Guatemala has always been in the top 10 cheapest countries in the world to travel in. During our journey through Central America of course we also visited Guatemala and can confirm that it really is a very cheap country. We ended up traveling around this beautiful country for several weeks. We climbed active volcanoes, spent a week around Lake Atitlan and then made a domestic flight in a mini-propeller plane to Flores to get from there. Tikal National Park to visit. In short, the trip through Guatemala is one you will never forget! But before we went deeper into Guatemala, it was of course important to visit the most popular hot-spot in the country: the town of Antigua.
Antigua is so popular among travelers for a reason. It is the perfect base for anyone arriving by plane in Guatemala. This is because Antigua is approximately 45 minutes from the airport and there are numerous attractions and activities in the region of the city.
From here we climbed the Acatenango volcano and we saw (and felt!) the nearby Fuego volcano erupt several times from Acatenango. In addition, we also visited coffee plantations around the city and we went to sniff culture several times on the central square, where the whole town seems to come together. Wandering around here is an activity in itself.
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Antigua was founded in the early 16th century. At the time, it was also the capital of Guatemala. The city was built at 1.500 meters above sea level, in a highly earthquake-prone area. The city was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, but the main monuments are still preserved as ruins. In less than three centuries, the city acquired a number of beautiful monuments. The city is characterized by colonial architecture and modern colonial-style construction, in the form of mansions and smaller residences.
Antigua has long been the cultural, economic, religious, political, and educational center for the entire region until the capital was relocated. It is this history that makes the city so interesting to visit. Despite the many earthquakes, a lot of history and culture has been well preserved.
Practical information for Antigua
ATM card in Antigua
At the central park of Antigua you will find all kinds of banks where you can withdraw money with both your debit card and your credit card. If you want to exchange your dollars, you can do that at a bank. Make sure you have your passport to hand, because they ask for it.
Transportation or transfer to Antigua
You can usually arrange a transfer from Guatemala City (the capital of Guatemala) to Antigua through your hotel or hostel. Most travelers prefer to leave directly from the big city. After all, there isn't much to see there. Antigua is for many the first base to do activities in Guatemala. A transfer through your hotel usually costs 40 to 50 euros. So very expensive.
If you arrange a transfer locally at the airport, it can be a lot cheaper, for about 25 dollars. But be aware: all drivers will try to charge you the full $50. Hard bargaining pays off!
Are you traveling alone? Then you can usually split this amount with another tourist who goes to Antigua. Because believe me, there are plenty on your flight.
Then there is also the bus. It takes about 3 to 4 hours, stops very often and is always overcrowded. This will save you at least 15 euros per person, because the bus is a lot cheaper at 8 euros per trip.
Things to Do in Antigua
1. Visit the central park
When you arrive in Antigua, you see and feel it immediately; colored houses, bumpy streets, of course the famous yellow arch and of course the central park.
If you're going to explore the city, you can't miss the central park. This is the park where everyone is relaxing when it's not raining. It is wonderful to mix with the locals here. Sit back and look around you. With a bit of luck, a band will also play live music, which is quite normal here.
2. Climb an active volcano
If you go to Guatemala, it is a real must to climb a volcano. Around Antigua you have several volcanoes that you can climb. For example, you have the volcanoes Agua (which you immediately see when you walk through Antigua) Pacaya, Acatenango and Fuego. Two of the three active volcanoes in Guatemala are within an hour's drive of Antigua: Pacaya and Fuego.
Also read: Must do: volcano boarding in Nicaragua
In the photo above we are indeed extra happy in the photo, as it should be on Instagram these days, haha. But make no mistake, watching a volcano erupt is not without danger. We are now on the Acatenango Volcano, which is more or less connected to the Fuego.
Every 10 to 20 minutes, the ground beneath you begins to shake. Then you suddenly see stones rolling from the mountains and then a lot of smoke and dust comes out of the volcano next to you with great violence. Regularly lava also comes out which is clearly visible.
⚠️ Remark: three months after we climbed the volcano, the eruption was so violent that 11 tourists, 3 guides and more than 450 villagers were buried under lava, stones and dust from the pyroclastic flow† The tourists were standing on the spot where the above photo was taken.
It should be clear that climbing an active volcano is a bucketlist.item that many want to check off, but is by no means without danger.
Read more about the hike and the disaster that followed in our blog about climbing the Fuego and Acatanango volcano.
3. Visit a coffee plantation
Around Antigua are several coffee plantations on the fertile slopes of the volcanoes. You can often see them with the naked eye from the city. Guatemala is really a coffee country. In The Netherlands we drink a lot of coffee, but often we have no idea where it comes from. Guatemala is therefore one of the countries where a large part of our coffee comes from.
A coffee plantation tour is therefore very interesting. This is easy to arrange from Antigua, because providers are literally everywhere. During such a tour you get a lot of information about the area and why the coffee plants do so well here. You will also be taken through the entire process behind it. from drying coffee beans on the rooftops of Antigua, to roasting them. We were also allowed to roast coffee ourselves, in the authentic Guatemalan way, during the tour!
4. Spot the amazing buses
This is of course possible in several places in Guatemala, as you will find these beautifully decorated buses almost everywhere in the country. But many people start their journey through Guatemala in Antigua and this is probably the first time you see them.
