Central America seems to be my destination of choice as of late, and there’s a lot to recommend it. Relatively cheap (both to get to and upon arrival), close to NYC, warm, and that infectious Latino culture. Our December trip was supposed to be to Oaxaca, Mexico, but after hearing multiple people rave about Guatemala while in Honduras, I had second thoughts. With D flying out of SF, we booked flights to Guatemala City at similar times and met there.
Though initially a little nervous about arriving and traveling after dark, I quickly realized I had no reason to be. There’s no shortage of enterprising Guatemalans waiting at the airport to drive you to Antigua upon arrival, even though we left the city around 9pm. The drive was about an hour and cost us US$12/pp in one of the white ‘tourist shuttles’ which I would soon learn are ubiquitous in Guatemala.
Antigua is perhaps the most well-known tourist destination in Guatemala, a brightly colored and decaying colonial city which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s full of foreigners and a popular place to study Spanish, with a wide selection of non-local food (including Asian fusion) and charming cobblestone streets. We stayed at Hotel San Pedro II, centrally located and with a beautiful courtyard. Rooms were basic, but we had reliable hot water and our front desk was nice enough to set us up with a shuttle when we traveled to Lake Atitlan.
Since we only had one full day in Antigua, we decided to hit the top sites according to our guidebook (Rough Guide to Guatemala — not a bad book, but we may be going back to Lonely Planet after this). We started our day with a 10am tour of a renovated traditional colonial house, owned until recently by the descendants of the American Wilson Poponoe, who originally purchased the house in 1930. Our tour guide explained the detailed history of the house and its renovations after the 1773 earthquake, one of several quakes that have devastated the country in the last several centuries. You can choose your tour time (we were the only participants in ours); cost was US$10/pp.
The highlight of the day was Las Capuchinas ruins, the former site of an 18th century convent. Entrance was a couple dollars per person, providing access to some of the more impressive ruins we saw in Antigua. The two story ruins allow you to explore the rooms where the nuns slept, including the ancient lavatories and shelves.
Other sites of interest were the San Francisco Church and ruins, with another several dollar entrance fee. We also visited the gorgeous Hotel Santo Domingo, whose ruins (including underground crypts) we couldn’t access due to a destination wedding in progress.
That night we had dinner at the cheap taco spot Taqueria Dona Lupita (highly recommended, especially since many restaurants in Antigua are on the pricier side) and a drink afterward at the dimly-lit Cafe No Se, well-known for its mescal selection. Antigua is also full of good coffee — notable places we tried include Bella Vista Coffee and Cafe Boheme, which has a selection of French pastries and tarts as well.
One of the more surprising things about Guatemala, in contrast to other Central American countries, is the extensive tourist shuttle network that criss-crosses the country. Although convenient, the white minivans are less comfortable and a similar price or more expensive than the luxury buses that are common in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras. That said, it was easy to book one through our hotel when we wanted to move on to Lake Atitlan, at a cost of, again, around US$12/pp.
Antigua is well worth at least a day of your time, and we could have stayed another day or two to take advantage of some of the day trips around the area, including hiking the active Volcan Pacaya (where you can roast marshmallows at the top). I had low expectations before arrival due to the town’s reputation for being overrun with foreigners, but Antigua more than made up for it with its colonial beauty and easy amenities for travelers.