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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Guatemala: Antigua

Volcán de Agua
Volcán de Agua

To be honest, I thought it was all going to be about the volcanoes. I mean, every photo you see of Antigua – one of Guatemala's most popular and most photographed tourist destinations – has in the background the most wonderful volcanic cone, but this weather is simply not interested in playing ball. The second after we'd pulled into town and checked into our hotel, I ran up onto the roof to see what the fuss was all about, but all I could see was low-lying cloud and the base of what may or may not have been a volcano. It felt a bit like going on the London Eye in a pea-souper; I was a bit gutted, to be honest.

Parque Central
Parque Central

But it turns out there is a lot more to Antigua than volcanoes, and I needn't have worried. After our dousing in the rainforest we just needed a rest, and Antigua is the perfect place for sitting around and recuperating. It's a cosmopolitan town with shops, restaurants, a very pretty central square, and all the luxuries you dream of as a middle-class tourist stuck in the rainforest, whether it's coffee shops or organic supermarkets or decent wi-fi. And all this is wrapped up in lovely colonial architecture that's still enjoyably faded round the edges.

A man standing under a lamp
Along Avenue 5a Sur

The best parts of Antigua aren't that obvious at first glance, because as with most Spanish colonial towns, there's not a lot to see on the streets, particularly when things slow down around lunchtime. The narrow, raised pavements and cobbled road surfaces are a bit of a pain to navigate, and nothing spills out into the street, so when you first look around town it all seems a bit quiet. But as you walk along and peer into the doorways, a whole world opens up of picturesque garden courtyards, delightful open-air restaurants and sweet little shopping enclaves that you can't resist exploring. Antigua might be a pretty town on the outside, but on the inside it's utterly charming.

Arco de Santa Catalina
The Arco de Santa Catalina is an Antiguan landmark

We revelled in all this luxury. We ate Indian and Western food, studiously avoiding anything Mexican or Guatemalan, because, frankly, we're getting a bit tired of corn-based fare. We drank in bars where ex-pats roamed and English was the lingua franca. And we did precious little for a couple of days, except potter around town, enjoying the clean, dry mountain air. Sometimes you want to explore a country's culture and sample everything that's on offer, and sometimes you just want home comforts; in Antigua, we unselfconsciously went for the latter.

The cracks in the Templo de Santa Rosa de Lima tell the story of Antigua's earthquakes
The cracks in the Templo de Santa Rosa de Lima tell the story of Antigua's earthquakes

We also sat for ages in the pretty main plaza, Parque Central, watching the world go by while Mayan women in their colourful clothes tried to sell us scarves and friendship bracelets, and little boys ran around with shoe-shining kits and boxes of chewing gum. The locals are friendly and it isn't a hard sell, and they always move on when you smile and say 'No gracias', which is sensible because Antigua is full of middle-class whites and Central American tourists who wouldn't take kindly to hardcore touts. Clearly tourism is a very important part of Antigua's modern role – being declared a World Heritage site in 1976 certainly helped with that – but this doesn't feel like a Mayan Disneyland, it just feels like a pleasant and culturally intriguing part of the world. Antigua is famous for its schools that teach Spanish to foreigners, and I'd worried that it was going to be annoyingly western and full of irritating hipster-types, just out of 'uni' and seeing the world on mummy and daddy's bank balance, but actually it was full of older, middle-class couples strolling around the colonnades and soaking up the atmosphere in the classy restaurants and enticing shops.

The view of Antigua and Volcán de Agua from Cerro de la Cruz
The view of Antigua and Volcán de Agua from Cerro de la Cruz

On our second day in town we did manage to get motivated enough to take a taxi to Cerro de la Cruz, a small park on a hill overlooking the town that sports a large concrete cross and fantastic views across town. Unfortunately Volcán de Agua, the huge volcano that sits just to the south of Antigua and which features in all the tourist brochures, was still shrouded in cloud so the views weren't quite as dramatic as they could have been, and we could only see the bottom slopes of the other two volcanoes in the vicinity, Acetenango and Volcán de Fuego. But the walk down the hill back into town was still very enjoyable, and we passed lots of ruined churches from the old colonial days, when Antigua was the capital of Spanish-controlled Guatemala and had a whopping 38 churches dotted around the streets. It held this title from 1543 to 1776, when the region's earthquakes finally forced the Spanish to move the capital to what is now Guatemala City. This is why Antigua has its name; before 1776, it was known by the rather ridiculous title of 'La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Cuidad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan' or 'The Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala', but when the capital moved, it was renamed 'La Antigua Guatemala' ('Old Guatemala'), or just Antigua for short.

Clouds over Volcán de Agua
Clouds over Volcán de Agua

So we ended up staying in town for three nights, a little longer than we'd originally planned, and it was a delight. Sadly, the clouds didn't budge from the tops of the volcanoes for one minute; I even got up at dawn one day and went on the hotel roof, just in case, but it was as cloudy as ever, so all we got to see of the fabled cones were the lower flanks. I had vaguely toyed with the idea of climbing Volcán de Agua, the closest peak to town, which you can do reasonably easily in a day, but it's no fun walking for hours through freezing cloud if there's no chance of a view at the end of it, so I parked that idea and settled for another latte instead. Oh, and one of those rather delicious banana and raisin cakes too, if you don't mind.

Mmm, we did enjoy Antigua...

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