La Antigua, in Guatemala’s central highlands, offers a trip through several layers of time, providing snapshots of baroque Spanish colonial architecture, pre-Colombian Mayan cultures and ancient but still smoldering volcanoes. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s a short drive from the bustling national capital of Guatemala City. Don’t forget to bring sturdy walking shoes.
1. Explore 18th century ruins. Despite a devastating 1773 earthquake, Antigua is regarded as the best preserved Spanish colonial city in Central America. Don’t miss Las Capuchinas (Capuchin Convent), La Merced, the convent of Santa Clara, and the baroque-style El Carmen church. ($20 for a walking tour.)
2. Sample local art. Once you’ve toured El Fotógrafo, Guatemala’s only gallery dedicated entirely to photography, stop by Santa Chivita for fair-trade heirloom gifts and fine art created by local residents.
3. Lose yourself in the market. If anything encapsulates the spirit of Antigua, it’s market day. Held on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the varied traje (traditional dress) of the Indigenous vendors is as colorful as their fresh produce. Don’t be afraid to bargain.
4. Climb an ancient volcano. Hike up one of the nearby volcanoes, such as Agua Acatenango or the still-active Pacaya. The more adventurous can plan overnight stays—though with recent robberies of day-trekkers, even the adventurous should consider hiring security. ($45-$50 for a four hour climb.)
5. People watch in the Parque Central. Antigua once served as Guatemala’s capital, and it remains a crossroads for the country’s diverse Indigenous cultures, as well as a destination for every brand of tourist. Park yourself near the old fountain in the city’s central plaza and enjoy the passing parade.
6. Taste artisanal Guatemalan coffee. Stop by the Finca Azotea ($6) or Finca Colombia ($15) to see how Antigua’s renowned Arábica coffee is produced, from plantation harvest to roasting.
7. Sample street food. Street vendors in the city center offer a savory substitute for a sitdown meal, with delicacies such as chuchitos (corn dough with spicy salsa and meat) and atol (corn and cinnamon drink).
8. Experience Mayan culture. One Sunday a month, watch children from the nearby town of San Antonio Aguas Calientes perform traditional dances accompanied by a marimba band at Peña del Sol Latino.
9. Buy a traje típico. Each of Guatemala’s Indigenous groups is identifiable by elaborate handwoven textiles worn as traditional ponchos and sashes for men, and dresses or shawls for women. Before buying, visit La Pólvora (Museo Casa Del Tejido Antiguo.) Typical dress can range from $30 to well over $100.
10. Taste chocolate fit for a king. Guatemalan chocolate, like its coffee, is of excellent quality and fi ne heritage. A gift of Mayan chocolate was valued highly, and at ChocoMuseo you will see why. Spend a day at the cacao finca ($25 per person) or design your own chocolate ($23).
View a slideshow of photos from Antigua, Guatemala.
All photos courtesy of Nic Wirtz.