Among the most visited places in the Central American nation of Guatemala is the city of Antigua. A little-known fact is that the official name of the city is actually Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago Caballeros de Guatemala; however, due to the fact that its official name is unnecessarily long, the city is known colloquially as Antigua. The city served as the capital of the Spanish Captaincy General of Guatemala starting in 1541 after the country was invaded by Spanish conquistadors. However, the capital was moved after the earthquakes in Santa Marta decimated the city in 1776.
Despite the earthquakes, Antigua is still one of the best places in Central America to see Spanish Baroque architecture with New World Baroque facades. The city is full of ruins of old Catholic churches, vibrant parks with merchants selling various handicrafts, and dazzling modern restaurants that blend Guatemalan and foreign cuisines.
If you’re planning a trip to Antigua, I’d highly recommend that you spend at least a week in this quaint colonial town. There are so many fantastic cultural and natural sites to visit in the area that you’ll need a solid chunk of time to get a sense of Antigua’s magic. So, in order to get you started on your journey around Antigua, I’ve put together a list of the # best things to do in Antigua.
1. Acatenango Volcano Hike
As you walk around the city of Antigua, you might look up and see a series of mountains. And, if you look up at the right time, you might see one of those mountains spit out a plume of smoke. That’s Volcan Fuego, the most active volcano in the region that still pushes out ashes and smoke fairly regularly. In fact, Volcan Fuego erupted as recently as 2018 when it killed at least 190 people. So, if you’re willing to get up close and personal with a notoriously deadly volcano, then you’ll need to find a tour company that will take you up there. However, it’s technically illegal to hike on Volcan Fuego.
Luckily, there’s another volcano nearby that you are allowed to climb called Volcan Acatenango. Acatenango is also an active volcano, but it’s far less active than Volcan Fuego. Most of the tour companies that allow you to summit Acatenango will do so over the span of two days. On the first day, you’ll hike up to a base camp. Then, you’ll wake up before the sun and hike to the peak of Acatenango where you’ll see the sunrise glinting off of Volcan Fuego. This hike is one of the most incredible things that you should do around Antigua. So, if you’re physically capable and willing to take a risk, you should definitely try to hike Acatenango.
2. Hotel Casa Santo Domingo
If you want a safer and more mild-mannered adventure, then head over to Hotel Casa Santa Domingo and walk around the grounds. This hotel was built on the grounds of the old Santo Domingo Monastery, which traces its roots all the way back to 1538. And, despite the fact that many earthquakes caused a lot of damage to the structures of the monastery, many of the structures managed to survive and were incorporated into the construction of the hotel. Truly, it feels as if you’re walking around an archaeological site rather than a hotel when you enter Hotel Santo Domingo.
You can walk around the grounds for free, admire the old architecture and immaculate landscaping, and even say hello to their pet parrots. You might also want to make a reservation at their restaurant Santo Cielo, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. They’ll take you in a shuttle bus up to the restaurant where you can soak up the beautiful view and dine on some of the best food in Antigua.
3. Visit Chichicastenango Market
The city of Chichicastenango is a drive of about two hours from Antigua, most of which is uphill. The city sits at an elevation of 1,965 meters and has a relatively small population, but it’s also home to one of the largest and most colorful outdoor markets in all of Latin America. You can get there via the public bus or by booking a private shuttle; however, getting a private shuttle is definitely easier and more time-efficient if you don’t mind spending extra money. It’s also worth getting there early because the market tends to wind down around the mid-afternoon.
Once you arrive in Chichicastenango, you’ll find that the entire town is buzzing and all of the streets have been consumed by street vendors selling everything you could possibly imagine. However, visitors are typically drawn toward the traditional Mayan textiles, the hand-carved wooden utensils, the intricate jade jewelry, and, of course, the street food. Don’t be afraid to skip breakfast before you go; you’re definitely going to want to try a tamale.
4. San Francisco Church
One of the things that makes Antigua so unique is the fact that its streets are lined with the ruins of gorgeous churches and monasteries. The most famous religious site in the city, though, is probably San Francisco Church. That’s because the church is home to a statue of Peter of Saint Joseph Betancur, a major Spanish missionary who aided in bringing Christianity to Guatemala. He is entombed in the church and thousands of people visit the church every year to beg his spirit for miracles and forgiveness.
If you aren’t particularly interested in speaking with the spirit of Peter of Saint Joseph Becantur, it’s still worth visiting San Francisco Church for the incredible display of Spanish-American Baroque architecture. The building features amazon twisted columns and 16 different niches, each of which contains an intricately carved statue of a saint or friar.
5. Pacaya Volcano Hike
Volcan Acatenango and Volcan Fuego certainly aren’t the only active volcanoes in the region around Antigua. If you drive about two hours out of the city, you can find yourself at the base of Volcan Pacaya. The trek up Volcan Pacaya is fairly short and you have to have a guide with you by law. However, the reason that this hike is so popular is that this volcano has minor eruptions frequently.
If you go at the right time, you may be able to hike up the mountain alongside a small river of lava. Another one of the most popular things to do at Volcan Pacaya is to bring marshmallows and roast them with the heat emanating from the ground.
6. Cerro de la Cruz
No travel guide would be complete without a recommendation for the best place to watch the sunset. In the case of Antigua, that place is a small park called Cerro de la Cruz. To get to the park, you’ll need to take a short, 30-minute walk up a hill from the center of the city. So, make sure you time your ascent correctly so that you’ll be able to see the sunset from one of the park’s benches.
This park features a massive cross that you can see from almost anywhere in the city. So, if you want to find your way to Cerro de la Cruz, just walk around Antigua until you see the big, white cross on the hill, and then just keep walking that way.