Almost everyone in Guatemala, whether locals or expats, will tell you that Antigua is the best place to be for the new year celebrations. They’re not wrong. On New Year’s Eve, a carnival-like atmosphere fills the air, musicians and bands play from nearly every corner, food vendors line every street and masked locals weave in and out of the crowds laughing and shouting. This is in stark contrast to Guatemala City which, despite being the capital, is bizarrely barren on New Year’s Eve.
Antigua’s new year festivities begin by honoring tradition. Antigua’s cobbled streets first play host to Baile de Moros y Cristianos – the Dance of the Moors and Christians. Of Hispanic Colonial origin, this dance tells a story that covers nearly 800 years, and highlights the power of the Christian God who allowed them to prevail against the Moors. The dance was introduced to Guatemala by missionaries in an attempt to convert the Maya to Christianity, and features ten dancers accompanied by a drum and flute. On New Year’s Eve, locals line the streets to watch this tradition kick off the celebrations.
Next comes another dance – and if you think you’ve had your fill of Guatemalan folk dance, think again! Baile de Las Abuelitas – the Dance of the Grandmothers – is wonderful to watch. Unlike the Dance of the Moors and Christians, this is a much newer dance. Originating less than 20 years ago, it consists of a group of older women (ostensibly grandmothers) dancing around and trying to outdo each other.
Once the dancing concludes, it’s time for another tradition – the Quema de Toritos y Alas (Burning of the Bull and Wings). Make sure you bring your camera for this, as it’s like nothing you’ve seen before: a man dressed up in a bull costume that’s literally loaded up with fireworks chases bystanders around the main plaza, sparks and rockets flying behind him.
It’s as bonkers as it sounds, and definitely worth a view. Anyone who has been to Guatemala knows how much this nation loves fireworks, and this age-old tradition is one of the many, many ways they utilise fireworks for festivities.
It’s New Year’s Eve, so obviously the fireworks don’t stop there. To enjoy the spectacular midnight fireworks show, there are two places in Antigua you can go: the first is in front of the Municipal Palace, opposite Parque Central, and the other is at Calle del Arco. The latter is more lively, but if you don’t enjoy crowds, head to the Municipal Palace. Once the fireworks conclude, you can join one of the street parties in town, or head to a bar to drink the rest of the night away.
If Antigua doesn’t float your boat, the next best thing is to head to Lake Atitlan to ring in the new year. There are seven towns around the perimeter of the lake, but the two party towns – San Pedro and Panajachel – are your best bet. However, although Panajachel is smaller, it has a lively party scene all within about five blocks, and definitely has the most diverse nightlife.
A good place to begin your night is either La Palapa or Atlantis, both on Calle Principal. La Palapa is as much known as the ‘gringo hangout’ in Panajachel as it is for its cheap tequila shots. Atlantis sits right next door to La Palapa, often has live music, and is a great place to have a few drinks before the night really kicks off. Afterwards, if you want to head to a club, there are two options: Aleph, which has blue shining lights and blasts out Latino pop music, and Element, which plays western dance music until the early hours.
Of course, there are usually some after-parties going on, but because they’re not advertised, your best bet is asking around on the night and simply going with the flow…