I Still Don’t Know How I Feel About Antigua, Guatemala

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Kate in Antigua Guatemala

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I’m the kind of person who connects with a destination in two ways: fiercely, or not at all. Which is why I felt bewildered after my two trips to Antigua, Guatemala, over the past few months. I’m still not sure how I feel about this city.

I like it very much. And I also don’t. Antigua feels more like a collection of little feelings. I love the hole-in-the-wall eateries. I don’t like how it doesn’t feel safe at night. I love the colors and architecture. I don’t like the roughly cobbled streets. I love how it both feels so Guatemalan but you can get a bowl of kimchi stew if you feel like it, and I don’t like how the tourism seems dominated by big bus tours.

I had such a great time there, and yet I have zero urge to return.

Antigua was the shortest destination stop on our tour — we spent only two nights there as opposed to three or four in the other towns. We spent our one full day with a packed itinerary: touring the whole town, eating in a secret restaurant, taking salsa lessons, hitting up the nightlife. Leif gave the tour; I gave photography tips.

My friend Alex wrote about feeling a general malaise in Guatemala. I understand where she’s coming from, but I was blown away by Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey — clearly it wasn’t a Guatemala thing for me, but an Antigua thing.

Should you go to Antigua? Of course you should! I wouldn’t tell anyone not to go. It’s an important destination in Guatemala, and who knows? You might love it. But I’d caution against making it the centerpiece of your trip. Plan a lot of time on Lake Atitlan instead.

Months later, I’m still not sure quite how to put Antigua into words. So I’ll let my pictures do the talking.

Antigua Guatemala

Antigua is famous for its architecture, and here’s the best known landmark in the city: Santa Catalina Arch. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the most photographed spot in Guatemala.

Antigua Guatemala

Antigua is a city built for wandering. There aren’t so many must-see destinations to check off; just meander around the city, checking out churches and parks and pretty streets.

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Very pretty, don’t you think?

Antigua Guatemala

The first thing that struck me about Guatemala was how colorful it was. Go souvenir shopping and you’ll see it!

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While you can do a lot of shopping in Antigua, I recommend waiting until you get to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan if possible. You’ll find very similar stuff for much lower prices.

Antigua Guatemala

Every Central American city has its own central park. Here is Antigua’s, complete with fountains and jacaranda trees.

Chicken Buses Antigua Guatemala

Keep your eye out for chicken buses! Yes, they’re old school buses from the U.S., given a bright and fiery makeover.

Antigua Guatemala

Hitting up the local market — not the tourist souvenir market, but the real market — is one of my favorite things to do in a new city. Antigua’s is one of the better ones I’ve seen.

Tip: if you love chia seeds, this is a great place to buy them. You can get a good-sized bag for about two dollars, which is a fraction of what you’d pay in the U.S.

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The produce here? Outstanding. Yeah, the avocados might be smaller than what you’re used to, but they are so much fresher and riper and juicier than what you’d have at home.

Antigua Guatemala

Cerro de la Cruz (hill of the cross) is a must! You’ll find the best view in the city here, crowned by Volcán de Pacaya in the distance.

Take a tuk-tuk if you’re feeling tired; it’s a robust walk uphill. Downhill is super easy.

Guatemalan Pepian

Central America isn’t home to the most exciting cuisine in the world (you’ll be eating a ton of rice and beans), but I fell in love with the pepián — a thick meat stew with vegetables.

This was served in a hidden restaurant in the back of a tienda. I’m not telling you where it is. It deserves to remain a secret. Come on a tour sometime and I’ll take you there!

Antigua Guatemala

A Word on Safety

While I felt very safe in Central America for the most part, I did not feel safe at night in Antigua. Men would often lean out of cars and yell at our all-girl group as we were walking down the street. A friend who had been drinking was attacked and robbed. Even the night security guard at the hostel wouldn’t let me step outside at 3:00 AM until my shuttle arrived, saying it was “poquito peligroso.”

I felt safe during the day, but I urge you not to walk alone at night, especially if you’re a woman, and don’t get too drunk before walking home, even in a group. The streets of Antigua are deserted at night, except for late-night stragglers, which is not a good thing.

Again — daytime is fine; nighttime is when you need to be extra cautious.

Essential Info: In Antigua I stayed at Posada de San Carlos, a lovely hostel with a beautiful courtyard and rooftop terrace. Great coffee, too. Say hi to Thor the adorable husky puppy (though he’s probably a big dog now!). Dorms from $10, doubles from $40. You can find the best prices on other accommodation in Antigua here.

