Hiking up a volcano is always going to be a memorable experience, but Antigua takes it to an extra level. Pacaya Volcano is active: it 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, the ground still hot from the last eruption. It might feel like your shoes are melting, but tour groups bring marshmallows along so you can toast them on the scorching rocks. Gazing down at Antigua from a 8,200-foot vantage point while eating volcano-toasted-marshmallows is pretty special.
Guatemala’s coffee is known to be the best in the world, and the most special coffee tour you can do is with Finca Colombia, a family-owned farm a short drive from the city. The 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 once you’ve finished learning you can take a scenic walk around the beautiful, shady plantation—complimentary mug of coffee in hand. The altitude of 5,000 feet allows you to experience unrivalled views of the volcano, too, so don’t forget your camera.
If you didn’t think nuts were romantic, think again. A visit to Valhalla Macadamia Station is ideal for couples, but groups of friends will also love visiting this beautiful and peaceful spot. This organic and sustainable nut farm is about a 10-minute drive from Antigua, but you can hire bikes to cycle there. You’ll learn about the history of macadamia trees and how they’re cultivated and processed, and sample some delicious macadamia nuts and chocolates. The macadamia skin care products on sale are outstanding, and make sure to try Valhalla’s legendary macadamia pancakes with nut butter and blueberry jam.
Calling Casa Santo Domingo a hotel does it a disservice. It is a hotel, but it’s so much more than that too. Part museum, part art gallery, part historical site, part exotic gardens, this is easily the most unique place to stay in Antigua. It’s a five-star hotel so rooms aren’t cheap, but if you’re on a budget you can always pop in to browse the chocolate factory and candle factory, or stroll through gardens adorned with fountains, spa pools and exotic birds. Make sure to visit the exceptional restaurant and bar, too. They’re very popular so you may not get a table immediately, but you can always go zip-lining through the gardens while you wait.
Niños de Guatemala is a self-sustainable organization that provides underprivileged children with an education, running three schools which teach over 500 local children. Taking a tour with Niños de Guatemala will allow you to experience a side to this country that goes far beyond the traditional traveler circuit. After visiting a nearby village, school and local workshops, you’ll gain a new insight into Guatemala and appreciate both its beauty and its struggles. This is a fascinating and unique tour, and 100 percent of the profits go to supporting the schools.
Guatemala has excellent food, and you can discover just how varied it is with a cooking class. The most enjoyable class is with La Tortilla Cooking School—not least because it includes unlimited wine. During the class you’ll learn how to make a variety of traditional dishes, as well as learn about the history behind these meals and why they’re important to Mayan culture. Dishes include things like pepían (a spicy, meaty stew considered one of Guatemala’s national dishes), beetroot salad, Guatemalan rice and tortillas. Dessert is usually rellenitos—mouthwatering donuts stuffed with Mayan chocolate and a rich, sweet bean sauce.
Traditional Mayan ceremonies still occur in Guatemala, and if you want to understand this part of the country’s heritage, you can. Antigua Tours by Elizabeth Bell are all about celebrating traditional Mayan spiritual ceremonies: with the assistance of a Mayan Kakchikel spiritual guide (an ajq’ij) you’ll learn about the importance of the Mayan sacred calendar, the purpose of a sacred fire and the materials needed for it, as well as the spiritual meaning of it all.