The city of Antigua, Guatemala really catches you by surprise. Somehow, in the middle of Central America, you find yourself in Europe, with street cafes, intellectuals wearing berets, and lots and lots of brand names you haven’t seen since you left home. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the cash machines, “New York Style” bagel shops, email, and beautiful flowers.
A friend of mine once told me, “you can take really great black and white photos there, that’s all you need to know.” He was right. Antigua is a beautiful, visually stunning city, with everything a traveler could want or need. Well, everything except a cultural Guatemalan experience or solitude from other gringos. In Antigua, you’ll be speaking more English than Spanish, and a good reason to come here is to just chill out and recharge your traveler’s batteries.
I recommend Antigua as a “home base” of sorts. A place to leave your big backpack while you explore Guatemala with a lightened load. Since it is often free or very cheap to stow your luggage at your hotel, it makes sense to come and go from here. The airport and bus terminal in Guatemala City are only 45 minutes away, while buses to Lake Atitlan, Rio Dulce, Flores, and Xela leave throughout the day from the bus terminal in Antigua.
This city is also a particularly pleasant place to return to after a week in the jungle or on the beach. You can just revert to your comfortable life that you know at home. Espresso, foreign newspapers, and laundromats keep you sane, and email cafes are everywhere, charging cheap $2-$3 an hour rates.
When you get off whatever “chicken bus” you rode in on, you’ll be greeted by the “cheap market” in the bus terminal. Wade through the home appliances and leather shoes for sale and you’ll come to a tree lined street. Once you cross this street, you’re officially in Antigua. The entire downtown area consists of a seven square block radius, and you can always tell what direction you’re facing when you find the Agua Volcano that hovers directly over the city. Use it as a landmark and you’ll do fine. At night, well, at night you just have to wander around a bit.
Another good landmark is the Parque Central (also called The Plaza), right smack in the middle of town. This beautiful and teeming park makes a great meeting place and also reorients you if you need it. You can also watch people for hours here: lost tourists, Guatemalan musicians, Maya merchants, school kids, punks, ice cream vendors.
My advice to you is ditch your pack and just walk around for a while, after a couple of hours you’ll start to get it. Antigua is just small enough so that you can’t be lost for more than three blocks at a time.
Where to Stay
If you don’t have a lot of Quetzales to spare, don’t worry. Despite the posh expensive front Antigua puts up, there are good solid choices as far as accommodation, some rooms are as little as $3 a night:
There’s a pretty fun backpacker scene at both Posado Ruiz 1 and Posada Ruiz 2, otherwise known as “the blue rooms.” You won’t get a private bathroom, but you do get a bed, a lock, and a great courtyard with benches. There are people who like one Posada over the other, but I think that has much more to do with whoever’s staying there with you.
Posada Ruiz 1 is directly on that tree-lined street three blocks to the left after you cross. Posada Ruiz 2 is in the same direction, only a block in towards the center of town on 2 Calle Poniente 25. Both establishments are painted a bright unmissible blue color. You’ll know them when you see them, or just ask anybody when you get there. The charge per night is Q17, approximately $3. A great bargain.
If you want a place with a private bathroom and semi-warm water that’s one step above Posada Ruiz, then try the Posada Dona Angelina. Directly across the tree-lined street, next to the post office, this place has great roof access and is mercifully close to the bus station. Around Q60 a night, the beds are bigger and the people are nicer. You even get a towel and some soap. Call 832-5173 to reserve if you’re coming into town on Friday or Saturday.
Some other places that I’ve heard are nice from reliable traveler folk are: the Hotel Villa San Francisco (1 Ave Sur 15, tel: 832-3383) and La Casa de Santa Lucia III (6 Ave Norte 43A; no phones). Just make sure that you get into town by early afternoon to get the best rooms.
There are at least 100 other places to stay in Antigua, but most of them are not in the monetary range of us backpackers. Sometimes, you’ll meet store owners or little old ladies who want to rent you a room in their house. Often, this is a great and cheap way to meet some locals, which is more difficult here than anywhere else in Guatemala.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Central America Insiders page.