Upon your arrival in the peaceful city of Antigua, Guatemala, a 45 minute drive from Guatemala City, you may not notice anything remarkable. Your first view will be of cobblestoned streets lined with pastel-colored stucco walls about 10 feet high, punctuated by neatly parallel-parked cars and occasional groups of pedestrians traversing the streets at a relaxed pace.
Antigua is a walking city, so you’ll park your car in an open space and start your journey on foot to discover where the cobblestone streets will take you. You’ll pass small wooden doors built into the walls, most of them closed, offering no hint of what lies behind other than small, nondescript signs next to each doorway announcing the name of the establishment.
But don’t be fooled. Behind those closed doors lies a spectacular hidden city.
A perfect place to start your discovery is the restaurant and boutique hotel Meson Panza Verde. Step through the doorway of the Meson and your eyes will be greeted by the sight of a green courtyard (see picture), reminiscent of a Monet painting, dotted with small tables where guests enjoy delectable al fresco meals, with candlelight and live music in the evenings.
Venture up to the second floor and you’ll encounter an inviting selection of hammocks and cushioned couches, as well as the hotel’s twelve rooms and art gallery. From the second floor patio, climb the short flight of stairs up to the rooftop. It’s here that you’ll find a sudden, breathtaking view of Antigua and the green, mountainous countryside that encircles the city. It’s possible to walk quite a ways along the rooftop, enjoying varying views of the city.
In addition to beautiful views and great restaurants, Antigua is home to a myriad of stores selling a wide range of handcrafted goods and tempting sweets, ornate churches and the leafy, well-manicured Parque Central, where visitors rest by the enchanting Fountain of the Mermaids and admire the ability of street vendors to balance enormous, colorful baskets of wares on their heads.
Hotels & Restaurants
Antigua is home to several lovely 4 and 5 star hotels, notably the romantic hacienda-style Casa Santo Domingo and the equally romantic Posada del Angel. If you only have time for a day trip to Antigua, come early on a Sunday to enjoy the sumptuous brunch served at Hotel Antigua.
Antigua is filled with wonderful restaurants, offering savory cuisine at wallet-friendly prices. In addition to Meson Panza Verde, Tartines and the popular chain Tre Fratelli (serving French and Italian cuisine respectively) are excellent choices. You can find plenty of great wine in Antigua, as well as Guatemala City, particularly Chilean (or say South American?) varieties, for about a $1 a glass. (Gasp!) Yes, you read correctly, $1 a glass, and you’ll love these wines.
For a lively dining experience with live music, Mono Loco is a fun and funky option, targeted to a crowd of 20-somethings and 30-somethings (although all ages are welcome!) Try the nachos – a $4 plate is enough to feed 4 hungry people.
After dark, the bars and clubs of the city come alive. It’s a small city, so there aren’t many, but you’ll find enough to have a good time. In contrast to Guatemala City, it’s perfectly safe to walk through the streets here after dark.
Other Must-See Places in Guatemala
Lake Atitlan: You can take a tourist bus from Guatemala City or Antigua to spectacular, volcano-rimmed Lake Atitlan (see picture) Hotel Atitlan is the place to stay – it is absolutely a tropical paradise on earth. The vine-wrapped hotel, situated on the edge of the lake, is surrounded by lush gardens where parrots and other exotic birds make themselves comfortably at home.
Relax by the pool overlooking the lake with a margarita from the bar. (In my opinion, Hotel Atitlan’s bartender makes the world’s best margaritas.) For dinner, savor an elegant meal at the hotel’s fine restaurant. Their extensive wine list has enough options to satisfy any palate.
It’s worth waking up before dawn to see the sunrise over the lake. It’s a sight you won’t forget.
Mount Pacaya: For great exercise and an unusual experience, hike to the summit of Mount Pacaya (see picture), an active volcano of 8400 ft elevation. You will be able to look down from the summit to see lava bubbling from the base of the cone, or, if the volcano has been particularly active in recent days, you may see streams of drying lava curling down the mountainside. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a clear day, the views of neighboring mountaintops rising through the clouds is an incredible photo op.
Tikal: Spend a day, or two, or three, visiting Mayan ruins, howler monkeys and ziplining through the jungle. The best way to get here is to take the quick 45 minute Taca flight from Guatemala City.
In Guatemala City: Two restaurants too good to miss in Guatemala City are Kakao, which serves traditional Guatemalan dishes in an enchanting atmosphere, and Ambia, an East-meets-West-in-Central-America fusion restaurant, whose menu includes the best sauteed calamari I’ve ever tasted.
Nightlife: Zona Viva (the lively zone) is the appropriately-named area of Zona 10 that comes alive after nightfall. A wide variety of restaurants as well as bars and clubs can be found here.
If you’re looking for a spectacular, budget-friendly, tropical vacation in a place yet unspoiled by highrises and commercial mass tourism, you are sure to find it in Guatemala. For further trip planning visit the Guatemala Tourism Agency.