Antigua is a complex mixture of modern life and tradition thrown into a melting pot, incredible architecture infused with colour, rural landscapes and volcanoes lurking in the background. It’s a popular backpacker destination in Guatemala and most travellers have hiking the famous Acatenango Volcano on their personal bucket lists.
Things to do in Antigua
The Museum Casa del Tejido Antiguo is certainly worth a short visit and was founded by Mrs. Alida Perez who was the ambassador of Mayan culture. The museum is open 9am to 5pm seven days a week. The museum hosts a whole range of embroidery of its textile pieces; made by waist looms, foot looms, and belt looms, manifested through traditional skirts, blouses and other pieces that are displayed to all visitors. You can also dive head first into the experience workshops to fully embrace the Mayan culture.
The markets in Antigua are open 365 days a year and sell everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to shoes and clothing to used goods! They offer a huge array of textures, colours and smells and even if you don’t plan on buying anything, they are a must to visit. To get there you need to head to down 4a Calle Poniente from La Antigua’s Central Park to arrive at Calzada Santa Lucia, which is right by one of the market’s entrances. The great thing about the markets in Antigua is that you don’t get hassled unless you start showing interest in a product. If you are just walking through, the local people won’t be shoving things in your face or trying to attract your attention. You can also haggle well if your Spanish is up to it — don’t feel too bad because the stall owners will never sell something at a loss and are giving you a higher price, because you are a tourist.
Near the bus station, you can find a huge area of the market dedicated to pacas, who sell second-hand goods. Although your typical backpacker doesn’t want to carry on any extra items, it can be quite exciting just browsing what is on offer.
What to eat
If you’re planning on cooking at your hostel, the markets mentioned above have a huge area where the meat sales are located. Wandering through you will see a huge variety of pork, chicken and beef products. Once you get through the hustle and bustle of the meat markets you can find an area called ‘El Tiburoncin’ where you can find pretty much every sea creature our great oceans have to offer.
One of the best places to get some unique unparalleled Guatemalan dishes full of tradition, flavour and history has to be La Esquina in Antigua. You can taste many of the traditional Guatemalan dishes in one of the stations of the Mercadito de La Esquina: el Comedor La Tipica. Here you can try home cooked food such as Jocan, Pepian, Kak Ik or Suban-ik. If you want to try everything, start with the tostadas and work onwards from there.
If you’re missing westernized food and want a taste of home I would suggest Randy’s Sausage. Randy makes all the sausages from scratch and it was the best hot dog I’ve ever had in my life, so I had to drop Randy into the must eats of Antigua. All the buns are locally made that day from the San Martin local bakery just a few blocks away. It’s this sort of local family owned company that I look for when I travel.
Having just mentioned that Randy’s uses San Martin Bakery, it is worth a visit in its own merit! They offer a small menu and have a seated area for guests so it also functions as a café style restaurant. The breakfast is good value for money and the croissants are the best I’ve had outside of Europe.
Where to drink & party
Make sure you are in Antigua for Saturday as each week they have the famous pool party, the shuttle picks you up from the Lucky Rabbit bar and costs 25 Quetzals. The cover to get in is 40 Quetzals. However, if you’re lucky enough to be in Antigua for the monthly mansion party, I would highly recommend this over the pool party. The Mansion party is also on a Saturday, and when it is on, the pool party is not, if that helps with the fear of missing out. The mansion party is guest list only so you will need to be on Facebook and follow the ‘Wizards Collective’ page for information regarding the event, including the email address you have to email for the guest list.
The shuttle to get to the mansion party is from the Doozy Koala Hostel, but it can quickly fill up. It actually worked out cheaper and quicker to round up a few people from the hostel and take an Uber. The event runs from 10am Saturday to 10am Sunday. The mansion party is free entry before 4pm and 50 Quetzals after and 100 Quetzals after 10pm. The parties are usually themed but fancy dress is optional, the one I attended was 80s themed and as I get most my clothes from thrift stores, I didn’t need much preparation.
The party is mostly deep house but they do have some more relaxing music on during the day. The setup is legitimate with some crazy speakers and a light show to go with it. If that wasn’t enough, they even have a short firework display overlooking Guatemala City.
