Looking at our previous 40 plus destinations we noticed that we had missed out on much of Central America so we decided to start checking off some countries in that part of the world. We did some research and found the weather was perfect late April- early May in Antigua, Guatemala so we booked it. I am so glad we did. This trip was full of adventure, great food and wonderful views!
Antigua- Formally the capital of Guatemala is small city surrounded by volcanoes in the southern region. It’s known for its Spanish colonial style buildings, many of them restored following a 1773 earthquake that ended Antigua’s 200-year reign as Guatemala’s colonial capital. Antigua Guatemala was the cultural, economic, religious, political and educational centre for the entire region until the capital was moved. In the space of under three centuries the city acquired a number of superb monuments. The pattern of straight lines established by the grid of north-south and east-west streets and inspired by the Italian Renaissance, is one of the best examples in Latin American town planning and all that remains of the 16th-century city. Antigua Guatemala is a cultural UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site, which is a municipality in Guatemala with a population of about less than 50,000 people. This site was inscribed by UNESCO in 1979 during its third session. The city is noted as a cultural gem in Central America for its rare beauty, vibrant culture, and historical significance. All of these factors combine to making Antigua Guatemala not only worthy of a UNESCO listing for its cultural significance but also as a popular tourist destination.
Flights average about $500-$800 depending on purchase and travel dates. We flew into Guatemala City. Our hotel accommodations arranged private roundtrip ground transportation for 360GTQ or $50.00 USD each way. We landed right in the middle of rush hour traffic, so it took about 1 hour and 30 minutes to arrive at our hotel.
Hotel Soleil La Antigua is a quick 10 minute walk from the city center and offers 180 guest rooms and suites in six arrangements. Each is individually decorated and furnished in the style of a colonial-era Guatemalan estancia, with carefully chosen antique furniture and locally inspired colors, textures, and fabrics. We enjoyed a couples massages, chillin' poolside and admiring the beautiful views of all 3 volcanos. Though the tap water is not potable the hotel offers an eco friendly water system in each room so purchasing bottled water for our room wasn't necessary. The hotel didn't have any king bed rooms available upon checkin so we pushed the beds together and fixed the sheets to create a king.
Places to Go & Things to see
Day Trip 1: Chichicastenango & Panajachel Guatemala
Every Thursday and Sunday, the mountain village of Chichicastenango (Chi-Chi-Casten-Ango) is transformed into the world's largest handicrafts market, where you'll find pottery, colorful textiles, carved wooden masks, flowers, incense, foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat and other Mayan goods for sale. You will find many of the popular name brands, but note: THEY ARE FAKE! You will be able to tell because the logos are backwards, in different fonts and colors are off. I will say they are excellent craftsmen that will fix anything. Many Guatemalan's will opt to repair an item instead of replacing it. The day felt like we stepped back in time as we strolled the busy, narrow cobblestone streets of this open-air market. We also stopped by the famous Iglesia Santo Tomas Church to view a ceremony and street procession. Once the daily 9 am mass ends, the rest of the day and evening are given over to indigenous rituals conducted by shamans (curanderosin Spanish, or chuchkajauesin Quiché), who wave around pungent incense during the day, and at night toss rose petals and pine needles into a raging fire right on the steps of the church as part of purification rituals. The people leave candles, liquor and tobacco as offerings.
Panajachel & Lake Atitlán
Lake Atitlán is a body of water in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. Ringed by steep, verdant hills, it’s known for its Mayan villages and volcanoes with striking pointed cones. The busy town of Panajachel, where vendors sell traditional textiles, is a popular gateway to the lake. On a former coffee plantation, the Atitlán nature reserve offers trails and a butterfly garden. We had lunch with a view at Sunset Cafe, shopped, mixed it up with some locals and enjoyed the breeze and views of Lake Atitlán.
Day Trip 2: Volcano Pacaya & Thermal Springs
For the adventurous ones, hike an active volcano! We officially hiked 6,000ft up active Volcano Pacaya and roasted marshmallows over hot lava pockets! How’s that for checking off a bucket list item?
