La Antigua Guatemala was the colonial Spanish capital of Central America. It is a World Heritage Site, and is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in Guatemala.
Now commonly referred to as just Antigua (or La Antigua), the city was one of the grand colonial capitals of the Spanish Empire in America from the 16th-18th centuries. Under the name Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, it was the original "Guatemala City". A disastrous earthquake in 1773 destroyed or damaged most of the city, and the Spanish crown ordered the capital moved to a new city, what became the modern Guatemala City. In 1776 this old city was ordered abandoned. Not everyone left, but it turned from a bustling capital into a provincial town, filled with the ruins of its former glory. It became known as "Antigua Guatemala", meaning "Old Guatemala".
In the 20th century there was increasing appreciation for the large amount of preserved colonial Spanish architecture here, development to host visitors, and the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
The city's streets are mostly laid out in a rectangular grid aligned with the compass, with the Parque Central as an origin point. North-south roads are avenidas or avenues, numbered from 1st to 8th from east to west. The avenidas are further divided into sur (south) and norte (north). East-west roads are calles or streets, numbered from 1st to 9th from north to south. The calles are further divided into oriente (east) and poniente (west). The street intersection at the northeast corner of the Palace of the Captains-General, i.e. at the southeast corner of Parque Central, is the origin of this division. Avenidas are sur south of 5ª Calle, and norte north of it. Calles are oriente east of 4ª Avenida, and poniente west of it.
Some roads have names that don't follow the avenida/calle numbering scheme, and some roads away from the center don't follow the grid. Most corners do not have signs showing the name of either the street you are on or the one you just came up to. All are paved with cobblestones, and sidewalks are generally not very good.
Addresses are numbered sequentially outwards from the origin point. Even-numbered addresses are on one side of the street and odd numbers are on the other. Street addresses are written with the street or avenue number first, followed by the letter "a" in superscript (because 1ª signifies "primera", 2ª is short for "segunda", 3ª for "tercera", etc.); then "Av." (for avenida) or "Cle." (for calle), then "Ote." (oriente, east), "Pte." (poniente, west), "Sur" (south), or "Nte." (norte, north); then the street address number. For instance:
- "5ª Av. Nte. #5" is address #5 on 5th Avenue North. The small number shows it is just a little north of the north-south divider, 5ª Calle.
- "3ª Cle. Ote. #28" is address #28 on 3rd Street East. The relatively large number shows it is some ways east of the east-west divider, 4ª Avenida.
It's helpful to memorize that the north and south sides of Parque Central are 4ª and 5ª Calles, and the west and east sides are 5ª and 4ª Avenidas respectively. Parque Central is the reference point for east, west, north, and south in street addresses. "5ª Av. Nte. #5" is north of Parque Central. "5ª Av. Sur #5" is south of Parque Central. Essentially, if you understand which way is north of Parque Central, you can find anything in the city.
There is no direct commercial air service to Antigua. The nearest airport is La Aurora International Airport (Template:IATA) in Guatemala City, which is 45 minutes to an hour from Antigua by car.
A taxi from the airport to Antigua is around GTQ350, and can be split among 2 or 3 riders to make it comparable with privately arranged shuttles. For your departure from Antigua, there are numerous travel agencies near Parque Central from which to purchase rides back to the airport. The usual cost is from GTQ55-80.
There are regular shuttle vans directly from the airport to Antigua that cost around GTQ80 and leave regularly all day until 20:00. You don't need to prearrange, but demand can be high depending on the number of flights arriving at the same time, so pre-purchasing a ticket from a local travel agent is best. To return to the airport, almost all travel agencies in Antigua offer scheduled tourist shuttles to La Aurora, for fares ranging from GTQ40-80. The earliest buses and shuttles depart at 04:00, in time to arrive at the airport by 05:00 for a 07:00 flight out. The lines at the airport are very long, so arrive at least 1 hour or more before your flight.
