You might know Guatemala for its coffee, or for its gorgeous towering ancient ruins of Tikal. But there’s a lot to see in this tiny country bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. One of our favorite Guatemalan destinations is Antigua, the old colonial capitol of the country. This charming, bustling city retains much of its colonial charm, while still having its feet firmly planted in the 21st century. Think scores of Internet cafes, lots of affordable spas, yoga classes, and a rapidly increasingly expat population. An extremely popular destination for people looking to study Spanish, the city is taking its place as Guatemala’s true (UNESCO-protected!) cultural capital, full of affordable activities, dining and shopping.
If you are interested in aprendiendo espanol (learning Spanish), we recommend Ixchel Spanish School. Ixchel offers affordable, flexible, one-on-one language instruction for as long or as little as you’re interested. The school can hook you up with a host family or help you connect to local hotels. They also offer cultural activities (tortilla-making class? Sign me up!) and other local excursions so you can have a more authentic Guatemalan experience. Ixchel can set you up with a service project, as well, if you’d like to give back while you vacation.
There’s no way you can visit Central America without picking up some of the incredibly colorful textiles the region is known for. Bags, blankets, scarves and headpieces are sold everywhere in Antigua, all up and down the quaint cobble-stoned streets. You can also purchase incredible wood carvings, tools and local art. Don’t miss the big indigenous market in Antigua, which is open pretty much every day.
If you’re the adventurous type, there are a myriad of travel companies that will set up day trips for you to destinations like the volcano Pacaya. Surf in the ocean alongside the black sandy beaches of Monterrico, visit a coffee plantation, or go fishing on Lake Atitlan. If you’re not the adventurous type, take a stroll around Antigua and visit some of the gorgeous old churches and monuments the city has to offer. There are plenty of modern amenities here, including spas and salons, gyms and even a cinema where you can order drinks and food.
For restaurants, we recommend Rainbow Café : it's a bar, bookstore and eatery(with live music every night of the week). It’s a popular hangout for gringos and the food and drinks’ll run you a bit more than the mom-and-pop places, but the ambience is top-notch and the food is good. The attached bookstore is truly great; I bought and traded so many books during my two weeks there that the bookstore clerk knew me by name! Rainbow Cafe also offers lectures on local culture, history and social issues. Want to go dancing? Head to La Esquina. There is a lively salsa dancing party on both Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the price of admission gets you a free cuba libre (rum and coke).
If you’re interested, you can get a cheap flight from Guatemala City up to Tikal. Take a chicken bus (a local bus so named for the fact that locals often transport their chickens aboard. The buses are all colorfully painted, so you can’t miss them) up to La Capital, grab a quick flight and come back the same day. You can stay overnight near the archaeological park, too. The ruins at Tikal are truly breathtaking and we guarantee you won’t begrudge the time you spent away from Antigua once you see the sun rise over the jungle from the top of an ancient pyramid. Play Indiana Jones as you climb the weathered gray stones and imagine what this area looked like when it was a large urban center of the Mayan civilization.
Want more info about Antigua? Luckily, there are a plethora of English-language websites that cater to the city, including the popular Antigua Daily Photo and Around Antigua.