How to visit Antigua Guatemala on a Budget
What to see in Antigua
Antigua Guatemala is easily the most beautiful city in Central America. Situated in the Central Highlands, less than an hour’s drive from Guatemala City, it is a popular destination for well-heeled tourists and backpackers alike. It’s easy to understand why. The cobbled streets are dotted with crumbling ruins and picturesque plazas. With its lovely colonial buildings, galleries, restaurants and vibrant markets, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a feast for the eyes.
The presence of several volcanoes including the magnificent Volcan Pacaya, which is in a near-constant state of eruption, adds another fascinating perspective to this beguiling city. Strolling along the street and glimpsing up at the plumes of smoke spewing into the sky is a surprising sight no matter how many times you witness it. It’s the kind of place that you find yourself lingering longer than intended, hanging out in cafes, learning Spanish or simply enjoying the Antiguan vibe.
Museums in Antigua
This museum is great news for visiting chocoholics! Using cacao from different regions of Central and South America, a variety of scrumptious artisan chocolate is created. Entry to the interactive museum is free and exhibits explain the history of chocolate and how it is produced. Free samples are available, and you can even partake in chocolate making workshops. The shop is stocked with an array of temptations. Bean to Bar Workshops are $25.00. (4a Calle Oriente)
Casa Santo Domingo
This luxury hotel is incorporated into the grounds of an old monastery and most of the original walls have been retained. It oozes with character and is also home to a series of well-presented museums along a stretch known as Museum Promenade. Sections are divided into colonial, archaeological, pre-Colombian art/modern glass, contemporary art, silver and a historical pharmacy. The gardens are beautiful too. It’s free to enter and one of the highlights of a visit to Antigua. (3a Calle Oriente 28A).
Museo Casa del Tejido
This small textile museum is also a workshop and store where you can purchase bags, clothing, and jewelry. It’s possible to see the different styles of weaving from villages around the country and interesting to witness the work that goes into producing the textiles. Visitors are given an insight into the background of Guatemalan culture by knowledgeable and friendly guides. The entrance fee is $2.00. (1a Calle Poniente 51)
What to do in Antigua
This is the heart of Antigua and where both locals and tourists gather to pass the time of day. Whether it’s to watch a major soccer match on a big screen, enjoy some live music, peruse market stalls or just hang out, Parque Central is where it all happens.
The cathedral overlooks the square and the roads leading off Parque Central are crammed with galleries, shops, restaurants and bars. Vendors wander around decked out in traditional costume selling handicrafts, and shoeshine boys ply their trade. The central fountain which is decorated with mermaids is the focal point and tends to be where locals congregate. It’s a great spot to take a seat and watch the world go by.
Arco Santa Catalina
The yellow arch with the stunning Volcan Agua in the background is probably the most photographed spot in Antigua. Situated on a colorful, colonial cobbled street, it is certainly picturesque. Early mornings before the crowds arrive is the best time for photography. (Avenida Norte & 2 Calle Poniente #5).
Church of San Francisco
This is a popular baroque church where locals come to visit the shrine of Peter of Saint Joseph Becantaur. The Franciscan monk founded a hospital for the poor in town and remains much revered amongst the Guatemalan community. The church itself is the oldest in the city and was originally constructed in the 1500’s. It has since been rebuilt due to earthquake damage. (Calle Oriente and 1 Avenida Sur #7)
La Merced Church
With its bright yellow exterior, La Merced is the most striking of Antigua’s churches. The décor is ornate inside and out. It looks particularly beautiful at night when illuminated. Processions often start or finish in the plaza around the church and tasty street food is also sold there. Check out the tostados! (7a Avenida #43)
Convento de las Capuchinas
Abandoned after being destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, restoration of the convent didn’t start until 1943 and is still in process. The architecture is magnificent, and the peaceful landscaped gardens are a pleasure to wander through, an oasis in the center of the city. There are passageways, nooks and crannies to explore and a museum at the entrance detailing the history of the building. It’s a fascinating insight into the lives of the nuns who lived there. $7.00. (Avenida Norte at 2 Calle Oriente #2)
Cerro de la Cruz
This cross which is situated on a hill overlooking the city can be reached in approximately half an hour from downtown. The ascent is worthwhile for the panoramic views of Antigua and the surrounding area, which includes three volcanoes. Food and drink can be purchased on the hill, and there are picnic benches to sit and enjoy the sweeping views. It is policed after a series of muggings occurred on route, and is now safe to visit during the day.
