People travel for a variety of reasons. Some for adventure, some for the sights, some to learn about new cultures and some just for the hell of it. I was lucky to find a place that offered a bit of everything in Antigua, Guatemala.
Compared to touristy faves like Mexico City or Cartagena, Antigua isn’t as popular and you won’t find many people who’ve visited, but trust, this isn’t because the city is low on excitement or scenery. In fact, Antigua is a go-to for backpackers and those suffering from the disease that is wanderlust. Every foreign traveler I ran into had either been to 20+ countries or was in the middle of a backpacking adventure through Central America. And after spending a long weekend there, it was easy to see what the hype was all about.
Antigua is located just 45 minutes from Guatemala City which is home to the nearest airport. From the time my cab took off headed for Antigua, I was in awe of how beautiful Guatemala is! Lush hills surround the two-lane highway to Antigua with the roadside littered with colorful flower shops. Home to 37 volcanoes and just as many valleys, the landscape dramatically transforms with each turn of the highway producing sights you only see on screensavers.
I was impressed with Guatemala but quickly fell in love with the country once in Antigua.
Antigua is perfect for a spur-of-the-moment trip due to it being so affordable. There are always flight deals to Guatemala City, not to mention countless direct flights from all major budget airlines (perfect short flight opportunity to try out Spirit, if you’ve been nervous). Airbnbs on average are about $50 a night with hotel prices well below what you see in touristy cities.
In addition to these low price options, the hostel scene in Antigua is second to none. Hostels are scattered throughout the city grid and each has its own unique theme, with common areas rivaling most local hotel accommodations. With fares ranging between $7 – $24, plus the opportunity to meet travelers from around the world, it’s hard to beat.
Food is affordable here too, well below what you’d pay in America with full street vendor meals sometimes costing less than 3 American dollars.
Adventure can most literally be found on every corner in Antigua. From the salsa schools to the speakeasies, to the markets, I almost feel that it is impossible to leave Antigua without having some type of fun.
Guided excursions – also super cheap compared to other cities – open up opportunities for more adventure in Antigua and surrounding cities. While there, I went on two excursions. The first was a hike up an active volcano that ended with a marshmallow roast at the top. Literally a once in a lifetime experience! There are also excursions where you can spend the night on one of the active volcanoes and wake up before the sun rises to see lava spewing bright red, as the sun slowly rises.
The second excursion I took was an ATV ride through Antigua and the Guatemalan countryside. The views were unreal and I’ve never had a more peaceful experience in my life. Rolling through the lush green hills and admiring the countryside was invigorating and energizing.
Outside of those options, Antigua is only a few hours away from Lake Atitlan (search the Instagram location right now) and Mayan ruins, making Antigua the launching pad for the adventure of your choice.
The unique culture of Guatemala was, undeniably, the best part of my Antigua experience. Being that this was my first trip to a Central American country, I was eager to learn what makes this country and city unique from others. Well, the answer sort of slaps you in the face as soon as you get to Antigua.
Antigua still maintains the same style and look that was established in the 15th century. Every street is cobblestone, beautiful churches habitat most corners, and there are no buildings above two or three stories. This gives the city a magical, timeless feel that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.
The native Guatemalans I met were awesome, as well. Eager to teach me about the city, I learned so much from talking to locals. On the ATV tour, I had the opportunity to visit one of the last indigenous villages in the valley (so indigenous, they don’t even speak Spanish) and learned so much about Guatemalan traditions and customs. I was surprised to learn girls in Guatemala are considered adults at the age of ten and become responsible for a lion share of household responsibilities. While their fathers farm and their mothers sell the goods, the older daughters are responsible for looking after the middle-aged siblings and cooking for the entire family which in Guatemalan culture, is traditionally large.
Christianity reigns supreme over the country and Antigua, in particular, holds eight weeks of parades, each in celebration of a different part of Jesus’s life leading up to Easter. Something cool about Antigua is that the Chiquita and Dole plantations are nearby. So, if you happen to buy fruit in a nearby village (which may be casually located next to a pile of dead iguanas used for stews), it is of the same quality as those famous brands, just without the sticker!
All in all, most folks overlook Guatemala and don’t even stop to consider a trip to Antigua. If you are looking for a solo adventure or you want to experience a place many of your friends have not, Antigua is the place for you and there is no chance you will regret it!
Written by Andre Sutton