Most tourists/backpackers going to Guatemala will end up in Antigua sooner or later, and for a good reason.
From the airport in Guatemala it is very easy to find transport directly to Antigua. It takes about 1,5 hours by bus. I would definitely recommend going there directly, because there is little of interest in Guatemala city. It is a large and disorganized city, that can also be quite dangerous.
I landed there late in the afternoon, so had to stay in the big city, but after one night there I went straight to Antigua. All of my time in Guatemala(one week) was spent there.
10 reasons to base yourself in Antigua:
1. A base to see the best of Guatemala
From Antigua you can get to anywhere in Guatemala, and also to some places in Honduras(Copan ruins) and El Salvador(El Tunco). The tours go as far as to the amazing mayaruin Tikal in the North, and to the scenic Semuc Champey region in the North-East. It can take 7-9 hours on the bus to get to these places, so it is usually organized as a multi-day trip.
If you have limited time in Guatemala, I would certainly recommended going on these organized tours. It's cheap, hassle-free, and a great way to get to know other Travelers .
It is also possible remain at the destination after “the tour” is finished. There are many who travel to the beautiful Lake Attilan in this way. There are plenty of backpackers ' hostels in Attilan.
Antigua has an idyllic location in the Guatemalan mountain landscape. The city is surrounded by volcanoes on all sides, and all of these are possible to climb, even those that are active.
I would recommend doing this in organised tours. The climb can be done on your own, but it involves a lot of planning, and in some cases(Pacaya) It can be dangerous due to a lot of crime in the area.
There is 3 volcanoes that can be climbed – Acatenango, Fuego and Pacaya.
Pacaya is known as the volcano where you can roast marshmellows over glowing lava. It`s a Straightforward day trip, only takes 2 hours to go to the lava or hot rocks. If you go in the morning you`ll be back for lunch
Fuego is a very active volcano, but the tours go on a path on the side of the volcano where the lava does`nt run(which is to be prefered!). 6-8 hours to walk.
Acatenango is not active, but from the campsite you`ll be able to see the eruptions on the neighbouring volcano Fuego. It is truly spectacular..
From the top of Acatenango, you get an amazing view of the entire Antigua Valley, and the surrounding volcanoes. It is organized so that you`ll spend the entire first day to climb Acatenango, The campsite is approx. one hour from the summit. The following day you`ll start walking towards the top at 4 in the morning, so that you`ll get there by sunrise. If you only have time for ONE volcano trip from Antigua then I would definitely recommend this one!, but remember that it's a tough hike up to the campsite. Read about my experience at Acatenango
3. Diverse food and great coffee!!
There is a truly amazing variety of restaurants in Antigua. You can find everything from homemade Guatemalan food, authentic Mexican, Indian, sushi, Italian, Irish pub food etc.
I was there for a week, and did`nt even get to try a fraction of all the restaurants I wanted to sample. Antigua is revelling!
And the coffee…what an amazingly good coffee…they know all about brewing of good local coffee here. There are so many incredible small barristas where you`ll get a delicious breakfast served with the tastiest coffe, The prefectly untainted black kind. A superb start to the day.
I had had a lot of time so I had been missing for weeks in Antigua, and spent the days with a barrista coffee in one hand,and a good book in the second.
Antigua is a Mecca for partying backpackers,as well as families on vaccation. When out on the town you will also meet lots of local Guatemalan “tourists” that take the short trip from Guatemala city to party.
The whole place has a very positive vibe about it, and there are myriads of good places to party the night away.
I came here after spending 4 weeks in El Salvador and Honduras; countries that traditionally have a lot fewer tourists. So when I came to Antigua, I was very ready to socialize with other independent travellers.
I checked in at the city's main “Party hostel” with the appropriate name “Jungle party hostal”.
They had drinking games and such shenanigans every night, and I met lots of cool,young people there. The drinking games were slightly awkward , so we would usually depart for the pubs and clubs pretty early.