You can also pre-arrange a charter tourist van to pick you up at the airport, which for first-time visitors might be the safest and most convenient option. It costs about GTQ250-350, and the driver will meet you at the airport with your name on a sign.
By chicken bus
Despite their reputation as a magnet for robbers — more than 100 drivers have been murdered for refusing to pay exorbitant protection fees to local gangs — many people still consider the chicken bus (reused US school bus) a superior alternative to both the even more notorious tuk-tuks, which have been blamed for taking tourists to obscure areas for robbery, as well as the safer but more expensive taxis.
You can catch a chicken bus from Guatemala City to Antigua for GTQ8. If you're arriving from the airport, there is (what appears to be an unofficial) stop just outside of the parking lot, where chicken buses will pick up and drop off passengers when airport security isn't around to see. Otherwise, you'll have to walk about 400 meters to the official bus stop just off airport property, but keep in mind that a tourist pulling luggage might make an easy target for a robber. Another alternative is to take the local bus from La Aurora to the chicken bus station (GTQ1), then transfer to a chicken bus bound for Antigua.
Another thing to keep in mind is that because of the perennial crowds on the chicken buses, luggage generally has to be stored at the top of the vehicle — and unless you can convince the bus attendant to help you, it's your responsibility to lift and secure it!
By local bus
From Guatemala City, transportation by bus is comparatively cheap but also less convenient and slower. To get to Antigua, you would need to take a cab to the second-class bus station that plies this route and then get on a chicken bus.
Antigua is very compact and easy to walk around, with a layout that follows the typical Spanish colonial design of a main plaza surrounded by governmental and Catholic church buildings. Most of the sites of interest to visitors are contained in an 8x8 block area less than a kilometer across, which you can walk across in 15 minutes. Be careful: the sidewalks are narrow and not always in good repair, you may have to walk in the street with traffic whizzing by you, and at night it's worth being cautious and aware of your surroundings. Standard tourist maps are linear in their drawings and thus are accurate only near the town center. Get a real map with accurate topography if you are seeking locations farther from the town center, as dead ends and curved streets are not portrayed accurately.
If you don't know the city streets too well, and it is past about 23:00, it is best to get a taxi back to your accommodations, especially if you're alone or going more than a few blocks away from the well-lit vicinity of Parque Central.
By chicken bus
Chicken buses are good for travelling longer distances. To reach Guatemala City, one simply asks for the main route of the chicken bus. They stop at every corner, honk the horn as early as 05:30, and yell out loud "Guate! Guate!". It is common to see one bus every 4 to 5 minutes leaving from the same corner. Buses to San Pedro, San Juan, and/or Santa Ana leave every 10 to 20 minutes; the best place to find these are at the Mercado or at Iglesia de Santa Lucia as they often do not follow the same set route through town.
By tuk-tuk or taxi
Tuk-tuks and taxis can take you to destinations within the city center for GTQ15 or more. Negotiate the fare with the driver in advance. Otherwise, they will routinely charge 50-100% more than they should. Tuk-tuks usually do not go to Guatemala City, and they stop working at 22:00, so one will need a shuttle or taxi instead. Flag down a cruising tuk-tuk, or pick up a taxi from the queue at Parque Central or along a main route to the city's periphery.
The preserved ruins of the old colonial government buildings and churches are not only Antigua's main tourist draw, but they're also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dating from the 17th and 18th Centuries, these buildings were damaged in a serious of seismic events culminating with the devastating earthquake of 1773. They remained abandoned and crumbling until 1944, when Guatemala's President Jorge Ubico declared them a National Monument. Preservation (and, in some cases, partial reconstruction) of the ruins began soon afterward and continues through to the present day. With the exception of the comparatively affordable Iglesia de San Francisco el Grande, entrance fees for the ruins tend to be steep. Despite the popularity of the ruins with tourists, interpretive signs and plaques (where they exist at all) tend to be in Spanish only. If you're planning to take an organized tour and don't speak any Spanish, try to seek out a bilingual guide.