If a twenty-four-hour party isn’t your cup of rum and you fancy some quiet drinks with a view to a kill, then Café Sky is the place for you. The first level bamboo bar has a view of the San Francisco Church and Volcan de Agua. If that isn’t enough to wet your whistle, head up to the third level roof terrace for the full 360-degree view of the whole of Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes and mountains.
Another bar worth checking out is El Barrio. It actually comprises of four different bars with a courtyard in the middle bringing everyone to the same area to socialise and drink in. There is a craft beer bar with a pool table, a whiskey bar and two cocktail bars. There is also a tattoo studio at the back, but I wouldn’t recommend getting inked with alcohol in your blood as the alcohol thins your blood and also clouds your judgment!
Where to stay
Tropicana Hostel – A party hostel, bunk beds stacked three times high but beers are 10 Quetzals during happy hour. The Wi-Fi seemed pretty weak in most places I tried, but it was good enough to send messages or book a hostel. They have a pool inside the hostel just after reception which can be fun when spinning the shot wheel late at night, if you’re brave enough.
Doozy Koala Hostel – A great clean party hostel in town and you can also get the shuttle from right outside to the infamous weekly pool party or the much less frequent, mansion party!
Barbara’s Boutique Hostel – One of my favourite hostels in the whole of Guatemala, definitely not a party hostel, but a great place to escape the party! Free buffet breakfast is included in the price, which does make up for the cost as Barbara’s is a little more expensive than some of the other hostels. The breakfast includes pancakes, granola, honey, fresh fruit, various cereals, and toast with jam and peanut butter. You can also go back for seconds, or even thirds! Barbara’s also has a superb kitchen with all the utensils you can dream of. To top it off, they have free tea and coffee all day and free cake at 5pm every day! Really comfortable beds, with surrounding curtains on all sides! This place feels more like home than a hostel.
The Acatenango hike
Having injured my foot in Flores and having got it infected I was sadly unable to go on the Acatengo hike, but I spoke with some of my friends and other people in the hostels I stayed in and got the low down for three different tour companies.
Acatenango Tour Companies
1. Wicho and Charlie
Experience of by Ben from Canada (Insta Tarzan_boy_qc)
Your day starts off at the office of Witcho and Charlie’s, at 7:30 am; there you are welcomed by the friendly staff for your first included meal of the day. The breakfast consists of a plant-based buffet including pancakes, fresh bread, avocados, maple syrup and fresh fruits. While you’re enjoying your breakfast you’ll be briefed on the hike and then it’s time to gear up. Included in the price are a beanie, a scarf, a buff, gloves, a headlamp and a jacket. If you want, for a few extra Quetzales, you can rent some good hiking poles, thermal layers, warm socks, a backpack and even trekking boots. Note that you have to have 500Q in cash with you to pay the entrance fee of the park.
They strongly advise having a 35L backpack or more because you will have to carry your warm clothes, your gear, the lunch box they provide you with lunch (vegan options available) and snacks for the day and the breakfast for the next morning and also you will have to carry a minimum of 4L of water. Note that out of those 4L, 1L will be shared with the group for the guides to cook and prepare the dinner, the coffees, teas and hot chocolate!
The drive to the entrance of the trail is about an hour long; your group should usually start hiking around 10am. The guides received 2 lessons of English a week at Witcho and Charlie’s office for them to improve their level of English and be able to provide useful information along the trek. O
Around 3.30 pm you should reach the camp. They have two big tents which can house up to 20 people in each camp. There you will find massive tents with camp beds, mountain blankets and a sleeping bag. There’s also a fire pit with plenty of wood and a kitchen for the guides to cook for you later. You will also find games and guitar for the guest to enjoy on top in addition to the comfy chair you’ll use to stare at El Fuego (active volcano). Around 4:30pm you will have to choose between 3 options.
The first one is to rest at the camp because you are exhausted; the second option is to reach the summit for Sunset. The pros of doing sunset summit is that Witcho is one of the few companies that offer you to reach the summit for sunset AND sunrise, doing it on sunset means that there are a lot fewer people at the summit so you get to enjoy it even more. The third option is for the adrenaline seeker: they will offer you to climb El Fuego volcano and get as close as 150 meters from the crater! This hike is an extra 200 Q, they will provide you with extra safety gear, such as a helmet, sealed goggles and a mask just in case the wind starts blowing ashes and dirt in your direction.
