun part was exploring the ruins

The ruins are magical – broken arches, pillars, floors and more. With the overgrown grass and shrubbery, you truly feel transported back in time.

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Iglesia San Pedro

I regard the above four as must-see churches within Antigua, but there is so much more. For example, Iglesia San Pedro on the left has bright yellow hues similar to Iglesia La Merced. The beauty of having some extra time in town is taking it slow, admiring the beautiful architecture between church stops.

 

Never a Dull Moment – the Cultural Scene

If the churches of Antigua overloaded my visual senses, there was always something going on that I would stumble upon with no planning whatsoever. A wedding ceremony. An open-air concert. A religious festival with offerings of chickens and fruits with some incredible street food.

 

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Christmas Celebrations

With Christmas around the corner, early celebrations took place. The re-telling of the story of the nativity was combined with musical and dance elements influenced by Mayan culture for a unique Guatemalan display.

 

 

 

 

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The Antigua Handicrafts Market

If live music and dance weren’t enough, Antigua has two very different marketplaces in the west of the city. A housed market is set up dedicated to handicrafts of different types, ranging from traditional masks to models of the famous Guatemala buses. Like any of these markets, bargaining is a must and the quality really varies, so take your time to explore.

 

Past the handicraft market is a more conventional public market, which especially comes alive on Saturdays. Those who have time should make the trip out to to see the more immense markets, but if you are shorter on time, it is fun to explore the chaotic Antigua Market. Watch your things as you navigate through everything from underwear to belts to fruit and chickens being sold. This is, after all, the way locals shop, and why not partake in the experience?

 

 

 

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Chocomuseo – a delicious class

 

If exploring churches and soaking up culture still leave you a little bored, take a few hours out to take part in a chocolate-making course at Chocomuseo. While traveling, I occasionally enjoy taking a culinary course for fun, especially when it is a lot cheaper than what the ICE (Insitute for Culinary Education) offers here in New York City. In this case, while I have hardly become a pastry chef, this is just a bit of fun – well, some really delicious fun, and it isn’t just a demonstration. My dutch “classmate” and I were given full control to make our own creations.

This is possibly one of the most solo traveler friendly spots ever. Independent travelers, so much to do, the restaurants are not so crowded that you feel odd if you dine alone, you can make companions, easy day trips or overnight trips.

A World of Eating out in Antigua

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La Fonda de la Calle Real

Antigua has something for every eater. The problem is that not all of the international cuisine is really worthwhile. For example, Cafe Flor, the resident Thai restaurant, offered me some strange microwaved meatballs and a pile of spaghetti, soy sauce and random vegetables as a stir fry. Yuck! On the hand, I ended up returning to French cafe Metiz Bistro, with items such as quiches and croissants that are as good as any French Bakery Cafe I could find in New York City. Don’t miss a chance to try the local dishes as well. The plato tipico usually includes a protein (chicken, steak, maybe sausage for breakfast), refried black beans, plantains, rice, or some variation. For a nicer meal, try La Fonda de la Calle Real. Pictured to the left is the hearty, meaty Pepian Guatemalteco, one of the most iconic dishes of the country. Other spots I tried out included the New York Bagel Barn, a good place for a cheap, American-style breakfast or fresh juices and smoothies. Cafe Condesa, another Western-style restaurant on the main square, has a lovely green courtyard, but offers up pretty basic “Western” items like sandwiches and pie, but nothing to write home about.

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The Solo Traveler’s Perspective

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These ruins serve as a market backdrop

Pros

  • Antigua is a major hub for solo and independent travelers. It is “real” enough, but at the same time has a small tourist infrastructure that caters to people who like to do things themselves.
  • This is a cultural marvel. I am a fast traveler, but I could easily spend a few days taking everything in without being bored.
  • The hotels are mostly rustic, but they are incredibly cheap for the same amenities you would get in any regular hotel. For once, a solo traveler can find cheap accommodation.
  • Antigua is a great jumping off point for destinations like Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango. I worked with Adrenalina Tours, but several companies offer regularly scheduled shuttle services and tours that are inexpensive. With the population of independent travelers, it won’t be hard to find something without needing to make private arrangements, and this is a great way to meet others.
  • The relatively small size of town makes it easy to get around completely on foot, but taxis and three wheelers are available if you need them.

Cons

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    The rooftops at sunset –  get a hotel with a terrace!

    The hotels are rustic, and if you want one of the luxury hotels, you will pay top dollar. The old-fashioned courtyard design invites little to no soundproofing which can be a nightmare for light sleepers, especially with the local fetish for fireworks.

  • Guatemala has historically had a bad reputation for crime, but Antigua is considered to be much safer than Guatemala City. I was rarely harassed or bothered to buy anything and I felt relatively safe wandering around alone even at night, but I would take the usual precautions and not act foolish.
  • While not specific to Antigua, the roads in Guatemala are pretty rough, and what may look like a quick trip (i.e. Antigua to Atitlan) will definitely not be. You can wear yourself thin easily if you try to city hop too much, so think of it as a chance to take it easy.
  • I am not sure what the situation is right now, but Antigua had a widespread ATM skimming scam at the time I was visiting (people having their bank accounts cleaned out after returning), so I had to carry a lot of cash to exchange in person (or use an ATM elsewhere) and cancel my card immediately after I returned from my trip.


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