From staying in a hobbit hole to toasting marshmallows over hot lava, here are the top 10 things to do in Antigua! I’m positive you will fall in love with this colonial town and all its quirks.
I was fortunate enough to spend two-and-a-half weeks backpacking across Guatemala. Between its nature and history, I was smitten by Antigua, a colonial town that exudes excitement. There are many things to do in Antigua. Whether it be wandering its historic city center or hiking the nearby volcanoes, it’s very easy to be charmed by the town’s colorful buildings and ancient ruins.
From morning walks along the cobble-stone roads to afternoon chats in one of the many homey cafes, the Antigua is perfect for those looking for some downtime. Otherwise, climb one of its nearby volcanoes or hike to the famous Cerro de la Cruz for a more active alternative!
1. Explore Church Ruins
Wendy from Nomadic Vegan
The colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala is full of churches and convents, many of which were destroyed by earthquakes and now lie in ruins. Antigua has suffered several earthquakes over the years, but the one that nearly wiped out the town completely was the 7.5 magnitude Santa Marta earthquake in 1773.
Almost every building in the town was destroyed by that earthquake and its numerous aftershocks. Some have lain in ruins ever since, with others have been at least partially restored.
In total there are more than 30 churches and convents scattered around the town. The most noteworthy ones include the Church and Convent of Santa Clara, the Church, and Convent of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, the Cathedral of Santiago, the Church of San Francisco and the ruins of Las Capuchinas. The latter is now the headquarters of the Council for the Restoration and Preservation of Antigua. Restorations of this ruined church and convent began in 1943 and are still ongoing today.
Nuestra Señora de la Merced is one of the few churches in Antigua that escaped damage during the 1773 earthquake. However, it was forced to close when the capital was moved from Antigua to Guatemala City, and much of its statuary was relocated. Its yellow Baroque façade is one of the most iconic images of Antigua.
One of my personal favorites is the Church and Convent of la Compañía de Jesús. It was built in 1561 but did not officially open as a functioning church until 1626. Nowadays, from the outside, it looks like it’s completely in ruins, but on the inside, it’s been converted to an exhibition space for photography, painting and sculpture exhibits.
Antigua is an extremely walkable town. Most attractions in this UNESCO World Heritage site are only minutes apart. However, do prepare yourself with some comfortable shoes, as the cobble-stone roads can be quite hard on your feet.
Although I had Google Maps in one hand, after two days in the town, I realized that I could wander around without the worry of getting lost. I often took small alleyways and side streets only to circle back to the Central Park within a short amount of time.
During my short time there, I became fascinated by the space behind the wooden doors of Antigua’s beautiful colonial houses. There are so many doorways that lead towards a world unknown. Bars and shops, fancy restaurants and open courtyards, lavish hotels and upscale boutique are some of the many hidden gems tucked away along the streets.
My friend decided to show me a hotel near the town center. We walked along a small street and stepped inside a regular wooden door. At first, I wasn’t fazed by the long corridor and the braided branches that acted as a green curtain. But once we passed the corridor, I was taken aback by the spacious layout. Expecting to find a small boutique, I was welcomed with an open yard, a museum, and an upscale restaurant. We continued onwards. In the backyard, I found myself in a well-kept garden with swings and parrots, an archeological site, and another out-door restaurant. And all of this behind a small wooden door!
3. Hike to Cerro de la Cruz
Pubali and Indranil from Paradise Catchers
Antigua is a picturesque town, an hour drive from Guatemala that takes you down the colonial era with its cobbled street, colonial-style buildings, and churches. Cerro de la Cruz provides a panoramic view of Antigua from up a hill at the northern end of the town.
If you choose to hike, the base is a 10-15 minutes’ walk from the town center. The base starts just after the residential area ends. It is an easy hike, which takes another 10-15 minutes along a paved road. The other option is to drive all the way up or hire a tuk-tuk.
The mountaintop has a huge cross, originally built in 1930. From here, you can enjoy the view of Antigua with the cross in the foreground, and the Volcan de Agua as the backdrop. With this setting, Cerro de la Cruz looks like the ‘guardian’ of the town. The place has a thick wall, ideal to sit, relax, and feel the serenity.
If you are already familiar with the important sights of Antigua, here is a chance to test your knowledge. Many of the city’s attractions can be spotted from this height. The squared crisscross streets, the church tops, the colored buildings, and the volcanoes. On a clear day, the Volcan de Fuego and Volcan de Acetenango are visible on the right. Sometimes, you can see the activities of Fuego, as it is an active one.