There are two restaurants I’ll recommend publicly: for traditional Guatemalan food, Restaurante Delicias Chiapinas. Their chicken soup is so good; get it with your entree. You might want to avoid using the bathroom (trust me). For international food, I had a really nice kimchi stew at Korean restaurant Miso.

We took both our groups for a salsa dancing lesson at New Sensations. Both Nancy and Frank are amazing teachers. Contact them for a quote at [email protected]

I had some crazy nights out in Antigua! If you’re there on a Tuesday, go to ladies’ night at Monoloco. Ladies get 5q ($0.60) drinks all night! (Sorry, dudes, you’ve got to pay full price.) Also, you MUST try their nachos — they are HUGE (roughly the size of a newborn baby) and delicious! Another fun spot is the Lucky Rabbit a few doors down, a gringo bar with giant jenga and ping pong. Once you’re ready to dance (especially on a Tuesday), head to Sin Ventura for live salsa music and dancing. It lies between Monoloco and the Lucky Rabbit.

Be sure to get travel insurance before you head to Guatemala. It will protect you in case anything goes wrong! I use and recommend World Nomads.

Have you ever been to a destination that perplexed you?

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50 thoughts on “I Still Don’t Know How I Feel About Antigua, Guatemala”

  1. Hi Kate!

    I really like your blog and have been following you for quite some time but I have never comment on one of your posts. I figured since you are in Central America and I have a Central American back ground this post would be a good one to jump in on.

    Central America, from what I remember and what I still hear about today, has been plagued with civil war and violence since the 1980’s. I know this because my mother was a refugee from El Salvador in the 80’s. I used to visit Central America often as a kid but I remember my mother always being very strict about leaving our particular pueblo. “muy peligroso” she would always say to me as well.

    I’m sure you have seen so many beautiful things in Central America because the people are so sweet and the culture is so rich. Not to mention the delicious Pupusas and Empanadas. If you haven’t tried them yet, you need to.

    What I learned in El Salvador is that Tourists are usually never bothered unless they are doing something they arn’t supposed to be doing or out late at night. But the big cities will always be the more dangerous places because for multiple reasons. The best way to see Central America is like a local. Speaking the language and immersing your self in the culture by getting away from the touristy activities like bus tours will give you a chance to see the real side of this amazing region.

    Sadly I have not been back to Central America since 2002 but Its definitely on my list for 2016.

    I hope you enjoy your time in Central America and live it up. Pura Vida!

    Jeremy Abeyta

  2. Hey Kate, thanks for being so honest about your impression of Antigua. I’m always bothered when I read raving reviews from blogs that seem misplaced or phony. Nothing wrong with being open about it! I can still see reasons to visit Antigua but now I know to keep it short and head for Lake Atitlan!

    1. That’s what I do! You get honesty here on this site, no matter what! The truth is that I do love most places, and I do rave a lot, but there are some places that just don’t connect with me.

  3. Understand your dilemma. I spent a month in Antigua in Fall 2013 & hated it. Went back August 2014 and had a better experience (probably because it was obviously the low season – significantly less foreigners and fewer crowds). Agree with your comment about things changing at night. During my last visit, I specifically picked a hostel near a bar I liked so I could walk 1/2 block ‘home’ if I was going to stay out late.

  4. Hi Kate!

    The title of this blog made me super sad but I appreciate your honesty. I spent 3+ weeks in Antigua last summer during a study abroad program in law school and I fell in love! Although we did do an excursion every weekend (Lago Atitlan, the beautiful and deserted beach town of Montericco, and hiking Pacaya (did you do this? next trip you should!), there is still plenty to do in Antigua that is worth mentioning. Although Antigua does fall victim to many tourists, there are still a lot of hole in the wall restaurants that tourists have not found and are amazing. I know exactly what hidden restaurant you found and I am SO glad that you did! I would recommend next tour you do to spend a day with the group hiking Pacaya. It is a mission getting to the top but SO worth it! and you get to roast marshmallows on a lava bed…how awesome! If you plan on going back to Antigua on your next tour, feel free to email me and I would gladly send you some suggestions on eateries/places to shop that haven’t been bombarded by tourists.

    Love your blog and hope to one day attend one of your tours!

    1. Hey, I didn’t hate it! 🙂 I liked it, I really did. There were just several aspects that I didn’t like as well. But I had a great time there both times. One of the best nights ever was salsa dancing at Sin Ventura with my friends!

  5. I kind of felt that way about Toulouse, France. It really is beautiful when the sun sets on the rosy buildings, and the canals are lovely, but I didn’t enjoy the nightlife and my best friend and I could not go one city block without getting cat-called, murmured at, or even grabbed. And, through no fault of its own, it was hot as anything the entire time, which just made us miserable (and we’re from the desert – we know hot! It was just so sticky). It is a confusing place for me, and I don’t know if I want to go back to try it again.

