Antigua: Guatemala’s charming crown jewel

By Karlie Marrazzo

My first trip to Guatemala began with a blissful three days in the spiritually charged village of San Marcos, peacefully tucked along the shore of Lake Atitlán, one of the most gorgeous places I have been lucky enough to experience thus far in my travels. Even though I could have stayed there for weeks, months, forever, I only had a week in Guatemala and my itinerary told me that it was time to move on. Next stop: Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage city bursting with colonial architecture at the base of three volcanoes; Acatenango, Volcán de Agua and Volcán de Fuego, an active stratovolcano that erupted twice in 2018 alone.

The journey to Antigua began with a half hour lancha (motorboat) ride across Lake Atitlán, back to the transport hub at which I arrived, Panajachel. I drank in my last views of the volcanoes towering over the lake, the small towns climbing up the hills, and the calm waters that anchors them all together, knowing in my heart that it would not be the last time I would see this place. I had pre-booked my shared shuttle ride ($12 USD) with Xocomil Tours from Pana to Antigua, which was a great idea because there were about 25 other people waiting there when I arrived. We climbed into two mini buses and began the 100km journey to Antigua. The trip typically takes about two and a half hours, but ours took much longer. Our driver was obviously new to the job, driving incredibly slowly through the hills and bends surrounding Lake Atitlán. As we got closer to Antigua, about 45 minutes away, traffic came to a complete standstill. This part of the highway is lined wall to wall on either side by automotive-related businesses, selling rims, tires, stereos and anything else you could think of, as well as mechanic shops and audio places. Every single business had at least one man holding an automatic weapon posted outside. Our driver seemed confused and kept calling somebody, trying to figure out how to get us unstuck. I got into a conversation with the man beside me, an older gentleman with a white ponytail who reminded me of my dad, who had been living in Guatemala for half of the year for the past 10 years. Apparently, this snarl in traffic is a mess that occurs daily, and the more experienced professional drivers know about the shortcut/back road that bypasses it all. The midday heat was sweltering and the odour of exhaust marinated the dozen passengers in the van. The driver was moving at a snail’s pace once we finally got into the charming heart of historic Antigua. I realized that we were very close to my casa, but I had no idea what route he would be taking down the one-way streets, so I asked the driver if I could get out second or just hop out and walk. I couldn’t stand being in that sweaty sardine can any longer.

My home for the next two nights was the Casa del Arco, located a mere 250m from the iconic Santa Catalina Arch and half a block from the main square, Parque Central. The iron doors to the hotel were locked, even in the middle of the day, so I rang the buzzer to gain access and check in. All of the guest rooms are located on the second floor of the property, which also holds the highlight of the hotel, a pretty and relaxing rooftop terrace. Eager to see the city, I threw my things into my room and turned right back around to find a late lunch. Sevonne from San Marcos had recommended a restaurant called Cactus, and it was only a couple of blocks from my hotel on the other side of the square. Six hours had gone by since I had gotten on the boat in Panajachel and I was famished. I inhaled a unique fish version of Tacos al Pastor, a classic Mexican style of tacos that I fell in love with in Mexico City that is typically made with pork and topped with pineapple, with a hefty side of chips and guacamole.

It was 4:30pm by this point; I didn’t have anything planned, I didn’t want to be alone, and I wanted to experience this beautiful city that I had longed to visit for so long. I checked out the Couchsurfing app to see if anyone was around and ended up meeting up with a local guy, Alejandro, and a Russian woman at a nearby cafe. We had the typical get-to-know-you conversations, talking about our jobs, where we were from, where we had traveled to, which languages we spoke. Something about the Russian rubbed me the wrong way and I didn’t talk much to her, but she ended up leaving before the other two of us. Once she was gone the more esoteric topics naturally came up – astrology, natal charts and spirituality. The air in the cafe was hot and muggy so we left and sat on a bench in front of the Fountain of the Mermaids at the centre of Parque Central. We decided to meet back up a bit later on for a drink and a night on the town. Our first stop, my first nightlife experience in Guatemala, was, hilariously, at an Irish pub called Reilly’s. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with an Irish pub, but it wasn’t necessarily where I expected to end up in Guatemala. Fortunately, at that moment the only thing Irish about it was the name; Latin music was blaring while we sipped on our local beers, Cabro and Gallo, Guatemala’s national beer. The drinks and the music quickly got to my head; I wanted to move, I wanted to dance. We left the Irish pub and walked the surprisingly quiet cobblestone streets to a club called Las Vibras. From the outside you wouldn’t even know there was a club inside. A long hallway that looked like it was covered in lasers that were really just neon strings in blacklight led to the main club. The bar was first, off to the side of the main room that held the dance floor. The DJ was elevated above the dance floor and there was a water feature on one wall with people dancing on a ledge in front of it. Every wall was painted in the style of street art, black and white with some neon and glow-in-the-dark highlights. Once I saw the Notorious B.I.G. on the wall I knew I was somewhere that I loved. The DJ played a great mix of hip-hop, latin music and electronica. I love to go dancing, and this crowd of locals and tourists alike had the most energy and the most fun I have ever seen on a dance floor, period. The energy was fantastic, everybody was positive and having fun and dancing with sheer abandon, not worrying about what they looked like or what anybody else thought of them. And this was on a Wednesday night! I would have loved to experience that club, or any other club in Guatemala, on a weekend night. The upstairs of the club was more chill, with another bar and an outdoor terrace with couches, the perfect place to cool off after some sweaty dancing. I eventually got into bed at 1:30am, happy and exhausted after a long day.

