CITY GUIDE: Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua: if you’re not well-versed in Central America, perhaps the name instantly takes you to the Caribbean rather than the Guatemalan highlands town where here crumbling ruins, 360-degree mountain views and new-wave coffee shops meet.

But while Antigua Guatemala — meaning “old Guatemala” — might not be on many bucket lists, the beautifully preserved Spanish Baroque architecture, labyrinth of stunning courtyards and wine bars and bounty of hilltop treasures have a way of making one wonder why it isn’t.

The area, in great part, is famous for its access to the surrounding volcanoes, and overnight hikes are available for reasonable fees. Choose to stay in the city, however, and travelers will be treated to vibrant markets, a diverse food and drinking scene and compelling art in a town adorned by its picturesque signature arch, elaborate churches and knobby cobblestone streets. 

What to see, eat and do when you go:

How to live (or stay for an extended period of time) in Guatemala

Well, part one in this beautiful country is coming to a close.

I’ll be back, of course, after a two-week hiatus in the States, and I’m excited to explore the Northeast side of Guatemala when I do. But since I’ve been here for two months now, I thought I’d reflect on some of what I’ve learned with this guide:

How to find somewhere to stay: 

There are plenty of hostels, of course, and some hotels, but I go with Airbnb. If you travel in the offseason, as I am now, it’s possible to negotiate for very good prices, especially if you stay for longer than a week. I typically pay about $10-13/ night to stay in very nice places, typically with shared bathrooms and kitchens (although I have also had my own bathroom, as I do now, for that price) and charming features all their own (such as a jungly outdoor bathtub). And if you want something very lux? It’s possible to have that for about $30 or $40/night. But seriously, lower your standards. You’re in Guatemala now.

How to walk around town: 

Slowly. The foot traffic moves extraordinarily slow here. The general pace of moving is extraordinarily slower here than it is in the U.S., and there is not a lot of — OK zero — walking etiquette, so if you’re a fast walker like me, you may find yourself in need of some walking zen. People may cut in front of you, stop abruptly in front of you, wave their arms in the air and whack you in the head; they’re not screwing with you, this is just how they walk.

The hilltops: Antigua’s less recognized gems

I was in Antigua, actively exploring, for two weeks before I discovered that Santo Domingo del Cerro (meaning Santo Domingo of the hill) even existed. 

Someone had off-handedly told me before I arrived that I should go to “the sculpture park.” After hearing nothing about it in town, after a few weeks I started searching online and found the location, although there was very little information and very few photos. Even Google Maps added to the confusion, suggesting it wasn’t possible to walk to the hilltop when I attempted to retrieve directions.

When I brought up the hilltop attraction to new friends that lived in the city — with the exception of my Airbnb host, who also worked as a tour guide —  I was met with vacant expressions. 

Santo Domingo del Cerro? What’s that? A couple people assumed I meant Cerro de la Cruz, the popular short hike up to an oft-Instagrammed lookout.

So upon making the ascent up one of the many hills that borders Antigua, I didn’t expect too much. A green lawn with a dozen or two sculptures, perhaps. And likely, a good view.

Instead, I was completely blown away by what ultimately became one of the highlights of my stay.

GALLERY: Antigua, Guatemala

Scenes from around Antigua, Guatemala, an astounding blend of old (magnificent churches, heritages traditions, crumbling ruins) and new (craft cocktails, modern art and design). Surrounded on all sides by volcanoes and hills, the views don’t stop. Read more on what Antigua has to offer in my city guide.

Sorting through Antigua’s “danger” reputation

The idea that Antigua, Guatemala might be especially “dangerous,” never really occurred to me until after I arrived, and was putting on my jacket to go grab some street food that first night.

“Make sure you don’t walk down dark streets,” my host, Cesar interjected.

Sensible advice, of course, no matter where you travel, but usually people don’t take the time to say it. He continued, off-handedly, as he stirred a pan of sautéing mushrooms.

“Tourists gets robbed a lot. Girls get robbed a lot.” He eyed me. “And you’re a tourist and a girl.”

At his direction, I unloaded half of what was in my bag back into my bedroom before heading out into the evening, including the professional camera I had planned to use to photograph the street cart cuisine.

“One more thing,” he said as I thanked him and told him I’d see him later. “If you do get robbed, just make sure you don’t die.”

How to be sick in Guatemala in 22 steps

Let’s get one thing straight: This is not a guide telling you how to avoid sickness while in another country, bereft of our mothers and boyfriends and best friends and anyone else that will listen to us whine, because look at us, we’re already here.

Maybe we neglected to eat vegetables for two or three months. Maybe sensible sleep has been elusive due to spiny mattresses and bottom sheets that won’t stay on and stifling humidity and crowing roosters and 4 a.m. explosions. Maybe, last weekend, we decided to consume a bath tub full of mezcal and beer and then dance the Macarena on top of a bar.

The reasons aren’t important. 

The fact is, we’ve been holed up in this 20 x 10-foot room with no ceiling fan and no moms and no BiteSquad, hacking up one of our prized lungs and wilting faster than a dandelion in Death Valley for three days now. It’s time for a game plan for at least managing this thing.

Here we go.