Other attractions within the city center
Hiking on nearby mountains and volcanoes
You can appreciate much about the Guatemalan culture by staying with a local family here. Arrangements for family stay can be made through a local school, or through local charity that you might volunteer for. Cost of local stay to include room and board ranges from USD65 a week with shared facility to as high as USD150 a week for private shower/bathroom. To really get into a glimpse of life in Guatemala, one can sponsor a child through a local charity, like Common Hope, or Mayan Families. Once sponsored, you can visit your child through the charity. For first time visitor, Common Hope can secure an indigenous child at a nearby village like San Rafael, where you can get to see the subsistence farming and the day-to-day life of more than 50% of Guatemalans who lives on less than USD2 a day. Seeing their life on TV is not the same as up close and personal, and seeing the impact your donation makes upon the life of the whole family is gratifying. Visits through local Spanish school usually is made once a week to the local charities and hospital in town like Hospital Hermano Pedro, where many medical groups arrive from other countries to provide needed medical and dental work (cataract surgery, cleft lip, and dental care). One can turn a blind eye to poverty by simply shopping and dining in Antigua, but if every visitor makes a difference by sponsoring a child or family, we can transform the area.
Antigua is the most popular, though not the cheapest, place to learn Spanish in Guatemala. Prices and hours vary, and can change depending on the season.
Homestays for language students are also available as a cheaper and more culturally enriching living situation. The average homestay with a Guatemalan family costs GTQ585 for 7 nights in your own room with shared bath and 2-3 meals per day (except Sunday). It is well worth it to pay a little extra for your own bathroom or shower, and for maximum immersion into the local culture, search for a family who takes in only one or a few students at a time (and local Guatemalan boarders). Families often visit each other on Sundays, and no meals are available. If you are the only student in the home, you are often invited for family get-togethers, and it is quite a cultural experience.
As well, impromptu "classes" in conversational Spanish can often be had with the many shoeshines in Parque Central, if you choose not to have your shoe shined and pay them a few bucks instead. Your results may vary: their education and vocabulary can be very limited, as they are often native speakers of Mayan for whom Spanish is a second language.
You can easily get a job as a waiter, waitress, bartender, or host in any of the many bars, restaurants and hotels in Antigua. Usually they pay from GTQ65-165 a day plus tips. It is important to speak Spanish in most of these places, but you can slide by without it in some touristy spots, where most of the customers are foreigners. Also you can join in and volunteer at local non-profits. There are many local projects in education, health, and development that accept short and long-term volunteers. An example would be Common Hope, and other local churches and charities. These organisations should be contacted ahead of time for availability and credentialing.
When you change money at the bank, you will need your passport. Banks are open 7 days a week, and late: usually until 19:00-20:00. Most of the time, a passport is not needed for changing U.S. dollars into quetzales. However, you are likely required to have a passport if you want to redeem traveler's checks. ATMs are also available.
- Template:Marker (The Market), bordered by 1ª Calle Poniente, Alameda de Santa Lucia, 4ª Calle Poniente, and Calle de Recoletos. To the dismay of some older locals who pine for the halcyon days of the smaller, better organized market of their youth, a modern-day visit to Antigua's central market can be an overwhelming experience. You literally need a compass and a map to navigate this huge maze — that is, if you simply want to get in and get out quickly; on the other hand, getting lost amid the chaos can be one of the most authentic cultural experiences you'll have in Antigua. If you're looking for bargains and don't mind the crowds of hawking vendors, El Mercado is the place for you: this is where you'll find the cheapest produce, fresh meat, consumer goods, and gifts in town. More than just a place to go shopping, El Mercado is a gathering place for all Antiguans, where people come to socialize with their friends while buying the week's groceries, or just to see and be seen. It's open seven days a week, but Saturday, Monday, and Thursday are the busiest days.