There are many clubs in Antigua, so it's worth to go out with someone who knows all the good spots,and know where it is best to party. In the clubs it was evenly distrubuted approx 50-50 with locals and Western tourists. The clubs close pretty early(01.00) due to local regulations. When the official clubs close you`ll have to go around town to find the “unofficial” clubs.
It was pretty funny to see all the confused people wandering the streets of Antigua looking for underground clubs. The wise move is to follow someone who has some local knowledge and knows where to find the places. you`ll have to ask around. I found that there were several guatemalan ladies who were asking me about where to find these clubs!
I also went to a so-called “poolparty” – this was pretty weird as it was a rave party inside an empty swimming pool. It is organized quite often,and is about 20 minutes taxi from Antigua. To find out when it is you will need to talk with local people, and the people on your hostel.
There are many markets in Antigua. On the weekends there is a large outdoor market by an old ruin of a church. You can buy all the possible different Guatemalan artisan products there. They have a lot of wooden sculptures, masks,clothes and shoes, fruits and food, and emeralds.
Many Maya related sculptures and jewelry. I bought some nice locally grown coffee in a home-made knitting bag, and homemade local chocolates.
There is a large indoor market .
This is located 3 blocks West of the main plaza. Where the shelves are packed with, lots of nice artisan products. The vendors can be a little intense once they sense a tourist, especially when times are slow. Many of them are selling the same stuff, so you`ll have to bargain well, otherwise you`ll end up paying twice the price.
6. Learning Spanish
Many travel to Antigua to learn the language. Guatemalan Spanish is generally easy to understand, and many travelers stay in Antigua for months while learning Spanish. There are tons of language schools, and it is also possible to participate in so-called immersion programs where you live with a host family, which don`t know much,or any, english.
In antigua there are so many tourists that it may actually be a disadvantage when you're going to learn Spanish. Most locals here speak english so well that they don't even bother trying to speak Spanish with someone who is less capable.
Antigua is a resting zone for weary travelers ! A perfect place to relax for a while without doing anything useful.
After you have been backpacking through Central America for a few weeks/months it's nice to have a place like this. It's a small town,easily navigated,and easy to get around on foot. .There are a lots of other travelers to hang out with, but also possible to just be with local people if that's what you want
You can easily spend the days chilling in a hammock with a beer in hand, or enjoy a fresh coffee at one of the many barristas, and be social with the other backpackers in the evening. It is also possible to go on day trips down to the pacific coast if you'd like to spend the day on a beach.
I met many travelers who stayed here for months without any special goals or meaning, a lifestyle that would have suited me just fine.
Antigua was the former capital of Guatemala, and was founded in 1543 by the Spanish conquisadors. Churches and cathedrals were built, and destroyed time and again by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
At the present time there are myriads of churches, monasteries and ruins that are worth visiting for the history buffs. It is worth noting; Convento de Capuchinas, La Catedral, El Palacio de los Gobernadores, Convento de Santa Clara, El Arco de Santa Catarina and Iglesia La Merced.
On a hillside above the city there is “Cerro de la Cruz” – a large cross. It is not very interesting in itself, but it's a nice enough walk, and offers good views of the Valley.
To me a good cultural experience is more about finding out how the locals are living in their everyday life, not visiting old churches, To me it was interesting to see the local markets, and the festivals and crowds gathering during the weekends. When I was there they were celebrating some Jesus-related holiday where the locals were parading in masks and costumes. On Sunday there were concerts and crowds in the main plaza.
Check with the locals if there are any concerts or local celebrations when you visit Antigua.
– join a “Workshop” in some local craft, knitting or something – You can learn how to make Guatemalean jewelry(Jade) and textile production, and other handicrafts.
– Learn about chocolate – There is a separate workshop where you'll learn to make chocolate,and about the history of chocolate,and coffee in Guatemala.
– Cooking class – Learn how to create genuine Guatemalan cuisine – lots of exciting food here”