Antigua, Guatemala

WHY I LOVE

ANTIGUA
  1. A great mix of travellers, artists, locals and volunteers.
  2. Such a compact town, but densely packed with history, great eateries, great bars, churches, galleries and markets. Much of the best stuff is stumbled upon and out of view of the typical tourist.
  3. Being constantly surrounded by amazing views and sights in any direction. The volcanoes hulk over the town and when coupled with the ruined cathedrals and the beautiful architecture you are acutely aware of the history of the place and how at mercy you are of much greater forces of nature.

24 HOURS IN

SEE, EAT & DO

Breakfasts in Latin America and Guatemala can often be disappointing. Y Tu Pina Tambien, is the exception. A small but perfectly formed weekday breakfast menu including among others the Chapin (Guatemalan), American (Pancakes) or Mexican (Huevos Rancheros). The tables are rarely filled so you’ll get amazingly friendly and chilled service. But the weekends are when this joint comes into it’s own.

 

The owners also own Café No Se (see insider tips below), are journalists and own a mescal distillery so they know a thing or two about parties and a thing or two about hangovers. So the weekend breakfast menu features grease and free asprin to all in pain patrons… as are breakfast cocktails for the brave of heart.

After the adrenaline filled ride through the back country of Guatemala you’ll be dying for a beer so on your way back from the ride stop off at the Earth Lodge (yeah, it’s a bit hippy as the name suggests). Lay back in the hammocks with a beer in hand, with a great view and a late lunch of their weekend barbeque while telling heroic stories of just how quick you rode that bike? You’re in heaven.

 

Getting towards late afternoon ride over to the Cerro de la Cruz to see Antigua’s answer to Christ the Redeemer. A large cross mounted upon the hill overlooking town. It’s a great place to sit, take in the vista of volcanoes, the unbelievably beautiful colonial town and it’s ruins left from the 18th century earthquake. Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala and you can see it’s past glory so well from here. Leave before it gets dark though… the security leaves just before sunset and it becomes unsafe.

Evening is when Antigua comes into it’s own. With a mix of backpackers, tourists, day trippers from Guatemala City, volunteers from throughout the world the restaurant and in particular the bar scene pumps.

 

Time to line that stomach for the events ahead of you. Let’s start with a gem. Cactus Tacos started off as a hole in the wall and recently expanded to become a casual dining restaurant of unusual invention and quality. The tacos are exceptional, particularly the seafood such as the Greek tzatziki fish tacos but the real standout is a dish I’d never have thought of – Bacon and Prawn tacos… unbelievable.

 

To the main event. Drinking. Guatemala works on an archaic but almost theoretical 11pm closing hour but for the seasoned drinker this is barely noticed.

 

First a drink at Café Sky. Walk past the two travel agent desks and before you head into the hostel walk up the set of stairs on your right. It’s easy to miss but as you arrive on the second floor you will be greeted by Antigua’s best roof top vistas. Watch the sunset from here rather than get mugged atop the Cerro de la Cruz.

THE TOP 3

SPOTS TO EAT

Hugos Cervicheria: There is a little street wagon which seems to appear randomly about the city at different times (if there is a schedule I couldn’t discern it). But they have a restaurant, which has excellent cerviche, again, it’s opening hours are more like aspirational goals than actual opening hours and as it’s off the tourist drag it is rarely full. Go to the top floor for a delightful view of the restaurant.

Rincon Tipico: 100% Guatemalan. Very popular with the locals and cheap as hell. It’s the best spot in town for Guatemalan food. You’ll likely be greeted by an Abuelita (little grandmother) who’ll take you to your table, which sets the scene for what you’re about to experience.

Cactus Tacos: Previously mentioned above.

THE TOP 3

HIDDEN GEMS

Hotel Posada de Maria: A little Spanish restaurant which is part of a hotel. As a result it’s not on trip advisor or other sites yet. But the food is largely spanish with a Guatemalan influence and with excellent service in intimate surroundings. You’ll walk away happy.

