Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, Antigua, Guatemala is a must on the Central American tourist track. The pace is slow and relaxed, but not boring. Though it is a popular weekend getaway for Guatemalans because of the bars, boutiques, and restaurants, local villagers in traditional dress are easily spotted selling handmade goods on the streets and in the markets. Antigua became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 because of the surviving colonial architecture and its unique baroque style. The city is laid out in a square pattern of cobblestone streets around the central plaza. It may not be a great place for wearing heels, but it is a great base for travel with many companies offering options for exploring farther afield, including Lake Atitlán and the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
Guatemala is a major exporter of coffee with a distinctive method for growing coffee beans. Guatemalan soil isn’t suited for the better-tasting arabica coffee plant, so the hardy roots of the bitter robusta plant are grafted to the tops of arabica plants. You can see the entire coffee production process from plant to package on the Finca Filadelfia Plantation Tour, a farm that dates back to 1870. You even get to taste the goods at the end.
Antigua Canopy Tours offers zip lining on the Filadelfia Coffee Resort property, so you can make a day of learning about coffee and flying through the treetops. As you zip from one platform to the next, you will be treated to great views of the forest and mountainous region.
Antigua was the country’s capital until an earthquake destroyed much of the colonial city in 1773. Despite the relocation of the government to what is now Guatemala City, the residents’ love of their town kept it going. Today, ruins are scattered throughout the town as a testament to Antigua’s strength. Some of the must-see sites include the Church and Convent of Capuchins, where nuns led a very strict and simple life, and the baroque-style La Merced Church. Check out Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, a hotel built around the sixteenth-century ruins of a monastery. The property includes colonial, archaeology, and pre-Columbian art museums. You do not need to be a hotel guest to visit.
There are several volcanoes that can be hiked in a day trip. Pacaya Volcano is a popular climb of less than two hours, and if you are approached by children selling marshmallows, it’s because you can roast them at the top. Volcan de Agua is tougher at about five hours and should not be climbed alone due to reports of robberies. Acatenango has great views and can be done as an organized overnight trip, while Fuego is very active and the ability to climb depends on recent activity. You will not be able to get close to Fuego’s crater.
Sign up for a chocolate tour at ChocoMuseo. The teacher covers the history of chocolate in Guatemala while you get the hands-on experience of making chocolate from scratch. Sample chocolate tea made from the shells of cacao beans, hot chocolate as the Mayans drank it, and the sweeter version of hot chocolate as adapted by the Europeans. Finish by making your own chocolate candies to take home.
Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a huge Catholic celebration in Latin America. The week leading up to Easter is filled with processions and festivities. Antigua is the most popular place in Guatemala to watch the proceedings, so if you are going that week, you will need to make reservations in advance and be prepared for large crowds. However, if you would like the cultural experience, but aren’t up for a week of pushing your way through packed streets, visit earlier in the Lent season. Processions take place every Sunday until Easter. Go out early and watch locals prepare the streets with ephemeral carpets of colorful sawdust, pine straw, and flowers.
Antigua is a small charming town and absolutely worth putting on your Central America checklist, but there are some safety concerns to keep in mind while you are there. Though it is much safer than Guatemala City, pickpocketing and muggings do occur. Exercise caution and use safe transportation at night if you are going more than a couple of blocks. You can have an excellent trip if you play it safe, and don’t forget to stock up on Guatemalan handicrafts, textiles, and wooden carvings.
Rebecca Gaunt is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She has a journalism degree from the University of Georgia and a graduate degree in education from Oglethorpe University. She frequently writes about education, parenting, special needs, politics and travel.Follow us on Social Media: