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Discovering The Colonial City Of Antigua Guatemala

Once the capital of Guatemala, the colourful colonial city of La Antigua Guatemala beckons with its cobblestone streets, crumbling ruins and pretty churches.  Set against a stunning backdrop of three majestic volcanoes, Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, it’s a picture-postcard city with an abundance of selfie and Instagram opportunities. It’s easy to see why tourists flock here in their droves.

Founded in 1543, Antigua was the Spanish colonial capital of Guatemala for 233 years. In the 18th century, it bore the brunt of three earthquakes and the final one in 1773 destroyed most of the city. Three years later, Antigua was abandoned when the capital relocated to what is now Guatemala City.

While many of the traditional buildings have been restored, the remains of others are scattered around and visible on every street. A crumbling church ruin seen adjacent to a colourful colonial building is a familiar sight.

Walking around the maze of cobbled streets was mesmerising. Peering through nondescript doorways revealed shops selling colourful clothes and embroideries, or cafes with hidden lush garden courtyards. Rooftop terraces with plants and trees  dominate the low-rise skyline.

Straight Out Of A Film Set

Because of its Spanish baroque-influenced architecture and colonial churches, Antigua was granted UNESCO World Heritage-listed status in 1979. This means that even well-known restaurant chains and shops such as Subway, McDonald’s Wendy’s and The North Face have ditched their familiar signage and are concealed within traditional buildings.

The colonial architecture, crumbling ruins and mass of cobbled streets give Antigua a feeling of time gone by. It’s like being on a film set; extremely pretty but actually quite soulless.

Almost everyone is a visitor. It lacks locals walking around on their daily business, or having a drink after work. Even many of the Indigenous people who work in the hotels or who trade their wares on the street live outside of the city and travel in daily on the packed ‘chicken’ buses.

The closest we got to mixing with the locals was in The Londoner, a pub, which serves tempting English grub such as Fish ‘n’ Chips and Shepherd’s Pie. We watched their ‘Open Mike’ night and, while the clientele appeared to be transient backpackers, there was camaraderie among those who had been in Antigua for a few months.

The Londoner Pub (2)

The Londoner, a pub that serves traditional British fayre

What To Do In Antigua

Antigua packs a punch with a diversity of things to do and see. Wearing a good pair of walking shoes is prudent, as the mass of cobbled streets does not suit heels or flip flops!

Climb A Volcano A trip climbing Pacaya Volcano is the top-billed activity in Antigua. It’s a hard hike, and you need to be relatively fit, but it’s worth it, especially if there’s visible lava. If the hike puts you off, then there’s a ‘taxi’ option in the form of a horse ride up the volcano instead. And if the walking is too much, you can even change your mind half-way up as the horses (and their handlers) follow the group hoping to pick up those lagging behind!

On our half-day hike, we were dropped off by minibus at a mountain village where we rented walking sticks (insanely useful!) and it took us two hours to climb to a high point, just 150 metres shy of the 2,550-metre summit.  We saw lava that was four-months old, which was quite scary realising we were standing on an active volcano.  The toasting of marshmallows at a heat-vent near the top was fun, but it was more of a photo-opportunity and a great-selling point for the tour company.

For those that want to go the extra mile (quite literally), there are also overnight trips to see fresh lava flow on Volcán Acatenango.

Cost: Q150 per person (GPB£15) for transport from Antigua and a guide. Entrance fee to the Payaca Volcano National Park is Q50 (GBP£5) and the rental of two walking sticks Q10 per person (GBP£1.00).

Walk Up To Cerro De La Cruz A 25-minute walk north of the city is Cerro De La Cruz, a lovely park on top of a hill with a 1930’s cross at its centre and sweeping views down to the city and across to Volcán Agua.  Visit early morning before the clouds descend for the best photographs.

