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.

After taking a free shuttle up a steep winding road, I, along with a couple of women who apparently worked on the hill, was dropped off at what looked like a small museum complex. And it was, sort of, but only in the way that a jungle is technically a park. 

Strewn across the hill — well over a mile of twists and turns and dirt paths to wander down — was a labyrinth of sculptures and other artistic works. Tiny galleries, celebrating dozens of Guatemalan artists, sat stacked on top of each other. Unassuming footpaths led to elaborate, multi-level water features hidden in the jungle, complete with towering waterfalls and koi ponds. Vintage Volkswagen Beetles angled upward, driving away from the hill and into the sky.  Gargoyles, clinging to branches with their faces twisted into grimaces, hovered above in the trees. 

I had planned for a quick stop, an hour or so; it was clear I needed to stay for much longer.

The largest, dual-level gallery is dedicated the esteemed artist and architect, Efraín Recinos, much of whose work is scattered across the ground. Of course, from visiting his Wikipedia page, you’d never know — Santo Domingo del Cerro doesn’t even get a mention.

Another fascinating piece, dubbed “Ghost Town,” consisted of a large-scale drawing project featuring over 100 artists and meant to visualize a series of poems by Guatemalan writer Vania Vargas. The giant canvas, a captivating collaboration of images and concepts, bent around three walls as it extended across an entire room. 

Just when I thought I had seen all the hill had to offer, I stumbled into another cluster of intrigue. Even all the way down the hill — I chose to take the leisurely, vista-rich walk back — surprising sculptures stood waiting, on the side of the road.

Incredibly, it was all completely free, even the transportation there. But on a Tuesday morning, I was the only one there, save for several grounds workers.

How had Antigua managed to keep such a glorious secret?

I was further mystified after visiting another hilltop nearby, Cerro San Cristóbal. This one I heard about from my Airbnb host, who suggested the excursion after I told him I had trekked to, and fallen in love with Santo Domingo del Cerro.

Despite that we were promised a two-hour, nearly vertical hike (there is also a shuttle available), a friend and I decided the exercise sounded nice, and we set off, for what we weren’t quite sure. A quick internet search had showed a beautiful, castle-like restaurant with uninterrupted mountain and volcano views, but not much else.

That, alone, we found to be worth the trek. The tall, stately stone construction with a broad, flat rooftop adorned with bright red umbrellas, globe street lights and a multitude of flowering plants felt like we were checking into some elaborate resort. Instead, it was a handful of apparent locals and two tourists we found on the mostly empty terrace. 

Surrounding the restaurant, simply named Restaurante Cerro San Cristóbal was a vast, wild garden. After dining on fried shrimp and tamarindos, we walked through rows of broccoli and kale and beets and greenhouses of lettuces, succulents and air plants, past fields of flowering purple basil and forests of lime and avocado trees. Passionfruit vines, with their plump fruits and gorgeous pink blooms, crawled up fences and stone ledges. There was such an opulence of produce that we found several patches of forgotten root vegetables, the carrots bunched together and bulging out of the dirt. 

Up the hill, we passed a farmer tending to rows of Swiss chard and cucumbers, and he told us to wander further, and we’d find a shrine to Maximón, a Guatemalan folk deity to whom locals give little gifts of money, alcohol and cigarettes. His throne was encamped in a shaded, path-laden backyard of a couple homes blessed with more beautiful vegetation and a small, stone-encased pool. It was apparently encouraged to walk through, and appreciate the bounty.

Further up the hill, the tiny village of San Cristóbal was equally charming. We passed a natural spring that served as the main source of water for the village, and a small quaint square with a picturesque white church. Off to the sides of the single, dirt road, patches of grass extended out to views over coffee farms and layered tiers of hills, shading green, blue and gray with the distance.

Magical is a word overused, but not in this case.

Here’s what else you need to know about two of Antigua’s best-kept secrets:

Santo Domingo del Cerro

How to get there: A free (!) shuttle leaves every hour from Hotel Museo Casa Santo Domingo every hour on the hour from the hotel parking lot, perhaps more regularly during the high season. If you’re unsure how to get there, simply head to the hotel’s front desk and inquire. (Note: the ruins encased within this hotel complex are also well worth it, but that excursion will cost you 48 quetzals, about $6.50 USD. The shuttle departs from the head of the complex on the hour at every half hour. However, you can also walk up the hill in about an hour. Be warned that the trek is steep, but the sight lines are magnificent, more so, even, than what you’ll find at the top. The map shows that crossing a “highway” from the center of town is necessary. That is true, but it’s more of a big road, and crossing on foot is quite easy.

What to do: Inside the complex, a host of small, worthy galleries are mostly clumped closely together. The highlights include the Museo de Efraín Recinos, an extremely accomplished painter, muralist, sculpturist, architect and inventor. The modest, two-story building includes works created by him as young as age 5. Outside, the extensive outdoor gallery dedicated to his work is equally impressive. Past the museums, you’ll see a small farm accented by a scarecrow. Venture down the paths, there, and you’ll find yourself hiking past multi-level water features that assimilate almost seamlessly with the natural surroundings. Additionally, on the hill, you’ll find a ziplining platform (the company is called Circus) and a play area for children. 

Where to eat: El Tenedor del Cerro sits on the edge of the complex, hanging alluringly off the side of a cliff and overlooking the mountains and volcanoes beyond. The white tablecloth eatery is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and sports mostly Italian-inspired food such as pastas and pizzas. The prices are higher than they would be in town, but still affordable by American standards.

Notable: The walk toward Santo Domingo meanders through a couple highly affluent neighborhoods complete with gated entrances and even a helipad. Therefore, the walk is considered extremely safe.

 

Cerro San Cristóbal

How to get there: A shuttle leaves regularly from Nim Pot, an artisan market under the Santa Catalina arch for 10 quetzals (about $1.50 USD). Inquire within for exact times. It’s also possible to walk, although the trek is long (about two hours) and quite steep. 

What to do: After eating at the hill’s namesake restaurant, walk through the vast farms, greenhouses and gardens from where the produce originates. Past the gardens, you’ll find a small homage to Maximón, a Guatemalan deity. Afterward, continue upward into the village. There is only one dirt road, so getting lost is impossible. You’ll pass a charming square with an arched white church, as well as a natural spring and a public washing station. Views, from various grass fields offer stellar, unbroken views of the surrounding hills and volcanoes below.

Where to eat: The namesake restaurant, Restaurante Cerro San Cristóbal, is a local farm-to-table affair with affordable prices and a stunning atmosphere with several levels, including a sprawling stone rooftop that feels like sitting on the edge of the world. You’ll find many local dishes here, infused with produce grown on the hill. There are several bars as well.

Notable: Though the hike is well worth it and I experienced no problems, the towns that you’ll venture through on your way to the peak are substantially poorer than those of Santo Domingo.  Crime on this route is not reported, but I received a warning, as such, from locals. 

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