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Antigua, Guatemala: The Nicest Colonial Town in Central America?

Historic buildings usually come in two flavours; either restored to within an inch of their lives or crumbling away like a fading tan. Which is better? That’s for us all to decide, but if you visit Antigua you’ll get the best of both worlds. You’ll see carefully restored colonial houses with pretty facades and doors, and you’ll also get to explore ancient churches left in various states of ruin by a series of powerful earthquakes. All this adds up to make Antigua, in my opinion, the nicest colonial town in Central America.

Crumbling churches / monasteries

Exploring the various ruins is a great way to spend an afternoon in Antigua. These churches and monasteries were decimated by the earthquakes of the 1700s and are now in various states of disrepair. Throw peaceful garden settings into the mix and you have some great places to wander. We didn’t see any ruins this big or beautiful in any other colonial town in Central America, which definitely elevates Antigua above the rest. My favourite crumbling ruin in Antigua was the Santa Clara Convent. It’s an old building (or series of buildings) set in a peaceful garden. There were only a few other tourists to contend with; it was such a relaxing place to wander. It seems as if work is being done to restore it and I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not. Whatever the outcome of the restoration, it’ll be hard to beat the atmosphere and rough beauty that it has at the moment. We also explored the Church of San Francisco which was even quieter than the Santa Clara Convent.

FURTHER READING: A Journey to the Jungle Pyramids of Tikal (far older ruins in Guatemala)

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The streets of Antigua

Every Spanish colonial town has them – old cobblestone streets lined with colourful (or sometimes just white) houses. These houses often have iron barred windows framed by plants and flowers and if you’re lucky the front door becomes a portal to a lavish courtyard interior.  Antigua has all of the typical Spanish colonial characteristics but for some reason I enjoyed walking the streets there more than any other town in Central America. Once you leave the busy inner city streets it gets really quiet. It’s great to be able to take photos of the old houses without a whole lot of cars in the way (this happened a lot in Mexico and Granada, Nicaragua). If you’re lucky you’ll also see the massive volcano looming over the town. It was pretty hazy when we were there so we only saw it on the last day; it makes for a quite a backdrop though. This mix of architecture and nature make Antigua a strong contender for the “Nicest colonial town in Central America” award, if there ever is one!

FURTHER READING: Semuc Champey: A Must-See Natural Wonder in Guatemala (another great place to visit in Guatemala)

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The golden arches

It’s not McDonald’s (and I guess technically they are yellow, not gold), but the arches in Antigua are pretty famous. They are often featured on tourism posters and paintings throughout Central America. We’ve seen them in hotel rooms in El Salvador and Nicaragua; it’s always nice to be reminded of the beauty of Antigua. The volcano usually provides the backdrop to these stunning paintings and photos but the haze meant we were robbed of the Antigua money shot.

arch-antigua-guatemalavolcano-antigua-guatemalaThere’s the volcano!

Eating in Antigua

Look away now vegetarians and people who only “eat local”, because I’m about to talk about the best American meat restaurant in Central America (probably, I didn’t go to them all, but surely there can’t be that many). You get a huge plate of your choice of meat, including pulled pork and ribs as well as a few sides for around Q70. It was usually enough for two people and it was the best food we ate in Central America – check out Pappy’s BBQ next time you’re in Antigua! It’s also easy to eat well on a budget in Antigua; restaurants will often have 2 for 1 meal specials, just shop around (although the other food we tried wasn’t so memorable).

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The details

Antigua is a short bus ride from both Guatemala City and Lake Atitlan and is one place you shouldn’t miss when travelling in Guatemala. There are some great hotels and hostels in Antigua and they suit all budgets. It’s slightly more expensive than places like Flores and Lake Atitlan, probably due to the proximity to the capital city, but it’s definitely affordable. There are a few volcanoes in the area which are apparently great to climb but the weather was pretty bad when we were there so we skipped them.

FURTHER READING: Check out this post about climbing Acatenango,  a volcano close to Antigua

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Are you planning a trip to Guatemala? Would you like to visit Antigua? What town would get your vote as the nicest colonial town in Central America? Let me know!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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10 Comments

  1. October 9, 2015 at 10:52 pm — Reply

    Great post! I love the place, brings back memories. I was there in 1995, hope it hasn’t changed to much.

    • Jon Algie
      October 10, 2015 at 8:29 am — Reply

      Thanks Jane; Antigua seems like a place that will never change too much!

  2. Dave
    December 14, 2015 at 10:41 am — Reply

    Nice post I am lucky enough to live here after 8 years of travel mostly in Central and South America I kept coming back here,and no it does not change much, you must have been here during the rainy season as we are in the dry season now and nothing but blue skies and warm sun till May or so. I have climbed Pacaya twice when it was active pretty interesting to be on a volcano while it is erupting, it is dormant now after a big eruption a couple of years back but Fuego the 12000 foot Volcano has been active a lot in the last 5 weeks so we just step outside and watch it erupt. Plus we are getting a lot of Earthquakes in the 4 to 5 range a 5.7 last week, just enough to get your attention but no damage or injuries.
    We are pretty spoiled! I walk past Pappy’s almost everyday I will have to try it, thanks. safe travels.

    • Jon Algie
      December 15, 2015 at 12:00 am — Reply

      Thanks Dave. We were there in April and it was hazy more than cloudy, I guess that happens at the end of dry season though. It was worse at Lake Atitlan, I really need to go back there one day because I didn’t see it at its best. Antigua is definitely a place I’ll return to, really hope to see Fuego in action!

  3. December 14, 2015 at 11:33 pm — Reply

    I love that you wrote this article. I am Guatemalan born but raised in USA. Antigua is my favorite and go back to it each time I visit. It’s gorgeous and so inviting. One day I will stay!

    • Jon Algie
      December 15, 2015 at 12:01 am — Reply

      Thanks for reading Leslie, staying in Antigua sounds like a great plan!

  4. Bee
    December 15, 2015 at 12:33 am — Reply

    Hi I’m a Guatemalan born
    But I have been living in the states for the past 25+ years. I go back to Guatemala every year in always go to Amtigua This place keeps bringjng you back time after time. I normally stay in Casa Santo Domingo is a great hotel it just to be a convent back in the 1800 and now is a 5 star hotel my wife loves it there.
    Guatemala is made in my opinion for people that are adventurist is so manny places to see and enjoy. I have climb some of those volcanos and I’m telling you is brat taking specially if you spend he night camping there. The pacaya volcano is great specially when you climb it and is active you get to see this river of lava right by your feet is awesome. Thanks for writing this article I enjoyed reading it.

    • Jon Algie
      December 17, 2015 at 4:38 pm — Reply

      Yeah we really should have hiked up a volcano. We were put off by the haze (thought we wouldn’t see much at the top), will definitely do it next time!

  5. JP Lennon
    December 15, 2015 at 2:47 am — Reply

    Great positive article. Lived in La Antigua October 14 to April 15 so I know the good, the bad and the ugly. CERTAINLY A LOT OF NATURAL BEAUTY. Photographer’s paradise. Last mayor and his team in jail for fraud. Regular people are friendly and helpful, if not always knowledgeable. Very polite. Foreigners like living here and can successfully transition. Indigenous people are the poorest and at the bottom of the class system. The vendors in stall or walking want you to buy but will not harrass. Everything you said is true

    • Jon Algie
      December 17, 2015 at 4:39 pm — Reply

      Thanks JP, it’s good to get a picture of what Antigua is like for expats.

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