The memories of my last trip to Guatemala – Flores, in the north – included those of warmth, hospitality, and culture. It was both a shock and also a pleasure to the senses, and it left me keen to experience more. Eight years later, I stumbled upon Antigua. Like a lot of the random places I visit, Antigua was a bit of a last minute decision; yet one spur of the moment decision I definitely don’t regret.
My United flight brought me into La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. My time in Guatemala was limited, so despite wishing to spend a day or two exploring the capital, my research told me that I should head towards Antigua. About an hour away from the airport on a direct shuttle, and perched in the central highlands, Antigua is a picturesque town nestled peacefully between majestic volcanoes. Visiting what was once the capital of most of colonial Central America, marks my second of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Guatemala. Upon arrival, I am instantly greeted by an abundance of colourful houses, narrow cobbled streets, and plenty of crumbling buildings and churches.
Pensativo House Hotel
Accommodation is plentiful in Antigua, with something for every budget. Having rattled through the cobbled streets on my minibus for a while, we come to a stop outside a set of impressive iron gates which house an elegantly simple courtyard adorned with colourful flowers. The Guatemalan charm that I remember so well is immediately evident as I am ushered inside and provided with a cool towel and refreshing drink. The hotel, Pensativo House Hotel, features a number of quaint courtyards, excellently appointed rooms, and plenty of open space – including a roof terrace – perfect for reading, writing, and soaking it all in.
I step out onto the cobbled street, and explore by foot. Every now and again, an extravagantly decorated Guatemalan Chicken Bus trundles past, each one uniquely designed and painted. Exploring Antigua doesn’t take long – crossing the width of the town would only take about fifteen minutes, if it wasn’t for the meandering, stopping, and gazing. The town center, Parque Centrale, is a hub of activity with street sellers, children playing, and Antiguans going about their day to day lives. Close by, I come across Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen, a beautiful yet crumbling ruin of a church which was mostly destroyed by the 1773 earthquake.
Arco de Santa Catalina
If anything is more synonomous with Antigua than the three volcanoes which surround it, it is Arco de Santa Catalina – an image which adornes almost every travel magazine, guide book, and postcard. Spanning the street, the 17th-century arch and bell tower span Quinta Avienda, which is a great stop for shops, bars, and restaurants. Before returning to my hotel, I stop at one of my the many small tapas restaurants and feast on a selection of delicious small dishes inspired by Guatemalan cuisine.
As mentioned before, Antigua sits in the valley between Volcan de Fuego and Volcan de Acatenango – each over 12,000ft tall, and known for their activity to this day. Keen to see these great volcanoes up close, and ready to hike anything I come across, I was excited to take a tour to see one of them up close. Unfortunately, the weather was not on my side, so I had to settle on seeing the volcanoes’ faint silhouettes against the cloudy skies.
Lago Atitlan and Panajachel
Having spent a couple of days eating my way around Antigua, I was keen to explore even further afield, and arranged a tour bus to take me to Panajachel on the shores of Lago Atitlan. From the highway, a series of meandering switch backs bring us down to rows of shops and restaurants and eventually to Hotel Porta del Lago, which provides me with expansive views of the lake from my room. Staring back at me are another three volanoes – Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro. I leave the hotel and head towards Calle Santander, which appears to be the main street of all things food and drink. My choice of restaurant is abruptly chosen for me by a sudden downpour, and I find myself ducking into el Patio and ordering desayunos tipicos and watching the world go by. With the weather remarkably against me, my day was spent darting stall to stall, shop to shop, and exploring everything Panajachel had to offer.
Having failed to hike either of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua, I was hoping that my luck might change in Panajachel. Luck wasn’t, however, on my side, and quite simply put, I’d chosen the wrong season to visit. Unfazed, and believing simply that this meant I had to return someday, I walk down to the docks in the hope of exploring the lake a little. Instantly, locals are calling out for San Juan – one of the other lakeside villages – and without any difficulty, I am whisked away across the water. My stop is brief, yet long enough to explore a couple of simple streets, before darting across the water again towards Santiago Atitlan. Up a steep hill is the very typical Parque Centrale, and showcases Santiago’s peaceful way of living. Nearby, however, Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol is a stark reminder that it was not always this way. Soon, the afternoon winds whipped up, and I found myself back on the boat trying not to become too drenched as we zip back across the water to Panajachel.