Moon Guatemala (Moon Handbooks) - Al Argueta (2015)
La Antigua Guatemala
a flower-strewn Antigua street.
Its name means “the old Guatemala,” and this is in fact what it is. The former capital of Guatemala was destroyed by earthquakes in 1773. Rather than rebuild, the country’s aristocracy opted for a fresh start in the neighboring Valley of the Hermitage, the current site of Guatemala City. And so, by decree, the city and its inhabitants moved on. Still, some Antigueños stayed behind, choosing to live among the ruins, coffee farms, verdant hillsides, and sentinel volcanoes. The city’s colonial architecture was maintained, as there were no plans to rebuild, and its ruined churches and convents remained just that. It is said the remaining residents of Antigua were so poor that they had to subsist on avocados, earning them the nickname Panzas Verdes (Green Bellies).
Today, Antigua (as it is more commonly referred to) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to much of Guatemala’s expatriate population along with scores of international students studying in its many Spanish schools. Its brightly colored houses and cobblestone streets harbor some of Guatemala’s finest restaurants, shopping, and art galleries in a fantastic mountain setting that has inspired artists, writers, and wanderers for centuries. Antigua is a pleasant mixture of Mayan and Spanish colonial influences and makes an excellent base from which to explore other parts of the country.
Antigua lies 45 kilometers from Guatemala City via a good, paved highway. Its setting is spectacular, flanked on its southern extreme by the towering 3,750-meter (12,325-foot) Agua Volcano. The colossal 4,235-meter (13,044-foot) Acatenango and active Fuego Volcanoes lie to the west. The surrounding hillsides provide wonderful views of the valley and the volcanoes, and are excellent terrain for recreational pursuits such as hiking and mountain biking. The climate is similar to that of Guatemala City, as Antigua lies at about the same altitude, just over 1,500 meters. Days are warm and nights are pleasantly cool.
Look for S to find recommended sights, activities, dining, and lodging.
S Parque Central: You can’t miss the town’s central plaza, easily Guatemala’s loveliest, and the heart and soul of Antigua (click here).
S Arco de Santa Catalina: A beautiful colonial archway, which is also one of Antigua’s most photographed landmarks, provides a suitable frame for views of Agua Volcano (click here).
S Cerro de la Cruz: This large stone cross on a hill overlooking the valley and volcanoes makes for a good afternoon stroll. Bring a camera (click here).
S Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas: One of Antigua’s best-preserved colonial monuments has many interesting features, including a tower and 18 nuns’ cells built around a patio (click here).
S Centro Cultural Casa Santo Domingo: The city’s finest museum lies on the grounds of a fantastic restored monastery, which now functions as a five-star hotel (click here).
S Casa Popenoe: This fully restored colonial mansion offers a rare glimpse into the life of a royal official in 17th-century Antigua in addition to wonderful city views from the second-story terrace (click here).
S Finca El Zapote: Lush botanical gardens lie just outside of Antigua, with jaw-dropping views of Fuego Volcano to boot (click here).
S Volcano Climbs: Antigua’s fantastic mountain scenery is dominated by the presence of Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango Volcanoes, affording excellent opportunities for mountaineering at a variety of difficulty levels. Active Pacaya Volcano is another popular day trip (click here).
S Centro Cultural La Azotea: This three-in-one coffee, music, and indigenous costume museum has excellent displays and offers an interesting glimpse into many aspects of modern-day Mayan culture (click here).
The former capital of Guatemala, now known as Ciudad Vieja, was the first of Guatemala’s capitals to suffer merciless destruction at the hands of nature. It was built on the slopes of Agua Volcano; an earthquake on the evening of September 10, 1541, unleashed a torrent of mud and water that came tumbling down the volcano’s slopes and destroyed the city. The new Muy Leal y Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemala, as it would officially come to be known, was established on March 10, 1543, in the Panchoy Valley. The new capital would be no stranger to the ravages of nature; its first earthquake occurred only 20 years after the city’s founding.
An earthquake in 1717 spurred an unprecedented building boom, with the city reaching its peak in the mid-18th century. At that time, its population would number around 60,000. Antigua was the capital of the Audiencia de Guatemala, under the jurisdiction of the larger Viceroyalty of New Spain, which encompassed most of present-day Mexico and all of Central America as far south as Costa Rica. The Viceroyalty’s capital was in Mexico City, which along with Lima, Peru, would be the only other New World cities exceeding Antigua’s political, cultural, and economic importance. Antigua boasted Central America’s first printing press and one of the hemisphere’s first universities and was known as an important center of arts and education. Among its outstanding citizens were conquistador and historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Franciscan friar and indigenous peoples rights advocate Bartolomé de las Casas, bishop Francisco Marroquín, artist Tomás de Merlo, English priest/traveler Thomas Gage, and architect Juan Bautista Antonelli.
Antigua’s prominence came crashing down in 1773. The city was rocked throughout most of the year by a series of earthquakes, which later came to be known as the Terremotos de Santa Marta. Two earthquakes occurred on July 29. The final blows would be delivered on September 7 and December 13. The city was officially moved the following year to its present location in modern-day Guatemala City.
Antigua lay in ruins occupied mainly by squatters, its monuments pillaged for building materials for the new capital. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that it became once again populated and its buildings restored, in part with the money from the region’s newfound coffee wealth. The city was declared a national monument in 1944 and came under the protection of the National Council for the Protection of Antigua Guatemala in 1969. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The council has done a fairly decent job at protecting and restoring the city’s cultural and architectural heritage, though building code violations are not at all unheard of. Still, many power lines have gone underground and truck traffic has been effectively banned from the city’s streets, greatly reducing noise pollution.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
A week in Antigua would give you ample time to explore the town, its ruins, museums, and churches, maybe climb a volcano, visit a coffee farm, and do some shopping. Depending on whether or not you plan to study Spanish, you could easily spend several weeks in Antigua. Some choose to study Spanish for a week just to brush up on their skills or get a very basic foundation before moving on to other parts of Guatemala. At the minimum, you should plan on spending two nights here. Some have even recommended Antigua as a long weekend getaway from cities such as Miami, Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas because of its proximity and ease of access. The Guatemala City international airport is about a 45-minute drive away.
Getting around Antigua is fairly straightforward. True to its colonial foundations, it was laid out in a grid pattern surrounding the central plaza with calles running east-west and avenidas running north-south. The plaza is bounded by 4a Calle and 5a Calle to the north and south, and 4a Avenida and 5a Avenida to the east and west. Street addresses are labeled according to their direction relative to the plaza: Norte (North), Oriente (East), Sur (South), and Poniente (West). Most streets are known by this method, though all have names dating to colonial times. Only a handful of streets are known solely in this manner.
Antigua is fascinating and easily manageable, as most everything you might want to see and do lies within a radius of a few miles.
S PARQUE CENTRAL
Antigua’s central plaza is easily the most beautiful in the country and forms the hub of activity for shoe shiners, strolling lovers, tour groups, ice cream vendors, and foreign visitors. Gracing the central part of the square is a lovely fountain dating to 1936, a re-creation of an earlier version from 1738 destroyed by earthquakes. It is bordered by the Catedral de Santiago, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Palacio del Ayuntamiento, and a commercial arcade known as the Portal del Comercio. The parque makes a great place for a stroll or people-watching from its park benches. At night, the surrounding buildings and monuments are beautifully illuminated.
Antigua’s lovely Parque Central
Catedral de Santiago
On its eastern side, the plaza is dominated by the beautiful Catedral de Santiago (entrance 5a Calle Oriente, 9am-5pm, $0.50). It was once wonderfully lit up at night, though currently half of the lightbulbs are out and one is left wondering when, if ever, they will be replaced. Its history, as is much of Antigua’s, is one of constant destruction and reconstruction. The first cathedral built on this site dates to 1545, but its shoddy construction caused its roof to come crashing down during an earthquake in 1583. It was decided to build a new cathedral in 1670, a task that would require 11 years and the conscripted labor of indigenous Maya. The scale of the new structure was astounding, with 18 chapels, a huge dome, five naves, and a large central chamber measuring 90 meters by 20 meters. It was graced by paintings and artwork of renowned European and colonial artists; its altar was inlaid with silver, ivory, and mother-of-pearl. Although it withstood the earthquakes of 1689 and 1717, it finally succumbed to the earthquakes of 1773.
The current church is not really a cathedral in the strict sense of the word, as it consists of two restored chambers known as the Parroquia de San José. You can visit the interesting interior, where you’ll find splendid arches and towering columns. There is also a sculpted black Christ similar to the highly revered statue found in Esquipulas, both carved by Quirio Cataño. The remains of the rest of the colonial structure can also be seen here, a moss-covered mass of stones and rotting beams. The remains of some of the major players from colonial days are said to be buried beneath the church altar, including Don Pedro de Alvarado; his wife, Beatriz de la Cueva; Guatemala’s first bishop, Francisco Marroquín; and conqueror/chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Steps behind the main altar lead to the former crypt, now a chapel, harboring the black Christ statue.
Palacio del Ayuntamiento
Found on the north side of the plaza, this large structure functioned as the town hall, also known as the Casa del Cabildo. It has miraculously withstood the test of time, resisting damage from earthquakes until the most recent one in 1976, despite its construction dating to 1740. Some fantastic views of the cathedral and Agua Volcano are framed by the Palacio del Ayuntamiento’s beautiful arches from its second-floor balconies. Perhaps a bigger draw than the historical building itself is the quite interesting colonial fountain embossed with the emblem of Santiago (St. James), found in a quiet courtyard. Next door, the Museo del Libro Antiguo (Antique Book Museum, tel. 7832-5511, 9am-4pm Tues.-Fri., 9am-noon and 2pm-4pm Sat.-Sun., $1.50) features exhibits on colonial printing and binding processes. There’s a replica of the country’s first printing press, brought to Guatemala in 1660 from Puebla, Mexico.
Palacio de los Capitanes Generales
On the south end of the plaza, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales or Palace of the Captains General dates to 1558 and was once the seat of government for the entire Central American territory from Chiapas to Costa Rica, of which Antigua was the capital, until 1773. Its imposing architecture is dominated by a row of 27 arches on both of its floors. It once housed colonial rulers, the royal mint, the judiciary, and tax offices, among other things. It has been recently restored and now houses a cultural center, after much debate about what its function would be. Among the attractions is Museo de Armas de Santiago (tel. 7832-2878, 9am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $4). It houses colonial artifacts, weapons (including cannons), historical paintings, and furnishings.
S ARCO DE SANTA CATALINA
Three blocks north of the park along 5a Avenida Norte (also known as Calle del Arco) is one of Antigua’s most recognizable landmarks, the Arco de Santa Catalina. The Santa Catalina archway is all that remains of a convent dating to 1613. As the convent grew, it expanded to include a structure across the street. The arch then was built to allow the nuns to cross to the other side while avoiding contact with the general populace in accordance with strict rules governing seclusion. Its current version with a clock tower is a reconstruction dating to the 19th century, as the original was destroyed in the 1773 earthquakes. The clock is a French model, which needed to be wound every three days. It stopped working after the 1976 earthquake but was repaired in 1991. Looking south through the archway, you’ll find some nice framing for an unobstructed view of Agua Volcano. The archway is practically an Antigua icon and beautifully painted in a rich orange hue with white accents that have become delightfully aged.
