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It wasn’t by chance that I decided to start my trip around the world in Guatemala. I was dying to see more of the country after visiting the ruins of Tikal, so when I found a cheap flight from Toronto to Guatemala city, I knew it was a sign to go. After doing a bit of research, I decided that Antigua would be the best place to start my Guatemala itinerary.
One of three UNESCO world heritage sites in Guatemala, Antigua is a charming city that’s easy to fall for. If you’re wondering where to start your trip in Guatemala, here are some reasons why Antigua is a perfect choice.
It’s just an hour from Guatemala City
If you are flying into Guatemala you will likely be landing in Guatemala City. I’ll admit that I haven’t spent any time here myself, but it’s because the city doesn’t have a great reputation. It’s known for its high crime rate, so I decided to skip it and head to Antigua instead.
If you don’t want to stay in Guatemala City the day you arrive, Antigua is a perfect alternative. It’s just an hour outside of the city, and there are tourist shuttles that leave directly from the airport.
If you don’t book it in advance, they are easy to catch from the airport. Walking out from the luggage terminal you will see booths with signs for shuttle services to Antigua. I took one in 2018 and was charged 80Q for a shared ride. They need three people to go, but I only had to wait a few minutes for that to happen.
I shared the taxi with two lovely people from the Netherlands. The drive to Antigua takes about an hour and provides some nice views as you get away from Guatemala city. As soon as we arrived in Antigua and I saw the colorful streets, I knew I had made the right choice coming here.
It’s Charming AF
Cobblestone streets and colorful colonial architecture make Antigua an easy place to fall for. Arco de Santa Catalina, the famous arch you seen in the photo above, is the most iconic site in the city.
Antigua also has ruins throughout town which you can explore on your own. There was a massive earthquake in 1773 that destroyed much of the early architecture, but some of it has been preserved which you can still see today. The city is made for walking. Strolling around, you can see churches, a monastery, and a school that dates back to the 16th century. Walking along Antigua’s streets will take you back in time.
Great hostels to stay and meet people
If you are traveling solo and want to meet people while in Guatemala, Antigua is the perfect place to do so. There are plenty of highly-rated hostels to stay in where you can easily meet other travelers.
I stayed at Tropicana Hostel which has a beautiful rooftop terrace with panoramic views of Antigua and the surrounding landscape. It’s also a great place for meeting people.
Upon arriving there I went to the rooftop terrace for a drink and met people right away, watched the sunset over the surrounding volcanoes, and then went out to supper. It was the first day of my trip and I was overcome with feelings of anxiety about what the hell I was doing, so it was nice to have some fellow travelers to remind me it was all going to be OK. I also booked my Acatenango volcano hike from here.
Tropicana is a bit of a party hostel so if you’re looking for something more chill there are many other options. Matiox maintains a 9.5 overall rating on HostelWorld with over 1,000 reviews! Selina is another great option. It’s a chain of hostels throughout Central America that I loved using in Costa Rica. They are designed for digital nomads so they have co-working spaces in all the hostels.
If you prefer a hotel, there are plenty of those in Antigua as well.
You can learn Spanish
While you can get by in Guatemala without speaking Spanish, your trip will run a lot smoother if you know a little. Luckily, Guatemala is one of the easiest places to learn Spanish in Latin America thanks to the clear accent.
Antigua is known as one of the best places to study Spanish in Central America. There are many well known Spanish schools in the area that are quite affordable. Learning Spanish in Antigua is a great way to kick off your trip in Guatemala, especially if you plan to travel through Central America.
It’s tourist friendly and safe
Guatemala has a reputation for being a dangerous country, but there are many places in the country that are safe and welcoming to tourists. Antigua is one of these places. That said, you’ll want to keep your wits about you. The most common crime here is pickpocketing, so don’t flash your wealth around.
Like most places in Central America, you shouldn’t walk alone at night here as most muggings occur between 10 pm and 3 am. Should something happen, Antigua has a tourist police station if you need to report something. As always, protect yourself with travel insurance. I use and love World Nomads.
Delicious Coffee & Chocolate
Coffee cures everything (jet lag included), and Antigua is home to some of the best. Thanks to the volcanic landscape, the region around Antigua produces high-quality beans that are sold around the world. The city is home to some wonderful cafes in town where you can sample the coffee if you’re feeling tired.
If you’d like to learn more, a great way to spend an afternoon in Antigua is to take a coffee tour. You’ll get to visit one of the local coffee plantations where you can learn about the process, and of course sample it! You can even do a bike ride and coffee tour, which is such a cute way to see the city.
Did you know Guatemala is considered the birthplace of chocolate? You can visit a cacao museum in Antigua to learn how the Mayans made chocolate. I did one of these tours in Manual Antonio and it was so delicious.
The surrounding landscape
The first thing you’ll likely notice walking around Antigua is the incredible volcanoes looming over you. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes and three of them are around Antigua. These are Fuego, Acatenango, and Aqua. Fuego is still active and its eruptions can often be seen from Antigua.
The three volcanoes around Antigua provide an incredible backdrop to an already gorgeous city. There are also sweeping mountains and dense evergreen forests in the distance. Each time you turn a corner you’ll find another picture-perfect view. Antigua is so photogenic!
Antigua Day Trips
Antigua is a great base for some of the best outdoor experiences in Guatemala.
The 2-day Acatenango Volcano Hike to watch Volcan Fuego erupt should definitely be on your Central America bucket list. You literally get to camp overnight on a volcano watching another one erupt every hour or more! It’s one of my favorite experiences to date. The hike is challenging though, so make sure you read my guide to prepare.
You can also take a day tour to Pacaya Volcano which is more accessible. The hike to the top takes just over two hours so it can be done as a day trip from Antigua. You can also take a horse there if you’re not feeling hiking. It’s an active volcano, so you can roast marshmallows over hot rocks!
If you want to pick up a souvenir from Guatemala, Antigua is a great place for it. There are three bustling markets here where you can pick up colorful handicrafts and local handmade garments.
The biggest market in Guatemala is Chichicastenango, which you can visit as a day tour from Antigua.
Delicious Food Options
Antigua has excellent food options. For a cheap authentic meal, head to the local markets and try Pepian, which is a hearty meat and vegetable stew found throughout Guatemala. If you’re a vegetarian/vegan, check out Samsara restaurant.
There are also many rooftop restaurants and bars here where you can take in the stunning views of Antigua. Cafe Sky and Los Tres Tiempos are two of the best rooftop bars in the city.
Antigua also has cooking classes which is a great way to dive deeper into Guatemalan cuisine and learn how to make Pepian. I’m a big fan of taking cooking classes while traveling, the food is always delicious and it’s a fun way to take home some of the culture. If you aren’t up for cooking, there are also walking food tours you can take in Antigua.
Access to other parts of Guatemala
From Antigua, it’s easy to get to other popular towns in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is just two hours away and there are shared tourist shuttles that tun every day. If you are on a tight schedule, you can also join a day tour from Antigua to Lake Atitlan.
After Antigua, I took a tourist bus to the city Xela, where you can visit the Fuentes Georginas hot springs, and hike more volcanoes! It was an easy ride and only took about three hours.
Many people also take the 8-hour shuttle to the natural wonder of Semuc Champey from Antigua. Although that may seem far, there’s no easy way to get there since it’s in the middle of the jungle.
Antigua is my favorite city in all of Guatemala. Between the colorful streets and active adventures on nearby volcanoes, you’ll fall in love quickly. If you’re backpacking Guatemala, Antigua is the perfect place to start your adventure.
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