There is a choice of volcanoes to hike in close to the city, but Volcan Pacaya is the most accessible. It takes half a day to hike the steep and moderately challenging trail. Riding a horse to the summit is also an option. These days, it is no longer possible to hike to the summit and see the lava flow due to safety issues, but highlights include toasting marshmallows over the hot rocks and seeing the smoking vents.
There are also great views of the other volcanoes. For those who like a real challenge, Volcan Acatenango is a tough hike, but worth the effort. From the summit, there are spectacular views of flowing lava from nearby Volcan Fuego. There are many travel agents in town offering trips to the volcanoes.
This sprawling store is a treasure trove of Guatemalan handicrafts and textiles. Masks, ceramics, textiles and jewelry from different regions of the country are sold here, representing the tradition and culture of Guatemala. The prices are reasonable, and many people appreciate the opportunity to peruse the goods leisurely without being pressured into making a purchase. (5a Avenida Norte 29)
Guatemala is one of the best places in the world to learn Spanish and offers excellent value courses for students of all standards. Antigua has a wealth of Spanish schools to choose from. Students can stay in hostels/guesthouses or with families in homestays. Sometimes the schools can provide accommodation. Antiguena Spanish Academy (1a Calle Poniente #10) has a very good reputation, but there are plenty of options. It’s a good idea to check out a few and make a decision based on your personal requirements.
Semana Santa (Easter week) is a huge celebration in Guatemala. The streets of Antigua are abuzz with anticipation and it’s a fascinating time of the year to be there. The cobbled streets are leveled out with sand and covered by ornate colorful carpets made from sawdust depicting flowers and religious images. They are eventually trampled on by processions which pass over them.
Parades take place every day of the week, with the main events on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. On Palm Sunday, devotees in purple robes carry floats of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on their shoulders. This is followed by a marching funeral bands and the slow beat of drums. The aroma of burning incense fills the air.
On Good Friday, mourners dress in black and follow a statue of Jesus carrying the cross. A reconstruction of the trial and sentencing of Jesus is carried out. Late at night, floats with the crucified Christ arrive at La Merced Church. On Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Christ is celebrated with family feasts and fireworks.
Where to eat in Antigua
This Mexican restaurant offers delicious north-of-the-border cuisine in a friendly atmosphere. The shrimp tacos are particularly delicious and the nachos excellent. Artisan beers, micheladas, and cocktails are served, and the atmosphere is particularly lively on Thursdays and Fridays when there are regular live music sessions.
The décor is cool and colorful and the staff attentive. There is even a little shop at the back which sells Frida-related merchandise. It isn’t the cheapest joint in town, but the food and ambiance so good that it’s worth cutting back elsewhere! (5a Avenida Norte #29)
A visit to this simple local eatery is the real deal. A traditionally dressed woman stands in the doorway grilling tortillas and tempting in passers-by’s. For just 30 quetzals you receive one of the two or three set meals that are available. A typical example may include a generous plate of chicken, pork or fish with rice, beans and either potato or salads. A drink such as tamarind juice is included in the price.
There is no menu and English isn’t spoken, so for non-Spanish speakers, it’s a bit of a gamble. The restaurant is basic and the tables wobbly, but if you want to sample good, cheap, traditional Guatemalan food as eaten by the locals, this is the place to head for. (3a Avenida sur #3)
Taqueria Don Lupa
This little taqueria serves the best tacos in town – no competition. You customize your own taco, adding your choice of meat or fish, salads, and salsas. The folks who run it are delightful and even speak a little English.
It’s not fine dining, but the tacos are cheap, fresh, filling and tasty. If you are in Antigua for any length of time, one visit won’t be enough! (7a Avenida Poniente #14)
One of the longest established cafes in town, this popular hang-out is bookshop, bar and entertainment space as well as being a café. The food is international, reasonably priced and locally sourced. There are lots of gluten-free and vegetarian options.
As well as live music, there are regular NGO lectures and fundraising events which often encourage attendees to volunteer and become involved with working towards a better Guatemala. It’s a community space with a sociable atmosphere and great food! (7a Avenida Sur #8)
The most outstanding feature of this restaurant is the spectacular views of Volcan Fuego. A narrow spiral staircase takes you to the rooftop terrace where you can enjoy watching billowing smoke rising from the volcano. The menu is extensive and the servings substantial with a choice of sandwiches, Mexican food, and steaks (the nachos are amazing).