Arco de Santa Catalina
S CERRO DE LA CRUZ
In the hills north of the city stands this giant stone cross, from which there are sweeping views south over the city with Agua Volcano in the background. Robberies were once frequent here until the creation of the tourism police, which began escorting visitors to the site and pretty much put an end to these crimes. It’s still a good idea to go along with a police escort and to visit during daylight hours. Escorts are available free from the tourism police near the central plaza. You’ll want to bring along your camera and some water. It’s about a 30-minute walk from the plaza to the Cerro de la Cruz. From the top of the hill, you can see the entire Antigua Valley and the cross makes for a nice foreground element.
CHURCHES AND MONASTERIES
S Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas
The Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas (2a Avenida Norte and 2a Calle Oriente, 9am-5pm daily, $4) was abandoned after being destroyed in the earthquakes of 1773. Restoration began in 1943 and is still being carried out today; the convent now also serves as a museum. The convent’s foundation dates to 1726, making it the city’s fourth, and is the work of renowned Antigua architect Diego de Porres. There are beautiful fountains and courtyards flanked by sturdy stone pillars with stately arches and flowering bougainvillea. It is certainly the most elegant of Antigua’s convents and well worth a look for those with even a casual interest in colonial Latin American architecture. The convent was the haunt of the Capuchin nuns from Madrid, a rather strict order limiting its numbers to 28 and requiring the nuns to sleep on wooden beds with straw pillows and sever all ties to the outside world.
The church consists of a single nave lacking side aisles. There are two choir areas, one adjacent to the altar on the ground floor and another on the second floor at the end of the nave.
After the 1773 earthquakes and the subsequent transfer of the Guatemalan capital to its new location, many of the convent’s historical artifacts were likewise transferred to their new home in the San Miguel de Capuchinas convent in modern-day Guatemala City.
Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara
The Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara (2a Avenida Sur #27, 9am-5pm daily, $4) originally dates to 1702, with its current incarnation having been inaugurated in 1734 and destroyed in 1773. The convent ruins are also pleasant for a stroll, and in front of its main entrance is Parque La Unión with several wash basins, known as pilas, where women gather to do their laundry. The park’s other outstanding feature is a large stone cross, a gift from the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The church is beautifully floodlit at night.
Iglesia de San Francisco
Southwest on 1a Avenida Sur, the Iglesia de San Francisco (8am-6pm daily) is one of Antigua’s oldest, dating to 1579. It once harbored a hospital, school, printing press, and monastery, among other things. Its main claim to fame nowadays is the tomb of Central America’s first saint, Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur, a Franciscan monk who came to Antigua from the Canary Islands and founded the Hospital de Belén. He is credited with miraculous healings. The Museo del Hermano Pedro (8am-5pm, $0.50) is found on the south side of the church along with the ruins of the adjacent monastery. It houses church relics and some of Hermano Pedro’s well-preserved personal belongings.
Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced
Known more commonly as La Merced (5a Avenida Norte and 1a Calle Poniente, 9am-6:30pm, $0.50), this is one of Antigua’s most beautiful churches, painted in a bright yellow and adorned with white lily motifs on its columns. Inside are the ruins of its old monastery with the Fuente de Peces, said to be the largest fountain in Latin America and interestingly in the shape of a water lily. The pools were once used for breeding fish. The upper level affords some wonderful city views, and the fountain just outside the church is also worth a look.
the ornate La Merced church
Iglesia y Convento de la Recolección
On Avenida de la Recolección, the large Iglesia y Convento de la Recolección built between 1701 and 1715 was heavily damaged in 1717 in the same year it was inaugurated. The earthquakes of 1773 finished the job, and it has lain in ruins ever since.
Museo de Arte Colonial
On the former site of San Carlos University, the Museo de Arte Colonial (5a Calle Oriente #5, tel. 7832-0429, 9am-4pm Tues.-Fri., 9am-noon and 2pm-4pm Sat.-Sun., $3.50) harbors sculptures of saints, murals, furniture, and colonial paintings by Mexican artists. A beautiful Moorish courtyard dominates the surviving architecture.
S Centro Cultural Casa Santo Domingo
Antigua’s finest museum is housed inside the Casa Santo Domingo hotel: Centro Cultural Casa Santo Domingo (3a Calle Oriente #28, tel. 7832-0140 or 7820-1220, www.casasantodomingo.com.gt, 9am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 11:15am-6pm Sun., $5). The site was once the city’s largest and wealthiest monastery, with a church completed in 1666, but it was damaged and eventually destroyed by the 18th-century earthquakes. Several museums are housed within the same complex, including the colonial museum harboring Catholic relics, among them an old Roman coin found during the excavations for the hotel’s construction. Other highlights of this wonderful historic complex include a gorgeous monastery church, cleared of rubble and restored in the early 1990s. It is now frequently used for weddings. Below this area are two crypts. The first of these, the Cripta del Calvario, has a well-preserved Crucifixion mural. The other crypt harbors two graves with human bones.
Semana Santa in Antigua
Semana Santa, or Holy Week, runs from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and is one of the best times to visit Antigua for the elaborate Catholic pageantry surrounding these holy days. Visitors come from around the world to see the colorful, solemn processions in which life-sized images of Christ and other Catholic icons are paraded through the city’s cobblestone streets. Before the processions pass through, Antigueños design and produce exquisite, though ephemeral, alfombras, or carpets made of colored sawdust and flowers. The parade floats, or andas, pass over the carpets, forever erasing their elaborate patterns under the feet of faithful cucuruchos, purple-clad bearers who carry the floats. The floats can weigh up to 3.5 tons and require 80 men to carry them. The bearers are accompanied by Roman soldiers and other robed figures who carry swaying, copal-laden incense burners. It can be quite a moving experience to see the swaying floats with images of a cross-bearing Christ bearing down on the men amid thick smoke.
A highlight of the week’s festivities is a Good Friday event occurring at 3am in which Roman soldiers on horseback gallop through the streets proclaiming Christ’s death sentence. Though several local churches participate in the festivities, the largest procession is the one leaving from La Merced on Good Friday with the 17th-century image of Jesús Nazareno (Jesus of Nazareth). Another well-known procession is that of the Escuela de Cristo, which features some striking images on its parade floats.
For specifics on Holy Week events, head to the INGUAT office (corner of 2a Calle Oriente and 2a Avenida Norte, 8am-12:30pm and 2:30pm-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-12:30pm and 2:30pm-5pm Sat.-Sun.) on the central plaza, where you’ll find free maps and event schedules. If you plan to take in the festivities, book far in advance, as word about Antigua’s Holy Week events has been out for quite some time and accommodations fill up several months ahead with foreign visitors and vacationing Guatemalans.
There is also a small archaeological museum, but the highlight here is the Museo Vigua de Arte Precolombino y Vidrio Moderno, a fantastic, well-presented juxtaposition of colonial and pre-Columbian artifacts mixed with glass art. Rounding out the impressive list of attractions is the Casa de la Cera, an elaborate candle shop.
S Casa Popenoe
Authentically restored to recreate the living conditions of a 17th-century official, Casa Popenoe (1a Avenida Sur #2, tel. 2338-7959, www.casapopenoe.ufm.edu, by appointment only with a minimum of six people, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-11am Sat., $10) was originally built in 1762 by wealthy merchant Venancia López Marchán upon the ruins of two homes from 1650. Like much of Antigua, it was left abandoned after the 1773 earthquakes until Dr. Wilson Popenoe and his wife, Dorothy, bought it in 1929. Dr. Popenoe, an agricultural scientist, worked with the United Fruit Company for much of his career and had a long history of adventures in plant collecting and botany in addition to his painstaking restoration of this fantastic cultural monument. He died in 1975, but two of his daughters continued to live in the house, one the noted archaeologist Marion Popenoe Hatch. The house was eventually donated to Guatemala’s Francisco Marroquín University. You’ll see paintings of Bishop Francisco Marroquín and fierce conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. Also on display are the wonderfully restored servants’ quarters and kitchen. A narrow staircase leads up to the roof terrace, from where there are gorgeous views of Antigua and the volcanoes off in the distance.
Antigua has a lively nightlife scene, particularly on weekends when wealthy youths from Guatemala City flood the city streets in search of a good time.
Always popular with the American expat crowd is Café No Sé (1a Avenida Sur #11C, tel. 7832-0563, www.cafenose.com, 6pm-1am daily), where you can enjoy drinks in a charmingly gritty setting, often with live music. There’s also good pub grub, though the main attraction is the tequila/mezcal bar, featuring their very own brand, Ilegal Mezcal. The secondhand bookstore next door is open until 6pm. A welcome new addition to the town’s pub scene is The Snug (6a Calle Poniente #14, tel. 4215-9601), where you’ll find cheap beers and a fun, cozy atmosphere.
Monoloco (5a Avenida Sur #6, tel. 7832-4228, ext. 102, www.restaurantemonoloco.com, 11am-1am daily) is also wildly popular and lively. It’s set on two floors, and you can drink alfresco on the second-floor terrace. Reasonably priced burgers, nachos, and pizzas are served, and there are sports on the downstairs TV.
An old standby for grabbing a drink and watching the sunset with nice volcano views is the rooftop bar at Café Sky (corner of 6a Calle and 1a Avenida, tel. 7832-7300, 8am-1am daily). In addition to the rooftop terrace café bar, there’s the downstairs Sky Lounge and Bamboo Bar, where you can enjoy drinks and a full menu of tasty food that includes sandwiches, lasagnas, and quesadillas.
Another popular watering hole, The Ocelot Bar (4a Avenida Norte #3, tel. 7832-1339, 12:30pm-1am daily), enjoys a prime location near the central plaza. There’s often live jazz and blues in addition to a weekly Sunday evening pub quiz. Upstairs and under the same ownership is Lava Terrace Bar, with nice views of the surroundings from shady patio umbrellas and scrumptious gourmet burgers made from imported Angus beef. Happy hour is at 5pm daily.
The Ocelot Bar
A few blocks south of the park, La Sala (6a Calle Poniente #9, tel. 7832-9524) hosts a fun mix of Guatemalans and foreigners. The ambience is modern with a splash of Guatemalan color. There’s also a varied menu that runs the gamut from Indian chicken dishes to bangers ‘n mash. Next door is the new incarnation of Antigua’s original Irish pub, Reilly’s En La Esquina (6a Calle Poniente #7, tel. 7832-6251).
Antigua’s most popular and dependably fun disco is the two-story La Casbah (5a Avenida Norte #30, tel. 7832-2640, www.lacasbahantigua.com, 7pm-1am Thurs.-Sat., $4 cover), where you can dance the night away in a classy atmosphere popular with the wealthy Guatemala City crowd. The admission price includes one drink. La Sin Ventura (5a Avenida Sur #8, tel. 7832-0581) is a popular disco bar with mostly Latin music and dancing on weekend nights. There are a number of nightclubs in and around 6a Avenida Sur popular with the weekend crowds. Just follow the sound of music. Highly recommended is Las Vibras (Calle del Arco Casa #30, tel. 7832-3553, noon-1am daily) for its cool club vibe, dance floor, and very tasty food that make for a fun night out with friends. Down the street is Sunset Terrace (6a Avenida Norte #1C, tel. 5945-6640), which functions as a restaurant by day but gets increasingly more crowded (and raucous) as the night goes on. There are sometimes live dj sets.