- There are so many different sections to the market that you'll probably need a full day to see all of them. The market is chaotic and somewhat disorganized, though similar types of shops tend to be grouped together in specific sections of the complex:
- At the east end of El Mercado, you'll find supermarkets and restaurants lining the Alameda de Santa Lucia.
- Souvenir shoppers will want to head to the south end of the market: it's dominated by a modern, clean and well-stocked gift, art, and local handicraft shop arranged around a central fountain. Popular items include hand-woven cloth and handmade stone and jade jewelry produced by indigenous artisans wearing brightly colored traditional clothing. The stories are all the same — "my mom made it by hand" — which is likely true. A good bargainer can usually talk them down by 25% or more off the initial asking price. Hand-carved wooden masks and figures are also big here.
- The west end has Antigua's main bus station as well as an open-air fruit market where you'll find a great selection of seasonal tropical fruits such as papayas, mangoes, pineapples, and more. The red, curly-haired lychas have a pleasant sweet taste, like the lychees found in Asia. You can also find apples, grapes, and other less unusual fruits in this part of the Mercado. Fruit is safe to eat if washed, though it's a good idea to avoid strawberries unless you can assure they've been soaked well in bleach solution to wash away any fertilizer or contaminated irrigation water. Occasionally you'll see chickens and small livestock for sale here too.
- To the north, inexpensive secondhand clothing is the order of the day: shirts, pants, shoes, and leather goods can be had for as little as GTQ8. Check for quality and comfort before you purchase shoes. Guatemalans tend to be a petite-statured people, so if you're in the market for small, hard-to-find sizes, you'll likely find what you're looking for with ease.
- The central portion of the market is covered and quite dark: narrow corridors lead you through meat markets, smaller restaurants, flower shops, and numerous fruit stands.
- Chocolate and cacao can be found in different places around town. Each individual manufacturer has its own characteristics. The ChocoMuseo Antigua (described above) is not only a museum dedicated to chocolate and cacao, but also a working factory where artisanal chocolate is made before your eyes. Chocolate may also be found at Chocolalala, Fernando's Kaffee, and Chocolarti.
Antigua has cafes and restaurants for all tastes and budgets. The town is the most touristy place in Guatemala so you will find anything you are looking for including international fast food shops. Be careful with where you eat. Facilities lacking in bathroom or bathroom cleanliness suggest a higher probability of food poisoning. Avoid cold salad, fresh vegetables, and undercooked meat. Street ice cream carts are common through the city and popular with the locals, but of are unknown safety for sensitive stomachs.
Ice cream shops
- La Fonda de la Calle Real. Generous helpings of Guatemalan specialties, with reasonable prices and a touch of corporate efficiency in their operations. The "De Todo Un Poco" ("a bit of everything") platter combines steak, chicken, and sausage for GTQ91. The vegetarian "Pepian Vegetariano" offers green beans and other vegetables in a unusual smoky-flavored sauce. The green salad is fresh and overflows the large plate. Uses purified water for all drinks, ice, and preparation. GTQ 75-200.
- La Fonda de la Calle Real has three locations:
Homestays with Antiguan families can be arranged through language schools or directly with the family in question. Because the families are prepaid, you can switch your school at any time and try a different school. Your shuttle from the airport is also prepaid if arranged through a school, so if your driver asks for GTQ40 or GTQ80 in tips, just smile, and give him GTQ10 or GTQ15 at most (a 20% tip), more if your luggage was lugged up a steep hill and dozens of steps.
The homes are often on hilltops, so be prepared to encounter large black scorpions on the lit walls at night, when you are walking home late. They are harmless unless you disturb them, but you might consider wearing shoes if they are abundant. Choose a home in the town to avoid climbing hills, and you will also get fewer mosquitoes. Currently, families charge about GTQ580 for 7 days of bed, shared toilet, and 2 meals. Expect to pay about GTQ80 or GTQ160 more if you want to add lunch (the main meal), or if you expect a private bathroom (well worth it if you don't want to share with up to a dozen other boarders).
