It’s known as Guatemala’s colonial jewel, and while Antigua Guatemala is beautiful, it comes at a cost, literally.
We actually visited Antigua a total of 3 times, first on our own for a few days, then for 2 more nights when my friend Sally arrived, and again just before she had to leave a few weeks later. So we got to know the town pretty well.
It is a beautiful place surrounded by several volcanoes, cobbled and tree lined streets, with colourful buildings, cute squares and stunning churches. You’d have to be pretty miserable not to like it.
There are the wonderful markets, where you can haggle over souvenirs or local goods. And there is the magnificent arch, the iconic image of Antigua. Oh and it’s probably home to the worlds prettiest McDonalds!
A must see in the town is Casa Santa Domingo. Calling it a set of ruins would be inaccurate. It’s a set of ruins of a monastery which have been transformed into a 5 star hotel. Some may hate that, but they have done a tasteful job of building the hotel around them, and you are free to explore the stunning grounds and the crypt, with an entrance fee required for a few museums on site (we didn’t visit these).
Another essential trip is a walk up to El Cerro de la Cruz (The Hill of The Cross). A short but tiring uphill walk in the north of the town, the views of the town with the volcano in the background are superb and it was a great place to relax for an hour.
What we didn’t realise (until writing this post) is that you are supposed to take a police escort up the hill as it is notorious for muggers – we had no idea this was the case. Anyway we had no issues and we certainly weren’t the only gringos doing it ourselves.
Our first trip outside of town was to Valhalla macadamia farm, a simple half hour chicken bus ride from the town. Once there, we were taken on a short tour showing how the nuts were picked, dried, shelled and sorted.
Then we were given samples of the nuts and also the offer of a macadamia facial – me and our friend Victoria who was with us both tried this and it was very nice. The boys decided not to though!
We then settled down to eat some delicious pancakes with macadamia butter and blueberry jam – yum!
Our main excursion was the almost compulsory trip to Pacaya, the easiest and shortest of the active volcanos in the area. We’ll talk about this more in another post.
So after all the things we did like, what could we possibly not like?
Well there were a few things that were a bit disappointing. Firstly, the prices. As the biggest tourist hotspot in the country, Antigua is unsurprisingly more expensive than elsewhere. With the exception of dorm beds, accommodation costs a lot more.
But that’s just the start. Sadly local food is not always easy to find, with the town centre taken up mostly by expensive international tourist restaurants. There were some which were good value but they were hard to find.
The most infuriating thing was shops. With only one small supermarket, there were occasions when you needed to grab snacks or water or beer from a small tienda. But the majority of these we visited were out to rip tourists off as much as they could.
For example, the first night, when no other shops were open, we were charged 15Q (£1.32) for a small bottle of water, which is a crazy price in England, let alone Central America.
And the reason we knew they were overcharging (apart from supermarket prices being 1/4 of what they charged) – the prices changed from day to day. It was like they calculated the highest price they thought a gringo would pay.
The bar prices were a bit crazy too. Our hostel charged 11Q per beer in Happy Hour, which was fine. But outside of that it shot up to 18Q! In fairness it was full every night, so perhaps some people travel with a much bigger budget than us!
There is a fairly cool hobbit-like bar called Cafe No Se, but drinks here come with a massive price tag, 22Q per beer, and 40Q (thats almost £4!) for a shot of mezcal!? This was crazy as we had previously bought a 35cl bottle from Mexico for all of £3. So definitely not worth the hefty price tag. Its worth a look but don’t stay long.
Other things which spoiled this beautiful town was the constant traffic – you couldn’t stop and admire anything without a line of cars beeping and driving past. And the narrow pavements were constantly chock full of tourists and locals.
Overall though, we did love the town more than we hated it. But we thought it was important to be honest – for us it wasn’t quite as perfect as everyone makes out.
We stayed in a variety of accommodation in Antigua. When we first arrived, we struggled to get a room, so we stayed one night in the wonderful El Meson Antigua, a new hotel that was absolutely stunning. It was expensive for 2 of us (Q325 for a double), but we returned for 2 more nights with Sally (Q375 for a triple).
It came with a great breakfast on a beautiful terrace, on which one morning we saw a volcano erupt!
We also stayed at Hostel Tropicana. Our experience here was mixed. In some respects we enjoyed it, as some friends we’d met in Mexico were there, and we also met lots of other cool people, but it is without doubt a party hostel and we’re probably a bit old for it. It was cheap though at 75Q per bed.
On our last visit, El Meson Antigua was full so we were shown to somewhere apparently similar but which was really not nice. It was called Hostel La Quinta and while it was cheap (225Q for 3) it was pretty grotty and we found an enormous cockroach in the bathroom – not the best way for Sally to end her holiday!
The final night, me and Greg moved onto La Casa de Don Ismael which was a lot better but a bit overpriced at Q325 – that price was worth it for El Meson but not for here.
Cheap Food & Drink
There are relatively few places to eat within a travellers budget but when you find them they are truly worth it. Our favourite was Riccon Tipico, open breakfast to dinner, but best visited at lunchtime. It has set meals for the day, usually either pollo asado (grilled chicken) or chorizo, with wonderful sides and blue tortillas, for only 20Q per meal.
Another good shout for cheap ‘menu del dia’ meals was Casa de Las Mixtas, near the market. It took a few attempts to get in here but it was worth the wait – soup, grilled chicken meal, rice pudding and jugs of Jamaica (hibiscus flower juice) for 20Q per person. In the area there are several other similar cheap eateries, but the atmosphere was best here.
We also ate at the reasonably priced Pappy’s BBQ, which sells a selection of BBQ meat baguettes, around 25-40Q and plates of ribs wings and steaks. The latter obviously more expensive at 60-80Q. But great food non-the-less.
Next door to Pappy’s is Cactus Tacos, which also is a midrange place to eat, but the tacos were very creative and delicious – Greg had some with wasabi battered shrimp which were delicious.
For drinks we encountered a very reasonably priced bar called Tarritos, where beers are 10Q for 10oz or 35Q for a litre – probably the cheapest we found. However don’t get food there, as although it may seem cheap, at 10-15Q, the sandwiches are sub-standard with little filling and very small.
Finally, as we were in Antigua for Valentines Day, we picked a Japanese fusion restaurant called Origami which was a nice treat with plenty of delicious vegetarian food and good wine. A main meal was around 50Q.