Situated just forty kilometres apart, the two cities of Guatemala City and Antigua could hardly be more different. The capital, Guatemala City, is a fume-filled maelstrom of industry and commerce with few attractions to detain the traveller, though a day or two spent visiting its museums and soaking up the (limited) cultural scene won’t be wasted. Antigua is everything the capital is not: tranquil, urbane and resplendent with evocative colonial buildings and myriad cosmopolitan cafés and restaurants. Not surprisingly, this is where most travellers choose to base themselves.
Guatemala City sprawls across a huge upland basin, surrounded by craggy hills and volcanic cones. Its shapeless and swelling mass ranks as the largest city in Central America, home to more than four million people, and it’s Guatemala’s undisputed centre of politics, power and wealth.
The capital has an intensity and vibrancy that are both its fascination and its horror, and for many visitors dealing with the city is an exercise in damage limitation, as they struggle through bus fumes and crowds. For years urban decay has tainted the heart of the city, the centro histórico, but new initiatives have revitalized the district as streets have been pedestrianized, buildings restored and new cafés and bars have opened.
Antigua, on the other hand, is the most impressive colonial city in Central America with a tremendous wealth of architectural riches. With just forty thousand inhabitants, the city’s graceful cobbled streets, elegant squares, churches and grand houses are ideal to explore on foot. The town’s renowned language schools also attract students from all over the world, and education and tourism are the city’s prime sources of wealth.
The countryside around Antigua and Guatemala City – a delightful landscape of volcanoes, pine forests, milpas and coffee farms – also begs to be explored. Looming over the capital is Volcán de Pacaya, one of the most active peaks in Latin America, while the volcanoes of Agua and Acatenango are also well worth climbing.
You’ll also find countless interesting villages to visit in this area, including San Andrés Itzapa, where there is a pagan shrine to the “evil saint” San Simón, and Jocotenango which boasts museums dedicated to coffee production and Maya music. The one Maya ruin in the area that can compete with the lowland sites further north is Mixco Viejo, which enjoys a breathtaking, remote setting.