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Exploring Colonial Antigua

Antigua

If you want to encounter other backpackers in Guatemala, Antigua is guaranteed to be a stop on their list. Located close to Guatemala City, its a well preserved colonial city surrounded by volcanoes. Yeah you heard that correctly, volcanoes. There are three large volcanoes dominating the skyline, Volcan de Agua, Volcan de Fuego, and Volcan Acatenango.

In recent history, Fuego erupted in June 2018, just a few months before we arrived. It’s constantly active at a low level, but neither of the other two are active.

Backpacking Antigua – The Essentials
How to Get There
We caught a private shuttle here from Utopia in Semuc Champey, but there are a lot of options. Antigua is definitely on the well-trodden path, so it has links to everywhere. The private shuttles can be good as they generally drop you pretty close to where you’re going, but they can also be a bit expensive.
If you’re feeling a little more brave, the cheapest option for travel is the infamous chicken bus. We traveled on them a few times without issue, but there are stories of people being robbed so the choice is yours. They travel along all routes in Guatemala, so there are sure to be few travelling in your direction.

Where to Stay in Antigua

Matiox

Our choice of hostel was Matiox (Mah-tee-osh), based on a recommendation from our hostel in Semuc Champey. Definitely one of our favourite hostels so far, it was our introduction to pod beds. Super comfy, and with plenty of privacy, it didn’t feel like a dorm room at all.

It’s got a funky open chill-out area, bar in the back, kitchen and even a hot tub. Since the evenings can get a little bit chilly at 1500m, the hot tub was fantastic.

They also have a great calendar of activities, a different one each day, all for the cost of entry and transport, no extra charge. We visited Finca La Azotea and just had to pay for the chicken bus there and entry, which got us a cool tour of the coffee plantation and cultural center.

Another bonus is movie nights on Sundays, with a projector set up in the common area and even popcorn to nibble on.

Selina

During our stay in Antigua, we got a tip from some friends (@cuppatocopatravels) that Selina Hostal had a great co-work space, so that we could use the good internet to upload photos and do some blogging. Great tip, but not only that, its also huge!

A great bar, swimming pool, garden area with hammocks, even a movie room. They offer a mix of dorms and privates, and have locations throughout Latin America, so if you want something familiar head here.

Earth Lodge

If you’re looking for a more eco-friendly option, look no further than Earth Lodge. Situated in the mountains overlooking Antigua, this ecolodge is famous for volcano views, delicious home cooked meals, magical tree houses and friendly staff. 

Yeah that’s right, you can sleep in a tree house! Of course they’re a bit more expensive, but if budget isn’t an issue its a great option to just chill out on your travels. If budget is a worry, they also offer dorms.

How Long To Stay in Antigua

We ended up staying in Antigua for almost a week, including our overnight hike on Acatenangoand this was loads of time to get to know the city. You can stay longer, but it will be more to enjoy the bars and restaurants and expat life rather than finding new activities. A lot of people do Spanish classes here which means there are plenty of tourist restaurants around.

What To Do in Antigua

Day Tours

As mentioned previously, Matiox organise a whole load of day trips from the hostel. Options include day trips to a coffee farm, macadamia nut farm, local markets and even Hobbitenango.

Of course the markets are an easy 10-minute walk away if you want to just go explore yourself and pick up something nice.

However one of the main draws to Antigua is it’s Old Town colonial feel. All of the buildings are preserved (as much as possible after earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) to keep the look of the town authentic. It’s weird walking past an old colonial building to realise its actually a McDonalds on the inside!

Self-Guided Antigua Walking Tour

To take advantage of just walking around the city, we devised our own mini walking tour (sin guía of course). Some of the stops included:

  • Cerro de la Cruz
  • Santo Domingo
  • Convento Capuchinas
  • Iglesia de la Merced
  • Arco de Santa Catalina
  • Convento de la Compania de Jesus
  • Parque Central
  • Palacio de los Capitanes Generales

Some it turned out we had to pay into, and we ended up deciding against it at the door, but its a rough route that covers most of the tourist sights in Antigua.

Plus if you somehow manage to leave Antigua without seeing the view from Cerro de la Cruz, you’re definitely missing out. With Volcan Agua looming in the background, its a picturesque postcard-worthy view.

In the absence of a guided free walking tour (we couldn’t find any!) we think it was a good choice to get out and see the city. There are a couple of options for paid cultural tours, but this was out of our budget.

Food – Where to Eat in Antigua

When you start travelling in Central America, the staples of corn and beans are a novelty that you delve into with enthusiasm. However after a couple of months, the novelty has worn off and you just want something different.

Thankfully, due to the high numbers of tourists in Antigua and longer staying Spanish students, there are plenty of options.

Our favourite was definitely Toko Baru, serving up cheap middle eastern food to all who wait. It has probably the best falafel wraps we’ve ever had, and the shwarma was fantastic as well. The garlic sauce definitely makes both of them taste incredible. We may have visited here a couple of times …

For more typical food (its in the name) Rincon Tipico is a choice recommended by loads of people. Dishes are limited to local specialties, but they’re quick, cheap and tasty.

For some really good coffee, visit Fat Cat Coffee House, where you choose your coffee type and brewing method to get the best cup of coffee for your tastes. Plus it was recommended by our barista friend Chad, so that tells you something!

Special Mention – Volcan Pacaya

While we’ll talk more about our volcano hikes in a separate post about Acatenango, one of our favourite day trips in Antigua was a day hike up the nearby Volcan Pacaya.

It’s an active volcano located about an hours drive from Antigua, so super accessible. After being dormant for about 70 years, it erupted in 1961 and has been erupting pretty much continuously since.

Lots of hostels organise day tours, both morning and evening so there’s nothing stopping you heading after your morning of Spanish classes.

An easy hour and a half hike up the volcano brings you to the highest point the day tours reach. Some tours might go a little higher, but our guides were insistent on us heading back.

We got to see some lava flow down the side of the mountain, and one or two lava boulders rolling down. Maybe getting a little bit closer wouldn’t have been a good idea, no matter how cool it would be.

A definite highlight though was being able to toast marshmallows on the volcanic vents. Once you dodge the rabid dogs that hang around the groups in the hope of food, its a surreal experience to watch the marshmallows slowly cook in a hole in the side of a mountain.

So the highlight of Pacaya (for us) was that it was our first time seeing both a volcano and lava in real life. It wasn’t even hugely active the day we visited, as we saw photos from a few days after where there were rivers of lava down the volcano side.

Still, its definitely a thumbs-up from us!

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