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krisek Antigua Guatemala - A travel report by Krys
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Antigua Guatemala,  Guatemala - flag Guatemala -  Sacatepéquez
18003 readers

krisek's travel reports

Secretly friendly. Antigua Guatemala.

  14 votes
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Guatemalans are the Maya people. They are the descendants of the colourful people, who built their mighty empire without knowing the wheel. And whose greatest contribution to the world’s cuisine (and medicine!) was chocolate.

Catedral de Santiago
Catedral de Santiago
Antigua Guatemala, the former capital, is a bright spot on a confused map of the country. Guatemala has been suffering from an inconsistent reporting about its qualities. Its splendid Mayan heritage, fabulous landscape and colourful colonial architecture have been a magnet for visitors. However, safety records have not always been favourable, some of which kept branding Guatemala as an extremely dangerous state. Before setting out, I read about people being dismembered with machetes and slaughtered even on touristic routes. Even though I took certain risks and ventured in areas considered unsafe, and... nothing ever happened to me. In contrary, I met really friendly people, who greeted me warmly and were genuinely happy to see me.

Of course safety is not an issue in Antigua. It’s almost a perfect holiday destination in Central America (although there is no beach). There are volcanoes afoot, magnificent, mind-boggling and diversified architecture, superb facilities to learn Spanish, splendid cafes serving perfect hot chocolate (with a pinch of hot chilli) and delicious cakes, grand restaurants, superb and value-for-money hotels, and truly welcoming crowds.

I chose Antigua to be the very spot for the New Year’s Eve party. I thought Ciudad Guatemala, the capital, should be the one, but based on an advice of a friend, I changed it and partied there on my birthday instead. On the 31 December, we had beautiful weather, about 36˚C (96.8 ˚F), and cloudless skies. An active Volcán Fuego seen from every point of the town, dominated the skyline. This small, adorable town packed with red roofed multi-coloured one storey houses, all in fantastic condition lined up along the narrow stony streets, seemed perfect. Without any special observation skills, it was easy to realise that hordes of people flocked to Antigua for the last day of the year extravaganza. They represented many different nationalities from around the planet, but also many Guatemalans, mostly from the capital.

Favourite spots:
Antigua Guatemala travelogue picture
The architecture of Antigua brought people to their knees. The richness of the decorations on the churches’ façades was overwhelming. The size of the main cathedral, right on the Plaza Mayor was unbelievable. The building was as large as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, maybe even larger. It was founded in 1542 and was built in the baroque style but ruined by many earthquakes and now only partially rebuilt. With every renovation, the church lost most of its richness. Only part of the building was used. The ruined part could be visited and if I’d not gone inside, I would’ve never realised how massive it was. The best way to admire the town’s architecture was by visiting numerous hotels and restaurants, because this was how you got to walk inside and see how the buildings were constructed and how those cosy patios were fitted in the idea of the entire complex. Most of buildings were actually from the 16th century and the only modern constructions were the petrol stations.

What's really great:
Antigua Guatemala travelogue picture
The main New Year’s Eve party was organised by the mayor of the town with the contribution of all establishments located at the Calle 5a. The party was well thought over, with many mini concerts, role plays, parades, fireworks shows, and people on stilts. Champagne was quite expensive, but it was naturally a must for the New Year’s party, so it was imperative that one bottle, at least, had to be bought! Just after midnight and the fireworks show, the mayor invited representatives of all the present nationalities to shout wishes in their own language into the public microphone. Many people then jumped on the stage and surrounded the mayor, who cunningly escaped the crowd and found me standing with the half full bottle of French champagne. He politely asked whether he could have a sip from my bottle. That was an interesting New Year experience – drinking champagne with the mayor of Antigua Guatemala, straight from the bottle. And the bottle was mine!

La Merced
La Merced
Antigua is a small town, but the number of places to see was considerable. The main attractions were probably the meticulously decorated facades of the cathedrals and churches (Catedral de Santiago, La Merced, San Francisco, Santa Clara, La Recoleccion, Real Aduana, Las Capuchinas), the palaces (townhall palace, Palacio de los Capitanes) and the great haciendas converted into hotels and restaurants, as well as their patios and gardens - all attracted visitors, who shook their heads in disbelief how gorgeous they were. This was all in addition to the picturesque narrow alleys flanked with vividly painted cute little houses with artistically wrought window bars.
Looming in the background of everything, the Fuego volcano was a sight on its own, particularly at night when it glowed. A few tour agencies in town offered daily excursions (€10 per person) to the other fuming mountain, volcano Pacaya but since it was an unsafe region, these escapades were not without risk. I didn’t go.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor
Although very popular, Antigua offered a sufficient number of beds to suit all budgets. The budget options costing about €3 per night varied significantly from one to another, and I had viewed a few before making my final decision, mainly judging by the quality of the bathroom. And I was in town for a great party, so the supply of beds was saturated. However, even the mid-range options at about €15 per single were superb value for money.