Our tour driver picked us up from our hotel around 8am and drove us about 45 mins outside of Antigua. He dropped us off at the base of the volcano where we met our guide. We got acquainted and took a bathroom break. You will be drinking a lot of water so I advise using the toilets before starting. There are stops along the way, however the one at the camp is cleaner. We purchased our walking sticks for 5GTQ from the local kids and started our journey up! The hike was...peaceful and cool through the wooded areas which was not easy... but not hard either, definitely a challenge. Our guide gave us plenty of breaks and told us about the various trees and plants that grow naturally from the nutrients in the volcanic ash. He was trying to have full blown Spanglish conversations during the hike...Bruh...it was hard to breathe due to altitude. My thighs, butt, arms and even my fingers hurt the next day, but it was totally worth it! There are some difficult areas so you can also take a horse all the way up, down and partially for a break. Cost is 200GTQ/per person . Once we reached the crater, there were families selling fruit and water. There was even The Lava Store, Pacaya Guatemala that sells unique planters & floral arrangements made from volcanic rock and flowers grown from the ash. If you look at the last photo above you can clearly see the path that we hiked was hot, boiling lava just 10 months before from a recent eruption and the grassy areas were covered in 4 feet of volcanic ash.
Hiking down was much easier but can tough on the knees! I'd suggest the heel first method for better balance and less impact. When we reached the bottom, the kids were there to collect our walking sticks so they can resell them again. We decided to keep ours as souvenirs. Plus we figured it would help if we might not be able to walk for the rest of the trip! The hike took us approximately 3 hours to go up and down. After seriously hiking up AND down 6,000 ft, we were starving and desperately needed to relax. Our driver was waiting to escort us to the hot springs for lunch and thermal cycle treatment.
Our package came with lunch, water/ fountain drink, storage locker, towel, poolside mixed fruit drink and a long cycle Thermal Circuit Treatment: a therapy that involves immersing the body in 4 thermal pools at different temperatures for a measured time.These temperature changes in the various pools improve circulation, relax the muscles of the body and eliminate stress.We entered the first warmer pool of 41°C for 10 minutes maximum , then moved to the cooler pool of 24°C also for 10 minutes, continued to the pool of 37° for another 10 minutes and end the cycle with the pool of 31° for the same time. The property boasts 11 pools that are 100% natural and thermal. The pools are distributed in two sectors, they vary in size, shape and temperature of the water. They are ideal to relax or have a good family day. One of the areas has a kiddie pool with small slide and another pool with a bigger slide.
We wanted to know more about the food, local culture and shopping in the area. We booked an Antigua market and cuisine tour with Due South Travel. We met Valerie and Elizabeth, both expats, in Central Park by the fountain then walked the markets to learn about the various fruits and vegetables indigenous to Guatemala. We purchased some along our route and tried them with our meal at a traditional Guatemalan restaurant. We tasted what’s known as the national dishes. The best part was hand-making tortillas with a local family.
Guatemalans go to the markets for everything! It’s the best way to buy food, household items and clothing. It's most common for females to do the shopping for the home. Street vendors including the children are straight hustlers! They will try to sell you gum, candy, chips and souvenirs ALL DAY, everywhere you go! They are very persistent and don’t take no for an answer. Stand firm and don’t let their cute faces persuade you to buy unless you really want to. Whatever you buy is a negotiation. Never pay the first price they mention. Always go down to half price and negotiate from there. You will see people selling the exact same things everywhere so it’s wise to walk the streets and scope out what you want and ask for the prices to see where you can get it for the best price.
Free things to do:
Explore the markets
Relax in Central Park
Rome the streets
Antigua has a variety of international cuisine. So when you are over the tacos, black beans and authentic Guatemalan meals, explore other options and please believe, there are many to select from.
Ta'cool Tacos - The best tacos with a view! A great place for a quick, inexpensive meal with a street view in the heart of Antigua city center. Relax, feel the breeze and people watch from the outside tabletop.
Angie-Angie Cafe Arte- Imagine yourself in a beautiful jungle-like oasis with white sand, sounds of live music, great conversation and a blazing fire pit!
Sobremesa Art Gallery and Restaurant - The art gallery restaurant of Alexander Ferrar, the Bahamian author, artist, and chef. It strives to consistently offer flavors never before imagined. We had the pleasure of speaking with the owner Alexander as we dined. He is an expat of 11 years that came to Antigua, fell in love with it's charm and people and never returned home. He described many of his paintings and the inspirations behind them. Most of his work came from things we has witnessed on the streets in Antigua. He takes a picture of the scene and gathers his close friends for diner and drinks to re-enact with full wardrobe for curation of each painting. The conversation and art was a treat, but the food was amazing. The homemade ginger glaze was memorable!
Things to know:
Water- DO NOT DRINK THE TAP WATER! Antigua is not as third world as the rest of Guatemala and the water and food in restaurants are safe to eat. Ice and drinks in restaurants are made with purified water. Bottled water can be purchased everywhere. Good to brush your teeth with bottled/filtered water as most folks are used to swallowing some when rinsing. As mentioned above, our hotel offered an eco friendly water system in each room so purchasing bottled water for our room wasn't necessary.
