Superbly situated in a sweeping highland valley, Antigua is one of the Americas’ most enchanting colonial cities. In its day this was one of the great cities of the Spanish empire, serving as the administrative centre for all of Central America and Mexican Chiapas.
Antigua has become Guatemala’s foremost tourist destination, a favoured hangout for travellers. The beauty of the city itself is the main attraction, particularly its remarkable wealth of colonial buildings – churches, monasteries and grand family homes – that provide an idea of the city’s former status. You’ll find the ambience unhurried and enjoyable, with a sociable bar scene and superb choice of restaurants adding to the appeal. Antigua’s language schools are another big draw, pulling in students from around the globe.
Expats contribute to the town’s cosmopolitan air, mingling with local villagers selling their wares in the streets, and the middle-class Guatemalans who come here at weekends to eat, drink and enjoy themselves. The downside is that perhaps this uniquely civilized and privileged city, with its café culture and boutiques, can feel at times a little too gringo-geared and isolated from the rest of Guatemala for some travellers’ tastes.
You could spend days exploring Antigua’s incredible collection of colonial buildings. If you’d rather just visit the gems, make Las Capuchinas, San Francisco, Santo Domingo and La Merced your targets.
In 1541, after a mudslide from Agua volcano buried the Spanish capital at Ciudad Vieja, Antigua was selected as a safer base. Here the new capital grew to achieve astounding prosperity. Religious orders competed in the construction of schools, churches, monasteries and hospitals, while bishops, merchants and landowners built grand town houses and palaces.
The city reached its peak in the middle of the eighteenth century, after the 1717 earthquake prompted an unprecedented building boom, and the population rose to around fifty thousand. By this stage Antigua was a genuinely impressive place, with a university, printing press and a newspaper. But in 1773 two devastating shocks reduced much of the city to rubble and a decision was made to abandon ship in favour of the modern capital. Fortunately, there were many who refused to leave and Antigua was never completely deserted.
Since then the city has been gradually repopulated, particularly in the last hundred years or so, with middle-class Guatemalans fleeing the capital and a large number of foreigners attracted to Antigua’s relaxed and sophisticated atmosphere.
The fate of Antigua’s ancient architecture has become a growing concern. Efforts are being made to preserve this unique legacy, especially after Antigua was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Local conservation laws are very strict (extensions to houses are virtually impossible) and traffic reduction initiatives have eased noise and environmental pollution.
Antigua is laid out on a grid system, with avenidas running north–south, and calles east–west. Each street is numbered and has two halves, either a north and south (norte/sur) or an east and west (oriente/poniente), with the Parque Central regarded as the centre. But poor street lighting and the use of old street names ensure that most people get lost at some stage. If you get confused, remember that the Agua volcano, the one that hangs most immediately over the town, is to the south.
Antigua’s Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations are perhaps the most extravagant and impressive in all Latin America – a week of vigils, processions and pageants commemorating the most solemn week of the Christian year. The celebrations start with a procession on Palm Sunday, representing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and continue through the week, climaxing on Good Friday. On Thursday night the streets are carpeted with meticulously drawn patterns of coloured sawdust, and on Friday morning a series of processions re-enacts the progress of Christ to the Cross. Setting out from the churches of La Merced and Escuela de Cristo and the village of San Felipe at around 8am, groups of penitents, clad in purple or white and wearing peaked hoods, carry images of Christ and the Cross on massive platforms, accompanied by solemn dirges played by local brass bands and clouds of incense. After 3pm, the hour of the Crucifixion, the penitents change into black.
It is a great honour to be involved in the procession but no easy task – the great cedar block carried from La Merced weighs some 3.5 tonnes and needs eighty men to lift it. Some of the images displayed date from the seventeenth century, and the procession itself is thought to have been introduced by Alvarado in the early years of the Conquest.
Check the exact details of events with the tourist office, which should be able to provide you with a map detailing the routes of the processions. During Holy Week virtually every hotel in Antigua is full, and the entire town is packed, but as enterprising locals rent out spare rooms there’s always a bed to be had somewhere.
Visitors to Antigua should be aware that crimes against tourists – mainly street robberies – do occur infrequently. Pickpockets target the market. Tourist police do patrol the streets but it’s still wise to follow the usual precautions: avoid quiet areas after dark and take a taxi to get home after 10pm. If you want to visit viewing spots, such as the Cerro de la Cruz, join one of the trips organized by the tourist police.