Santo Domingo del Cerro Take a complimentary shuttle bus from the Hotel Santo Domingo and head into the hills above Antigua. In addition to stunning views of the city and volcanoes, this free attraction offers a sculpture park, two museums, art gallery, aviary, zip lines (additional charge) and a lovely restaurant, which is open from Tuesday to Sunday.

The First Lady Feels A Little Small

The First Lady Feels A Little Small In This Photo!

Sculptures at Santo Domingo del Cerro

Sculptures at Santo Domingo De La Cerro

Antigua Brewing Company / ULew Cocktail Bar Sup the best in IPA and craft beers and have a bite to eat while enjoying views across the city from this characterful rooftop bar and micro-brewery.

Come the evening, be ‘in-the-know’ to access ULew Cocktail Bar, hidden just inside the brewery and found by walking through a red phone box!

Skipper nipping into the Underground Bar

Skipper nips into the phone box….

ULew, an underground bar in Antigua

….and emerges the other side in a hidden cocktail bar

Arco de Santa Catalina The most photographed attraction in Antigua is the striking-yellow Arco de Santa Catalina, which was built in 1694 so nuns could cross the road without being seen.  A photograph early morning or late afternoon is rewarded by a perfect view through the arch of the Volcán Agua.


Arco de Santa Catalina


…and with Volcán Agua in the background

Where We Stayed in Antigua

Hotel El Mesón De Maria In the centre of Antigua, we stayed at the boutique Hotel El Mesón de Maria (, which is ideally situated just one block from Arco de Santa Catalina to the north and Parque Central to the south. Rooms are clean and comfortable and there’s a lovely courtyard where breakfast and afternoon coffee and cake is served. From their roof terrace, there are fabulous views across the city and of the three volcanoes.  For best rates, check

View from the terrace at Hotel Meson de Maria

The upper terrace at Hotel El Mesón De Maria

Earth Lodge Just four miles out of Antigua, high in the hills, is Earth Lodge (, a relaxed eco-friendly retreat and working avocado farm. It offers a variety of accommodation from backpacker dorms to cabins and treehouses.  They hold yoga classes twice a day in a very impressive studio with views across the volcanoes.


The Tree Top Yoga Studio at Earth Lodge

Having always wanted to stay in a treehouse, I was secretly very excited by this option. However, perhaps choosing a treehouse in the middle of rainy season was a tad foolish. Instead of wiling away the hours relaxing in a hammock on the tree-terrace, we had torrential rain and our cabins were damp. So, we were forced to spend our days in the bar area, bagging the best seats by a roaring log fire, eating the delicious home-cooked food and playing board games.

Enjoying a beer on the treehouse terrace...before the rain came in

Enjoying a beer on the tree terrace

Our treehouse

Our treehouse room

Breakfast is served surprisingly late here at 8am and there’s a family-style dinner at 7pm, where guests are invited to socialise together around the large tables. We met a lovely group of people from all walks of life on our first night and the table banter was refreshingly different. The next two nights were quieter, especially when we were plunged into darkness by a power cut and it was dinner by candlelight!


Sitting by a roaring log fire in Guatemala was a surprising novelty

We took advantage of their three-nights-for-the-price-of-two offer from their website, but you really only need one or two nights here. In dry weather, there’s mountains trails to hike and birdlife to watch but not much else, aside from the yoga, which was well-taught and the highlight of our stay. Day trips into Antigua are also possible as the hotel offers a frequent shuttle bus.

Earth Lodge’s website and incredible photos of their treehouses sells a romantic dream, but after a wet few days we came away feeling damp, a little dishevelled and more akin to camping than being at a relaxing eco-retreat!

Getting Around Guatemala While we were in Antigua, we organised most of our tours and connecting travel including to Lake Atitlan and back to Rio Dulce with A Viajar Guatemala ( The owner, Alexander, who speaks excellent English, was a delight to deal with and runs tours and travel across Guatemala.  For further information contact him on


A Viajar Guatemala – a travel and tour company you can trust in Guatemala


© Two Drifters Travel

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