Is Antigua, Guatemala Overrated?
Distinctive cobblestone streets are full to the brim with tourists, expats and locals alike. Crumbling churches stand behind locked gates, while next door is a modern hotel or restaurant. Vivid ‘chicken buses’ whizz around, while packed to the rafters with locals. Around another corner, you’ll spot a row of tourists shuttles ready to take the next lot of tourists on a day trip or to their next destination.
Antigua is a city which caters for tourists as much as the local population. Has the excessive demand for tourist amenities made Antigua, Guatemala lose its authenticity? That’s a question I found the answer to during my 3-day stay in Antigua. This city attracts flocks of tourists and backpackers. The question is, is Antigua, Guatemala overrated as a destination and worth your visit?
About Antigua, Guatemala
Guatemala is an incredible country with so much on offer. Antigua, Guatemala stands at an elevation of 1,533 metres and is the most popular destination in Guatemala. Backpackers flock to this city in numbers and there aren’t many who miss Antigua off their Guatemala itinerary.
Antigua is the old capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. Why isn’t Antigua the capital anymore? Well, building a city smack bang in front of a volcano doesn’t seem like the most clever of ideas. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the volcano which threatened the safety of those living in Antigua. Destructive earthquakes led to the eventual order coming from the Spanish crown to move the capital to its current location, Guatemala City.
Nowadays Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city still holds much of the original colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, plazas and domestic buildings.
Is Antigua, Guatemala Overrated?
It’s clear to see across Antigua that tourism is the main priority. Although the city has retained much of its original buildings and layout, these original buildings now house some not so authentic establishments. One thing which speaks volumes is the array of corporate fast food chains housed in beautiful colonial buildings.
Guatemala should be a budget destination, don’t you agree? The majority of cafes/restaurants around the centre do not offer budget options. There was one place selling a bagel for a grand total of 70 GTQ (9.50 USD). An unbelievable price for Guatemala and definitely a shock to the system. I’ve no doubt, the ridiculous price inflation is due to tourists and expats; there’s no way your regular local would be able to afford that.
Antigua is a beautiful city with stunning architecture. Unfortunately, the impact of tourism and expats is clear to see. The buildings and streets may look authentic, but that is where much of the authenticity ends. Antigua has become a bubble for tourism, the prices are inflated and historic buildings are being developed for use of hotels etc.
All in all, I would say Antigua is overrated. I heard great things from other backpackers about Antigua. Unfortunately, what I found is an overpriced and touristy city. If it wasn’t for the volcano climbing activities that you can do from Antigua, I would recommend giving the city a miss. Don’t spend too long in Antigua, use your time wisely in more exciting Guatemalan destinations like Semuc Champey.
What to do in Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua, Guatemala might be overrated, but it is still worth stopping over for a few days. The main attractions are the surrounding volcanoes. What/where are the places to visit in Antigua, Guatemala during your few days?
Climb a Volcano
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if it wasn’t for the volcano hikes you can do from Antigua, I’d recommend to avoid it altogether. What’s so special about these volcano hikes then? One thing you will notice about Antigua is that it is surrounding by a lot of volcanoes. It’s not surprising that every man and his dog are offering volcano hiking tours.
The most popular day hike on offer is to Volcan de Pacaya. The Pacaya Volcano hike is moderately difficult. However, if you’re fit, it won’t be much of a challenge. The cost of a Pacaya Volcano tour should cost no more than 80 GTQ (11 USD).
Volcano Acatenago is a popular exciting and adventurous climb. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do the climb up Volcano Acatenago due to the atrocious weather. I have heard that it is a difficult climb. The hike runs over 2 days, with an overnight camping stop on the volcano. If you’re lucky, you will spot Volcan de Fuego erupting in front of your eyes.
Visit a Market
If you’re in Antigua on a Saturday, head out to the local Caoba Farms Market. Caoba Farm is an organic farm close to the centre of Antigua. There are shuttles which run from the centre every hour, or you could opt for the 20-minute walk from Parque Central. There’s live music and entertainment. Along with food and goods for sale from local producers. There’s delicious organic Guatemalan cuisine on offer. My tip would be to go for the Longaniza, black beans, rice, avocado, vegetables and tortillas.
Climb Cerro de la Cruz
Who doesn’t love a good view point? Cerro de la Cruz is home to a massive cross on top of a large hill overlooking Antigua. The hike up to the top of the hill isn’t too difficult. There are concrete stairs leading to the top. Even if you do find yourself out of breath, there are benches along the way and a vendor selling drinks at the top. On a clear day, the view from Cerro de la Cruz is out of this world. You get a view overlooking Antigua with Volcano Agua towering above in the distance. A worthy picture for any Instagram if you ask me.
Explore the Colonial Architecture
After spending time in beautiful Mexican colonial cities like San Cristobal de las Casas, I have developed a liking for colonial architecture.
There are plenty of historical sights in Antigua to explore. Across the cobblestone road from Parque Central stands the restored San Jose Catedral (Antigua Guatemala Cathedral). One of the most recognisable landmarks in Antigua is Arco Santa Catalina. If you have seen the arch before, you will have more than likely seen a picture with Volcano Agua peering through the arch in the background. There’s no lack of churches and cathedrals in Antigua. The oldest functioning church in Antigua is San Francisco church; built in 1542. San Francisco Church homes the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro de San Jose de Betancourt, a Spanish missionary who is known as Antigua’s eternal mayor. Another distinctive church is La Merced Church, popular amongst tourists due to the bright yellow paint job.
Antigua isn’t the biggest city in the world, so the colonial architecture within the city centre is easy to explore on foot. Get your comfy walking shoes on and spend the day exploring the buildings dotted around the busy cobblestone streets.
People Watch in Parque Central
Right in the middle of Antigua is Parque Central. This plaza is always filled with people getting up to all sorts. The hustle and bustle of Antigua centralise in Parque Central. That’s exactly why I’d recommend grabbing yourself a coffee, taking a pew on one of the benches and watching the world go by. The park is a beautiful area full of greenery and water features. Exactly what you’d expect from any self-respecting Central American plaza.
Where to Stay in Antigua, Guatemala
Due to the extreme focus on tourism, there’s no lack of choice when it comes to hotels/hostels around Antigua. You don’t need to venture too far from the centre. However, as with many other things in Antigua, the accommodation is pricey by Guatemalan standards.
My recommendation for a hostel in Antigua, Guatemala is…
Antigua Hostel – A new hostel in Antigua. The dorm rooms are clean and spacious. There are plugs by the beds and curtains for privacy, which earns a big thumbs up from me. They have a bar on the upper floor and a restaurant out front. It’s hard to fault this hostel. The dorms and bathrooms are clean. The only downside is there’s not a huge amount of atmosphere. The lack of atmosphere could have been down to the hostel being fairly new and us being there in low season.
Check out more destinations in Guatemala.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section.
Have you been to Antigua, Guatemala before? Do you think the ex Guatemalan capital is overrated? Or is it one of your highlights of Guatemala?
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