  6. It definitely looks gorgeous. But I can totally understand feeling a bit “meh” about it after reading about your experience. I don’t like empty streets at night either!!

  7. Thanks for the shout out, girl. I loved Atitlan as well, but I could not have felt more “meh” about Semuc.

    The more I reflect on my Guatemala feelings, the more I realize my perception of my safety — and those damn cobblestones — shaped my experience. My expat friend that I was staying with (who has lived on and off in Antigua for over 8 years) did not let me walk alone at night, even offering to pick me up from Zumba class so I wouldn’t have to walk a few block on my own. It definitely put me on edge!

  8. Haven’t felt unsafe at any moment, but maybe that’s because I got used to cat calls in Nicaragua and I got robbed there too. The only thing I was afraid of could happen was getting abducted or raped :’) but nothing happened. Wandered the streets without anything happened to me. I loved Antigua! It’s versatile, beautiful, lovely climate, all the beautiful volcanoes surrounding it and it’s close to Atitlan <3

  9. I still feel this exact way about Hanoi. At the time I didn’t love it. A few months later, I’m looking at it a bit more fondly but still don’t feel strongly one way or another. After seeing a few other cities in Vietnam it grew to be my favorite of those that I visited but it’s still a far cry from being one that I think about longingly. During the day, I enjoyed wandering around and seeing the architecture and sights but at night I hated the vibe. The streets had this air about them they gave me the heebie jeebies.

  10. When I looked at the titled, I guessed wildly that the post was going to something very similar. I was sure when i continued reading. This post reminds me exactly like how i feel about Boston. Ditto. I’m pretty sure every traveler comes across places such as this one. 🙂 I appreciate your honesty, by the way.


  11. It’s so funny reading this because I felt the exact opposite about Antigua and Atitlan! I didn’t feel very safe in Atitlan (we were offered heroin and other drugs in Pana and San Pedro, even midday!) but felt quite safe in Antigua, although we took tuk tuks at night. I really enjoyed Antigua and felt there were a lot of great day trips from there…Volcan Pacaya is the best excursion in Guatemala! But then again it’s been several years since I’ve been and maybe things have changed. Your post has made me want to go back to see it all again!

  12. I loved Antigua and have been there a dozen times. It takes a certain personality to appreciate a unique place like that and is not for everyone. There is no reason to feel compelled to love or hate any place. Just enjoy it and have a great time. Not sure why people feel the need to rate and compare everything in life. Atitlan and Antigua are very different places like comparing apples to oranges. They are different fruits. Both have great qualities so enjoy them both!

  13. Love your honesty Kate. And I swear there is nothing better than local farmers markets to truly get a sense of the culture and lifestyle <3 anyways appreciate the honesty and if anything, it looks gorgeous!

  14. Those are indeed fantastic pictures and guides. I haven’t visited Antigua, but you maybe convinced me to think about my next destination. I wish you all the best, and I expect more articles like this one. Thanks

  15. I love it when bloggers are honest!
    There is no way that you can “love” everywhere you’ve been, and I appreciate you saying, basically, it just wasn’t my favorite and I have zero desire to go again.
    Regardless, you didn’t slam it, and offered beautiful pictures and relavant information for those who are thinking about going.
    Great post Kate!

  16. Hi Kate,

    I really like your blog and website. I went to Costa Rica a month ago and felt okay walking around during the day but would not adventure outside by myself or with friends at night unless we had transportation. I also been to Antigua and agree that day time is safe but night not so much!

  17. Breathtaking photographs. Are you a professional or do just own a fabulous camera?

    Your photos show the warmth of the country. The architecture of the buildings is just beautiful. I like the close ups of the fruit!

    I have travelled once alone and it was not too bad at all. I took the opportunity to get to know the locals and they actually looked out for me. It was an experience I will remember!

    Your blog is awesome!

    1. Thank you! These were taken with my Nikon but I recently switched to a Fuji X-T1. But it’s not about having a good camera — it’s about learning how to take good photos! I’ve had lots of practice and I’m still working on it.

  18. Alex is here with me in Nashville now and we were just talking about this yesterday. Before her time in Guatemala, I warned her: “you’re probably not going to fall in love with it.” And it doesn’t sound like she did either.

    I’ve been twice—once for two weeks, once for just a few days—and both times, I left feeling the same. I wasn’t blown away by either experience and did not think Antigua is all that backpackers make it out to be. The fact that I only heard English spoken the whole time I was there was also a big letdown.

    That said, Atitlan was wonderful and I wish we had ended our trip instead of started it there.

