Six months ago I was curled up on a stranger’s couch in Bristol, England browsing through available house sits on the Trusted Housesitters website. I spent a few weeks dog sitting in Bristol while dreaming of the future house sit possibilities when I ran across Antigua, Guatemala. Since I was considering moving to Central America, Antigua looked intriguing so I contacted the homeowner. Meanwhile, I began researching things to do in Antigua Guatemala and I found tons! Antigua is often considered the heart of Guatemala and I thought it might steal my heart too!
A month later the homeowner contacted me directly and offered a 5-week house sit. I jumped at the offer, excited at the possibility of having plenty of time to explore the area. Three active volcanoes surround the city of Antigua, which is located about 45 minutes south of the capital Guatemala City. Antigua sits at an elevation of just over 5000 feet and boasts “eternal spring” weather along with a low cost of living. It sounds like an ideal place to relocate to!
Well, in six months life tends to throw a few curve balls. Plans changed when 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 so I embraced the adventure!
After much research, I’ve found 13 pretty cool things to do in Antigua Guatemala!
People and culture…
1.) Parque Central
Beautiful old colonial buildings surround the plaza known as Parque Central in the heart of downtown Antigua. Spend some time hanging out on a park bench, drinking coffee, and watching real life pass by. Across the street from the park is one of the most popular cafes in the city, Cafe Barista.
(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. Brush up on your Spanish to 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 a coffee addict! To support a coffee addiction, check 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.
(It’s 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. The nuns lived a life of seclusion and were forbidden from having contact with the general public.
6.) San Francisco Church
Built in 1542, the San Francisco Church 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. What miracle will you ask for?
7.) La Merced Church
Built in 1583, this bright yellow church was the first monastery in Antigua. After an earthquake destroyed it, they rebuilt it 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 with more Spanish influence in the design.
La Merced Church was restored but the convent next door remains in ruins. Those crumbled remains along with the huge fountain are beautifully fascinating!
8.) Cathedral de San Santiago
Just across the street from Parque Central, Antigua’s main cathedral 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 stands guard over the roofless ruins of the original building. The ruins are quite mesmerizing!
9.) Casa Santo Domingo
Earthquakes destroyed this centuries-old convent back in the 1700’s. Later, the building was renovated and became 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 Guatemala –
10.) Acatenango Volcano Hike
Volcanos surround Antigua and many tourists recommend tackling the very challenging Acatenango hike. But, if your fitness level isn’t up to it or you’ve got high altitude issues, settle for the less strenuous Volcan Pacaya hike. This hike tops out at 8,373 feet and is less challenging but still incredibly beautiful!
11.) Salsa Class
Think you can dance? After a few beers maybe? I definitely don’t have any Latin blood running through my veins. But, in order to embrace the culture and step way outside your comfort zone, sign up for one of the many salsa classes offered in Antigua. Maybe take a shot of quetzalteca to loosen up the hips?
Imagine zip-lining through a dense jungle canopy and ending up in a Guatemalan coffee plantation! 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.
13.) Lake Atitlan
Located two and a half hours from Antigua, volcanos surround Lake Atitlan and provide stunning views. The town of Panajachel is very popular with expats and aid workers. This quaint town is one place I would consider moving until Nice stole my heart! Spend some time in this area and take a water taxi to explore the many ethnic villages dotting the shores of this beautiful volcanic lake.
Have you been to Antigua? Any tips or advice on things to see?