One of Guatemala’s most popular destinations has certainly earned its excellent reputation! Known for the beautiful architecture mixed in with the historic ruins, Antigua blends Mayan culture and history with adventure and a lowkey but busy nightlife scene. It is safe to explore as a solo traveler and offers a wide variety of activities and attractions. Here are my top ten recommendations for what not to miss in Antigua:
Hike a Volcano & Roast Marshmallows
Volcan de Pacaya is just over an hour's drive from Antigua and an easy half-day adventure to climb the volcano and roast marshmallows at the top. It is one of the most lively volcanos in Central America but there is a low likelihood to see lava flowing on the mountain as it primarily spews ash. The climb itself lasts 1-2 hours depending on the frequency of stops from the group, but there are walking sticks or a horse ride available for purchase to assist with the climb. The main attraction is the combination of the beautiful view at the top and roasting marshmallows over the hot volcanic rock. Surprisingly, the marshmallows toasted quite easily and did not have any funky flavors! There are numerous tours offered in town for about Q150 ($20 USD) plus the park entrance fee of Q100 ($13 USD). Despite the rainy day on my hike, it was a great experience!
Find the Hidden Speakeasy
Find the London telephone booth in the corner of the Antigua Brewing Company and pass through the curtains at the back to discover Antigua's hidden speakeasy, Ulew. Named and designed to pay homage to Mother Earth and Mayan heritage, this cozy bar delivers a fun atmosphere with unique cocktails designed for each person's preference. Rather than offering a set menu, the bartenders have a discussion with each person to craft a cocktail specific to what they like. Look online ahead of your visit to ensure that they will be open so that you can discover what lies behind the phone booth!
Explore the ruins- Convento Santa Clara
At the edge of the city center is Santa Clara's Convent, which are the remains of a large religious complex from the early 1700s. It features a modern church with an ornate facade and inside the entrance are beautiful green gardens, decorated fountains, and the ruins. It is one of the best sites in the city to see the historic ruins left from earthquakes combined with the modern structures, tying history to the present. It is also possible to get a great view of the ruins from the adjacent restaurant Tartines rooftop.
The Famous Santa Catalina Arch
One of the most recognizable landmarks in the city is the Santa Catalina Arch. Built-in the 17th century, this arch was originally designed to connect the Santa Catalina convent to a school which allowed the nuns to pass from one building to the other without going on the street. The nuns that worked in the convent and taught at the school had taken vows of seclusion, making it necessary to avoid all contact including being seen in public. The arch remains one of the most iconic places in the city and is certainly one of the most beautiful pieces of Spanish architecture.
Located 20 minutes from Antigua is Hobbitenango, a small eco-friendly village filled with hobbit-style houses, restaurants, and activities for all. The small houses replicate those from the Lord of the Rings books (click here for more on the actual Shire in NZ) and are nestled into the side of the mountain that provides beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains. It offers numerous picnic areas, viewpoints, and lots of family activities including golf, archery, axe throwing, and a giant tree swing. Hobbitengo is easy to visit from town using the roundtrip shuttle which costs Q95 for the ride and park entrance or you can stay overnight in one of the small homes. While you are there don't miss the next item on the list- the popular Giant Hand!
The Giant Hand
On the righthand side of the park at the edge of Hobbitenango is one of the most recognizable Instagram locations from Guatemala, the Giant Hand. The stone troll hand jets out over the Panchoy Valley, providing a beautiful view of the valley and volcanos in the distance. It is free to take your picture here and if you are traveling solo, there is an attendant that keeps the line moving who will also help snap your photo.
Antigua Brewing Company
One of the popular places to visit is the local Antigua Brewing Company in the center of the town. Giving off a mixture of Budapest's Ruin Pubs and the local culture, the brewing company is a perfect place to relax and sample local brews. Head up to the rooftop for 360 views of the town or stop by in the evenings to enjoy live music. Definitely try the 6 beer flight to sample the variety of unique blends including my favorite, the Fuego IPA!
Go Salsa Dancing
A trip to Latin America isn't complete without getting on the dance floor and shaking it! Free salsa dancing lessons are offered throughout the week at different places around town and afterward, the floor opens up with live music to practice your new moves. Las Palmas is one of the popular places for travelers and locals alike to take a spin on the dancefloor.
Hike Cerro de La Cruz
At the north end of Antigua sits Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) which provides some of the very best views of the city and Volcan de Agua. The trail is well marked and easy to hike in about 15 minutes. It is open from 7:00am to 6:00pm and while catching the sunset from the top is tempting, it is recommended to avoid it near sundown due to thefts in the area. There are vendors at the top or bring your own picnic to enjoy the beautiful grounds and lovely overlook.
Bike the Surrounding Towns
Explore the neighboring towns and get your sweat on through a bicycle ride through the hills. Several tours offer the chance to visit the nearby highlights in an afternoon adventure. I rode with Getaway Adventures on a 23-mile adventure across little streams, through the countryside, and up some pretty tough inclines! On the ride, we stopped to visit an artisanal cocoa farm, sip local Nispero Wine, check out a Jade Factory, and visit a beautiful Macadamia Farm and Restaurant. It is a great way to see a lot of the area substantially cheaper than most bus tours!
For longer visits to the area, there are plenty more beautiful options to explore. Two of the most popular are heading to the nearby Lake Atitlán in the heart of the highlands or doing an epic 2-day volcano hike to Fuego, one of the most active volcanos in the region.
The best time to visit Guatemala is typically in November at the beginning of the dry season in Guatemala.