Antigua, Guatemala: historic marvel or tourist trap?

Antigua: Arco de Santa Catalina with Volcan Agua in the distance

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.

The stunning facade of La Merced

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.

One of the many old doorways the line the cobbled streets of Antigua

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.

Cerro de la Cruz - a popular place to hang out and gaze down on the city below

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”).

Reflections of past glory - Antigua served as the regional capital for over 200 years

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.

Beans for sale in the busy market

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.

Ancient courtyards provide cool relief from the midday sun

The smoking Volcan Fuego provides a dramatic skyline at sunset

Fountain in Antigua's Parque Central by night

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10 Responses to “Antigua, Guatemala: historic marvel or tourist trap?”

  1. A couple of years ago I have taken Spanish classes in Antigua, and I’ve stayed in the city for about three weeks. I must say I don’t recall large tourist groups. There were a lot of backpackers and the occasionally “luxury” traveler, but times may have changed.
    The city is indeed more focussed on tourism than the rest of Guatemala, which is quite normal as it is a very pretty city with an interesting historical background. Also a lot of businessmen and expats working in Guatemala city spend their nights in Antigua.

    February 11, 2011 at 11:25 am
  2. Elle #

    Great article and nice accompanying pictures! I’ve had Antigua on my radar for awhile now. I like the allure of a city at the base of a volcano. Guatemala looks like a gorgeous country. Can’t wait to explore it.

    February 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm
  3. cpowell #

    La Antigua is a masterpiece. I spent several days there this time last year. A photographer’s dream. You didn’t mention the food, which is fantastic. Small cafes and gourmet restaurants…and even an Irish pub. But, going to Guatemala just for Antigua, would be a mistake. The Mayan ruins at Tikal are the real show!!!

    February 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm
  4. My comment is similar to an earlier one. In the mid 1990’s we spent about two months in Antigua studying Spanish. Don’t recall tourist groups. It was mostly backpackers. This article and, especially the images, brings back many good memories.

    We took weekend trips from Antigua to other parts of Guatemala and we experienced Santa Semana in Antigua…truly authentic, dramatic, photogenic. Getting up before dawn on Good Friday to watch families create carpets of flowers on those cobblestone streets is highly recommended.

    February 11, 2011 at 6:00 pm
  5. helen #

    I visited Antigua in 2000 and thought it was lovely, although even then it was more geared to tourism that other areas of the country, however this was mainly backpackers. Whilst I’m sure the increased tourist traffic will have an impact, the city is beautiful & I would still think well worth a visit. But do not make the mistake of coming all the way to Guatemala without visiting other sites/areas….it is a fantastic colourful country with wonderful people.

    February 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm
  6. Ah, I almost went there for this winter (I went to Mexico instead). Antigua was a planned destination, although I was more planning on caving in other parts of the country. Hopefully in the next few years this will become a reality. Great pictures!

    February 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm
  7. Thanks for the comments guys. I’m not sure where the tour groups have come from – we were there just after Christmas so it was peak season. But in some parts of town it felt like a cruise ship had just docked and spilled out its human cargo (ok, a small one).

    Agree that Guatemala is a beautiful country full of warm and welcoming people, and that Antigua is only a tiny part of the attractions that Guatemala has to offer. Will be writing about our other stops through the country in the next couple of weeks.

    February 11, 2011 at 8:27 pm
  8. Wow I didn’t know it got more visitors than anywhere in Central America! Even more than Costa Rica? Antigua is pretty but I preferred grungier Xela.

    February 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm
  9. I agree, Antigua is a photographer’s dream!

    It is a great city to visit and even to stay for a while. Relatively close to the international airport, all the international and local food you’d want to try, and enough expats around to get by speaking only English.

    For the real Guatemala, head 4 hours north to Xela. Better (cheaper too) Spanish-language schools and tons of short and long term volunteer opportunities available.

    There’s actually a rivalry between the two cities, so choose sides carefully 😉

    February 16, 2011 at 2:34 am
  10. Glad to hear Xela getting so much love here – will write up our stay there shortly (we celebrated New Year in Xela). Antigua is certainly prettier but then it’s a lot more crowded as a result. Funny you mention the English Rich – in six weeks around Central America Antigua was one place where we did encounter far more locals who could speak English than anywhere else.

    February 16, 2011 at 10:39 am