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Antigua is one of the most visited places in Central America and it’s not hard to see why. Whether you’re here to sightsee, hike up volcanoes or improve your Spanish, you’re going to have a good time – but there are a few things you should be aware of before you arrive. Here’s our essential guide.
Fireworks and firecrackers are big business in Central America, but nowhere more so than in Antigua. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the locals are somewhat obsessed with bombas, and find any excuse to set them off. Hearing shockingly loud bangs and cracks is part and parcel of walking through Antigua, and you can spot first-time visitors by their flinching. After a few days here, you won’t even hear them.
Guatemalans are just the friendliest and most welcoming people you can imagine. People in Antigua will go out of their way to make you feel welcome, and if you can’t speak the language, it doesn’t matter. Nearly everyone you pass in the street, whether old or young, will give you a genuine smile and a nod – at the very least. It really is heartwarming.
Antigua’s streets need to be carefully navigated. Not because they’re dangerous – on the contrary – but because these old cobbled streets are by no means easy to walk on. There are potholes and slippery cobbles aplenty, so if you aren’t watching where you’re going you can end up with a sprained ankle. Tread carefully, and leave the heels at home.
Coffee lovers, rejoice: thanks to its volcanic landscape, Antigua has the ideal climate for growing coffee and the beans produced here are some of the best in Latin America. A great way to spend an afternoon is by visiting one of the local coffee plantations, where the farmers will proudly show you their crop and the coffee making process. A coffee tour gives you an insight into the coffee making process from seed to cup, as well as some of the problems of coffee growing. You’ll gain a new appreciation for just how much work goes into a cup, and can buy some delicious coffee to take home with you.
Antigua is famous for its three looming volcanoes, but did you know that you can hike up them – and that two of them are still active? Pacaya volcano last erupted in June 2015, and spews of thick smoke still stream from the summit. Scaling it only takes half a day, and at the top the landscape is lunar-like and dramatic. Standing at 2,500 feet (760 metres), you might experience some mild altitude sickness towards the top, but the views from the summit are worth it.
Antigua is known for being one of the best places in the world to study Spanish, so if you’re keen to learn, this is the place to do it. In Guatemala they speak slowly and the accent is clear, so it’s much easier to pick things up. There are many well regarded language schools and courses to suit every schedule and budget. Whether you want a few hours of lessons to brush up on your speaking skills or an intensive course, learning Spanish is a fun way to get to know the local people and customs.
If you’re someone who likes to buy souvenirs and trinkets when you travel, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Antigua. The vibrant markets here are bursting with colourful textiles, ornate handicrafts and pretty woven garments, so buying a few items to take home is a must. Make sure you pay a visit to at least a few of the city’s best markets while you’re here: the local women make beautiful and intricate ponchos, hats, tablecloths, wallets and decorative bowls, all of which make wonderfully unique souvenirs.
Some locals don’t like to have their photograph taken as they believe the camera can steal their soul. Antigua is one of the most photogenic cities in the world and you’ll want to take pictures of everything, but always ask before snapping a photo of a local.
Guatemala is considered the birthplace of chocolate, and nowhere in the country is better to get your fix than Antigua. There are several excellent cacao museums that are fun to visit, where you can learn how the Mayans made chocolate – a produce they considered the food of the gods. Most museums have chocolate shops, and there are dozens of cafés serving up heavenly chocolate cakes and sweet treats.
Everyone who has been to Antigua raves about it, and with good reason. Antigua is like no other place in the world. It has absolutely everything you could want from a travel destination: stunning scenery, delicious food, buzzing bars, absorbing culture, and friendly locals. Even though it’s very touristy, the prevalence of local culture means it also feels unspoiled. Take it from us: if you go, you won’t want to leave.