An advantage of a home stay for the Spanish language student is a chance for language immersion, as well as the cultural experience. The fewer students the family board, the better the experience. Too many students prefer to speak in English to each other and destroy your "immersive" experience. Ask first how many people are in the home, and how many boarders there are. You might avoid a situation where, say, there's one sink and two toilets shared by 14 people, and there's no way to take a proper shower because so many people are using the hot water. If you value cleanliness and convenience, book a room with private toilet and sink.
Ask the house mother to explain how to get the switch to activate on the shower, or you might have to deal with a cold shower. Buy your own soap and shampoo, as the home might use the same soap for washing dishes and clothing as for bathing. The housing may be more basic than in a hotel: simple concrete block or adobe construction, shared bathroom, and small rooms. Ask if there is a secure lock for your room, as the home is often shared with local boarders, and you do not always want to lug your camera and laptop everywhere you go.
You must provide your own hand towels and bath towels. If you leave them in a common bathroom, don't be surprised if everyone uses them. Eating hours are often different, with dinner often served at 19:30 or 20:00, so you might want to procure your own meals if you intend to go to bed early. Remember that dinner is simple: a few pieces of cold bread and perhaps very light soup. For American-style dinners, go out and buy your own food at the restaurants. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not often served, so eat plenty of beans or bring along your own source of fiber.
Some areas of Antigua are mosquito-free, but in other areas, they are found in abundance. As owners of homestay facilities often leave the door open while cleaning, a compact mosquito net or tent is necessary if you do not enjoy having mosquitoes buzzing around your face at night.
There are many Internet cafes and long-distance phone shops in Antigua. Internet time costs GTQ5-10 per hour. Internet shops often have video phones for Skype calls. Many phone shops use VOIP, and not all area codes will work: for instance, the phone shop downtown will not reach certain cell phones and certain newer area codes. But just around the northwest corner is another shop that reached most U.S. area codes. Just ask as they will reluctantly point you to their competitor. Cellphones from the U.S. will work, but international roaming charges apply and are generally quite steep. Some people ask their carrier to turn off the voice mail function to avoid charges for voice mail.
Due to the presence of the "Tourist Police", Antigua is much safer than any other city in Guatemala: you're very unlikely to be mugged or robbed here, at least during the daytime. (At night, things get a bit more questionable.) However, the flipside of that is once you leave the city center, you're mostly on your own, so it's inadvisable under those circumstances to engage in risky behavior such as displaying valuables conspicuously. If you plan to visit sites outside the center of town like the volcanoes or Cerro de la Cruz, make sure you go with an officer of the tourist police who accompany tourists there at least once a day.
Armed robbery is depressingly common. If this happens to you, rule number one is don't try to resist, as criminals will not hesitate to use their weapons on uncooperative victims. However, there are still ways to minimize the impact of a robbery on your trip. Firstly, it's a good idea to leave your passport in your hotel safe or local home and to carry a photocopy instead. If you are robbed, you will not need to go the consulate for paperwork. Secondly, it's also smart — especially for those who'll be moving around frequently — to keep the bulk of your valuables in a money belt strapped to your waist, and place a few dollars in a separate wallet that you can hand over to a robber if you come across one. ATMs are available, so an ATM card (ideally hidden in a money belt as described above) should be carried for instant cash.
Pickpocketing is actually somewhat less of a danger in Antigua as compared to armed robberies, but during peak tourist times like Semana Santa it's still wise to keep a hand on your wallet. Keep your bags in front of you when walking through El Mercado, as there have been reports of thieves slicing through shopping bags with razor blades to steal the contents.