  19. Very interesting post. I’m planning on a couple of weeks in Guatemala during my RTW trip and after reading both your Lake Aititlan town post and this post I’ll probably trust your advice and cut some days off Antigua and spend more time on the Lake.

    You actually aren’t the first person I’ve heard this from. My friend that recently went loved Lake Atitlan but hated Antigua (most fiercely then your simple meh feeling haha). Your advice on safety will definitely come in handy as out of the all the countries I’m going to Guatemala is the one I’m most nervous about safety wise. My friend travelled overland through Africa on local buses and still said the most unsafe she ever felt was in Guatemala.

  20. NoExpectations

    How in the world can you ‘hate’ Antigua? It is a gem of a city with great energy. I’ve lived in many Central American towns and Antigua has the best vibe of the bunch. Lake Atitlan is great too. They are both amazing in different ways. It seems the problem lies with you and your expectations, not the town. I didn’t go there expecting anything and that’s why I love it and plan to go back soon!

  21. Thank you for being honest about your experiences in Antigua. Although there are places I haven’t been as drawn too and wouldn’t visit again, I would still advise people to see it once. I’m glad I read your post to see that I should spend time in other areas when I go to Guatemala.

  22. Love the post I’ve been thinking of visiting Central America, Specifically Mexico and Guatemala. Your Post helped me to plan my trip properly. Thanks for your post, keep em coming.

  23. I love all the colourful rugs and blankets. Very bright! It’s always a pleasure reading your posts Kate. I haven’t yet been to Central America as Asia is more my “thing” however, there was a place that I didn’t quite connect to and that was Singapore.

    From the moment I got there, I knew that it wasn’t the place for me. The sights were lovely of course, and it was safe and clean but I kept bumping into British expats (they were everywhere at one point!), and for the first time ever, found it difficult to get to know the locals. I was utterly surprised as I had just left Hong Kong and had been invited to parties left, right and center. I even gate-crashed some exclusive bashes and it really wasn’t a problem. I was strongly thinking of moving to Hong kong but I had promised to go to Berlin….! I found Singapore to be a disappointment and utterly boring. I’m not rushing but I hope to go back again if only to see whether my opinion is the same.

  24. Thank-you for being so honest about not connecting with Antigua – genuine reviews are so much more appealing to read and i love that your blog is always written honestly xo

  25. I also have mixed feelings about Antigua. I had a great time making Chocolate at the Choco Museum and walking around the main part of the city. But I also had a very bizarre incident in one of the ruins where I was essentially groped by a man, that really freaked me out, so I stopped walking around on my own, even during the day.

  26. Thank you very much for this (and all your posts) on Antigua and Guatemala. I am making the country a stop on my RTW tour later this year and I think Guat will be one of the biggest culture shocks for me. It’s good to come prepared and to curb my expectations. I’ll be traveling solo (eek) but am not a party person and generally quite cautious. I wonder if I’ll be too cautious, actually. Has the supposed machismo culture in the Latin America affected your travels at all?

  27. This is a great take on Antigua. I feel in love with the city but as time passes I believe it is because it was the first International trip I took by myself & the people there were so friendly I have a hard time saying anything bad about Antigua… I think my passion for Antigua comes from this

    That being said, the walking alone at night is a HUGE no no. Over my week stay there I heard about three muggings, which is insane, because during the day I never felt unsafe. It really is night & day.

    Thanks for writing, I am just in love with your blog!

  28. Nice tips, I visited Antigua back in 2003 and thought it was lovely, even though I didn’t have much time to explore. I had that impression too, that its one of those cities that become so touristy and full of big bus tours that they kind of lose a little of their charm and safety (like Cuzco and San Cristobal de Las Casas, for example).

    I am visiting Guatemala again in January and I am wondering how much should we stay in Antigua. I had a glimpse last time, so I guess I would stay less, but it would be first time for my husband. I was thinking 2 nights are enough (arrive on saturday and leave monday). Does it sound good? I would love to visit Semuc Champey, but I guess one week is too little to visit that along with Antigua, Atitlan and Tikal.

  29. Well written review. I run a not for profit based in the southeastern part of Guatemala. My trips to Antigua are for the purpose of “decompressing” after a week to ten days of living in the not for tourist part of the country.

    I love the history of Antigua. One of the Conquistadors, Bernal Díaz, is buried in one of the ruined churches in Antigua.

    My family once owned the land where the Cerro De la Cruz is located. The Guatemalan government confiscated the land and our fincas because we were supposedly allies of the Axis. What was left was taken by the Commies in the late 1940’s.

    Even so, I still enjoy relaxing in Antigua while resenting what was done to our family in the past.

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