Café Sky is particularly popular at sunset, so it is wise to get there early to grab a table. The cocktail menu is impressive, and the margaritas deserve a special mention. As the sun goes down and darkness falls, it is often possible to see the lava spilling from the volcano, a breath-taking sight. (1a Avenida Sur #15)
Budget accommodation in Antigua
Three Monkeys Hostel
The Aussie/Guatemalan owners have done a fair bit of traveling themselves, so know what backpackers want in from their accommodation. Three Monkeys Hostel is chilled and a good place to meet other travelers. It has a fully equipped kitchen, TV room and hangout lounge. There’s a sunny garden with hammocks and a bar. Private ensuite or shared rooms and dorms are available. The hostel is only a stone’s throw from Parque Central. (2 Avenida Sur #34)
El Hostal is a small, cozy and friendly hostel with two dorms and some private rooms. There’s a courtyard where you can enjoy and a beer and a restaurant serving up good value meals. A basic breakfast is included in the price. All the usual traveler services are available. (1ra Avenida #8)
Hotel Casa Rustica
If you love dogs, this is the place for you! Guests are greeted by Lucky and Shirley, two friendly pooches who you are certain to befriend during your stay! Hotel Casa Rustica is a good value budget hotel located in the heart of the city. There is a sunny rooftop terrace with views of Antigua, hammocks to swing in and lots of attractive flowering plants. The kitchen where you can prepare your own meals is an added bonus. It is simple, clean, comfortable and the staff are helpful and amiable. (6th Avenida #8)
Situated in a colonial-style house, Tropicana is a popular party hostel and the ideal place to meet fellow travelers. There are two large dorms and double, triple and quad rooms. One of the standout features is the small swimming pool with adjacent bar and a hot tub in the garden. On the rooftop terrace is a tiny gym and a yoga area and there are fabulous views of the volcanoes. (6ta Calle Poniente #2)
Casa Florencia Hotel
This small hotel is nearer to the mid-range than budget bracket, but offers good value, especially for those sharing a room. The upper rooms have volcano/mountain views. Casa Florencia Hotel is beautifully decorated in traditional style and close to La Merced Church. The hotel offers peace and tranquillity in a quieter area of town, although it is only a ten-minute walk to Central Plaza. The staff are professional, hospitable and helpful. (71 Avenida Norte #100)
How to save money in Antigua
Antigua is a popular destination for both high-end tourists and backpackers. Expensive galleries, restaurants, and shops are very much in evidence, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible for budget travelers to enjoy the delights of the city and preserve some of their hard-earned cash. Here are some ways to save money:
Stay at a hostel or cheap hotel – Accommodation takes up the bulk of your travel budget, so it makes sense to stay somewhere cheap and there are plenty of options in Antigua. Many of the budget options are clustered around 1a Calle Poniente, so it’s a good place to start your search.
Avoid using transport – Admittedly, a tuk-tuk ride isn’t expensive, but every quetzal counts. Antigua isn’t a large city and you can reach everywhere in the city by foot.
Book Exchange – There are book exchanges at The Rainbow Café and Nim Pot.
Eat street food – Avoid the tourist restaurants and head for the fresh food market, where you can purchase delicious food. Try the cheap tostados loaded with avocado, hashed meat, salads, cheese, and sauces or the scrumptious chicken chuchitos.
Cook your own food – If you are staying in a hostel, there is usually a kitchen. Buying food at the market and cooking your own meals can save lots of dollars.
Getting to Antigua
The nearest airport to Antigua is Aurora Airport in Guatemala City, which is located 23 miles away. A shuttle bus costs about $10.00 per person and a taxi approximately $35.00. Make sure you take an official taxi. Alternatively, your hotel or hostel can arrange transportation for you.
A public bus leaves the main bus terminal in Zona 9, Guatemala City and only costs about $1.00. The terminal has a somewhat shady reputation, so take care if you find yourself there and make sure all your possessions are secure.
Tourist shuttle buses run from Flores, Panajechal, Languin, Chichicastenango, San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico and Copan in Honduras.
Getting around Antigua
Antigua is small and due to its grid-style street system, it is easy to get around by foot. If you’ve done enough walking (the cobble-stoned streets uneven narrow sidewalks can be wearing!) tuk-tuks are cheap and plentiful. Chicken buses serve the surrounding areas.