Almost all bars and restaurants will be happy to call a taxi for you. Asking the bar staff to call the taxi for you, instead of looking for one yourself, can be a good idea since the staff tend to know the drivers they are calling. Ask them what the price should be beforehand, and also ask them to confirm the price with the taxi or tuk-tuk when they arrive. In Antigua, many locals consider the buses safer than a tuk-tuk as they have been blamed for taking tourists to obscure areas to rob them. Women, crimes against whom are often not widely publicized in Guatemala, are especially at risk on public transportation: as a woman, you might be safer riding on a crowded bus than hailing a tuk-tuk or taxi from an unknown driver.
Hiking the Volcán de Agua requires extra caution as numerous robberies and some kidnappings have occurred there. The relatively few reputable tour operators who offer this hike usually employ the services of a police escort or armed guards. If yours doesn't, it's best to choose a different operator.
If you are lucky, you will not have any illnesses in Antigua. However, most long-term visitors may encounter a case of food poisoning or bacterial or viral enteritis. The best way to treat it without a physician's intervention is to buy packages (sobre) of re-hydration solution (solución de rehidratación oral). It is a simple mix of potassium, sodium, and glucose. Most cases of food poisoning or intestinal infections can be blamed on street vendors with unrefrigerated sauces or paste, but home cooked meals can also be the cause. Street vendor food is cheap, but you should avoid it unless you have been eating it daily. A virgin stomach often cannot handle the common bacterial toxins found in unrefrigerated sauces, slaws, and cold marinades. Piping hot, wrapped, boiled food is likely safe, but might not be completely free of all toxins.
It is best to avoid ceviche due to potential risk of bacteria like cholera. Fresh salads should not be consumed for concern of contaminated irrigation water. Strawberries have been known to pass hepatitis A due to contaminated irrigation water. When preparing your own salad or strawberries, soaking in bleach solution or iodine is advised. All fruits should be washed or peeled before eating. Undercooked meat should be avoided due to encysted parasites, unless imported, high-grade beef is assured at a well-known restaurant. Fresh cream is often served at the table, but unless you are sure it is pasteurized or precooked, it is best to avoid putting it on your food. Going barefoot or with sandals is the norm, however hiking with them or going barefoot might lead to cutaneous larva migrans, a parasitic infection where hookworm larvae penetrate the skin and cause itchy red curves and lines a few days later. Wear shoes and socks if you walk off the pavement.
Guatemala, like all Latin American countries, has filtered, chlorinated water at the point of distribution. However, once it gets to the tap, it is no longer safe. Many businesses and homes have rooftop water tanks which fill up during the low-consumption period of the day (usually at night) and maintain pressure at the faucet during the day, when water pressure in the public supply is low or nonexistent. This is the cause of the waterborne intestinal diseases like E. Coli, salmonella, or cysticoccosis that are prevalent in the country. Also, low pressure in the public water pipes often leads to groundwater contaminated with raw sewage flowing into cracks in the potable water system. It has been documented that up to 20% of those who have traveled to developing countries and now have chronic diarrhea or gastrointestinal issue carry intestinal parasites, which can last for many years after returning. Over 80% of returning Peace Corps volunteers have intestinal parasites. Laboratory tests performed in the US and the UK often miss these very small parasites, so repeated samples must be submitted. The only foolproof way to avoid waterborne illness is to avoid tap water (agua del chorro) and instead drink bottled or filtered water (agua del garrafón or agua embotellada). Also, some homes and restaurants have purified water in 5-gallon bottles and serve it in glasses. Ask if the ice is made from purified water.
Laundry can be done by various lavanderias around town. You drop off your laundry, they weigh it and charge you a price per pound (not per kilogram, interestingly). The laundry is dried and available for pickup in two to four hours. Locals advise that you inventory your laundry, to be sure that none is lost or exchanged. Two full backpacks of clothes weighed about 16 pounds.
Guatemala City - The national capital, an hour's drive away.
- San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlan; Shared 15-person shuttle, hostel pickup @ 08:30 & 14:00, Q70pp, 3.5 hours.