Restaurante Las Palmas (6a Avenida Norte #14, tel. 7832-9734, www.laspalmasantigua.com) has live Latin music on Friday and Saturday nights starting at 9:30pm. Mesón Panza Verde (5a Avenida Sur #19, tel. 7955-8282, www.panzaverde.com) features live jazz and Latin music nightly 8pm-10pm.
On the edge of town on the way to Santa Ana, La Casa del Río (Calle del Hermano Pedro #6, tel. 7832-5438) is a cultural center opened by two Guatemalan actors. There’s a screening room where independent films and Guatemalan cinema are shown. It’s worth checking out.
Antigua is one of Guatemala’s top places for shopping, with a wide assortment of excellent shops carrying quality items not found elsewhere in the country. You’ll be hard-pressed to find the same variety of home decor, textiles, clothing, and jewelry anywhere else. Don’t feel you have to confine your purchases to what you can fit in your checked airline baggage allotment, as there are a number of local companies that can help you ship your loot home.
Antigua’s Mercado de Artesanías (4a Calle Poniente Final, 8am-7pm) is an attractive, safe place to shop for textiles, handicrafts, and souvenirs among several stalls. There is also an adjacent outdoor market selling fruits, vegetables, and wonderful fresh flowers. Textura (5a Avenida Norte #33, tel. 7832-5067, 10am-5:45pm Mon.-Wed., 10am-6:45pm Thurs.-Sat., 10am-5pm Sun.) sells stylish home furnishings in updated versions of Mayan textiles, including gorgeous hammocks and table dressings. Selling similarly exquisite indoor and outdoor home furnishings is El Telar (5a Avenida Sur #7, tel. 7832-3179, www.eltelarantigua.com).
Nim Po’t (5a Avenida Norte #29, tel. 7832-2681, 9am-9pm daily) has a large selection of traditional Mayan dress items, including colorful huipiles (blouses), cortes (skirts), and fajas (belts). There is also a wide variety of artwork, souvenir T-shirts, tourist trinkets, masks, and other wooden carvings in the spacious warehouselike setting. Just down the street, Nativo’s (5a Avenida Norte #25B, tel. 7832-6556, 10am-7pm daily) also sells textiles and has some extremely rare, beautiful, and no-longer-produced textiles in the $600 range. Ask to see them. Quinta Maconda (5a Avenida Norte #11, tel. 7832-1480 or 5309-1423, www.quintamaconda.com, 9:30am-1pm and 2pm-7pm daily) sells its own brand of high-quality handcrafted leather travel gear and handwoven Guatemalan brocades in beautiful muted hues and earth tones. It also has a fine collection of Southeast Asian antiques and wooden furniture in its by-appointment-only showroom. One of my favorite shops for high-quality (though somewhat expensive) crafts and textiles is Colibrí (4a Calle Oriente #3B, tel. 7832-0280, firstname.lastname@example.org, 9am-6pm daily). I particularly like their bedspreads, though a queen size will set you back about $200.
For gifts to bestow upon loved ones back home, head to Atypical Treasures (3a Calle and 4a Avenida #7A, tel. 7832-0467, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat., noon-6pm Sun.), a well-curated selection of local handicrafts interwoven with hard-to-find items from regions like Cobán. There’s also a fine assortment of beautiful women’s clothing (original designs) and handbags made from reclaimed Guatemalan huipiles that you can purchase for a song. Mention Moon Guatemala (or better yet, bring in your copy) for a 10 percent discount off the already very reasonable prices.
Guatemala produces some of the world’s finest jade, including rare black jade, found only in this part of the world. You can buy fabulous jade jewelry here tax-free. The best store for perusing wonderful jade creations in colorful hues, including emerald, yellow, and lilac, is Jade Maya (4a Calle Oriente #34, tel. 7931-2400, www.jademaya.com, 9am-7pm daily), where you’ll find a vast array of items varying from 18-karat gold/jade earrings to a unique $3,800 jade chess board. All of the jade found here is mined from a quarry in eastern Guatemala. The store doubles as a jade museum, and you can also visit the factory behind the shop. Guided tours are available in German, Spanish, English, French, and Italian. For fashionable and exotic jewelry, handbags, and sunglasses, visit Joyería del Ángel (4a Calle Oriente #5A, tel. 7832-3189, www.delangel.com, 9am-6pm daily). For silver jewelry, check out Pablo’s Silver Shop (5a Calle Poniente #12C, tel. 7832-8960).
Colibrí’s colorful coaster designs
Hamlin y White (4a Calle Oriente #12A, tel. 7832-7075, 9am-6:30pm daily) has a good selection of books and international magazines. Under the same ownership is Tiempo Libre (5a Avenida Norte #25, tel. 7832-1816, 9am-7pm daily), with a wider assortment of books in English and Spanish, including Moon Handbooks. On the west side of the plaza in the Portal del Comercio, La Casa del Conde (5a Avenida Norte #4, tel. 7832-3322, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-7pm Sun.) sells an assortment of travel guides in addition to material specifically relating to Guatemala, Central America, and the Mayan world, mostly in English. Dyslexia (1a Avenida Sur #11, tel. 5162-4515, 1pm-6pm daily) has a good selection of secondhand books curated by its scribe owners who publish La Cuadra magazine.
ART, ANTIQUES, AND FURNITURE
Panza Verde (5a Avenida Sur #19, tel. 7955-8282, www.panzaverde.com) is a gallery housed inside its namesake restaurant/hotel; a new exhibit usually opens every second Wednesday of the month. La Antigua Galería de Arte (4a Calle Oriente #15, tel. 7832-2124, www.laantiguagaleria.com, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat.) exhibits the work of numerous local and international artists in a large building surrounding a pleasant courtyard. Casa de Artes (4a Avenida Sur #11, tel. 7832-0792 and 7832-1390, www.casadeartes.com.gt) is like a museum chock-full of textiles, masks, jewelry, and other wonderful finds where the items are available for purchase.
For antique furniture and architectural accents, a good bet is Ritual (7a Calle Poniente #30, tel. 7832-4767, www.ritualstyle.com). Casa Chicob (5a Avenida Norte #31, tel. 7832-0781, www.casachicob.com, 9am-6pm Mon.-Sat.) features a wonderful assortment of Guatemalan-inspired home decor and luxurious personal care products. Uxibal (Callejón del Sol Casa #9, tel. 7832-7417, www.uxibal.com) sells fashionable leather shoes, boots, handbags, and accessories incorporating Guatemalan textiles.
COFFEE AND TOBACCO
For coffee, head to Tostaduría Antigua (6a Calle Poniente #26, tel. 7832-5159, tostaduriaantigua.blogspot.com). You can buy Cuban and Honduran cigars, as well as enjoy them in a comfortable lounge, at Antigua Tabaco Compañía (3a Calle Poniente #12, tel. 7832-9420, 10am-10pm daily).
One of Antigua’s most interesting stores is La Tienda de Doña Gavi (3a Avenida Norte #2, tel. 7832-6514, noon-7pm daily), where you can pick up a number of natural remedies, including Jacameb, a powerful concoction created from the jacaranda flower that does the trick on amoebas and assorted other parasitic problems. (Friendly Doña Gavi also serves the tastiest mango ice cream I’ve ever had.) Organic groceries, natural foods, and ecofriendly products can be found at Orgánica (5a Calle Poniente #6, tel. 7832-6533, 8am-6pm daily).
Caoba Farms (5a Avenida Sur final, tel. 7758-9510 or 7832-9201, www.caobafarms.com, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-noon Sat., 9am-1pm Sun.) sells organic produce cultivated on several plots of land in the Antigua area. They also brew their own kombucha. Tours to the farms are available (see website for details) at a cost of $10 per person. Volunteer opportunities are available.
Antigua’s Gym (6a Calle Poniente #31, tel. 7832-7554, 6am-9:30pm Mon.-Fri., 7am-3pm Sat., 8am-3pm Sun.) offers spinning, Tae Bo, cardiovascular equipment, free weights, and some weight-lifting machines. La Fábrica (1a Avenida Norte #7A, tel. 7832-9840) also has cardiovascular machines and weights in addition to aerobics and rock climbing. My gym of choice is Equinox (Carretera a Ciudad Vieja, tel. 7832-2957, 5am-9pm Mon.-Fri., 6am-3pm Sat., 8am-1pm Sun.). It’s a somewhat large facility with plenty of equipment, classes, and parking out front.
SPAS AND YOGA
Casa Madeleine (Calle del Espíritu Santo #69, tel. 7832-9348, www.casamadeleine.com/spa) offers complete spa packages along with its swanky boutique hotel accommodations. Services include massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, mud therapy, pedicures, manicures, and deep facial treatments. Healing Hands (3a Avenida Norte #20A, tel. 7832-1648, www.healinghandsguatemala.com) is a well-run day spa offering the usual assortment of spa services in a pleasant environment. There are overnight accommodations and a yoga studio.
There are quality yoga classes by trained U.S. instructors available in Antigua. YogAntigua (tel. 5251-4809, www.yogantigua.com) offers classes every morning inside Galería Panza Verde (5a Avenida Sur #19) and afternoons at Calle del Hermano Pedro #16. Vinyasa and Hatha yoga classes start at $10 for drop-in or $32 for a five-class pass.
Antigua’s mountain terrain and the variety of trails traversing it make mountain biking a popular recreational activity. Old Town Outfitters (5a Avenida Sur #12, tel. 7832-4171, www.adventureguatemala.com, 9am-6pm daily) is a highly recommended outfitter offering rides for all skill levels. Half-day options include easy rides in the Almolonga Valley or in and around coffee plantations to edge-of-your-seat single-track rides careening down volcanic slopes or along narrow mountain ridges with fantastic views. Its equipment is top-notch and well cared for. Guatemala Venture (1a Avenida Sur #15, end of 6a Calle Oriente, tel. 7832-6264, www.guatemalaventure.com, 9am-6pm daily) is another recommended outfitter for tackling the rugged terrain around Antigua by mountain bike. It also rents out mountain bikes for $8 a day. Both companies also offer a lot of other recreational options in addition to mountain biking, as you’ll see by the frequency with which they are mentioned here.
O.X. Outdoor Excursions (7a Calle Poniente #17, tel. 7832-0468, www.guatemalavolcano.com) has cornered the market on “cool” with the addition of mountain biking to its arsenal of adventurous offerings. Trip options range from cycling around Antigua’s neighboring villages to adrenaline-inducing single-track careens down volcanic slopes. They also rent mountain bikes for $22 a day.