When everyone is back, the guides start cooking your included dinner which consists of pasta and tomato sauce with Parmesan cheese. You will also get a glass of red wine and any hot beverages of your choice. The night goes on watching the lava pouring out of the crater while you’re eating marshmallows by the fire. From here, you can either do like I did and stay up all night to see as much as possible OR go to bed to rest for a while. At 4:30 those who want to go to the summit again are more than welcome to do so but it’s not a necessity because the camp is already on the sunrise side so you get to also enjoy it from the comfort of your tent. Around 7-8am the guides proceed to cook the oatmeal for breakfast. Once everyone is done you proceed to descend, it should only take about 2 hours. By 11:30 am you shall be back in the office where a cold Coronita’s are waiting for you. From there you are free, you give back your gear, take a shower and exchange information with your new friends to share 1000 pictures of the volcano.
But why go with that company instead of the others?
They are involved a lot in Antigua’s community; they show it by funding and donating part of their own earning to schools and animal shelters and also to the volunteer firefighters of Antigua or by organizing different activities that will help the environment like trash collecting and etc. They are truly inspiring you may get there as a stranger but sure will leave as a friend.
Experience of Virpi from Finland (Insta wipsu_)
Price 65 USD if booked online. (I believe it is cheaper if you stay at the hostel)
You are picked up between 8 and 9 in the morning and need to carry some of the water up the mountain. You are then given the warm clothes you need for the hike, Boots and walking poles cost extra.
You then drive to the base and you start the hike at around 10am. The group was quite fit and got slightly annoyed at me for taking slightly longer than them, but guides gave regular breaks which allowed me to keep pace and catch up so I was never left alone. Was given a pack and had to carry some of the group water (for cooking) but so did everyone. We got to the camp at around 4pm and rested before dinner. They ask prior to booking and setting off if you have any food allergies or things you can’t eat.
The guides seemed very knowledgeable but only if you engaged with them, which is fair. Everyone went to bed shortly after food and then woke up around 4am for the sunrise summit hike! It was such an incredible experience and would love to do it again someday
3. Soy Tours
Experience of Henry and Euan from England (Insta euanrice)
Price 350 Quetzals per person (cheapest option).
You are picked up 8am and the price includes a meal of either meat or vegetarian option. You then drive to the office where you collect warm clothes and backpack and hat and gloves (you need to ask in advance for the items you need). Boots and walking poles cost extra.
You then drive to the base and you start the hike at 10am. Guides give a lot of breaks so the hike is manageable for all different fitness levels but the guides don’t share too much information along the way. You arrive at Soy’s base camp between 3-4pm where you will have dinner around 6pm and there is a fire pit to sit around and chat with the other hikers. Most people go to sleep around 8pm and then wake up for 4am for the start walking up for the sunrise at 4:30am. Their advice is to bring snacks as there isn’t any food provided at 4am, however, you are fed once you get back down at the end of the hike. You will reach the summit for sunrise and this was one of their best experiences in Guatemala.
How to get to Antigua
Traveling around Guatemala is fairly simple. Most hostels in surrounding towns and cities provide a shuttle service but it will be more expensive than the local chicken buses. Transport Guatemala is a superb website to help you navigate your way around Guatemala using chicken buses. My Spanish isn’t the best, so a handy trick you can use is setting markers on a maps app on your phone so you know when to get off the bus.
Another great website to use for chicken bus routes is Centro Coasting. They don’t actually have a great deal of information on Guatemala, yet, but it is growing. They do however have very detailed guides on most of Central America with pricing information, bus numbers and pick up and drop off points.
Getting to El Salvador from Antigua can be done in a few different ways, the most common are either shuttle buses or local chicken buses. All the shuttle buses only run to either El Tunco or San Salvador, the capital, the cheapest I found was 20 USD.
If you want to visit Juayua in El Salvador, which I recommend, you will need to take chicken buses. It actually isn’t that complicated. First you will need to take a bus from the bus garage near the market in Antigua to Escuintla, Escuintla to the border, then finally Sonsonate to Juayou.
If you want to go to Santa Ana, it’s just one more chicken bus from Juayou.