Have a quick snack from the vendors at the top or just simply enjoy the views!
4. Stay at Hobbitenango
Sean from Living Outlau
Looking for a unique experience in Antigua? Then you must visit Hobbitenango! Hobbitenango, or “place of the Hobbis”, is exactly what you think it is, a “The Hobbit”-themed eco-lodge located up in the mountains of Guatemala. Come for a day-trip and enjoy their on-site restaurant with a variety of food and drinks (some named after parts of The Hobbit) made with the freshest local ingredients. After enjoying a delicious meal, go on some nature walks, relax on the hammocks, or participate in games, such as archery, and minigolf.
Hobbitenango has something for everyone. Stay for sunset to have a majestic view of the 5 volcanoes surrounding Guatemala: Agua, Fuego, Acatenango, Pacaya, and Toliman. Hiking Volcano Acatenango is definitely a must-do during your Antigua trip. After sunset, if you have a reservation at one of their two eco-lodges, you can stay for the night. Their eco-lodges, or hobbit holes, go for about US 70+ per night for two people.
If you stay in the eco-lodge, you will be truly embraced by nature. With no WiFi or service, you can spend some quality time with your loved ones.
To reach Hobbitenango, it is best to base yourself out of Antigua. Not only is Antigua the closest city to Hobbitenango, but also there are some amazing things to do in Antigua. Hobbitenango has an office in the city of Antigua that arranges public transportation to its place, otherwise, you could take a taxi or Uber.
One of the best things that I did during my trip in Antigua, Guatemala was hiking Pacaya Volcano. Pacaya is one of main active volcanoes in Guatemala, on which you can often see lava.
For around US 25, you can book a tour. There are usually two tours, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I recommend the afternoon one because you get to see the sunset, which projects beautiful colors on the entire valley below.
The hike up the volcano is not very difficult, but it is uphill all the way and you have to step through volcanic ash, so bring walking sticks and a great pair od shoes. It takes about an hour to reach the caldera of the volcano, produced by previous eruptions. Here, the guide will take out marshmallows and skewers and you can practice roasting them in little holes, using nothing but the steam of the volcano. It is quite impressive!
If you are not a good hiker, you can always rent a horse for another US 11 to take you up the caldera. From there you have to walk, as no animals are allowed inside.
Currently, you can only hike to the caldera, as the path towards the crater of the volcano is closed since Pacaya’s last eruption. The volcano is very active!
The Acatanengo hike is one of my favorite experiences around Antigua. I booked an overnight hike of this 3,976 m giant with a local tour group that cost Q 350. Alongside our guide, my friend and I huffed and puffed up Acatanengo, and welcomed the most beautiful sunrise.
There are many tours that offer hiking packages up Acatenango. Most overnight hikes will include the ride back and forth from Antigua town center, lunch, dinner, camping equipment, and of course, a local guide.
We spent 4.30 hours on the first day up an extremely hilly path. The hike was difficult, but not impossible. After arriving at our camping site, we were set for the night. With the backdrop of the erupting Fuego, we had a few bites, enjoyed the sunset, and went to bed. The next morning at around 3:30 am, we awoke to hike the remainder of the volcano. Since the weather is horrendous at top, it’s not advised to camp directly at the tip of Acatanengo.
This portion of the hike was extremely difficult. There was a short section of semi-paved road and the rest was dirt and stones and debris. I’d step a foot forward and slide three steps back because of the loose volcanic rocks. Mind you, the morning hike was along the cliff, so, much effort was spent not sliding off!
But I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
Visiting a coffee plantation in Guatemala is a must for any coffee lover. Coffee is one of the primary exports of Guatemala and it is the 9th largest exporter of coffee in the world. While it is grown across the country, the rich soils of Antigua, nestled between several volcanoes, is probably the best known of the regions that grow coffee. Guatemala was early in my trip and I loved the coffee so much I carried 2 kilograms of it across Central America and Cuba just to take some home!
Tours to Filadelfia Coffee Plantationcan be booked from any of the multiple travel agents spread around Antigua with an option to add a meal at the plantation restaurant. Guests will be picked up from designated points in a vehicle resembling a safari jeep, and bounce along the short journey to the expansive property just outside of the main town.