Finca El Pilar
Just a 45-minute walk from Antigua’s central park (or a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride), Finca El Pilar (tel. 7832-4937, email@example.com, 6am-6pm daily, $5) is a private reserve protecting a large area that includes dry forest, pine oak, and cloud forest. Among the bird species you can expect to find are numerous types of rare and endemic hummingbirds, emerald toucanet, golden-browed warbler, highland guans, and blue-throated motmot. There is a system of trails and observation platforms throughout the reserve and altitude ranges from 5,250 to 7,870 feet. To get here, walk south from the central plaza toward 7a Calle until you reach San Francisco Church. Behind the church, you’ll find the path leading to neighboring Santa Ana. Look for El Calvario church, where you’ll turn left and continue all the way to the end of an uphill path, passing San Cristobal El Bajo church along the way. Cayaya Birding (tel. 5308-5160, www.cayaya-birding.com) does guided trips to the reserve. If you get tired of hiking, you can take a leisurely soak in the swimming pool ($1.50).
S Finca El Zapote
Outside of town, along the road to Escuintla, is this Eden-like botanical garden situated on the slopes of active Fuego Volcano. Finca El Zapote (Aldea Guadalupe, Escuintla; tel. 5000-1899, www.fincazapote.com, $20 adults, $9 children) has been owned by the local Pettersen family since the late 1950s. Mr. Pettersen geared the farm toward quinine production, but Mrs. Pettersen, a renowned artist and author of The Maya of Guatemala: Life and Dress, used her considerable talents and British education to create Guatemala’s most amazing botanical gardens. Birds naturally find this exotic locale, between the Pacific Coast lowlands and volcanic highlands, a very welcoming place, and there are numerous species in evidence including magpie jays, several species of egret, herons, and woodpeckers. The views of Fuego Volcano alone are worth the price of admission, but the beautifully manicured lawns and 25 acres of luxuriant tropical foliage could easily be the envy of better-known European botanical gardens. There’s a spring-fed swimming pool for refreshment and four lagoons for fishing.
the Lake House at Finca El Zapote
Two different houses are available for rent if you choose to stay here (highly recommended). The Estate House ($575-800) sleeps up to 14 guests, while the more modest Lake House ($300-400) sleeps six. You’ll need a high clearance vehicle to get here even in dry season, as it’s a rough road that at times is impassible during the rainy season. Transfers from Antigua are sometimes available by request.
There is no shortage of rugged hiking trails for enjoying the spectacular mountain scenery and peaceful mountain villages found near Antigua. The same recommended mountain biking outfitters can point you to the best hiking trails. A guide is highly recommended, as robberies of solo hikers along remote mountain footpaths is sometimes an issue in rural Guatemala. The bulk of the hiking done around Antigua involves one of the volcanoes towering ominously over its streets.
S Volcano Climbs
At 3,750 meters (12,325 feet) Agua Volcano is one of Antigua’s most visible volcanoes with its near-perfect crater that looms just south of Antigua. Unfortunately, its slopes have been plagued by safety issues for years. All of the local outfitters, tired from numerous instances of robberies, have ceased hikes up the volcano.
Just shy of 4,000 meters (13,044 feet), Acatenango Volcano is a safer and somewhat more interesting climb. It’s an intense six-hour ascent through agricultural fields and cloud forests on sandy gravel. Most of the outfitters camp at a spot 500 meters from the summit. From there it’s a grueling final push to the summit on the steepest part of the volcano (and the sandiest). It’s worth the effort, however, as your reward is a spectacular view of active Fuego Volcano right next to it. You won’t find better views of Fuego and the experience is quite unique, as no other volcano in Central America is quite like this. Old Town Outfitters (5a Avenida Sur #12, tel. 7832-4171, www.adventureguatemala.com, 9am-6pm daily) offers a one-day or overnight trip to the volcano starting in the village of La Soledad, from where it’s a 5-6-hour hike through cornfields and pine forests to the crater. A newer option is that of taking a 4x4 through private lands en route to a spot just two hours’ hike from the summit. Guatemala Venture (tel. 7832-6264, www.guatemalaventure.com) also does this trip.
hikers running along the crater of Acatenango Volcano
By far the most popular volcano trip is to active Pacaya Volcano, near Lake Amatitlán and closer to Guatemala City. There’s no shortage of outfitters offering this trip, which generally leaves in the afternoon and costs $7-30 per person. Recommended companies include Old Town Outfitters (5a Avenida Sur #12, tel. 7832-4171, www.adventureguatemala.com, 9am-6pm daily), which leaves earlier than most other companies to avoid the crowds. Adrenalina Tours (3a Calle Poniente #2D, tel. 7882-4147 or 5308-1489, www.adrenalinatours.com) leaves daily at 6am and 2pm. The trip costs $10 and includes round-trip transportation and local Spanish-speaking guide. The more expensive VIP trip costs $75 and leaves whenever you want it to. The VIP tour includes bilingual and local guides, transportation, park admission, and breakfast.
Personally recommended for all of the above trips is O.X. Outdoor Excursions (7a Calle Poniente #17, tel. 7832-0468, www.guatemalavolcano.com), offering well-guided trips to the Antigua area volcanoes. The Spires of Fire trip is a five-day adventure climbing Guatemala’s three active volcanoes (Fuego, Pacaya, and Santiaguito); it costs $599. They also do a very challenging “Double Whammy” involving the ascent of Acatenango Volcano with a side trip to Fuego Volcano on the same day before arriving (exhausted) to Vista Camp for bed and the summit of Acatenango the next morning.
Fire on the Mountain
Looming over Lake Amatitlán and the Guatemala City valley is the 2,552-meter-high active Pacaya Volcano (www.volcandepacaya.com) spewing lava and ash for the amazement of tourists and locals alike. Its current active phase began in 1965 and has barely ceased since. Activity varies from quiet gas, lava, and steam emissions to full-scale explosive eruptions hurtling rocks into the sky. It sometimes spews large ash clouds that prompt the closure of Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport, as was the case when a 1998 eruption blanketed the airport runway in fine volcanic sand and again in May 2010.
Guatemala is one of few places in the world where you can get up close and personal with an active volcano in relative ease. While the climb is not for the faint of heart, adventurous types will find it to be a worthwhile endeavor. The volcano makes a convenient day trip from Guatemala City (45 minutes) or Antigua (1 hour). Logistically, it makes more sense from Guatemala City, but the tour operators offering the trip are almost entirely based in the old colonial city. It’s possible to make the trip on your own, though going in a group with a local guide is highly recommended.
The volcano’s national park status dates to 2001. A visitor’s center and ticket booth can be found at the trailhead in the village of San Francisco de Sales. Admission to the park is $5. You can also hire a guide here. There is safe parking for vehicles in San Francisco de Sales, and the well-maintained trail has good signage, rest stops with trash receptacles, and outhouses. Park rangers patrol the trails and incidents of robbery, which once plagued this otherwise wonderful place, have become virtually unheard of since 2001.
From the town of San Francisco de Sales, the 3.7-kilometer trail up Pacaya Volcano (2-3 hours) climbs gradually through cornfields and secondary forest before arriving at a vast volcanic wasteland of old lava flows. After crossing a barren ridge, the trail then winds up the slopes of the volcanic crater itself. Hiking up the loose ash will give you the sensation of taking two steps forward and one step back. It’s a good workout but worth the effort. At the summit, you’re treated to a fine view of the main vent spewing lava, rocks, and ash. It may sometimes feel too close for comfort, as large chunks of lava rock often land nearby. Take a moment to glimpse Guatemala City, the Pacific Coast, and some of the neighboring volcanoes from here.
At the summit, avoid breathing in the clouds of sulfuric gases. Be especially careful where you step, as there are some hot zones and sometimes some slow-moving lava flows. The skilike descent down the same sandy ash can be tricky, and you should exercise due caution to avoid a nasty face-plant into the jagged lava rocks alongside the trail.
If hiking during the day, bring plenty of sunscreen along with a hat, preferably with a chin strap that will prevent it from blowing away at the windy summit. Water and some snacks are always a good idea. Try not to carry excessive amounts of cash, but just what you’ll need for the park admission, guide tip, and a drink and/or snack when you arrive back at the base of the trail. Rain gear (depending on the season) and some good, sturdy boots are also important. You’ll especially appreciate the latter because you’ll need ankle support and it’s easy to get rocks and sand in your shoes, which can be extremely uncomfortable, during the final ascent up the sandy crater.
To get here on your own steam, follow the CA-9 highway past Amatitlán to a signed turnoff at Km. 37.5. Head east eight kilometers to the village of San Vicente Pacaya, where you’ll find the park entry station and information center. The road continues from here another 10 kilometers to San Francisco de Sales (turn left at the fork in the road just past San Vicente Pacaya). For an excellent map detailing the route of ascent, see the interactive map online at Mapas de Guatemala (www.mapasdeguatemala.com/mapas).
The zipline madness that seems to have gripped almost every tourist town in Central America has not bypassed Antigua. If you want to monkey around, zipping from tree to tree, your best bet is Antigua Canopy Tours (tel. 7728-0811, www.antiguacanopytours.com, $50-75). For the ultimate adventure, try its Canyon Express tour across a canyon in two stages (520 and 430 meters long) while dangling 500 feet above the ground. The zipline tour is located on the property of Finca Filadelfia, near Jocotenango.
In the nearby village of San Juan del Obispo, toward Agua Volcano, Ravenscroft Riding Stables (2a Avenida Sur #3, San Juan del Obispo, tel. 7830-6669) offers three-, four-, or five-hour rides in the hills and valleys near Antigua for $20 per person per hour.
Practically an Antigua institution, Antigua Tours (3a Calle Oriente #22, tel. 7832-5821 and 7832-2046, www.antiguatours.net) are guided by Elizabeth Bell (author of Antigua Guatemala: The City and Its Heritage) Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 9:30am. Tours on Monday and Thursday at 2pm are led by other experienced guides. All tours meet at the fountain in Antigua’s central park and cost $25, including entrance fees to historical sites. There is also a guided tour of nearby villages, including San Antonio Aguas Calientes, San Pedro Las Huertas, and San Juan del Obispo, going out at 2pm Tuesday and Friday and lasting three hours. It costs $35 per person with a two-person minimum. Advance booking required.
Green Belly Adventure Co. (Callejón San Sebastián #2B, tel. 7832-1669, www.greenbellyadventure.com, $50-65 per person) offers tours of Antigua’s historical sites and local coffee farms aboard off-road versions of Segways. It actually makes a great way to get around Antigua’s narrow cobblestone streets.
Antigua is home to Guatemala’s newest—and nicest—golf course, the 18-hole Pete and Perry Dye-designed Fuego Maya golf course at La Reunión Antigua Golf Resort (RN-14 Km. 93, Alotenango, tel. 7873-1400, www.lareunion.com.gt). The 72-par, 7,560-yard course is one of the country’s most challenging and is the only golf course in the world with a view of four volcanoes (Agua, Fuego, Acatenango, and Pacaya). Its designers gleaned inspiration from the Mayan Solar Calendar, which consists of 18 20-day months; each of the course’s 18 holes is named after the corresponding month. (The last month, Wayeb, is a five-day month and gives its name to the 19th hole.) The golf course is 11 miles from Antigua and 40 miles from Guatemala City. Facilities include a driving range, putting green, chipping green, practice bunker, and pro shop.
