When you pull into town, from no matter from which direction, you will want to get walking and exploring this charming cobblestone Spanish colonial town. Your instincts will guide your feet as you will likely start in the very heart of Antigua, Parque Central. Get a feel for the place by strolling in any direction from the park. You will be struck by the authentically restored and well preserved Spanish architecture, dating back to the 18th century with a few 16th century models too. Moorish touches are everywhere as they are integral to the Spanish tradition brought here. Personally, when I first set foot here, I just walked and walked, discovering on my own the earthquake-ravaged El Carmen Church, built in the latter 16th century. The arch on fifth avenue is magnificent in daylight or night illumination as is La Merced, a butter-coloured convent, built in the 18th century and now lovingly restored to at least most of its former glory. These are only a few highlights.
If you do want a guided walking tour, they run all day and it’s best to deal with an official and well-trained guide. These can be arranged at the small storefronts that face the central park or through INGUAT, located in the Palace of the Captains-General, just across from the northeast side of the park.
Price ranges from $10 (which does not include entrance fees at the sites) and $20 (all inclusive).
PACAYA – Awesome Live Volcano
There are two ways to appreciate the volatility and beauty of the Pacaya Volcano. You can sit on a terrace in some bars and restaurants in Antigua Guatemala and watch the red lava ribbon make its way down the volcano slope. It’s most dramatic at night. Or you can go to Pacaya on a guided or unguided tour. Both are great experiences. Pacaya is only a 90 minute drive from the centre of Antigua and there are a variety of excursion packages from which to choose. You can choose an all-day trip, which includes a hike up the volcano to watch the lava and steam flow first-hand, then a stop over at a lunch place and, for the ultra package, a rest at a spa to enjoy sitting in the hot springs. Price depends on how elaborate you want to make your trip. Just about everyone we know opted for the simple half-day package and they were pretty pleased with the experience. Whether a full day or half, be prepared for a 6:30 a.m. start. You’ll get back to Antigua about 1 p.m. if you choose a half day. Or you if you’re out all day you’ll get back around 6 p.m.day. Be warned though. The climb up the volcano slope is a bit of a hike. While you don’t need to be an Olympic athlete, you do need to be in reasonably good shape for the climb.
Half day packages start at $30; full day packages are around $60. Be prepared to pay extra for an English speaking guide and about 50 Q ($6.00 US) to get into Pacaya National Park. These excursions can be arranged through any number of local operators.
Many have called Lake Atitlan the most beautiful lake in the world. When you get there you will see this is no idle boast. Go for the colours alone, but go. It’s only a 2 1/2 hour ride from Antigua Guatemala. The ride provides a real insight into the variety of landscapes and climate zones in that part of the country. From your van window you will see everything from jungle vegetation to parched landscapes and finally, the majesty of Lake Atitlan.
First stop is Panajachel, a town that has a lot to offer in and of itself. But if you are only going for the day, it’s best to buy a package that includes transport to and from the lake and a boat ride to two or three Maya towns that ring the lake.
If you opt to go by van without the boat trip included in the package, you will find yourself negotiating with people in Panajachel stopping you to offer overpriced boat rides and you don’t want to waste your time on haggling when you could be cruising across the lake.
Once on the lake you will be struck by its colours, landscape and the solemn and eerie presence of three extinct volcanoes. It might remind you of Greece in once second and a Norwegian Fjord the next. It’s a mysterious and magical place.
A typical day trip would find your boat docking at San Marcos, San Pedro and Santiago. Each of these Mayan towns have gringo establishments close to the water, e.g., restaurants, bars, trinket vendors. In any case, each affords a different view of lake and, though a bit touristy, each provides a breathtaking aspect of the lake and its surroundings.
Back in Panajachel you will find street stalls on the main street leading to the lake. Every conceivable Guatemalan souvenir is on offer here. If you do stop to shop, make sure to haggle with the vendors. They expect that and its part of the fun.
Day trips, including transport and boat ride costs range from $30 to $40. There are many local tour operators in Antigua Guatemala who offer this service and are easily found when you get there.
TIKAL – Ancient Mayan Ruins
Tikal, an ancient Maya ruin dating back to the 4th century BC, is not to be missed. It was once the capital of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdoms, but was abandoned around the 10th century AD. Everyone who goes says it’s worth the effort. It’s a bit of a trek to get there since it’s about 325 kilometers from Antigua Guatemala. There are one and two-day excursions on offer, each with the option of flying to Flores or taking the bus the whole way.