Whisky Den: Great selection of whiskey and other drinks from around the world. Upstairs is Lava, which is largely forgettable except for the best buffalo wings in town, which you can take down to Whiskey Den to eat. Best of both worlds.

El Calvario: Few tourists wander down here, which is to the tourists detriment. Down here you will find a gorgeous church and the small streets open up briefly to become a flower lined wide avenue with delicious churches and convents.

INSIDER TIPS

Walk over to the corner of 2nd South and and 9th. There is an innocuous green door which is seemingly un-noteworthy but inside is something special. Do you remember the best house party you ever went to that you prayed would never end? This is that party. You won’t see a sign for this bar/restaurant you just have to know it’s there. At times the door will be closed, with no signs of life but don’t worry knock on the door and someone will let you in.

 

The inside is barely as large as a standard living room, and can only fit maybe 15 people squeezed cheek to jowl inside. An inspired collection of vintage bric-a-brac hangs from the walls and the walls are covered in graffiti (be sure to leave your mark with the provided pens, just come up with something more eloquent than “I waz ‘ere”). It is impossible to encounter a bad atmosphere here, the place erupts with joy and within seconds you will be talking to new/old friends, the host (owner seems the wrong word here) or other equally entranced visitor. It’s easy to get stuck here discussing everything from Descartes to Emiliano Zapata leading to a lock in, trying to keep quiet as the police drive past looking for illegal after hours drinking establishments…. Sssshhh don’t tell everyone about this place, especially the police.

 Café No Se (translation “cafe I dunno”). Bohemian is the only way to describe this place. Opened by writers who as previously mentioned have a mescal distillery and excellent breakfast joint (previously mentioned), Café No Se is the centre of artistic life in Antigua drawing in the inebriated poets, painters, musicians, jewellers and travellers. Typically there will be a live band, but always a great atmosphere. Often Café No Se runs an after-hours party to keep the vibe going.

The markets to the west of the city beside the bus station are very typical of a Latin American market and once inside the sprawling markets. Try finding the Paca, the area which sells all the random clothes which didn’t sell in US malls for ridiculously cheap prices – find that Ralph Lauren ski jacket for only $2 USD! (Ski jackets aren’t much use at this latitude).

Red Zebra: Wednesday night is a great pub quiz in a funky little locals bar

Casa de Arte: Amazing high quality art and antiques located close by the Hotel Porta Antigua.

Just wander the town. It’s compact enough and enjoyable just to wander. But given you’ll do that anyway without being told I need to choose a second option. I would arrange to have an over night climb to the top of Volcan Acatenango. Most tourists will do the Pacatenango on a half day trip which is cool if you’re pressed for time and want to climb an active volcano. However, if you climb Acatenango with nightfall will come one of nature’s greatest light and sound shows (assuming no clouds and a little thermal activity). You will fall asleep to the sounds of a volcano erupting at a safe distance, opening the tent doors will unveil red lava being thrown into the sky – in the daytime, these fireworks simply aren’t visible it’s just impressive smoke. Then before dawn you rise to climb to the top of the inactive volcano to see dawn. From atop of this vista the nearby volcano continues to erupt, the lights of Guatemala City roll out before you, you can see the coast through to the high land lakes – the whole of Guatemala is beneath you.

ESSENTIALS

Guatemala is pretty cheap. If you avoid the joints set up solely for the middle aged and elderly tourists you will be able to live well and cheaply. If you’re up for cheap drinks there is a well-worn set of different bars on different nights with cheap drinks, a few enquiries and you’ll find them.

Walk during the day, it’s compact. At night, tuk-tuk, see below. To get out of Antigua, only take a chicken bus short distances – it’s painful and slow. Shuttle vans are plentiful, safe and go anywhere you want although often they pack the tourists in.

Take a tuk tuk after dark – daytime to walk is fine. While Antigua is much safer than almost anywhere else in Guatemala it does have it’s problems after dark, particularly if you’re female. A 10 quetzal tuk-tuk (less than $1 USD) will get you anywhere in the town.

If you can’t tell the tourist traps a mile away (which are largely just overpriced restaurants) in Antigua then you’re beyond help.

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