Sure, it helps that Antigua is—to use a cutesy souvenir word--nestled in Panchoy Valley, tiny and innocent at the base of a 12,000-foot volcano, a collection of ruins wedged between storefronts and restaurant-hotels. It helps that there are beautiful plazas and a Southern California climate six months of the year (the other is more rainy, like say Florida in autumn). However, there is a lot more to do in Antigua than sit in awe of its greatness.
Might I suggest:
1. Having breakfast. It seems so obvious, like something you’d do everyday anyway. Not to mention, Antigua is a sanctuary of coffee. This joint is full of places to start the day off right: Y Tu Pina Tambien (indie coffee shop atmosphere), Bagel Barn (the Guate, Guate sandwich), El Portal (sweet diner-style breakfast bar), Escolonia (the beautiful restaurant/garden center at the south end of 5th Avenida), Café Condessa (a swanky taste of the tipico)…
2. Perusing the markets and shops. Again, obvious, as there is a big, bright souvenir market, but there is also a really funky, functional market just north of it—with a paca (cheap clothes warehouse), vegetables and such, a sometimes horrifying maze of cafeterias, and odds and ends of all description. It’s a more eye-opening experience. Also, keep curious while roaming the streets because there are loads of surprise markets that overtake courtyards and alleyways. Still, though, Nim Po't (on the north end of 5th Avenida) is my favorite place to get the occasional tit of tat.
3. Reading in Parque Central. Always littered with loiterers, I was never that much for just sitting around the city’s main square until I recently began walking my wife to her afternoon job. I began veering off on the walk home, finding a bench to stretch out on and read a chapter or two. The fountains are tinkling, people are strolling, and often there is live music or street performers to distract any literature from getting too involved.
4. Visiting all the ruins. Before the notorious 1770s earthquake, there were nearly forty churches here, many of which still remain in different states of disrepair. I’ve been passing them for years now, but to really take a day to simply visit them all (or several) is really quite humbling. As an Antigua regular, it’s easy to forget on the brisk trip to work. As a first-timer, it’s just freaking incredible how many there are.
5. Sampling certain Antigua institutions, even if they aren’t particularly Guatemalan: The ridiculously sized platter of nachos at Mono Loco (5th Aveida), the mescal in the hidden bar behind a tiny refrigerator door at Café No Sé (1st Avenida), those the-idea-is-better-than-the-product choco-bananos (everywhere), Dona Luisa banana bread (4th Calle), love the gelato at the little place tucked next to the pharmacy at the corner of 7th Avenida and 3rd Calle, and definitely pick up an issue of the local expat mag La Cuadra.
6. Taking Spanish classes. It’s easy enough to get around this city with only whatever rudimentary language skills one arrives with, but it’s also easy enough to find private Spanish classes for $5/hour. Every morning, the little grass courtyard at the entrance of my apartment complex (El Rosario—5th Avenida again) fills up with little two-top tables of outdoor classes in session. Or, try one of the dozen or so language schools offering.
7. Making chocolate. I’ve yet to do this myself, but there is a new thing going on in Antigua these days, the opportunity to visit a chocolate museum and make your own delectables. Of course, Central America is the land of cocoa, and the local Mayan culture prides itself on being the originators of the world’s most beloved sweet. The Choco Museo has been one a crowd-pleaser amongst the tourists I’ve met this year.
8. Seeing a movie at Bagel Barn. There is a chalkboard at the door (on 5th Calle near the square) with the weeks’ selections. A film is shown every night, and usually the week will include at least one feature relevant to the Guatemala.
9. Exploring the streets not immediately in the city center. The residential areas of Antigua make for a pleasant walk, and I’m constantly discovering little bakeries, tortilla stands, and specialty shops that are especially un-touristy. For anyone who thinks Antigua is nothing but fantasy land, they haven’t spent enough time getting lost in the spots where crowds aren’t. Take a stroll (or jog), take a wrong turn, and see where it brings you.
10. Getting the hell out of Antigua! On the outskirts of the city, you can tour coffee farms, hike up an active volcano, go on a zip-line canopy tour, mountain bike, motorbike, as well as visit the world’s best view at Earth Lodge for some beer-riddled hammock time with a view. Also, there are NGOs—educational, developmental, agricultural, and otherwise—to see and support and at which to volunteer. Touring Camino Seguro is one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had anywhere.
And, then again, one of the great things about Antigua is that, when all is said and done, you don’t have to do much of damned thing. It’s a town highly conducive to lazing, lounging, and drinking one’s self into a stupor or shaking, caffeinated fit. There is such an array of bar stools, benches, couches, and comfy chairs that one can quite contentedly wile away days doing nothing more than basking in the glory that is.
The Bagel Barn
Café No Se
Y Tu Piña Tambien
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my mission was to explore the depths of one Central America's great tourist attractions and take from it what I could. These are thoughts on Antigua Guatemala.