Step along any of the cobbled streets of Antigua and reminders of its past glory are everywhere to be seen. The weary old buildings that have survived both age and numerous earthquakes bare their scars openly and without shame. The streets themselves obey strictly the grid pattern that is typical of most cities in Central America, although to call them neat and orderly would perhaps be misleading.
It’s not only the many pot holes that you need to watch here while negotiating the city streets – Antigua attracts more tourists than any other city in Central America and having arrived here from El Salvador the contrast was dramatic. Tour groups are everywhere and a walk along any of the main streets leading from the Parque Central will probably mean stepping aside while a group shuffles past in hot pursuit of the umbrella-wielding guide.
Antigua is the perfect tourist destination, with infinite photo opportunities, restaurants and bars to suit every taste. The city boasts more hotels than anywhere else in the country and has built an infrastructure to meet every need for backpacker and luxury traveller alike. Launderettes, jewellery shops, tour operators, gift shops and internet cafes (what more could you ever need?) are in abundance along the historic streets of this ancient capital.
We took a couple of days to explore the city. Sadly we both choose our time in Antigua to suffer our first sickness of the trip, meaning that we had to slow down our usual fast paced exploration of a new city. Antigua is blessed with countless old churches, and a random stroll through the streets reveals many surprising finds: shells of old churches destroyed by earthquakes or human neglect, old convents and peaceful courtyards hidden behind carved wooden doors.
From most points in the city the skyline is dominated by three volcanoes, creating one of the most dramatic backdrops to any city. Closer to home is the Cerro de la Cruz – this hill on the edge of the city is topped by a large cross (as the name suggests) and is a brisk 30 minute walk from the centre of town. It is a popular spot for families to come and enjoy the views over the city and also for local teenage lovers to escape the gaze of their parents for a little while (there is a local saying regarding the hill that “two go up and three come down”).
Antigua is the big draw for all visitors to this part of Latin America and it’s easy to see why it attracts so much hype. It is well equipped to accommodate thousands of tourists in good hotels, and it’s perfect to stroll around for a couple of days admiring the old buildings in between visiting the countless eating and drinking places that line the tightly-packed streets.
Will you see a slice of typical Guatemala in Antigua? Unlikely; it would perhaps be naive to expect that from such a popular stop on the tourist trail. But is it worthy of the hype? As someone who loves strolling aimlessly amid grand old architecture, even in a state of decay such as this, I would say it is. Just make sure you read the earthquake advice cards in your hotel – there’s plenty of evidence around you that in Antigua there’s good reason to be prepared.