As someone who rarely goes without at least once daily, it was fascinating to hear about the life cycle of coffee, from humble beginnings as a seed encased in a berry, to the rich brown goodness in my cup. The tour begins amongst the rows of Coffea plants, where guests are shown how to pick and extract the seeds from the berries, and moves through each stage of the production process, culminating in a tasting. The best time of year to visit the plantation is during the harvest season from November to March.
Antigua is one of the highlights of a visit to Guatemala. It is a picturesque former colonial town with charming, colorful buildings and a shady plaza that is surrounded by smoking volcanoes. It has been the victim of several earthquakes but still retains its charm. There is plenty to do and see in and near Antigua, but one of my favorite things that I did there was to take a chocolate-making workshop.
The ChocoMuseo has interesting displays on the cultivation and processing of chocolate, but it is the most fun to experience it yourself. You start by de-husking the cocoa beans and making a somewhat bitter tea made from the husks. The next step is roasting the cocoa beans, and then grinding them into a paste. This takes some time and patience but is fun to do. With the paste, you will then make two types of hot chocolate to drink. First up, a bitter version in the tradition of the Mayans, who are reportedly the first people who made chocolate out of the cocoa bean. This is definitely an acquired taste! Second up is a more familiar sweeter and creamier “Spanish” version. The workshop culminates in the creation of chocolate candy you can take away with you. You will use molds and natural ingredients to make small chocolate truffles. You can mix and match the ingredients that you like the most, such as cinnamon and cardamom.
A two-hour workshop is US 25. Your truffles and shelled bonbons are ready to pick up and take home an hour or so later when they have cooled and set. This is a fun activity in which you can join in and discover first-hand how chocolate is made.
I love learning about local cuisine wherever I travel, and Guatemala was no different. I didn’t know much about Guatemalan food before arriving in Antigua, so I decided to take a cooking class in Antigua to learn more about Guatemalan food and how to make some traditional dishes.
The cooking classes at La Tortilla Cooking School in Antigua are taught by local women who showed us how to prepare a full Guatemalan meal. Our teacher didn’t speak any English, so a volunteer translator was on hand to repeat everything she said so we could understand. We learned how to make pepian, a traditional chicken stew in a rich sauce made with pumpkin seeds, along with the side dishes of Guatemalan rice, beetroot salad, and hand-made tortillas. For dessert, we made rellenitos, fried plantain balls filled with a rich chocolate sauce, with extra sauce for dipping. None of the food was difficult to make, once we had all the ingredients assembled, although repeating the recipe without access to the spices we used would be quite difficult. Conveniently, the cooking school sold packets of the Guatemalan spice mix which you could take home with you.
All of the food was delicious, I loved the rich pepian sauce, and the chocolate sauce with the rellenitos was divine. The class was about 3 hours long, including the time to eat everything we had cooked at the end of the class, where we all sat together to eat. Free-flowing wine was also included, which was fabulous! Once we’d all eaten as much as we wanted, there was still plenty of food left so we could all take home leftovers for a delicious lunch the following day! That was a really nice touch which doesn’t happen in most other cooking classes I’ve taken.
Guatemala is famous for its handmade indigenous artifacts. If you ever step foot in Antigua or Panajachel, you’d encounter women with baskets of gorgeous scarfs and earrings ready to sell.
During my time in Antigua, I noticed that some vendors can be quite aggressive with their marketing strategy. I’ve been stopped by a few that offered me a reasonable price, only to change it up when I agreed to make a purchase. Then again, it might be my non-existent Spanish causing the misunderstanding.
Nonetheless, these handmade merchandises are great souvenirs. They are also incredible ways to support the local community. Of course, for those that don’t mind spending a few extra dollars, buying products from these women will directly benefit their household wellbeing. For others, the Artisan Market acts as a great alternative.
The Artisan Market is a giant store steps away from the Santa Catalina Arch. Not only does it support local merchants, but it also offers the same merchandise for much cheaper prices. There is a huge variety of traditional clothes, scarfs, toys, and the like. I spent hours marveling at the products offered and bought a number of accessories for an affordable price.
The Artisan Market also has a cafe and a small restaurant at certain hours!
I learned a lot from my first backpacking trip in Central America. Here are some of my top tips to stay safe and have fun in Guatemala. Without a doubt, there are many things to do in Guatemala. Whether it be stay in the beautiful Lake Atitlan, a hike around evergreen Semuc Champey, or a journey through historic Tikal National Park, you will have lots of opportunities to be charmed by life in Guate. I also have a two-week itinerary for Guatemala for those planning a trip!