Guatemala's South

ANTIGUA

Global Mark : 15.18    Top Five : No3

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Culture Tradition Market Relax Fiesta 

Cost

AVER.
 5 4 5 3 3 3 4 2 14.50

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
21 100% 86%(18) 100% 10 to 20 15.86


Description :
A colorful and charming colonial city, part of the UNESCO listing, full of old churches and tourists...

Comments : The former capital (until the violent earthquake of 1773) is the nicest town in Guatemala and it is therefore high on everybody's itinerary. It would however be best to visit it after a while on the road, to refuel...

Orientation : It would be fairly easy if all the streets were named at every intersection. This isn't the case. Basically, the bus station is on the west of town, on Alameda Santa Lucia. Vertical streets (that is from N to S) are named 'Avenue' 7 (W) to 1 (E). Horizontal streets are named 'Calle' 1 (N) to 7 (S). The Plaza (Parque Central), at the center of town, marks the limit between the N-S and the E-W. Therefore, you get Calle 'poniente' (W) or 'oriente' (E) and Avenue 'norte' (N) or 'sur' (S). Get a free map to make it clear !

What you can do ? Get a map from one of the touts at the bus station or from any travel agent / Walk the streets again and again, from one colonial building to another / Shop for any kind of souvenirs, from jade (expensive !) to textile (best at nearby San Antonio Aguas Calientes) / Eat any kind of food, from hamburgers to Chinese (dishes) / Visit art galleries / Take lessons of Spanish in one of the numerous school / Forget your Spanish with one of the numerous backpacker / Surf the web in one of the numerous internet cafe / Relax and forget the dusty roads / Visit the tourist office for the latest safety issues / Watch impressive processions (the best of all Central America being during Semana Santa, Easter week) / Climb volcanoes !

What you may not like ? The confusing streets / The lack of clear GH signs / The buses' horns / The rather expensive food and limited small local restaurant / The unregular cobbled streets which make cycling around a pain (expensive anyway at around $8 per day for mountain bike) / The tourists crowd : Antigua would be so great if alone ! / The safety issues outside of Antigua that prevents you from walking alone / Some dual prices locals-foreigners / Too much comfort ? / The foreigners' ownership : 60% of the landlords are westerners / The cool evenings at 2,500m 

How long ? A few days to visit or relax, a few weeks to learn Spanish.

Where to stay ? There are plenty of reasonably-priced places to stay. Some are listed below (from West, the bus station, to East) but not all of them. During Semana Santa, prices increase (usually by two) and rooms become scarce : booking well ahead is essential !