Fuego Maya golf course at La Reunión Antigua Golf Resort
Ever exciting and brimming with new leisure opportunities, Antigua Guatemala now boasts Guatemala’s first winery. Chateau DeFay (tel. 2363-3858 or 5883-3911, www.fincadefay.com), on the slopes of Agua Volcano in neighboring Santa María de Jesús, is a 3,000-case winery and vineyard. Its owners, Jacques and Angie Defay, purchased a former coffee farm and converted part of the land into vineyards using plants brought in from Washington state. The farm also grows asparagus. Jacques, a former economist with the International Development Bank (IDB), retired to Guatemala from Falls Church, Virginia, in 2002 after numerous visits to the country.
Chateau DeFay vineyards
The winery is open for tastings Saturday and Sunday 10am to 4pm. Chateau DeFay wines come in several varieties, including Angie’s Blend, chardonnay, a moscato, a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend, and Bruno’s Favorite. The latter is named for resident winemaker Bruno Coppola.
The first year of wine production was 2008, but the 2009 vintage is substantially better. A bottle of wine costs between Q130 and Q190, or about $16-25.
Antigua has a number of excellent hostels offering comfortable accommodations at budget prices. Most of them can help you arrange onward travel or book airport shuttle services if they don’t offer it themselves. A favorite budget traveler hangout is friendly S Terrace Hostel (3a Calle Poniente #24B, tel. 7832-3463, www.terracehostel.com, $9 in shared-bath dorm to $30 d in room with shared bath). Included are the usual amenities found in most hostels such as luggage storage, laundry service, wireless Internet, TV, DVD collection and library, but Terrace Hostel goes the extra mile with a fun rooftop bar and restaurant. There’s a nightly barbecue featuring hot dogs, burgers, nachos, and chili you can wash down with local microbrews. There are weekly pub crawls and occasional theme parties. Jungle Party Hostel (6a Avenida Norte #20, between 3a and 2a Calle Poniente, tel. 7832-8975, www.junglepartyhostal.com, $10-11 pp) is a lively backpacker hangout with clean dorm rooms and shared baths. There are fun communal areas that double as bar and lounge.
Conveniently located near some of the town’s favorite watering holes, El Hostal (1a Avenida Sur #8, tel. 7832-0442, www.elhostal.hostel.com, $12-18) has cozy private rooms with shared bath ($18 d) or clean, shared-bath dormitories ($12 pp) in a remodeled colonial house that includes a pleasant little courtyard. Guests won’t find electric water heaters here (yippee!), but rather the hot-water showers many visitors are used to. You can book and pay online in advance; wireless Internet is available throughout the house.
A rooftop chill-out area with wonderful views of Agua Volcano and a friendly, feel-good vibe make S Holistico Hostal (7a Avenida Sur #10, tel. 7832-4078, www.hostalholistico.com, $11 pp in dorm to 40 d with private bath) a popular choice. The nightly rate includes breakfast, served in its small café. There is free wireless Internet, a movie lounge, and laundry service for $2.50 per load. Tours to local attractions can be arranged. They also have decent hot-water showers.
Just one block from the central plaza, Hotel Casa Rústica (6a Avenida Norte #8, tel. 7832-0694, www.casarusticagt.com, $35-56 d) has comfortable rooms with shared bathroom ($39-45 d) or private bathroom ($49-56 d), with or without cable TV and garden view. There are apartments for rent starting at $250 per week. Rates include breakfast, filtered drinking water, and use of the kitchen. It also offers laundry service, bag storage, and wireless Internet. There are nice gardens and hammocks for lounging. The excellent-value S Casa Cristina (Callejón Camposeco #3A, between 6a and 7a Avenida, tel. 7832-0623, www.casa-cristina.com, $25-45 d) has beautifully decorated, colorful rooms with wrought-iron accents, Guatemalan bedspreads, tile floors, and private hot-water bathroom. Pricier deluxe rooms have gorgeous volcano views and minifridges, in addition to cable TV. TVs are absent in the least expensive standard rooms. Room rates include unlimited use of wireless Internet, purified drinking water, coffee, and tea. The excellent-value Hotel Posada San Pedro (3a Avenida Sur #15, tel. 7832-3594, www.posadasanpedro.net, $41 d) is also stylish and comfortable, featuring 10 spotless rooms with firm beds, tile floors, wooden furnishings, attractive tile bathrooms, and cable TV. Guests also enjoy use of a living room and full kitchen. The staff here is friendly, and the place is well-run with a laid-back but efficient atmosphere. There’s a second location at 7a Avenida Norte #29 (tel. 7832-0718, $46 d) with slightly higher rates for newer rooms.
One of the city’s best values is S Chez Daniel (Calle de San Luquitas #20, tel. 4264-1122, chezdanielantigua.blogspot.com, $59 d). It’s seven blocks from the central square in a quiet neighborhood, in a large house fronting a green lawn. The comfortable, high-ceilinged rooms have flat-screen TVs and large bathrooms with shower tubs. They are wonderfully decorated with Guatemalan knickknacks and amazing photography depicting the country’s vivid Maya culture. Amenities include a dining room, fully equipped communal kitchen, and rooftop terrace with volcano views. Featuring many of the fine decorative touches and amenities of its pricier boutique counterparts S El Mesón de María (3a Calle Poniente #8, tel. 7832-6068, www.hotelmesondemaria.com, $85-140 d on weekdays; $15-20 higher on weekends) is a good value. Its 20 brand-new, well-appointed rooms are attractively decorated with Guatemalan fabrics and beautifully carved wooden headboards. You’ll feel the antique charm as soon as you enter the doorway of your room framed with antique wooden beams. Rooms on the second floor have skylights and some of the spacious tiled bathrooms have whirlpool tubs. There are gorgeous views of the town and volcanoes from the delightful third-floor terrace. Rates include breakfast at the nearby La Fonda de la Calle Real.
For a phenomenal location at an incredible price, it’s hard to beat S D’Leyenda Hotel (4a Avenida Norte #1, tel. 7832-6194, www.dleyendahotel.com, $90-110 d). The hotel is less than a block from the central square. Its somewhat smallish but comfortable rooms are named after different Antigua ghost legends and include flat-screen cable TV, safe deposit box, and wireless Internet. Three of its six rooms have bathtubs and fireplaces. A fountain graces the ground floor courtyard opposite a spiral staircase leading to a second-floor terrace with lounge chairs, tables, a hot tub, and volcano views. It bears mentioning that there’s a popular watering hole next door, as that may or may not suit your style. Did I mention the staff is extremely friendly?
Antigua’s newest resort hotel is the S Camino Real Antigua (7a Calle Poniente #33B, www.caminorealantigua.com.gt, $145-210 d). The chain hotel has cozy rooms with high, wood-beamed ceilings and some of the most delicious beds I’ve ever slept on, as well as all the amenities you would expect.
A Condé Nast Traveler Gold List property, Porta Hotel Antigua (8a Calle Poniente #1, tel. 7931-0600, www.portahotels.com, from $125 d) has 77 sumptuous rooms with chimneys, colorful walls with faux finishes, Guatemalan decor, and charming stained hardwood floors in its standard and deluxe rooms and suites. It features a restaurant serving excellent Guatemalan and international dishes overlooking the swimming pool set amid tropical gardens, as well as a fully stocked, quaint wooden bar. Candles provide atmosphere at night and a colonial fountain graces the entrance to the hotel. The service is excellent, as is the courteous and friendly staff. Another property that has put Antigua on the map of the world’s finest accommodations is the exquisite S Hotel Casa Santo Domingo (3a Calle Oriente #28, tel. 7820-1220, www.casasantodomingo.com.gt, $150-550 d), built in the ruins of an old Dominican monastery. Its 125 rooms have all the comforts you could wish for and effortlessly merge colonial charm with modern comfort. Some rooms have a chimney, and there are some newer rooms with chic glass and wooden showers. Other amenities include a charming swimming pool and a location just steps from the city’s best museum and wonderful colonial ruins. The restaurant here is also highly recommended.
Antigua has an astounding assortment of boutique properties offering comfort and privacy in an atmosphere of elegance and style. Spending a night in one of Antigua’s boutique properties is the real deal and can feel like waking up in a museum chock-full of interesting knickknacks and artwork. Posada de Don Rodrigo (5a Avenida Norte #17, tel. 7832-9858, www.posadadedonrodrigo.com, $150 d) is one of Antigua’s classic hotels, well situated near the Arco de Santa Catalina. Housed in a very old residence, the inviting rooms have been updated with all the comforts of a modern hotel. The staff wears traditional costumes and marimba music can often be heard in the main courtyard. President Clinton chose S Posada del Ángel (4a Avenida Sur #24A, tel. 7832-0260 Antigua or 305/677-2382 U.S., www.posadadelangel.com, from $195 d) for his 1999 visit to Antigua for a summit meeting with Central American leaders. If you’d like to follow in his footsteps, stay in the exquisite Rose Suite, the largest of the lodge’s five, with a private balcony offering gorgeous volcano views and fine antiques. Each of the suites is different, but all are truly charming and include wood-burning fireplace, cable TV, and fresh flowers. Rates include a delicious breakfast served in the dining room looking out to the hotel’s small lap pool.
Mil Flores Luxury Design Hotel (3a Calle Oriente #16A, tel. 7832-9715 or 7832-9716, www.hotelmilflores.com, from $175 d including breakfast) offers style with distinction, excellent service, and attention to detail. Each of the five luxurious suites is inspired after a different flower and features a fireplace, minibar, a private patio, and large bathroom.
One of Antigua’s most elegant properties, S Posada de los Leones (Las Gravileas #1, tel. 7832-7371, www.posadadelosleones.com, $280-380 d) is set amid coffee trees and tropical gardens in a gated community just outside of town. Its six spacious, absolutely gorgeous rooms feature high ceilings, hardwood floors, and a delightful array of classy European and Guatemalan decorative touches. On the house’s second floor is Antigua’s loveliest terrace overlooking tropical gardens, the surrounding coffee plantation, and the volcanoes off in the distance. You can enjoy drinks on the terrace in addition to a lap pool, a comfortable living room, and library. There is wireless Internet throughout the house, which is sometimes the haunt of international celebrities. El Convento (2a Avenida Norte #11, tel. 7720-7272, www.elconventoantigua.com, from $169 d) is fabulously built on grounds across the street from Convento de las Capuchinas. All 26 of its well-appointed suites are unique and feature a magnificent melding of colonial and modern touches that include skylights, bathrooms with marble and glass accents, exposed stone walls, and charming courtyard patios. There is a wonderful second-floor terrace for enjoying cocktails (or Sunday breakfast buffet), and the vaulted-ceiling dining room at Elù Restaurant on the main floor serves gourmet Guatemalan fusion cuisine.
