Antigua Guatemala, not to be confused with Antigua and Barbuda (in the West Indies), is a charming colonial town about an hour from the capital, Guatemala City. I’d decided to skip the big city altogether, but caught a little glimpse when I arrived by bus from Flores at about 6am in morning and was glad to be leaving. With relatively little fuss, I managed to get another bus to Antigua and was soon on my way.
The drive from Guatemala City to Antigua starts out as quite industrial. Big roads, lots of traffic and smoke, then all of a sudden the concrete jungle gives way to winding roads lined with greenery. Mountains start to surround you (actually these are volcanoes I soon discover) and the tarmac becomes cobble-stoned streets.
Entering Antigua is like going back in time. The narrow streets are lined with small colonial buildings that transported my memory to small villages in Spain. The remnants of beautiful churches are perched on the roadside, with detailed statues that are now missing heads, arms or even facades, thanks to the earthquakes that have plagued this region. In this valley surrounded by volcanoes, nature has tried its best to destroy, but instead it has only made the town even more beautiful.
According to local historian Elizabeth Bell, this “earthquake architecture” has made Antigua the wedding destination for Central and North Americans. It’s easy to see why. The beautiful buildings may be damaged but what remains is simply stunning. And it’s not just one or two colonial structures that remain, every corner there’s something different to see, explore and simply marvel at. My favourite was the facade of El Carmen.
Bell is one of the town’s foremost historical experts and she runs a cultural walking tour of Antigua. I highly recommend going on the tour (and no they didn’t pay me to say that!), just make sure you get on a tour that she is actually taking personally. Bell takes you through the history of the town, visiting some of the stunning ruins and talks at length about her personal thoughts on protection of monuments, issues with excavation and life in Antigua in general. Without the tour, I would’ve missed some of the best parts of Antigua, such as the ruins of the main cathedral and the incredible Casa Santo Domingo. The latter is built around the excavated ruins of an old monastery, and is simply stunning. It also includes some of the best museums in Antigua, including the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and Glass that is built underground amidst an excavated site. This museum in particularly was intriguing, comparing sculptures of pre-Columbian art to glassworks from all over the world.
The town is well protected. There are no apartment blocks or ugly new constructions. Everything is required to maintain the colonial feel, even huge chains like McDonalds and Subway are banned from displaying flashy neon signs. This all contributes to Antigua’s charm, and ensures that it will continue to feel like time has stood still. Something not too far from the truth, given that the town only got its first public phone in Antigua. But it’s no stranger to tourism, since 1969 people have been coming here to study Spanish, making it one of the most popular places to learn Spanish in the world. I loved the town so much, I’m even tempted to come back for a few months and learn the language myself.
The lack of signage, while charming, made it a little challenging to find my accommodation, but thankfully it was worth the wait. I’d booked an Airbnb apartment, which completely outdid all my expectations. Apartmentos Los Nazarenos is a new complex owned by Tom, a Belgian man who came to Antigua to volunteer for a year. He ended up marrying a lovely woman and staying. Together they’ve built 5 apartments that are spacious and fully equipped. Mine even had a blender in case I felt like cooking up a storm!
What I loved about it, was having a couch to myself, and large comfortable bed. While I didn’t cook while I was there, it was certainly handy to have a fridge to store some fruit and be able to make myself a cup of tea in the morning. My hosts were also very generous, letting me check-in early and check-out late.
The apartment is full self-contained, but thankfully the hosts live in the same block and were always around to ask questions of. At their suggestion, I took the free shuttle bus from Casa Santo Domingo to Santo Domingo Del Cerro. Located at the top of a hill, this modern outdoor art gallery and restaurant has breathtaking views across the valley. It’s a lovely place to wander around and spend an afternoon.
I went here rather than take the more touristy route of climbing to the Cerro de la Cruz, a huge cross situated on (another) hill that looks over the town. While Tom advised it was now safe to climb there on my own, I was a little apprehensive. Tom did offer his (rather good-looking) brother-in-law as a bodyguard! But I think it all worked out for the best, I loved the gallery and peaceful gardens that I visited instead.
Antigua is a relatively small town but as my host commented, it doesn’t matter how long you live there, there’s still a corner of it left to explore. For anyone visiting Antigua for the first time, I’d recommend just wandering the streets and letting your curiousity get the better of you. If something looks interesting, walk in and take a look. While many of the colonial buildings are private houses, there are also plenty that have been converted into shops and restaurants. There’s not shortage of quaint cafes to sit in, and many are built around the courtyard of what was once part of colonial estate.
Antigua is also a great place to take day trips in the nearby region. After four days, I was refreshed from my comfortable stay but a little sad at the thought of leaving both Antigua and Guatemala. I’m already starting to think about when I can return to this fabulous town and country.
If you’re interested in trying Airbnb you can use my referral link to sign up to Airbnb and we will both receive credits with them when you make your first booking. And of course don’t forget to tell me about your travels!
This post was written in collaboration with Airbnb, but the opinions are entirely my own.