  • ® La Casa de Santa Lucia (8323302), Alameda Santa Lucia Sur #5, opp. market & Bus Station / Sgl (big bed) or Dbl w. HW shower Q80 / Go there for the nice setting and standing w. attractive & clean rooms made in dark wood (worth a look) / What you may not like : a bit dark maybe and a bit more expensive / Two branches : No2 (same street in the north at #21) and No3 (6 Avenue Norte #43A, near La Merced)
  • Posada Ruiz, Alameda Santa Lucia #17 / Basic rooms without shower Q17(1) or Q30 (2) / Go there for the cheapest rate spotted in town / What you may not like : it is basic and a bit depressing / Branch No2 at 2 Calle Poniente #25, west of 6 Avenue. 
  • Nearby on 1 Calle Poniente, two familial places with no name but a 'guesthouse' sign. The first one, on the left (red facade) offers Dbl w. shower (cold) for Q50. The second (yellow facade) did not open the door after I rung the bell. Plenty of other places like those.
  • Posada Dona Angelina (8325173), 4a Calle Poniente #33, east of Post Office / Sgl 35, Dbl 70, w. shower 120 / The entrance looks attractive w. the plants but the rooms are basic, dim and not too clean. Only the cheap Sgl are therefore acceptable. 
  • ® Hotel Backpacker's Place (8325023), 4a Calle Poniente #27, above the supermarket / Room 60(1) or 75(2), w. shower 75(1) or 90(2) / Free tea & coffee / Small satellite TV / Go there for the bright, clean & comfortable rooms / What you may not like : it fills up fast
  • Posada Refugio (no phone), 4a Calle Poniente #30 / Sgl 25-30, w shower 35, Dbl 60, w. shower 70, Trpl w. shower 90 / The rooms are basic and a bit dark & dirty but the atmosphere is acceptable, there are hammocks on the terrace and it is cheap !
  • ® Pasada Vero (8320114), 3a Calle Poniente, in a small alley on the right, beside Hotel Primavera (basic rooms starting at Q35) / Sgl 20-30, Dbl 60, w. shower 70 / Kitchen / Go there for the friendly family atmosphere, the acceptable rooms, the good prices, the terrace and the small aviary / What you may not like : the poor birds in the small cage ?
  • ® Hotel la Casa de Don Ismael (no phone), 3a Calle Poniente #6, the next small alley / Sgl 58, Dbl 72 / Go there for the nice, green & clean atmosphere, the terrace and the big comfortable rooms / What you may not like :some rooms are a bit dark
  • Villa San Francisco (8323383), 1 Avenida Sur #15 / Room $8(1) or 10(2), w. shower 10(1) or 14(2) / A nice terrace and some greenery but rather dark and basic rooms for those prices
  • ® La Casa de los Maestros (8320551), 1a Avenida Sur #22 / Sgl Q35, Dbl 70, w. shower 45 or 80 / Weekly rates w. meals (6 days) and one hour daily of free conversation with Spanish teacher US$60 / Kitchen / Go there for the nice atmosphere, the relaxed terrace and the correct prices / What you may not like : a bit remote from the Station
  • Much more places, of course. Some have no name and just a sign 'guesthouse' or 'rooms for rent'. Visit them if you are not happy with the above selection. 


Where to eat ? Antigua is full of restaurants catering to every taste and every nationality, from American to Chinese. If you have been traveling for a while, this is great. If this is your first stop, your stomach won't notice too much difference from home. Prices however are rather steep : expect a minimum of US$3-5 in most restaurants and US$10 for a treat. Fortunately, for the budget minders, there are also a few real Guatemalan Comedor food. A good one is located on Alameda Santa Lucia #4, opp. the market : a full meal with soup, well served dish (to choose among 20 choices) and tortillas for Q12 ($1.6). An even better deal for the same price was reported near Pasado Vero on 3 Calle Poniente : Restaurant de La Casa de la Mixtas

Backpacker's Tips :  Anonymous  (July 07)
« Very little worth mentioning here that isn't already stated. Still pretty expensive. I stayed in a dorm room in the Yellow House Guesthouse for 40Q per night. Free internet  » 

Backpacker's Tips :  Rodrigo González Mera, Chile  (April 03)
« Hotel León: by a travel agency, 7th calle norte, Q65 for two person, share bath, clean, nice rooms, laundry service, kitchen, a great view from the roof terrace, a few blocks from the Plaza, here you can buy the ticket for transfer to the airport - Aurora in Guatemala City (Q56 for one ticket) Restaurant: Colonial: in front of Hotel León, excellent dinner for Q15, for breakfast is a good choice too » 

Backpacker's Tips :  Phil Mines, UK  (Dec 02)
« In Antigua on 4 calle Poniete there are food stalls similar to those in Asia. The food is good and cheap! Q7 for most things, e.g. tortillas with meat, salad, salsa, guacamole in a kebab type form. Also in the centre of the market (like most of Guatemala) are cheap comodors (pepian Q8).» 

Internet ? Plenty of places around town, most charging Q3 for 15mn, Q6 for half an hour and Q12 for one hour. Internet Roy.com (1a Avenida Sur 21, opp. GH La Casa de los Maestros) was the cheapest spotted at Q2.5, 4.5 and 9 respectively. It was fast also. 

Tel ? The cheapest place spotted was Planeta Maya (5 Av. Sur #11C) and Maya Charter (5 Av. Norte #10) : $0.29 a minute anywhere in the world. Prices may rise a bit in the future but should remain cheaper than the competitors...