I woke up at 9:30am the next morning, tired and dehydrated but not willing to sleep in with only one full day left in this charming place. I roamed around town, still amazed with myself for being in a totally foreign land, relying only on myself to get around and not getting lost (although that would be quite hard to do in such a compact area). I’m the girl who never used to be able to read a map, who didn’t know north from west, and who used to rely on her partner 100% for directions without putting in much of an effort myself. How the times have changed!

There were three ruins in Antigua that I was interested in seeing, but I only managed to find two, although I’m sure I walked by the third one half a dozen times. I found the ruins of Monasterio de Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo Church and Monastery) and the Church of Candelaria, while the Church of Santa Rosa managed to elude me. From the street, it’s hard to tell exactly where the ruins of Santo Domingo lie. There was no signage indicating there were ruins anywhere to be found. I did see a small sign for the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, so I stepped through the unassuming doorway, entering a luxurious hotel property engulfing the historic site. To call it a hotel is almost a misnomer. The space was calm, cool and serene. I passed by open courtyards with lush greenery and gently splashing fountains, while artifacts lined the cobblestone hallways of the property. My path led me outdoors; following the wooden boardwalk, passing bright parrots on a perch, I came to the well-preserved ruins that rivalled any ruins I’ve seen in Italy. The monastery was founded in 1542 and became the largest and richest monastery in Antigua.

The property was destroyed by earthquakes in the 18th century and wasn’t excavated until the 1970s, finally becoming part of the hotel that opened in 1989. Domestic areas and kitchens, chapels, skeletons held behind glass, stairways and fountains were just some of the things I saw that day under the hot midday sun. My favourite part was a large, covered room with an altar at the front and white chairs set up audience-style. Romantic visions danced through my head, imagining this venue as the perfect space for an intimate event. At that moment, several silver-haired ladies were sitting scattered amongst the chairs, each one absorbed in their sketchbooks and notepads, painting and drawing the afternoon away. The site also houses several museums, including the Colonial Museum, Archaeology Museum, Museum of Pre-Colombian Art and Modern Glass and a Silver Museum. I only spent about half an hour there, but I could have spent much longer, taking in all of the museums and exploring the hotel a bit more. I hit the pavement and hopped into a tuk-tuk bound for the Church of Candelaria. This church was built in 1548 and was also destroyed by several earthquakes in the 1700s. Today, only the facade remains. There was a small fence surrounding it so I couldn’t get too close and had to view from the street, but I was taken with the twirling columns and intricate carvings on top. At the base of the ruins and many feet away, a lazy game of basketball was taking place, bookended on the other side by the volcano looming in the distance.

One of my greatest weaknesses when I’m traveling, no matter where I am, is souvenirs and gift shops. Antigua was (relatively speaking) the biggest, busiest, most touristy spot I would be in in Guatemala, so I had to take the chance to do my shopping while I was there. The heat of the day was getting to me so I grabbed another tuk-tuk to whisk me to the Mercado de Artesanias (3a Avenida Norte) on the other side of the old town. The name proved to be somewhat deceptive, as they usually do with these types of markets, with the majority of the stalls selling the same tourist souvenirs as each other. I didn’t come across very many unique or artisanal handicrafts, but I bought a bracelet, an ashtray and some worry dolls nonetheless. Another tradition/obsession of mine is to send postcards from wherever I go, and I needed to get my hands on some stamps. When I arrived at the post office across the street from the market, I was greeted by a weathered sign saying “No stamps and no international service at the moment. Postal service is in transition from private to public.” Judging by the age of the sign, the moment had lasted for quite some time already.

It was the middle of the day and I was getting hungry. I decided it would be a great idea to eat on a rooftop on a day when it was swelteringly hot and without a speck of cloud in the sky. I found a place called Cafe Sky (perfect!), walked in a climbed the tiny winding staircase to the roof. None of the tables had umbrellas and I lasted for about three and a half minutes before I caved and moved inside, where I could still enjoy my plate of nachos and view of the volcano without burning myself to a crisp.

Visiting art galleries around the world is one of my absolute favourite things to do, so I was excited to see the works held at La Antigua Galería de Arte, located inside a Colonial mansion. I don’t know if the stars were not in my favour that day or if I was in some sort of alternate universe, but I could not for the life of me find the mansion. I had the address, I had a physical map, I had Google maps, and it was the middle of the day. I walked by the address once, twice, thrice. It was a hostel. The address was correct. I walked in. There was nobody at the counter for me to ask about where they might have hidden this apparent art gallery. I looked online and the gallery had a second address listed right near my hotel. Off I went. It was much smaller and more of a sales gallery than an art museum. I glanced around but didn’t spend much time. I was hot, tired, and a bit discouraged as I had been really excited to see the works from Guatemalan and other Latin American artists.

As I was leaving the gallery, I caught a glimpse of another market, Nim Po’t (5a Avenida Norte #29). An artisan market with incredible textiles, traditional clothing, religious figures and wooden crosses, other wooden figures – skulls, jaguars, tiny chairs, it was leaps and bounds cooler than the market I had been to earlier that day. I was in heaven. I wandered and admired everything in there, picking out the perfect tapestry for my new house, a few more souvenirs for myself and some gifts, topping off spending spree with some bags of coffee from a shop on the corner.

I had an early start the next day. I woke up at 5:30am to have a quick rooftop breakfast before catching a shuttle to La Aurora airport, about an hours’ drive away. There I took a short one-hour flight from Guatemala City to Flores, the little town in Guatemala’s northern Petén region, that most travellers choose to base themselves in when they visit the Mayan ruins of mighty Tikal.

3 thoughts on “Antigua: Guatemala’s charming crown jewel”

  1. Hey super cool that you hit up 30 countries before you were 30. I found your post on Prince George BC, that’s where I’m from.

    I started travelling 3 years ago and have visited 6 countries so far.

    How many countries now have you visited now?

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