Volcán de Pacaya near Guatemala City is a spectacular and very active volcano that spews towering plumes of smoke and brilliant orange sludge – though such fire ‘n’ brimstone shows only happen sporadically. Gran Jaguar Tours offers basic, inexpensive trips for US$5–7/head, while adventure tour specialists charge from US$50 for a day hike.
Other cones to climb include volcanoes Agua and Acatenango, the toughest climb in this region, which gives a great view of the highly active neighbouring cone of Fuego.
The countryside surrounding Antigua is superbly fertile and breathtakingly beautiful, peppered with olive-green coffee bushes and overshadowed by three volcanic cones. The valley is dotted with small villages, ranging from the traditional indigenous settlement of Santa María de Jesús to genteel San Juan del Obispo, which is dominated by a huge colonial palace. You’ll also find two excellent museums in Jocotenango, just north of Antigua. No place is more than thirty minutes away.
The grimy suburb of Jocotenango, “place of bitter fruit”, is set around a huge, dusty plaza where there’s a weathered, dusty-pink Baroque church. In colonial times, Jocotenango was the gateway to Antigua, where official visitors would be met to be escorted into the city. Long notorious for its seedy bars, the town’s main industries are coffee production and woodcarving. There’s an excellent selection of bowls and fruits in the family-owned Artesanías Cardenas Barrios workshop on Calle San Felipe, where they have been working at the trade for five generations.
About 10km north of Jocotenango, past Parramos, a side road branches to SAN ANDRÉS ITZAPA, famed as a base for the cult of San Simón, or Maximón. The so-called wicked saint’s abode is a short stroll from the central plaza, up a little hill – you should spot street vendors selling charms, incense and candles. If you get lost, ask for the Casa de San Simón. San Andrés’ Tuesday market is also worth a visit.
Agua is the easiest and by far the most popular of Guatemala’s big cones to climb, and on Saturday nights dozens of people spend the night at the summit. It’s an exciting ascent with a fantastic view to reward you at the top. The trail starts in Santa María de Jesús: it’s a fairly simple climb on a clear (often garbage-strewn) path, taking five to six hours, and the peak, at 3766m, is always cold at night. There is shelter (though not always room) in a small chapel at the summit, and the views certainly make it worth the struggle.
As there have been (occasional) robberies reported on the outskirts of Santa María it’s best to team up with an Antigua adventure sports company (see Tourist crime in Antigua) and not attempt the hike on your own.
Majestic Acatenango is the toughest volcano climb in the Antigua region, an exhausting but exhilarating six- to seven-hour hike. Its summit peaks at 3975m, making it the third largest cone in the country. The route is along a trail of slippery volcanic ash that rises with unrelenting steepness through thick forest. Only for the last 50m or so does it emerge above the tree line, before reaching the top of the lower cone. To the south, after another hour’s gruelling ascent, is the summit, accessed via a great grey bowl, from where there’s a magnificent view out across the valley below. On the opposite side is the Agua volcano and, to the right, the fire-scarred cone of Fuego. Looking west you can see the three volcanic peaks that surround Lake Atitlán and beyond them the Santa María volcano, high above Quetzaltenango.
Several agencies in Antigua run hiking trips, usually involving camping halfway up the cone and then an ascent in the early hours of the morning.
San Andrés shares with many other western-highland villages (including Zunil and Santiago Atitlán) the honour of revering San Simón, or Maximón, the wicked saint, whose image is housed in a pagan chapel in the village. His abode is home to drunken men, cigar-smoking women and hundreds of burning candles, each symbolizing a request. Curiously this San Simón attracts a largely ladino congregation and is particularly popular with prostitutes. Inside the dimly lit shrine, the walls are adorned with hundreds of plaques from all over Guatemala and Central America, thanking San Simón for his help. For a small fee, you may be offered a limpia, or soul cleansing, which involves one of the resident women workers beating you with a bushel of herbs, while you share a bottle of local firewater, aguardiente, with San Simón (it dribbles down his front) and the attendant will periodically spray you with alcohol from her mouth. If you are in the region, try to get to San Andrés on October 28 when San Simón is removed from his sanctuary and paraded through the town in a pagan celebration featuring much alcohol and dancing.