Travel Agency ? There are about 40 travel agencies around. Difficult to recommend one but a few do not seem too reliable. Best advice would be to ask and walk around before committing. They all offer the same kind of services, that is free maps (the best spotted was provided by Atitlan tour Operator, 2a Av.Sur #4A), shuttles to various places (always much more expensive than the public bus), flights to Tikal (about $55 one way, $80 return) and tours (incl. to Volcano de Pacaya for $5-8)

Bank ? At least two 24 hrs Visa ATM machines in town and plenty of Banks. Banco del Quetzal & Banco Agromercantil, both north of the Plaza (and both open also on Sat & Sund 9am to 1pm) were offering the best rates when I was there. Tour the place...

Water ? When not provided by your GH (most do), some travel agencies (and other businesses) offer to refill your bottle with purified water : it costs Q1 for 0.5L or Q2 for 1.5L bottles. Expensive but still cheaper than a new one... The small agua bolsa are of course a cheaper option...

Shopping ? The biggest place to shop is the supermarket La Bodegona located at 4a Calle Poniente, just below the Backpacker's Place. 

Learning Spanish ? Antigua is a charming city and there are plenty of schools (and touts) to choose on the spot. They all cost about $65 for 20 hours weekly plus another $50 for accomodation & food and all offer add. services & activities. However, Antigua is very touristy and therefore not the best place to immerge yourself with the locals... Most schools also increase their rates during the busy seasons. 

Visiting ? You could visit the whole place in a day but two or three would be best. Start at the Plaza (Parque Central), the Cathedral de San Jose, the Palace of the Captains General and the nearby museums. Then follow any street toward any old church (getting lost is part of the game). A few places, not always mentioned, worth a walk : 

- in the South : from San Francisco Church, continue South to Escuala de Cristo (small park opp.) and then to El Calvario, a nice yellow structure about 800m South. Just before, the superb Hotel Villa Colonial is worth a look. The bus to Santa Maria de Jesus goes by. 
- in the North : there is a nice viewing point on a hill, easy to spot with its massive cross. It is dangerous to go alone so the police (station on 4 Av Norte, just North of Parque Central) organizes free trip daily at 11am and 3pm. 
- in the East : The 5 stars Hotel Casa Santo Domingo (3a Calle Oriente #28) is a truly impressive place that should make you feel like becoming rich (prices $77-282 plus 20% tax). Also worth a look is La Antigua Galeria de Arte (4a Calle Oriente #15)

Climbing a volcano ? This is a big business here but safety is an issue. Basically : do not go on your own but with an agency. No more agencies (at least the registered one) are setting up burglaries those days but it remains advisable to ask for advise at the tourist office. Two choices : Agua, an extinct volcano (very much visible to the South) that involves 4-6 hours climbing or Pacaya, the only active (and sometimes very active) volcano in the area that requires only 1-2 hrs walk. Most people seem to bother with the second only nowadays. It cost $5-8 depending of the agency. Make sure that it is a registered one and do not carry valuables with you. You will leave at 1pm and come back at 9pm. Most agencies (if not all) will meet each other for the climbing to the top, which means you will be spotting the bubbling lava with 30 or so other excited people. Safety becomes slightly less of an issue this way but you may regret having paid $8 to walk with people who paid $5 only...

Santa Maria de Jesus ? This rather ugly village, 11km away, is the starting point to volcano Agua and something you can do on your own. The authenticity, scenery on the way (right side when up) and the people wearing colorful traditional huipiles are the reasons to go. Also, the food is much cheaper there : the mango slices costing Q2.5 in Antigua cost Q0.5 there ! Bus leaves every 45mn or so. It cost Q1.5 and takes 30mn. The last bus back to Antigua is at about 5:30pm. 


The traditions of Santa Semana ?
Santa Semana (Holy Week) in Antigua is possibly the most impressive celebration in all Central America, with half a million tourists showing up for the event. The tradition is thought to have been introduced by the Conquistador Alvarado in the 16th century, straight from Spain. Today, the religious fervor of the participants is visible through all the senses : the colorful costumes, massive andas (platform) & delicate carpets (alfombras) up to 100m long, the scents of flowers & incense, the music from the local brass bands, the delicate touch of the pickpockets...

