Tour Leader Pete Selman takes us on a city tour of Antigua
Antigua, a former regional capital during the Spanish colonial period, was chosen by readers of Wanderlust magazine as the most beautiful city in the world in 2009, lofty status for a small Central American city of around 40,000 people. It is dramatically surrounded by three towering volcanoes and has been flattened on three separate occasions by earthquakes.
The imposing highland scenery provides an idyllic backdrop, and the climate of eternal spring is very agreeable, but the city's real beauty lies in the immaculately preserved colourful colonial houses, the elegant tree-lined plazas, the imposing churches, and the horse-drawn carriages that trundle along quaint cobblestoned streets seemingly from a bygone era.
Get up early and stroll down to Parque Central for breakfast in the quaint Cafe Condesa (I recommend the pancakes), before joining Elizabeth Bell's tour at 9.30am, which leaves from the fountain in the centre of the plaza. Bell has written six books on Antigua and is an endless source of information. Her tremendously informative 3-hour walking tour takes you behind the colonial facades and walls of the city, showing you some majestic ruins inside the Cathedral, and on to a fascinating museum with Mayan artefacts inside the elegant Casa Santo Domingo.
Now you've got your bearings, head for lunch on the roof terrace of Tre Fratelli (6 Calle Poniente no. 30), a very good Italian restaurant with stunning views of the nearby volcanoes. Keep an eye on Volcan de Fuego ('Volcano of Fire'), which is constantly active at a low level, and regularly puffs out small clouds of smoke.
After lunch, take a stroll up to the local market, full of vibrant Mayan colour, which offers the perfect opportunity to snap up some souvenirs. Bargaining is par for the course here. Keep an eye out for the preferred form of local transport leaving the bus station next door – the chicken buses. These are old American school buses painted every colour under the sun and packed to the rafters with locals (and sometimes chickens). Although the local authorities have worked hard in recent years to make the city safer for tourists, I'd still recommend taking care in this part of town.
After shopping, hail a tuc-tuc (local taxi) and rattle along the cobblestones to Calle del Arco, Central America's prettiest street, whose iconic landmark is a colonial arch connecting two parts of an old convent. This street is full of lively bars, small markets and jade shops, selling fine local jewelry, and the street connects Parque Central with La Merced, perhaps the finest colonial church in the city.
If it looks like there's going to be a nice sunset, stroll down the cobblestoned streets (or take a horse and cart from outside the cathedral on the main square) to Cafe Sky (1st Av and Calle 6), a small rooftop bar with more excellent views, for a 'michelada' - a local beer cocktail with lime, Tabasco, and tomato juice.
For dinner, Antigua is bursting at the seams with fantastic restaurants and lively bars where travellers mix with the local jet set (the modern capital is a 45-minute drive away). My favourites are listed at the bottom of the page.
For breakfast, try Dona Luisa's café (Calle Oriente 4a), a cute patio serving huge portions of fresh fruit and local dishes, along with bread fresh from the bakery next door. I recommend the fruit salad with granola, although it's enough for two people.
After seeing Antigua's most elegant churches and colonial buildings on day one, you have several options on your second day. If you're feeling energetic, join a tour climbing one of the local volcanoes. Pacaya, an hour's drive from Antigua, is the safest, and perhaps the easiest climb (at a mere 8,373 feet, it’s considerably lower than Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, all over 12,000 feet), despite being one of the world's most active volcanoes. A challenging 2- to 3-hour climb will take you as close as you can get to the top. I'd recommend Old Town Outfitters (5th Av Sur 12) as an agency to arrange the hike through.
If you want a more leisurely leg-stretch, try joining one of the walks up to Cerro La Cruz, a nearby hill with great views of the city and the volcanoes. For reassurance, these walks are escorted by the tourist police at 10am and 3pm daily, leaving from near the local market. Other options include visiting some of the small Mayan villages around Antigua or a local coffee farm.
But all that said, perhaps my favourite way to take in Antigua's colonial ambience is simply to take a good book to a nice cafe, sit in the quiet patio next to lilac jacaranda and beautiful bougainvillea, order a mug of coffee and a slice of cake, and read to the gentle sound of the fountains in the background. As well as Cafe Condesa and Dona Luisa's, I'm fond of La Cenicienta. Antigua's best cake is hotly contested, but my vote goes to Condesa's New York Cheesecake.
WHERE TO EAT IN ANTIGUA
Although pricey, Casa Santo Domingo is a beautiful hotel built around the ruins of what was one of Latin America's grandest convents that sheltered the followers of Santo Domingo del Guzman. The candle-lit atmosphere at dinner, with resident mariachis serenading diners and top quality cuisine make this well worth the splurge. The 13-course taster menu, at around $35US a head, is highly recommended. 3rd Calle Oriente no. 28.
La Fonda de la Calle Real is a favourite with locals and tourists alike, offering top notch Guatemalan cuisine in a quaint colonial patio adorned with hanging baskets. Bill Clinton dined here. There are three branches of this restaurant, the best of which is situated on 3rd Calle Poniente no.7.
Mesón Panza Verde (meaning Green Belly, a nickname given to the locals due to the vast quantity of avocado they eat) offers another beautiful candle-lit dining experience under colonial arches. This is Guatemala's most romantic restaurant, and is where young Guatemalan men take their sweethearts to ask for their hand in marriage. 5th Av Sur no. 19.
Ni Fu Ni Fa – an Argentinean restaurant offering some of the best steak in Central America. 3rd Calle Oriente no. 21.
Frida's – a Mexican-style restaurant bar with huge murals of Frida Kahlo paintings offering delicious plates of nachos, chilaquiles and enchiladas, served up with mojitos or margaritas. Next to the Arch.
La Casa de Don Rodrigo – located near the arch, this elegant colonial courtyard offers more tasty local food with live marimba music.
Monolocos – a hugely popular sports bar, famous for the biggest and best nachos with guacamole in the world. A feast for three or four people. Just south of the main square – 5th Av Sur no. 6.
When to go - Antigua is Latin America’s prime destination for the Semana Santa celebrations at Easter, when this enchanting city comes alive with clouds of incense and costumed religious processions of the Santa Crucis, or Stations of the Cross. Huge floats of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ are carried over colourful streets covered with pretty mosaic alfombras – carpets made out of sawdust or flowers – to the sound of Latin litanies. Ask the friendly people at Tivoli Travel (Calle 4 Oriente No.10) if they’ll let you help them make their alfombra, so you’ll really feel like a local!
- Antigua is around 5,000 feet above sea level, not high enough for any altitude sickness, but high enough to mean the temperature can drop quickly late in the afternoon, so take a sweater out with you. Also, make sure you use plenty of sun cream as you'll burn quicker at altitude.
- Don't rely on withdrawing money from an ATM at weekends, when the city fills with visitors from the nearby capital, or during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. The ATMs are likely to be empty so stock up on cash in advance.
- Women may want to avoid wearing heals in Antigua, as the quaint cobblestones weren't designed for fashionable footwear.
- Elizabeth Bell’s tours leave from the fountain in the centre of Parque Central at 9.30am on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and her experienced colleagues guide groups at 2pm on Monday and Thursday.