El Convento boutique hotel
An excellent value in this category, S Hotel Cirilo (Calle de los Duelos #11, tel. 7832-6650, hotelcirilo.com, from $119 d) combines modern touches with the charm and history of La Antigua. Built on the grounds of an old hermitage, the property features spacious gardens, old ruins, and a wooden-decked swimming pool. Glass doors provide wonderful views of the grounds from the comfortable living room and breakfast areas. Some of the comfortable rooms are literally built around the old ruins, and you can have the old architecture all to yourself. Other room features include retablo headboards, a fireplace, and flat-screen TV. It’s quietly outside of the town center.
the swimming pool at Hotel Cirilo
OUTSIDE OF TOWN
On a working 40-acre avocado farm, Earthlodge (tel. 5664-0713 or 4980-2564, www.earthlodgeguatemala.com, dorms $8 pp to $45 d in cabin) is a sure bet for wonderful volcano views and the chance to get away from it all at a reasonable distance from town in the surrounding hillsides. Accommodations include a shared-bath, eight-bed dormitory, A-frame cabins, and tree houses. The private cabins and tree houses are wonderfully secluded in a grove of Spanish oaks and have fabulous views of the valley and surrounding mountains. There are shared or private bathroom options and queen or double beds.
Delicious vegetarian dinners are served family-style for $9, though carnivores need not despair as meat options are also available, including a fun weekend barbecue. Breakfast items include eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and fresh fruit. Heaping sandwiches and salads are served for lunch. You can relax in a hammock and take in the valley views, hike nearby trails, or sweat out any remaining pre-vacation stress in the stone-and-mortar sauna. There are also books, movies, music, and games on hand should you need further entertainment. Spanish classes and massages are also available. The easiest way to get here is via the lodge-designated transfers from Antigua with a local driver. Rates start at $7 per person, one-way.
Also in the hills above Antigua in the area of El Hato is one of Guatemala’s most unique hotels. Hobbitenango (tel. 5909-9106, camping $2.50, dorm $8 pp, $52 for 5-person cottage) takes its inspiration from J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional Hobbiton (of Lord of the Rings fame). It is still very much a work in progress, but its creators have focused their efforts on providing a place to get off the grid amid a spectacularly scenic location overlooking the Antigua valley. The property prides itself in environmentally sustainable practices, such as the use of recycled materials for construction, rainwater collection, organic farming, and wind/solar power generation. The accommodations mimic the homes of Tolkien’s Shire-dwelling hobbits, and there’s a restaurant/bar with wonderful views. A light menu is served weekdays, with a full menu on weekends. There are also shuttle transfers from downtown Antigua Friday through Sunday.
Outside the city center on the way to Santa Ana is Hotel Quinta de las Flores (Calle del Hermano Pedro #6, tel. 7832-3721/25, www.quintadelasflores.com, $75-140 d), another excellent value. The lodge was built on the site of what were once public baths, and you can still hear the soothing sounds of tinkling fountains throughout the property. The charming rooms, built around a peaceful and spacious garden, feature tile floors, chimneys, cable TV, Guatemalan bedspreads, and nice accents and furnishings along with a small porch with sitting area. Larger two-bedroom casitas comfortably sleep five and have living room, dining room, and fully equipped kitchen. There’s a large outdoor swimming pool just next to the hotel’s restaurant, which serves Guatemalan dishes, including delicious chuchitos and tostadas, or salads, steak, and chicken. It’s a good choice for vacationing families. Also in Santa Ana, SPosada El Ensueño (Calle del Agua, Callejón La Ermita Final, Santa Ana, tel. 7832-7958, www.posadaensueno.com, $100-125 d) is a splendid bed-and-breakfast in a quiet setting. Run by American expatriate Carmen Herrerias, the lodge has three tastefully decorated rooms with garden showers, one of which is a suite. It’s a great place to relax away from the action in Antigua. Breakfast and home-cooked meals are served poolside, and Carmen loves to cook for her guests. There’s also a small heated lap pool and bikes to get around. It’s about a 25-minute walk to Antigua’s central park.
Just minutes from Antigua in neighboring San Felipe de Jesús, S Filadelfia Coffee Resort and Spa (150 meters north of the San Felipe de Jesús church, tel. 7728-0800, www.filadelfiaresort.com, $125-250 d including breakfast) is a working coffee farm where you can stay in a splendid neocolonial building harboring luxurious accommodations. The 20 spacious rooms have tile floors, king- or queen-size beds, classy Guatemalan furnishings, cable TV with DVD player, large two-sink bathrooms, glass showers with antique tiles, and pleasant patios with furniture. There are four standard rooms, 14 deluxe doubles, and two master suites with island kitchen and a living room with leather sofa and large desk. Coffee machinery and wooden carvings adorn the public areas, while the main building harbors a cozy lobby adorned with Persian rugs. An elegant restaurant in the main lodge serves international dishes with flair. Activities include daily coffee tours lasting two hours each at 9am, 11am, and 2pm ($18), mule riding ($15-40), paintball ($20-40), and a unimog ride to a lookout point ($20). There are free unimog transfers from Antigua’s town center if you want to take a tour or just enjoy a meal here.
Opened in 2008, S La Reunión Antigua Golf Resort (Km. 91.5 Carretera CA-14, tel. 7873-1400, www.lareunion.com.gt, $220 d) lies 17 kilometers from Antigua in neighboring Alotenango on the road to the Pacific Coast. The hotel setting and its Pete Dye-designed 18-hole golf course is truly spectacular, flanked by four volcanoes and lush green fields. The larger suites are worth the splurge (an extra $50 over the deluxe rooms), for their private infinity-edge plunge pools and a hot tub with stunning volcano views (Agua and active Pacaya). The luxuriously well-furnished rooms have L’Occitane bath products, air-conditioning, and satellite TV. For dining, there’s the resort’s Mirador restaurant serving international fare, a snack bar, and Bar Wayeb. Plans call for the existing 26-room boutique hotel to be joined by a 125-room hotel managed by an international hotel chain. For now, La Reunión remains wonderfully peaceful. The only sounds you’ll hear are the chirping of birds, the occasional roar of a distant lawnmower, and, once in a while, a landing helicopter announcing the arrival of Guatemala City’s business elite coming in for a round of golf. It’s all par for the course.
La Reunión Antigua Golf Resort
Antigua’s status as one of Guatemala’s main tourist destinations is evident in the variety and number of excellent restaurants for every taste and budget. The mix here is rather eclectic, and restaurants can often be classified into more than one category. While the presence of a McDonald’s in town hardly constitutes anything worth writing home about, Antigua’s golden arches are the focus of some local lore completely in line with the magic seemingly everywhere in Guatemala. According to local urban legend, the Ronald McDonald sitting on the bench outside Antigua’s McDonald’s has at least on one occasion uncrossed its legs and come to life, scaring two employees sweeping the patio out of their wits.
CAFÉS AND LIGHT MEALS
S The Refuge (7a Avenida Norte #18A, www.refugecoffeeroasters.com, 7:30am-7pm Mon.-Sat., $3) is an independent coffee shop serving phenomenal coffee and espresso beverages at very reasonable prices in a quaint, intimate atmosphere. Also recommended for its high-quality coffee is Tretto Caffe (1a Avenida Sur #4, tel. 4828-0692, 7:30am-8pm daily). For coffee on the go, Café Barista (on parque central’s northwest corner) serves a variety of favorites, including caramel macchiato, mochas (hot or iced), and tasty pastries. It’s part of a chain popular throughout Guatemala. One of Antigua’s best-known cafés, Doña Luisa Xicotencatl (4a Calle Oriente #12, tel. 7832-2578, 7am-9:30pm daily) serves delicious breakfasts, snacks, pastries, and light meals in a delightful garden courtyard. There are fresh-baked breads and cakes available all day from the bakery at the front of the building. Next door, La Fuente (4a Calle Oriente #14, tel. 7832-4520, 7am-7pm daily) is a good place for breakfast and vegetarian fare as well as for a cup of coffee accompanied by an ever-so-sinfully delicious chocolate brownie topped with coffee ice cream and chocolate syrup.
On the west side of the central park, S Café Condesa (Portal del Comercio #4, tel. 7832-0038, 7am-8pm Sun.-Thurs., until 9pm Fri.-Sat.) is a great place to get some pep in your step with an early breakfast and coffee or to refuel later in the day. There are excellent cakes, pastries, sandwiches, and salads served in a pleasing garden atmosphere, or you can enjoy the all-day breakfasts. A Sunday brunch is served 10am-2pm and includes scrambled eggs, home-fried potatoes, silver-dollar pancakes, quiche, homemade bread, and muffins, just to name a few items. If you’re on the go, grab a cup of the excellent coffee at the Condesa Express next door.
For fresh bagels, bagel sandwiches, and great coffee, stop at The Bagel Barn (5a Calle Poniente #2, tel. 7832-1224, www.thebagelbarn.com, 6am-9pm daily). There is wireless Internet if you’re traveling with a laptop, and movies are shown in the afternoons and evenings. Another Antigua standby is the Rainbow Café and Bookshop (7a Avenida Sur #8, tel. 7832-1919, www.rainbowcafeantigua.com, all meals daily), serving delicious menu options including eggs Florentine, Israeli falafel, and the chocolate bomb for dessert. Try the outstanding Greek chicken fillet stuffed with spinach, bacon, raisins, feta cheese, and covered with a creamy oregano and lime sauce ($9). Live music, poetry readings, and other cultural events are held on-site. Under the same ownership as Café No Sé, S Y Tu Piña También (corner of 6a Calle Oriente and 1a Avenida Sur, www.ytupinatambien.com, $3-8) has evolved from its origins as a juice bar into a great all-day breakfast spot. There are awesome sandwiches, breakfast pizzas, salads, and of course, coffee. There’s also no shortage of hangover-curing cocktails. Check out their Sunday brunch. Finally, a trip to Antigua wouldn’t be complete without a stop for some dulces típicos (typical Guatemalan sweets) from Doña María Gordillo (4a Calle Oriente #11, tel. 7832-0403). Under new ownership, Travel Menu (6a Calle Poniente #14, tel. 5682-9648, $5-10) is a budget traveler favorite for its tasty, varied menu that runs the gamut from steak to Asian cuisine at affordable prices.
Pitaya Juice Bar (6a Calle Poniente #26, tel. 7832-1172, www.pitayajuicebar.com, 8:30am-6pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-4pm Sun., $2-5) serves a variety of natural blended juices, smoothies, soups, salads, and wraps. All of the ingredients are amazingly fresh, and the atmosphere is cheerful and bright.
Ni-Fu Ni-Fa (3a Calle Oriente #21, tel. 7832-6579, www.nifunifadeantigua.com, noon-10pm Sun. and Mon., noon-10:30pm Tues.-Thurs., noon-11pm Fri. and Sat., $5-22) is a genuine Argentinean steakhouse serving tasty grilled meats on a pleasant raised wooden deck surrounded by lush gardens. Restaurant Las Antorchas (3a Avenida Sur #1, tel. 7832-0806, www.lasantorchas.com, 11am-3pm and 6pm-10pm Mon.-Fri., 11am-4pm and 6pm-10pm Sat., 11am-5pm Sun., $8-31) offers a more elegant setting and a menu that includes grilled onions, cheese fondue, tortellini, salmon in orange sauce, and well-presented grilled steak and chicken dishes.
