Before you arrive – Founded in 1543 as Santiago de los Caballeros, Antigua Guatemala was once the capital of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, a huge colony stretching from Costa Rica to Chiapas in Mexico. Two devastating earthquakes – in 1717 and 1773 – persuaded the colonial authorities that the Panchoy Valley in the central Highlands, where Antigua is located, was less than ideal. Guatemala City, the country’s present-day capital, was founded in 1775,36km to the west.
Three volcanoes loom over Antigua: the inactive Volcan de Agua to the south; the twin summits of the active Volcan de Fuego-Acatenango massif to the west. Volcan Pacaya, also active – and a popular climb – is 35km south-east. The man-made city is almost as wonderful as its natural setting. After losing capital status, it evolved slowly and no major earthquakes tore it apart. Today, Antigua is a medium-sized tidy city of ochre, terracotta, blue and lilac-painted single-storey houses laid out on a classic Spanish grid. Buildings of two storeys or more tend to be churches, convents or monasteries. UNESCO, which listed the city as a World Heritage site in 1979, highlighted ‘the physical integrity of most of [Antigua’s] built heritage. The abandonment of the area by most of its population permitted the preservation of many of its monumental Baroque-style buildings as ruins’.
At the airport – There are no direct flights from the UK to La Aurora International Airport (30km east of Antigua) but there are connections via US hubs or Madrid. Guatemala-Madrid flights take around 11.5 hours. British citizens do not require visas to visit Guatemala. On arrival, passports are stamped, permitting a maximum stay of three months in Central America – if you cross to neighbouring countries and then re-cross you won’t get another three months. Customs and immigration tends to be quick at this quiet airport.
Getting into town – Tour operators will usually arrange minibuses or taxis from the airport to Antigua (around two hours). There are also regular shuttlebus transfers from US$15. Budget watchers can take one of the refurbished US school buses, called camionetas (chicken buses), waiting outside the airport. These are alarmingly fast and charge as little as US$2 for the transfer.
Other ways to arrive – Arriving in Antigua overland from other parts of Guatemala or El Salvador, Mexico or Belize is easy to organise. The city is a major transport hub and an established stop on the gringo trail. Some chicken buses drop off outside the historic centre, in which case you will have a short walk.
First Day’s Tour – Head for the plaza – the historic and social heart of Antigua. There are some excellent cafe-bars on the west side (El Portal has the best coffee). On the east side is the San Jose cathedral (left): on the north is Museo del Libro Antiguo, a small museum dedicated to the arrival of printing in colonial Guatemala. Antigua is packed with tourist tat. To see/buy quality crafts and antiques, pop into the Casa de Artes (4 Avenida Sur 11), which has an excellent collection of ceremonial masks, textiles and majolica ceramics. Round off an arty morning at La Antigua Galena de Arte (4a Calle Oriente 15), which has a good collection of contemporary Latin American art.
For lunch, there’s great pizza and ice-cold beers at Argentine-run Angie Angie (1a Avenida Sur 11). To keep it cheap and local, head to the market (five blocks west of the plaza) for soups and chicken-and-chips-aim for the busiest stalls. Next, take the chocolate-making class at the Choco Museo – great fun and very informative. For a glass of wine, try Almacen Troccoli (Calle del Arc 34), a beautifully converted ironmongers. For Guatemalan cuisine, La Cuevita de los Urquizu (2a Calle Oriente 9D) does a good self-service buffet of tamales, stews, salads, guacamole, tortillas and sausages.
Where to Stay – With its beautiful stonework, peaceful courtyards, good restaurant, library and rooftop bar, El Convento is a sophisticated 26-suite boutique hotel close to all the main attractions.
Mid range: Twenty minutes’ walk outside town in the Calvario area, Villa Colonial is part of a small Guatemalan chain and is popular with weekenders. It’s not in fact colonial, but the architecture cleverly apes the Spanish baroque church next door.
Budget: El Hostal is a popular backpacker hotel in a colonial-era house not far from the main plaza. Rooms are clean and cosy and there’s a leafy courtyard where travellers mix.
Stay or Go – Antigua merits at least three days but you’ll need five if you plan to scale one of the volcanoes. Then, it’s easy to move on. Two hours’ by bus to the west is Lago de Atitlan, ideal for hiking, cycling and kayaking; it also provides an opportunity to see something of indigenous Guatemala, whether in the company of the Quiche, Kaqchikel or Tz’utujil-speaking communities (see page 26). Chichicastenango, also in the Highlands, is the place to shop for handicrafts or taste the food of the Quiche Maya (market days: Thursday and Sunday). Tikal – one of the largest lowland Maya sites, hidden in the Peten rainforest (above) – is an 11-12 hour bus ride away (or a one-hour flight from La Aurora). Southern Belize, El Salvador and the Mayan site at Copan in Honduras are all half a day’s bus ride from Antigua.