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)
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)
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.
There’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).
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
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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