Sometimes during long visits to Guatemala I get a little homesick for the taste of Texas. Thank goodness for Pappy’s BBQ (6a Calle Poniente #21, tel. 7832-2768 or 5979-6771, www.bbqantigua.com, 11am-10pm Tues.-Sat., 11am-8pm Sun., $3-9), serving authentically tasty Texas barbecue. On the menu are several Texas favorites including mouthwatering coffee-rubbed beef brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken, and smoked pork sausage. The latter, while on the menu, is in fact rarely available (which is my only complaint about this otherwise awesome dining option). Side dishes include potato salad, Texas baked beans, and spicy corn on the cob. It’s a casual, friendly kind of place. There are delicious homemade sauces to bring out the meats’ delicious flavors.
Antigua is full of hidden gems. One of these is S Hector’s Bistro (1a Calle Poniente #9A, tel. 7832-9867, lunch and dinner, $7-17), tucked away on the street fronting Iglesia La Merced. It’s a simple kind of place with half a dozen tables and a bar. The menu rotates but includes amazing open-faced sandwiches, homemade pasta, seared duck, and beef tenderloin. You can watch your meal being prepared in the open kitchen. Olives make a wonderful starter to pair with a glass of wine. S Como Como (6a Calle Poniente #6, tel. 7832-0478, lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun., $5-20) specializes in Franco-Belgian cuisine and enjoys a loyal following thanks to consistently great food and a pleasant atmosphere that includes a lovely garden patio. Sobremesa (4a Calle Oriente #4A, tel. 7832-3231, www.alexferrar.com, $8-13) is a restaurant doubling as an art gallery. The art is fabulously eclectic, but the food is not to be outdone. Menu highlights include phenomenal croque-monsieur, delicious Unicorn Steak (tenderloin medallion in a wine and Dijon reduction), and yummy Japanese Plum Chicken. For dessert, savor exotic ice cream flavors the likes of strawberry merlot and jasmine blackberry. Antigua’s finest delicatessen is Epicure (3a Avenida Norte #11 B, tel. 7832-5545, 10am-10pm daily, $5-12), serving phenomenal sandwiches and deli items. The owners prefer that patrons dine on-site rather than carry out, and the pleasant outdoor area centered around a lovely garden courtyard and the remains of an old aqueduct makes that request easy to accommodate. A second location (6a Avenida Norte #35 A, tel. 7832-1414) is only open until 7pm Monday-Saturday (until 6:30pm Sun.).
Extremely popular with Antigua’s expat community for its wonderful views over town, laid-back vibe, and fresh farm-to-table vegetarian fare is Cerro San Cristóbal (tel. 7832-2681, 9am-9pm daily). The menu includes dishes such as stuffed mushrooms, quiche, and frittatas. You can tour the on-site organic farm and a lovely orchid nursery. There are frequent (and free) shuttle transfers from Nim Po’t, located at 5a Avenida Norte #29.
Enjoying a new lease on life from its new location, Caffé Opera Bistrot (4a Avenida Sur #1, tel. 7832-9133, www.caffeoperabistrot.com, noon-3:30pm and 6:30pm-10pm Mon.-Tues. and Thurs., noon-11pm Fri.-Sat., noon-10pm Sun., $6-12) serves up tasty Italian food, including homemade pasta. For gourmet pizza, try Papazitos (4a Calle Oriente #39, tel. 7832-5209, 11am-10pm daily). It also serves nachos, panini, calzones, pastas, vegetarian dishes, wine, and beer. It offers free delivery with a minimum $7 purchase; 10- to 18-inch pizzas go for $9-16.
GUATEMALAN AND LATIN AMERICAN
One of Antigua’s legendary restaurants is La Fonda de la Calle Real (3a Calle Poniente #7, tel. 7832-0507, www.lafondadelacallereal.com, noon-10pm daily; 5a Avenida Norte #5, tel. 7832-2696, noon-10pm daily; 5a Avenida Norte #12, tel. 7832-0507, 8am-10pm daily, $5-12), with three branches, the nicest of which is the one on 3a Calle Poniente. There is a varied menu of Guatemalan favorites, including chiles rellenos as well as tasty grilled meats. If you can’t decide, do as President Clinton did and order the filling sampler menu. For gourmet Guatemalan cuisine served in a stylish environment with modern Guatemalan decor, head to Los Tres Tiempos (5a Avenida Norte #21, tel. 7832-5161, www.lostrestiempos.com, 8am-10pm daily, $5-12). There are delicious enchiladas, chuchitos, and tacos to be enjoyed in a spacious second-floor patio with funky lounge chairs or inside in comfortable huipil-inspired seats. There’s a cozy and equally stylish little downstairs bar if you’re just stopping by for a cocktail.
chips and salsa at Los Tres Tiempos
Café Flor (4a Avenida Sur #1, tel. 7832-5274, www.cafeflorantigua.com, 11am-11pm daily, $6-12) does a reasonably good job with Thai food, though it won’t taste familiar to die-hard fans of Asian cuisine. Offerings include Thai curries and rice dishes. For Indian food, check out Pushkar (6a Avenida Norte #18, tel. 7882-4098, lunch and dinner daily, $4-11). You’ll find several of your Indian favorites on the menu, including meat or vegetable samosas, seafood curries, chicken tikka masala, and tandoori chicken. There’s also pleasant outdoor patio seating. For decent Chinese food, head to Restaurante La Estrella (7a Avenida Norte #42, tel. 7832-4303). They also deliver.
One of the city’s most atmospheric restaurants, El Tenedor del Cerro (tel. 7832-3520, 7am-10pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-5pm Sun., $4-15) features fabulous views of the Antigua valley and its volcanic backdrop, along with a well-rounded menu that includes hearty breakfasts, salads, pasta, pizzas with an interesting array of international flavors, steaks, and decadent desserts. Many of the fresh ingredients come straight from the on-site garden. The views of Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango Volcanoes are fully appreciated with outdoor seating on a pleasant patio. There are a separate patio lounge, gift shop, aviary, and sculpture gardens to enjoy, along with rotating art exhibits. To get here, follow the winding road to the top of the hill. The entrance is just before Antigua’s main entrance, on the left, on the road from Guatemala City. There are also free transfers from Hotel Casa Santo Domingo.
With a long tradition of excellence, Welten (4a Calle Oriente #21, tel. 7832-0630, www.weltenrestaurant.com, noon-10pm Mon.-Thurs. and Fri.-Sun. until 10:30pm, $13-22) is one of Antigua’s well-established dining options serving an impressive menu of gourmet Guatemalan, French, and Italian specialties in an elegant atmosphere. Menu highlights include creamy peppered steak (filet au poivre), seafood fettuccine, and fish fillet in a traditional salsa. There are delicious homemade ice creams for dessert. S Mesón Panza Verde (5a Avenida Sur #19, tel. 7955-8282, www.panzaverde.com, lunch Tues.-Sun., dinner 7pm-10pm nightly, $10-30) is easily one of Guatemala’s finest restaurants, with outstanding food and sophisticated European ambience. The mostly French cuisine is heavy on meat and fish dishes. The wine list is impressive, as are the desserts. Tapas are served 4pm-7pm Thursday-Saturday on the terrace. You can enjoy lunch and dinner in the main dining room surrounded by fine art under a vaulted ceiling or alfresco in La Cueva, a covered patio beneath baroque arches beside a gurgling fountain. Chacun à son goût.
the courtyard at Mesón Panza Verde
The town’s most authentic hotel restaurant can be found at S Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo (5a Avenida Norte #17, tel. 7832-0291, all meals daily, $7-20), which is popular with Guatemalans who come here for its stellar service, wonderful ambience overlooking the hotel gardens, and consistently delicious Guatemalan and international cuisine. The tortillas are made fresh on the premises, and you can watch the dough being patted and placed on the comal, where it is cooked over a fire. There is sometimes live marimba music to complete the authentic Guatemalan feel.
A longtime favorite is S El Sereno (4a Avenida Norte #16, tel. 7832-0501, www.elserenoantigua.com, lunch and dinner daily, $9-25). The restaurant dates to 1980, but the wonderfully old colonial building in which it’s housed dates to the 16th century and once housed the Spanish priests who built La Merced church. You can dine on gourmet international dishes in the elegant main dining room, in a romantic cavelike candlelit room, or alfresco either in a delightful covered garden patio or on the rooftop terrace.
Last but certainly not least of the fine dining options is S Bistrot Cinq (4a Calle Oriente #7, tel. 7832-5510, www.bistrotcinq.com, noon-10pm daily, until 11 Fri./Sat., $9-25). The emphasis is on French cuisine; dishes include chicken scaloppine and trout Armandine, but with take-out or delivery items such as scrumptious half-pound burgers and steak frites also on the menu. The bar is top-notch and includes absinthe.
Information and Services
The INGUAT office (5a Calle Oriente #11, tel. 7832-0787 or 2421-2951, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-5pm Sat.-Sun.), also known as Casa del Turista, has friendly, helpful staff who can help steer you in the right direction as well as provide free maps, bus schedules, and other useful information. A useful website with lots of information on hotels, restaurants, shops, and services is www.aroundantigua.com. Another useful publication is the monthly Revue magazine, available free at many hotels, restaurants, and shops. Another publication, Qué pasa en Antigua, has very complete information on all that’s going on.
The Giant Kite Festival
If you’re visiting the Antigua or Guatemala City area around November 1, you should certainly plan a trip to either of the highland Mayan towns of Santiago Sacatepéquez or Sumpango, home to the annual Giant Kite Festival. In addition to the lively atmosphere of a typical Mayan fiesta, you’ll be treated to an awe-inspiring display of larger-than-life kites, typically 20-50 feet wide. The kites are painstakingly crafted from tissue paper and bamboo reeds incorporating colorful and elaborate designs. Preparations typically begin six weeks in advance, in mid-September, with teams working extended hours as the deadline for completion draws closer. Judges are on hand at the festival to name the best entries in a variety of categories.
Kites under 20 feet in diameter are flown over the town cemetery later in the day and are believed to be a vehicle for speaking with the souls of departed loved ones. The flying kites are representative of the floating spirits of the dead. Larger kites are only for show and typically carry a message or theme, sometimes overtly political in nature. The weather is typically windy during this time of year, with the surrounding hillsides still tinged with verdant hues thanks to the recently ended rainy season. The colorful cemetery structures and the typical native dress of the Mayan people cap off a Technicolor dream of a day.
The festival in Sumpango, the larger of the two towns, takes place in a broad field adjacent to the cemetery. Santiago Sacatepéquez has a somewhat more cramped setting, its cemetery being perched on the edge of a plateau and extending down a gently sloping hillside. Personally, I prefer Sumpango’s version of the event. For a mere three dollars, you can purchase access to bleacher seating, which gets you some nice vantage points for photography. In the afternoon, around 3pm, the official festivities begin with a speech by the local mayor and other such pageantry. The highlight of the afternoon is watching the giant six-meter kites take flight as teams of kite fliers test their skills and the sturdiness of their creations. Only kites six meters across in diameter or smaller are able to take flight, though you’ll find plenty of larger kites on display. The difficulty of getting these monstrosities to become airborne is exacerbated by the large crowds, which leave little room for participants to do the necessary running to get the kites going. As a result, you’ll often see the kites plunging quickly toward the crowd. It’s all part of the fun, but it’s also one more reason I prefer the bleacher seats off to the side. Many Antigua travel agencies offer special trips and shuttle transport to both towns on these days, or you can go by public bus. Santiago Sacatepéquez lies a few kilometers off the Pan-American Highway. You can take a direct bus from Antigua or get off from any Guatemala City-bound bus at the junction and continue from there. For Sumpango, your best bet is to get to Chimaltenango, also on the Pan-American Highway, and connect from there. Be prepared for huge crowds. If you drive your own vehicle, you’ll likely need to park outside of town and walk uphill from the highway to the festival grounds.
