Picturesquely set amid volcanoes, Antigua may be antigua (old), but these days there’s always something new percolating along these cobblestone streets, alive with Guatemalans hawking their wares; local commerce; tourists from all over the world; North American kids in town to learn Spanish at the many language school and of course do some partying; expatriates going about their business; and weekenders from Guatemala City.
Some call this Guatemala’s most charming city, and that’s largely due to the fact that it was the capital of the colony for some 200 years until the 1770s, when so many building were knocked down by an earthquake the Spanish Crown ordered a new capital built. Not that, for the most part, you’d really much notice today; yes, there are ruins here and there, but its square colonial quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is still one of the best preserved and most appealing in the Americas. It’s a romantic, mostly low-slung cityscape of arches, fountains, wrought-iron grills, cupolas, and columns, in varying shades of ochre, pink, yellow, and blue.
Ground zero is of course the Parque Central, around which you’ll find the Cathedral of San José (below), the archbishop’s palace, the Palace of the Captains General, the city hall, and the Portal de las Panaderas (Portico of the Bakers). Nearby Calle del Arco is lined with restaurants, shops, boutique hotels, and a crafts market, and provides one of the signature photo ops, of the eponymous Santa Catalina Arch (above), part of an adjacent former convent. Convents, churches, and monasteries are thick on the ground here, numbering more than 40. Several worth visiting include Santa Catalina, Santa Clara, Las Capuchinas, San Francisco, and La Merced. Others have been deconsecrated and put to work in tourism, such as the Santo Domingo Monastery, which is a splendid luxury hotel and also welcomes visitors to its exhibits and tropical gardens home to exotic twittering birds.
Along the way, be sure to indulge in one of Guatemala’s most typical and tasty products – el café, which will make the coffee you buy in the supermarket back home taste like dirty dishwater. Savour a cup with a delicious local pastry made with coconut, dulce de leche, or sweet potato from the historic Doña María Gordillo sweet shop on Calle Oriente.
Hit the local outdoor market, and the colours multiply like mad. Great photo ops (and tasty fruit for snacks) of course, and right next to it you’ll find another handicrafts market where you will be hard pressed not to drop a few quetzales (the local currency, not the bird) on some of the gorgeous work here, including brilliantly coloured weaving, woodwork, silver, ceramics, and jade. And by the way, if you’re in the market for more contemporary flavours of art, there is no shortage of galleries showcasing the high-quality work of Guatemalan and expat artists in various media.
At day’s end, head to the roof deck of Café Sky (1a Avenida Sur) to catch the spectacular sunset against the craggy peaks of the surrounding volcanoes, then it’s time for a dinner of Guatemalan delicacies at one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, La Fonda de la Calle Real (5a Avenida Norte; try the exquisite pepián de pollo, chicken in a complex sauce of ground pumpkin seeds, spices, and chiles). Afterward, a stroll along the lamplit cobblestones, less hectic with the daytime traffic gone, brings its own special magic. But if you’re up for something more intense, there are plenty of packed bars and clubs with vibes including salsa, electronic, whatever you want – where the party rocks on till the wee hours. Because in Antigua the draw may be the past, but the feel is very here-and-now.
- Antigua has 45,000 inhabitants.
- The temperature varies from 15 to 22° Celsius (59-72°F). The best time to visit is the dry season from November through May.
- The currency is the quetzal.
- Iberia deals to Guatemala City: from Spain, London.
image | ZackClark, Chensiyuan