I stayed at a midrange Hotel Posada los Bucaros (€25), which was right in the centre, and the good size rooms came with bathrooms and TV, plus the hotel offered free safe parking, which for me was a plus, as I was travelling by a rental car.

Many hotels had rooms arranged around a courtyard, which was often serving as a garden to chill out. Some had rooms arranged in old buildings, which looked, to be frank, like prisons, but still offering a great ambiance and experience.

Antigua Guatemala travelogue picture
Sadly, the New Year’s Eve party did not last until the wee hours of the morning and some of the bars closed around 2 am. Most of bars were run by or employed quite young people, who also wanted to go out and party. Few clubs, with an international music were still open and busy with all the human remains from the main event. La Kasbah club came recommended, and I can confirm that it was great. It was a normal disco club serving all kinds drinks and playing all types of disco music. It was fantastically located in a colonial building with patio, of course. It was packed with all sorts of partygoers. It was superb! Surely, the non-heavyweights had many more options with the bars and clubs, which stayed open until 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock in the morning. There ware many of them around Parque Central and the side alleys. The existence of many language schools attracted a young crowd all year round, who made sure nightlife was vibrant in Antigua.

Antigua Guatemala travelogue picture
Actually, Parque Central or Plaza Mayor was one of my favourite places to hang out. It was a calm place at its centre, around the fountain under blossoming trees, and busy at its edges, where shops, cafes, bars and mobile market stands traded under the arched walkways. It was a great spot for people watching as well.

My other favourite spot for hanging out were the little, narrow alleys. I loved walking around those, sharing the limited space with locals on old bicycles and farmers on horse drawn little wooden carts. I would venture through them to the small plazas outside the centre: La Merced, Santa Clara and Escuela de Cristo - all complete with trees giving shade a church providing spiritual haven and architectural marvel. But having done that a few times, I began wondering whether there was something more I could see in the vicinity.

Antigua Guatemala travelogue picture
As Antigua was full of young people, who come to Guatemala to learn Spanish and stayed for many weeks, it not only made it an excellent place to party, dance and drink but also to eat. Some of the restaurants, even those classified as ‘budget’ looked very exclusive and served superb food like the La Fonda de la Calle Real (€3 - €8 for main course). The secret however was the chocolate. Hot chocolate served by La Cenicienda Pasteles on the 5a Avenida Norte was a bliss (€2 for hot chocolate and a slice of cake). The Maya invented chocolate, so no wonder it was so good in Guatemala. I have tried a few restaurants in Antigua, many just blind folded, meaning that I had not heard about them, they had not featured in the guidebooks, and no-one had recommended them, and still I never regretted my choice scuffing near perfect meals. Every time!

Other recommendations:
Lago Atitlán
Lago Atitlán
A side trip to Panajachel at the lake Atitlán, 150 km from Antigua, was a great move. The national park designed to protect the lake Atitlán was a good idea. The spot was magnificent, like from a science fiction film, not from this planet. Right on the lake, there were three massive volcanoes, Tolimán (3134 m), Atitlán (3535 m) and San Pedro (3020 m). Perfect cones, one by another. The view was rather breathtaking. The colour of the sky, that was still very blue, contrasted with various shades of grey, which was the paint of the clouds. Then the horizon was getting red-ish as the sun was declining and the volcanoes’ reflection in the lake’s waters collected quite a number of spectators.

All that made me want fish for dinner. Panajachel was a cute little town at the lake, but just too touristy. Well, one would hope that it would therefore be packed with fish restaurants. It wasn’t. It took me quite an effort to find this fish for dinner. I had to eat at some hotel restaurant by the lake.

Published on Wednesday March 12th, 2008

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Wed, Nov 19 2008 - 01:17 PM rating by frenchfrog

Trash your Lonely Planet book guys! kry reports are a better company! Another one to print out and bring to my next comming trip!
I won't be there for the New Year but hoping to joined the locals for Easter celebrations in the small alleys and anywhere else i this great city! Many thanks Krys, it will help me a great deal!

Wed, Mar 19 2008 - 04:01 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Wonderful report, very didactic and complete

Fri, Mar 14 2008 - 01:40 PM rating by alfonsovasco

viva guatemala! viva your report!

Fri, Mar 14 2008 - 02:53 AM rating by ravinderkumarsi

hi Krzy,again you have added a excellent report in a series which i can call as KRZY'S SERIES ,great effort and nice to read such informative reports

Thu, Mar 13 2008 - 09:55 PM rating by mistybleu

Thanks Krzys, a wonderful report. I enjoyed reading about the lake.

Thu, Mar 13 2008 - 06:56 AM rating by marianne

a perfect read and good info. especially all the details about prices and altitude.

Thu, Mar 13 2008 - 02:35 AM rating by downundergal

Great report with many personal observations, I loved your story about quaffing champers with the Mayor, what a great travellers tale..lovely photos too, my favourite is the first of the Catedral of Santiago.

Thu, Mar 13 2008 - 02:14 AM rating by rangutan

A very colourful place and another delicious report!

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