Six months ago I was curled up on a stranger’s couch in Bristol, England browsing through available house sits on Trusted Housesitters website. I spent a few weeks in Bristol, dog sitting a bouncy pooch named Ben while dreaming of future house sit possibilities. Antigua, Guatemala? Hmmm….looked intriguing so I contacted the owner. I also started researching things to do in Antigua, and I found a lot!
A month later he contacted me directly and offered a month-long house sit in June. I jumped at the offer, excited at the possibility of exploring the area with the dream of actually moving to Guatemala one day.
Antigua is located about 45 minutes from the capital, Guatemala City, and is surrounded by three active volcanoes. Sitting at an elevation of just over 5000 feet, the city boasts “eternal spring” weather along with a low cost of living.
Well, in six months life tends to throw a few curve balls. Plans change and dreams evolve. Nice stole my heart so my dream of relocating to Guatemala faded. But spending a month in a beautiful house overlooking volcanos sounds pretty good to me so I’m embracing the adventure!
After tons of research, I’ve found 13 pretty cool things to do in Antigua!
People and culture…
1.) Parque Central
Surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings, the beautiful plaza known as Parque Central is first on my “to do” list. I plan to spend lots of time hanging out on a park bench, drinking coffee, and watching real life passing me by. Across the street from the park is one of the most popular cafes in the city, Cafe Barista, which may become my unofficial “office” during my month-long stay.
(People-watching, strong coffee with a view – a few of my favorite things!)
2.) Antigua Mercado
This authentic Guatemalan market offers more great people-watching while shopping for a little bit of everything. There are local artisans selling crafts, meat and produce stalls, and second-hand clothing vendors among millions of other things. I’ll need to brush up on my Spanish (or actually learn a little?) so I can bargain more effectively with the sellers.
Open daily but “official” market days (when it’s more crowded) are Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.
3.) Coffee Plantation Tour
Guatemala is well-known for being a major coffee producer and I’m well-known as a major coffee addict! To support my addiction, a friend recommended checking out De la Gente, a small, locally owned farm where you can interact with real Guatemalan coffee farmers. They offer a tour of the coffee plantation as well as a deeper look into the farmer’s house and the local lifestyle.
4.) Ride a Chicken Bus
When American school buses get old, they retire to Guatemala and other Central American countries. The buses are sold at auction and driven south where they get a full makeover with wild paint schemes, blaring sound systems, and often have dangling Christmas lights inside. Chicken buses are the most popular form of local transportation for people – and sometimes their chickens too.
(Sounds like an interesting cultural experience….once.)
Explore the history…
Antigua is one of the world’s best preserved colonial cities and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site with many stunning monasteries, convents, and cathedrals in town. The colonial architecture and ruins give the city a magical feel of stepping back in time – back to the 17th century.
5.) Santa Catalina Arch
This arch is the most photographed spot in Antigua and is the perfect frame for the distant Agua volcano. Interesting history: The arch was built in the 17th century to connect the Santa Catalina convent to the school across the street. The cloistered nuns who lived in the convent used this passageway to avoid crossing the street. They lived a life of seclusion and were forbidden from having contact with the general public.
(No doubt I’ll be taking tons of photos from this iconic spot!)
6.) San Francisco Church
Built in 1542, the San Francisco is the oldest functioning church in Antigua. It’s been repaired and renovated a few times over the years due to earthquake damage and the effects of aging, but still is an amazing old baroque church.
Pope Paul II visited back in 2002 when he made the local Franciscan monk, Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur, a saint. Thousands of people visit his tomb every year asking for miracles and special favors.
(Hmmm…what miracle should I ask for?)
7.) La Merced Church
This bright yellow church was built in 1583 and was the first monastery in Antigua. Destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt again in 1767, the building suffered damage from yet another earthquake and was abandoned for the next hundred years. Finally, in 1853 restoration work began again and was carried out with Spanish influence in the design.
Although the church was restored, the convent next door remains in ruins – and the crumbled remains along with the huge fountain look pretty fascinating!
8.) Cathedral de San Santiago
Just across the street from Parque Central, Antigua’s main cathedral has suffered the same fate as the other churches in town, being mostly demolished by repeated earthquakes over the centuries. The front facade of this cathedral is now and behind it lies the roofless ruins of the original building.
(Haunting and mesmerizing according to many tourists!)
9.) Casa Santo Domingo
This centuries-old convent was destroyed by earthquakes in the 1700’s and has now been restored and turned into a stunning 5-star hotel, often voted “The Best Hotel in Central America”. The hotel also boasts a wide variety of museums and one of the top art galleries in Guatemala.
Active things to do in Antigua –
10.) Volcano Hike
Antigua is surrounded by volcanos and I plan to hike one of them. I considered conquering the more challenging Acatenango hike until I read this review. Considering my fitness level (poor) and high altitude issues, I’ll probably settle for the less strenuous Volcan Pacaya hike which tops out at 8,373 feet. There is reportedly an option of roasting marshmallows over the steam vents of the volcano.
(Volcano smores – sign me up!)
11.) Salsa Class
I’m a bad dancer. After a few beers, sometimes I THINK I can actually dance but I definitely don’t have any Latin blood running through my veins. But, in order to embrace the culture and step way outside my comfort zone, I plan to sign up for one of the many salsa classes offered in Antigua.
(Probably best if I have a few beers before class? Maybe they offer shots of quetzalteca to loosen up the hips?)
Imagine zip-lining through a dense jungle canopy and ending up in a Guatemalan coffee plantation – sounds like heaven to me! Antigua Canopy Tours offer a range of zip-line options ranging from 130 feet to an adrenaline-inducing 1600 feet and heights up to 500 feet. (Ahhhh!!!)
13.) Lake Atitlan
Located two and a half hours from Antigua, Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanos and offers stunning views. The town of Panajachel is very popular with expats and is the one place I was considering exploring as a future home base until Nice stole my heart! I still plan to spend some time in this area, taking a water taxi to explore the many ethnic villages dotting the shores of this beautiful volcanic lake.
Thanks to Trusted Housesitters, I’ll have a have an amazing opportunity to explore this magical Central American country for almost 5 weeks and I plan to fully embrace the adventure!
Have you been to Antigua? Any tips or advice on things to see?