Antigua’s main post office is near the bus terminal on the corner of 4a Calle Poniente and Calzada de Santa Lucía and is open 9am-5pm. There are also various international couriers with offices here, including DHL (Corner 6a Calle Poniente and 6a Avenida Sur #16, tel. 2339-8400, ext. 7515). A number of companies can also help you ship home any purchases you’re unable to fit in your check-in baggage allotment. These include Envíos Etc. (3a Avenida Norte #26, tel. 7832-1212), which is also the local representative for FedEx.
Banco Industrial (5a Avenida Sur #4), just south of the plaza, has a Visa/Plus ATM. There is also an ATM on the north side of the plaza next to Café Barista. Another ATM may be found on the plaza’s west side next to Café Condesa (Portal del Comercio #4). Avoid any and all BAC ATM machines, as there have been incidents of card cloning originating at their Antigua locations.
Detalles (6a Avenida Norte #3B, tel. 7832-5973, 7:30am-6:30pm Mon.-Sat., 8am-4pm Sun.) does dry cleaning and has coin-operated laundry machines. Lavandería Dry Clean (6a Calle Poniente #49, 7am-7pm Mon.-Sat., 9am-6pm Sun.) charges about $4 a load. Quick Laundry (6a Calle Poniente #14, tel. 7832-2937, 8am-5pm Mon.-Sat.) charges about $0.85 per pound.
EMERGENCY AND MEDICAL SERVICES
For the Bomberos Municipales (Municipal Fire Department), dial 7831-0049. Casa de Salud Santa Lucía (Calzada de Santa Lucía Sur #7, tel. 7832-3122) is a private medical hospital with 24-hour emergency services. Hospital Nacional Pedro de Betancourt is a public hospital two kilometers from town with emergency service. For serious issues, your best bet is to go to Guatemala City.
Travel agencies are ubiquitous in Antigua. Among the recommended companies for shuttle buses is Atitrans (6a Avenida Sur #7, tel. 7832-3371, www.atitrans.net). For plane tickets and general travel needs, recommended travel agents include National Travel (6a Avenida Sur #1A, tel. 2247-4747), Viajes Tivoli (4a Calle Oriente #10, Edificio El Jaulón, tel. 7832-4274), and Rainbow Travel Center (7a Avenida Sur #8, tel. 7931-7878, www.rainbowtravelcenter.com).
Sin Fronteras (3a Avenida Sur #1A, tel. 7720-4400, www.sinfront.com) is another good all-around agency with package deals to Tikal in addition to local tours. It rents cars through Tabarini Rent A Car. Bon Voyage Guatemala (6a Avenida Norte #3A, tel. 7823-9209, www.bonvoyageguatemala.com) is a good source of travel information and acts as a booking agent for various transportation providers. The company also runs daily shuttles at 8am for El Salvador beaches. Also recommended for countrywide tours from Antigua is Guinness Travel (6a Avenida Norte #16, tel. 4623-6297, www.guinness-travel.com).
Choosing a Language School
Antigua has close to 100 language schools, and the task of choosing the right one can seem downright daunting. It really boils down to the quality of individual instructors, though some schools are definitely better than others. Look around and ask plenty of questions. If you decide midway through a weeklong course that you’re just not jiving with the instructor, don’t hesitate to pull out and ask for a new one. That being said, the following websites can help you out in your search: www.guatemala365.com and www.123teachme.com. Both have surveys and rankings of individual schools in Guatemala.
Among the recommended Antigua schools are Academia de Español Antigueña (1a Calle Poniente #10, tel. 7832-7241, www.spanishacademyantiguena.com), a small, well-run school with space for 10 students at a time. I’ve personally had the pleasure of working with Spanish School La Unión (1a. Avenida Sur #21, tel. 7832-7757, www.launion.edu.gt). They offer quality one-on-one instruction and are involved in a variety of social projects. Escuela de Español San José El Viejo (5a Avenida Sur #34, tel. 7832-3028, www.sanjoseelviejo.com) has its own very attractive campus where you can stay in comfortable accommodations with facilities that include a tennis court and swimming pool amid lovely gardens and coffee trees. A longtime student favorite is Christian Spanish Academy (6a Avenida Norte #15, tel. 7832-3922, www.learncsa.com), a very well-run school set in a pleasant colonial courtyard. Antigua’s oldest language school is Proyecto Lingüistico Francisco Marroquín (7a Calle Poniente #31, tel. 7832-2886, www.plfm-antigua.org), run by a nonprofit foundation working toward the study and preservation of Mayan languages. It comes highly recommended. Academia de Español Probigua (6a Avenida Norte #41B, tel. 7832-2998, www.probigua.conexion.com) is run by a nonprofit group working to establish and maintain libraries in rural villages. Another good choice with comfortable accommodations across the street from the school is Centro Lingüistico Internacional (1a Calle Oriente #11, tel. 7832-0391, www.spanishcontact.com).
The recommended schools range in price $140-225 per week, including 20-35 hours of instruction and a stay with local family. While the schools provide everything you will need to learn the language, it might be a challenge to have a total language immersion experience because of the overwhelming presence of foreigners in Antigua. If this is an issue for you, consider taking Spanish classes in Cobán or Petén.
Although it’s based in the city of Quetzaltenango, EntreMundos (www.entremundos.org) has a very useful database of volunteer projects throughout Guatemala. If you’re interested in working with impoverished children, check out The God’s Child project (U.S. tel. 612-351-8020, www.godschild.org).
If you acquire a taste for traditional Guatemalan cuisine and want to re-create the country’s myriad flavors at home, check out El Frijol Feliz (4a Avenida Sur #1, tel. 7832-5274, www.frijolfeliz.com, $30-45 per class). The school is open every day, and there are classes available in the morning or afternoon. The class includes instruction on the preparation of one main dish, two side dishes, and a dessert. More focused classes include instruction on the preparation of typical Guatemalan sauces such as mole and salsa verde. Dishes include pepiaán, chiles rellenos, and chuchitos (the author’s favorite).
The main bus terminal is found next to the market, three blocks west of the central plaza. It is separated from the heart of town by a broad, tree-lined street. There are connections to the highlands available by taking one of many frequent buses up to Chimaltenango (every 15 minutes, half-hour travel time) along the Pan-American Highway and a requisite stop for buses trundling along to the highlands from Guatemala City. You can also catch one of the slightly less frequent buses to San Lucas Sacatepéquez, which is closer to Guatemala City. There may be more seats available on the buses plying the same highway en route toward Chimaltenango. Buses for Guatemala City leave every 15 minutes or so 4am-7:30pm, taking about an hour and costing about $2. There is also a direct Rebuli bus to Panajachel at 7am leaving from the corner of Calzada Santa Lucía and 5a Calle Poniente (two hours, $5).
the Antigua bus terminal
Otherwise, buses leave every 15 minutes for San Miguel Dueñas (“Dueñas,” 30 minutes, $0.50) stopping along the way in Ciudad Vieja. There are also buses every 30 minutes for San Antonio Aguas Calientes and Santa María de Jesús.
Many travelers opt for the comfort, convenience, safety, and hassle-free experience aboard one of the numerous shuttle buses. Destinations include frequent runs to the Guatemala City airport, at least one bus daily to Monterrico and Cobán, several daily to Panajachel and Quetzaltenango, and less frequently to Río Dulce. Recommended shuttle companies include Atitrans (6a Avenida Sur #7, tel. 7832-3371, www.atitrans.net) and Adrenalina Tours (3a Calle Poniente #2D, tel. 7882-4147, www.adrenalinatours.com).
Taxis can be found on the east side of the park next to the cathedral or by the bus terminal. The former is probably a safer place to board one. A ride to Guatemala City should cost around $30. You’ll also see tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) throughout the city, costing considerably less and recommended for short distances.
Hertz (7a Calle Poniente #33B, inside Camino Real Antigua hotel, tel. 3274-4420, www.rentautos.com.gt) has an office in Antigua, as does Budget (4a Avenida Sur #4, tel. 2203-2303, www.budget.com.gt). Tabarini (6a Avenida Sur #22, tel. 7832-8107) also rents cars.
O.X. Outdoor Excursions (7a Calle Poniente #17, tel. 7832-0468, www.guatemalavolcano.com) rents mountain bikes for $22 per day. You will need a passport and a valid credit card. Also for mountain bikes, check out Old Town Outfitters (5a Avenida Sur #12, tel. 7832-4171, www.adventureguatemala.com, 9am-6pm daily).
Near Antigua Guatemala
Antigua is surrounded by a number of picturesque towns and villages built in the midst of the Panchoy Valley and on the slopes of neighboring volcanoes. You’ll find plenty of recreational opportunities in these parts—enjoy the region’s natural backdrop, surrounded by coffee farms and even a winery.
Jocotenango lies just 3.5 kilometers northwest of Antigua. A pretty, pink stucco church adorns the main square. In colonial times, the town served as the official entry point into neighboring Antigua.
S Centro Cultural La Azotea
The town’s main attraction is Centro Cultural La Azotea (La Azotea Cultural Center, Calle del Cementerio, Final, tel. 7831-1486, www.centroazotea.com, 8:30am-4pm Mon.-Fri., 8:30am-2pm Sat., $4 adults, $0.85 children), which functions as a three-in-one coffee, costume, and music museum. The music museum, Casa K’ojom (www.kojom.org) features a wonderful assortment of traditional Mayan musical instruments, including marimbas, drums, a diatomic harp, and flutes in addition to masks and paintings collected by its dedicated administrator, Samuel Franco. There is also an audiovisual room where you can watch a video on traditional music as it would be played in Mayan villages. Traditional costumes and crafts of the Antigua Valley are exhibited in a separate room dedicated to Sacatepéquez department.
The adjoining Museo del Café covers the history and evolution of coffee cultivation and is available as a self-guided or guided tour. You can see coffee beans in varying stages of production from recently harvested to fully roasted. The well-illustrated displays include information on wet and dry mills, some old roasters, and machinery. You can then tour an actual plantation on-site. There is also a shop where you can buy CDs, DVDs, handicrafts, and of course, coffee.
Also found here is the Establo La Ronda (tel. 7831-1120), where you can ride around the grounds on horseback for an hour in the mornings ($3). Call ahead.
You can get to Jocotenango by taking any Chimaltenango-bound bus leaving from Antigua’s bus terminal. Buses leave every 20 minutes; you can also take a tuk-tuk or taxi.
sunrise at Lake Atitlán