Fruit- DO NOT EAT THE STRAWBERRIES and BLACKBERRIES!
We talked to many people from the US and other countries that suffered severe health problems after eating strawberries and blackberries from here. The issue in Guatemala is they don’t have pesticides that kill insects or other potentially harmful things. The insects, eggs or bacteria grows and hides under the seeds. When you eat them parasite eggs hatch and grow in your body. It can cause many unknown health complications. The only ways to eat strawberries or blackberries are if they have been washed in 2cap fulls of bleach or cooked which then kills the bacteria.
Healthcare & Pharmacy
Most pharmacies are in the market and thats where you tend to get the best prices, but be sure to check the expiration dates on medicine before purchasing. They don’t have any regulations on narcotics so you can get just about anything over the counter, but select the pharmaceutical establishments carefully. They don’t seem to have problems with narcotic addiction because it tends to be a pretty expensive habit. Most people suffer from alcoholism as alcohol is cheap and easy to obtain.
Talking to a US doctor, now residing in Antigua Guatemala and doing some follow up research we learned although healthcare is guaranteed by the Guatemalan constitution, many indigenous families living in rural areas face many barriers and problems while trying to access health care. The top barriers experienced are the following:
Language: There are 22 indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala. In many rural areas, people only speak their indigenous language.
Culture: Many communities have strict cultural practices regarding birth, death, and illness. However, when these people go to a health post or a local hospital, they often feel that their culture and beliefs are not respected. Many will prefer to go to a local traditional healer, who provides plant-based medicine and spiritual guidance.
Poor funding of local health posts: In 2008, the Guatemalan government only spent about $97 per person on public healthcare. (In contrast, the United States spent $7,825.) In practice, this means that many local health posts are understaffed and understocked. The health posts will often not have essential supplies, vaccines, or medications. This has the greatest impact on families with low resources who cannot afford to go to expensive private clinics.
More about the languages: There are many! Guatemalan Spanish is the local variant of the Spanish language. Twenty-one Mayan languages are spoken, especially in rural areas, as well as two non-Mayan Amerindian languages, Xinca, an indigenous language, and Garifuna, an Arawakan language spoken on the Caribbean coast.
Currency: The Guatemalan Quetzal (GTQ) is divided into 100 centavos. The remarkably stable exchange rate of the Guatemala Quetzal to the U.S. dollar is approximately 8 to 1, which means 2 Quetzals equals bout 1 U.S. quarter. Guatemalan coins in circulation include 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos, and a 1 Quetzal coin.
About the locals: The Guatemalan people are very friendly and always willing to offer a helping hand, if there is no language barrier. Many of the men work in transportation and drive taxis or chicken busses for a living. Others are mechanics, work on the farms, build furniture or factory employees. Most women work in the markets and tourist areas selling produce, crafts and goods. The women also wear their ethnic colors and fashion on a daily basis. You can distinguish their tribes by the patterns and colors worn.
Transportation: The Chicken Bus is a school bus from America and Canada that have been restored with new catalytic converters, engines and brakes to make them more durable for long distance travel as they are the only form of intercontinental travel. You can hop on and off for about 15GTQ each way.
Crime rates: Crime is everywhere around the world. Be aware of your surroundings everywhere you go. Crime is more prevalent in Guatemala City. So if visiting the city, markets and walking through large crowds hold on tight to your purses and book bags. Carry them in front of you not on your back or on the side. Our guide told us about the conflicts between transportation companies that run the chicken busses. They often attack the Chicken Bus and taxi drivers to steal their money in competition for services and routes.
We heard many of our favorite R & B and pop songs on the radio along with cover song remixes which are pretty funny. We also heard lots of traditional Guatemalan music and live cover performances. You can find lots of live music at restaurants around Antigua.
Tienda (convenience stores)- You will find an assortment of beverages and snacks. Most are open 24 hrs a day and you can find about 2-3 on every block. Be sure to check the expiration dates on food items before you purchase.
What to pack:
Shoes- Be sure to pack sneakers in your luggage. The streets are old, uneven and made of cobblestone. You want support for your ankles and comfy soles for lots of walking. If you pack sandals, I suggest some with a thick sole and that strap around the ankle.
Clothing- It's a very casual city. Temperatures can get warm in the summer so pack lightweight, breathable items. In the winter months, be prepared for cool nights and pack a sweater or jacket. Don't forget to check the weather conditions about 2 days before departure for a more accurate forecast. Look at each city you plan to visit as conditions may vary drastically based on altitude. Review your itinerary of activities so you will be fully prepared.
We hope this helps you explore Guatemala! Contact us for booking your next vacation to Antigua!