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Antigua, Guatemala is a charming colonial city located in the central highlands of Guatemala, known for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture and rich history.
I was drawn to Antigua by its iconic yellow archway and the volcanic setting. And Spanish school. And the beautiful old buildings and ruins waiting for me to explore. Clearly, Antigua Guatemala had plenty of things to do!
Three volcanoes can be seen from Antigua – Agua, Acatenango and Fuego.
I was swept away by the ruins. History stared back at me from every street corner.
I was intrigued by the Mayans.
I fell in love with the cobblestone streets. And the colours, alive and vibrant, throughout the city.
I spent my mornings learning Spanish and my afternoons discovering the treasures of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antigua is a city that is ripe for exploration and observation. Wandering the cobblestone streets, its history and culture are palpable. Courtyards, fountains, Mayans, Spanish colonial architecture and Catholic churches are ever-present.
The sound of Spanish voices, chicken buses roaring around corners, vendors in Parque Central, and markets full of food and traditional handicrafts add to the vibe that is Antigua, Guatemala.
This is a city full of ex-pats, where Guatemalans cannot afford property and children are selling goods on the streets. Mix those real-life elements with Antigua’s charm and liveliness and you will be captivated.
Read more | Don’t miss the ancient ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. Here’s how to get from Antigua to Tikal.
Antigua Guatemala: A Little History
Why so many ruins? Why so many churches?
Originally founded in the early 16th century as Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, the city served as the capital of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which included much of Central America and southern Mexico.
During the colonial period, Antigua was a thriving city with a booming economy, attracting wealthy landowners and merchants who built grand homes, churches, and public buildings. However, the city was struck by a series of devastating earthquakes in the 18th century, causing extensive damage to many of its buildings.
In the aftermath, the Spanish Crown decided to relocate the capital to a safer location, and Guatemala City was established as the new capital. Antigua was largely abandoned for several decades, and many of its buildings fell into disrepair. However, in the 20th century, efforts were made to restore the city’s historic buildings and revive its cultural heritage, earning it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After all my exploring, here are the best things to do in Antigua Guatemala:
Things to Do In Antigua Guatemala
1. Visit El Catedral de Santiago
This cathedral faces the central plaza, is lit up at night and is used as a church today. Go around the corner and pay the small entrance fee to see the incredible ruins. The majestic, towering columns dwarf humans. These ruins left me in awe as to the vitality of the Catholic church and the devastation of the 1773 earthquake.
2. See The Monasterio and Templo de la Recolección
This ruin is history staring you in the face. There is one archway that still stands after the earthquakes of 1773. There are piles of abandoned stones that have been there for centuries, demanding exploration. On an overcast afternoon when I arrived, there were a handful of Guatemalans enjoying the serenity. Out of nowhere, a voice rose, reverberating off the neglected stones. A spiritual song was being practised in this relic of a majestic church.
3. Explore The Casa Santa Domingo Hotel
Besides being an ancient monastery and a hotel, this is an archaeological museum with unearthed treasures, including a skeleton. Explore the Hotel first, then hop on the free shuttle which takes you up a steep hill to Santa Domingo del Cerro. Atop the hill, there are sweeping vistas of Antigua and Volcans Agua and Acatenango.
This is also a cultural centre. The museum chronicles Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2002 and also pays tribute to the most famous Guatemalan author, Miguel Angel Asturias. High school students study his works to this day. Santa Domingo del Cerro hosts a number of works from one of Guatemala’s most beloved artists, Efrain Recinos.
Adjacent to the cultural centre is a restaurant, El Tenedor, where you can sip a famous Guatemalan hot chocolate and admire the impressive view.
4. Enter San Francisco el Grande
Be sure to enter the church, and find the ruins and the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph of Betancur.
Antigua is a photographer’s dream and an explorer’s windfall. Wander. No map is required.
When You Go…
There are tons of Spanish schools in Antigua. I chose the Spanish Academy Antïgueña.
I had one on one instruction which included grammar, conversation and field trips. In the afternoon, the school provided optional activities around Antigua.
I had a wonderful teacher and would happily go back to this school.
I lived in a homestay which was another fantastic way to practice my Spanish and have the first-hand experience with a Guatemalan family.
The majority of my meals were provided. However, I did try a few restaurants.
This became a regular stop. The coffee is delicious as is the chocolate they make in the back. There is a lovely courtyard to sit in, sip your coffee and do your Spanish homework. Great wifi also. But most importantly…delicious, homemade GLUTEN FREE cookies! Once discovered, they became a daily habit!
Luna de Miel Crepes
I avoided this place because there was always a lineup and I doubted they served Gluten-free crepes. My last day in Antigua, I stopped in and asked. Sure enough, they had GLUTEN-FREE crepes! I immediately ordered a savoury one and it was divine. On my return, I will be testing out the sweet ones.
Situated in a gorgeous courtyard of a 16th Century mansion, this is a wonderful place to sip coffee and eat
Antigua Guatemala: Other things to do
- Hike one of the volcanoes
- Visit the chocolate museum or a coffee farm
- Explore the Ciudad Viejo – the original location of Antigua
- Use it as a base to explore other parts of Guatemala such as Lago de Atitlan and Tikal
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