In our view, the best deal is to take the all-bus route, but take the two-day package, which includes a hotel stay. The one-day bus trip is a bit wearying, with the bus leaving at 6 p.m. and arriving in Tikal around 6 a.m. and then a four hour walking tour of Tikal and park surroundings. Then back on the bus, retuning to Antigua Guatemala at 6 a.m. The cost is approximately $180 US. For about $30 more you can take the two-day package which includes a hotel stay and more leisurely pace for the return. Otherwise the package that includes bus, hotel and flight, which you catch at Flores airport, can be done over one or two days at a cost of about $320 for one day and about $425 for two days. We think the two-day all-bus excursion is the best deal.
MARKET DAYS – CHICHI and More
Many of the larger Mayan towns have market days one or two times a week. If you are in Antigua Guatemala, don’t miss the huge market, La Bodegona, which is near the bus terminal just off the Alameda Santa Lucia. Bursting with colour, Mayan chocolate and flowers and food of all descriptions, this is a bustling and authentic marketplace that attracts local Guatemalans and tourists alike.
The market at Solola, about a 15-minute drive from Panajachel is a wonder too. It’s a crowded and authentic market, with very few souvenirs. It’s packed with serious-minded shoppers, most of them Maya and hardly a gringo in sight. It’s worth going just for the trip from Panajachel via El Pickup (yes it’s a pick up truck). It takes you for a breathtaking ride with a view of Lake Atitlan as the truck ascends and you hang onto the steel poles inserted into the truck for just that purpose. Cost of a one-way ride is 3Q (about 40 cents).
Of all the markets located in Antigua Guatemala’s environs, Chichicastenango is the most popular and for good reason. It’s about a 3 hour bus ride from Antigua Guatemala with market days on Thursdays and Sundays.
Affectionately known as Chichi, this Maya town is famous for its market. It’s teeming with local produce and, be warned, a lot of Guatemalan souvenirs everywhere. Some items are authentic and handmade while others are mass produced by machine. Haggling is encouraged and expected so don’t go for the first price offered. Even if you don’t feel like shopping, the experience of entering this sprawling patchwork coloured market is a treat. It’s not just for tourists, but rather a regional market where much real commerce and staple shopping is done by people who live there and nearby.
The main market plaza is right beside Santo Tomas church, a 400-year-old building, built on the platform of an ancient Maya temple. Often you can see the devoted going on their hands and knees up the stairs of the church while bearing swaying cans of incense.
It’s easy to arrange a bus trip to Chichi when you get to Antigua Guatemala and prices are around the $30 range.
DAY TOURS – Antigua Guatemala surrounding pueblos
The perfect half-day tour outside of Antigua Guatemala is the one that includes a six-village tour. Here the shuttle will take you through mountainous roads and into verdant valleys with stops in Mayan villages. Included on the trip are: San Juan del Obispo, which features one of the first Catholic churches in Guatemala; San Pedro Las Huertas, nestled at the foot of the Fuego Volcano; Cuidad Vieja, site of the regional capital (established 1527) until destroyed by volcano-induced mudslide (that’s why the capital was moved to Antigua); San Antonio Aguas, famous for its outstanding textiles; and Santiago Zamora, featuring a successful women’s co-op, which is of special interest to those with a communitarian outlook. Cost of the half-day trip is in the $30 range. There are also one-day bike tours of the nearby Amogolonga Valley. Price of the bike trip varies, but it’s usual in the $40 to $60 range. Or Villa de Antigua can offer advice on how to get to less visited, but no less interesting pueblos off the beaten track. These can a be self-directed, safe and fun journeys via chicken bus (local buses that charge an average of 40 cents to take you from one pueblo to the next).
PACIFIC BEACH – Monterrico/El Salvador
A special day trip is the bus ride and day’s stay on the Pacific side. Monterrico is renowned for its black volcanic beach sand. There’s an undertow so if you do go for a dip, stay close to shore. Pleasant restaurants and bars offer views of the Pacific. A day tour includes the bus ride and lunch, which makes for the perfect day-away. Return shuttle buses charge about $18, leaving around 8 a.m. and returning to Antigua Guatemala around 3 p.m. Or you can stay for a few days in one of the many holiday hotels in this beach town.
El Salvador’s Liberdad beach area is also a popular destination for beach lovers. Located only three to four hours by road (taxi at $100 each way or inexpensive bus fare) from Antigua, it offers a variety of hotels at various prices ranges, restaurants, bars, shopping night life as well as the beach experience.
Coffee Plantations – Tours
Antigua Guatemala is surrounded by coffee plantations, or “fincas” as they are called in Spanish. You can visit the large plantations that are big enough to be major suppliers to Starbucks and other international brands or you can visit the family-owned fincas where the owners sell their coffee at the local markets. You can even go to coffee fincas where you husk, sort and roast your own bag of coffee to take away as a souvenir of your time in Guatemala. Some of the larger plantations are set up to provide “cuppings,” which are tastings for coffee from different zones and bean varieties. Half-day tours start at $30.