Say would itself, with those old buildings and volcanoes in the background, isn't that just beautiful to see? Each bus is decorated in a unique and colorful way. No bus is the same in that regard.
5. Walk through the colored streets
Not only the buses are colorful in this country. The houses here are normally also painted in a bright color and you see that a lot in Antigua. When you walk through the narrow streets without a plan, you will see countless colors. When the sun is up it gives the whole city a cheerful vibe, which is very nice. The old cars complete the picture.
In the middle of Antigua you can admire the yellow arch with clock, which you probably know from the photos. This is what Antigua is basically always advertised on websites, TV shows and Magazines. By the way, have you seen the volcano under the arch in the background?
6. Drink specialty beer at Antigua Brewery
Antigua runs on tourism, it has been that way for some time. That is why it has been attracting expats to settle here for years. They are opening their own hotels, cafes, shops and yes, even breweries. Antigua Brewing Company (location here) is such an established expat company.
You can drink unique specialty beers that are brewed in this building with local ingredients and you have a fantastic view over the city and surrounding volcanoes. So save it to your google map.
7. Eat at McDonalds
What are you saying? Culture barbarian! But before you shoot me for giving this weird tip, understand that the McDonalds in Antigua has one of the most beautiful courtyards in the city, surrounded by ancient ruins. The building that houses the McDonalds is also one of the oldest and most prominent in the city.
So you can enjoy centuries-old architecture and a beautiful courtyard here, while you eat a delicious Big Mac. Of course you should also take a picture with the clown on the bench to shock the home front with the local culture you have discovered. Tasty!
8. Enjoy the view at Cerro de La Cruz
Cerro de La Cruz is a park that is within walking distance of the center of Antigua. This park with the famous cross that watches over the city and the volcano behind it, is the ultimate place for some beautiful photos.
Pack a nice lunch and enjoy the surroundings here. It is not every day that you see one of the most authentic towns in the world with an imposing volcano in the background.
Remark: the place and the path to it is very dark at night and tourists have been robbed here several times in recent years. This is warned. It is therefore best to visit the place during the day.
9. Eat the local street food
The most popular street food dishes in Guatemala are Mixtas (a wrap with vegetables, a spicy sauce and possibly meat, such as chicken or a bratwurst) (photo below), Tamales (steamed chipilin leaves in corn dough) and Paches (yomaat, onion, paprika and chili in potato dough).
Don't be afraid to taste in countries like Guatemala. In general, the street food here is safe to eat and the cuisine of this country will surprise you in a positive way. If you are crazy about Mexican cuisine, then you will really enjoy yourself here, because in my opinion the Guatemalan cuisine is just that little bit better and more varied!
10. Spot Ancient Buildings and Ruins
As is known, Antigua is located in an area where many earthquakes occur. That is not surprising with all those active volcanoes around the city. Tall buildings are of course extra vulnerable, so you won't see them much here.
Yet many prominent buildings of the past have survived the many natural disasters and it is great to wander and spot the remains. In addition to all the architectural splendor in the city, many ruins of collapsed buildings have also been preserved, as they played an important role in the city in the past.
You would expect that when a building collapses, they eventually demolish it. In Antigua, however, they deliberately leave facades or complete parts of a ruin as a memento. Sometimes they are even transformed into parks, as seen below.
11. Our tip: Stay at Casa Elena
Antigua is a busy town, so if you want to escape the hectic pace, we can absolutely recommend Casa Elena. Casa Elena is a small-scale Bed & Breakfast with only a handful of rooms and studios. It is run by two American retirees, who do everything to make your stay an unforgettable one, including a delicious breakfast every morning. It also has a roof terrace with fantastic views of the surrounding volcanoes!
We stayed here for several days during our visit to Antigua and it was a welcome change from the busy hostels in the center. Also later when we returned to Antigua at the end of our trip, we decided to stay here again.
Remark: We also tried the various popular hostels in Antigua and they were also very nice, but also crowded and noisy, especially in the evenings (many people on the street) and in the mornings (when all the cars and trucks start to supply the place again ).
By the way, you don't have to worry that Casa Elena is too far away from everything. It is about a 15 minute walk from the central park to Casa Elena. So it is a bit on the edge of the town, just far enough from all the hectic.
The rooms are simple but clearly recently renovated and spotlessly clean. By the way, the rooms consist of two floors! In the ground floor there is a bench and there is also the shower.
You can go up with a staircase, there you will find the comfortable double bed and the window with which you can (by bending over) to the roof terrace.
Casa Elena is small-scale and as you can see in the pictures, really beautiful. I probably don't have to tell you, but it always fills up quickly. It's a hugely popular Bed & Breakfast with a ridiculously good Booking.com score of 9,7!
I therefore recommend that you book a room well in advance. Usually you know when you fly to or from Guatemala and since Antigua is relatively close to the airport and is often the first or last base for a trip through this country, it is easy to plan. A room here costs about $45 a night, which is about twice the average hostel in the city. But, what you get in return is a good breakfast every day, a private room, a beautiful courtyard and a fantastic roof terrace with a view of the volcanoes.
Booking is only possible here through Booking.com. Have fun in Antigua!