The making of the carpets (with tinted sand, sawdust, flowers, fruits, seeds, grains, vegetables and lots of creativity) starts on Thursday evening and last until sunrise on Good Friday, when the Processions of Penance start. To get the privilege of imitating Christ carrying His cross, local people must pay a fee (Q25-50) to the brotherhood of each church, a way to finance the huge decorating expenses. Taking part is a great honor, a way of washing one's sins away and many "turnos" are passed down from father to son. The weight of the anda (some cedar platforms weight 3.8 tones and need 80 cucuruchos to carry them) and the size of the "brothers" (from floor to shoulder) make a natural selection : too short or weak men cannot carry. There will be many shifts during the procession, each shift carrying the anda one block of Antigua. 

Among the many churches, the procession of La Merced is arguably the most famous. It will be lead by 80 men dressed as Roman soldiers, usually coming from Guatemala City while the Ministry of Defense provides the "cavalry" of 21 horses and riders. 30-40 musicians follow the anda. And that is only for Jesus' anda ! (there are other platforms, like Virgin Marie's, carried by women). The Good Friday procession last from 6am to 3pm, the time of the Cruxifixion, when cucuruchos wearing white & purple will change into black . The Palm Sunday procession leaves the church at 1pm and returns at 11pm. Ask the tourist office for a map of the processions.

If scared by the crowd and related problems, there is hope : processions in Antigua also take place outside of Santa Semana and processions are not an exclusivity of Antigua. Most places will actually organize processions during Santa Semana.  Santiago Atitlan was reported to be an excellent place as well...

 << Discover the colonial charm & a procession's sights


How to leave ?
From Antigua

To Company Price Time Hrs Km
Guatemala City various 4.5 ever. 15mn 5:30 to 18:30 1 45
Chimaltenango Carrillo o Gonzalez 2.5 hourly 6 to 18 45mn 15
Panajachel Rebuli 30 7 2.5 100
Escuintla (1) America del Sur, Granadina 5 6:30,7:30,13 1.5 40

(1) from there to Monterrico via Taxisco & La Avellana (Q6 + boat Q5, 2 hrs)

How to leave ? From Chimaltenango

To Company Price Time Hrs Km
Panajachel Rebuli 15 hourly 7 to 16 2 85
Chichicastenango various ? ever. 30mn 6 to 17 2 98
Xela various ? ever. 45mn 7 to 18 2.5 145
La Mesilla (Mexique) Velasquez 40 6:15,11:15,13:15 7 290
Huehuetenango Velasquez, Zaculeu, Condor ? hourly 7 to 18 5 211

 

The trip to Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) : SSSS / R / Q2.5 + 20 / 45mn + 2 hrs /
There are basically two ways to reach Panajachel : most people nowadays do not bother and take the direct 7am first class bus. It cost Q30 and takes 2.5 hrs. I had decided to save some money. The way to do that is to head first to Chimaltenengo on a local bus (Q2.5, 45mn) and then wait at the road for a 'Rebuli' bus coming from Guatemala City. It should cost an additional Q15. 
After waiting for half an hour by the side of the dusty and polluted road (I had left at 6:30), I was very pleased to finally spot a 'Rebuli' Bus (do not take another company as you will be dropped before and need to find another bus to continue). This was a beautiful bus, nearly empty except for a few foreigners : it indeed turned out to be the first class bus coming from Antigua... Q15 was for the ordinary bus. For this comfortable one, I was asked Q20. Still a bargain ! 
The road was beautiful, on both side but slightly more on the right, especially for the final descent to the lake. This descent, I however did it on foot : two backpacker had asked the driver to stop at the viewing point ("mirador"). I followed them and enjoyed the magnificent scenery during the 45mn walk down.
Another interesting idea would be to get off at Solola, the biggest Maya town in the country, especially during great market day on Tuesday or Friday. It would then be fairly easy to hitch or take another bus for the remaining 10km down toward Panajachel. 

Onward to Chichicastenango

See also the trip from Guatemala City