I had high expectations when I arrived in Antigua. The former capital city of Guatemala is a place that always evokes a positive response when it is brought up in conversations with other travellers.
With this in mind, I presumed there would be hundreds of exciting things to do when I arrived.
But after hiking Volcano Acatenango and walking around the charming streets, I was at a loss as to what else there was to do.
I found Antigua expensive, packed with tourists and relatively uninspiring with American fast-food chains hiding behind historic facades.
Luckily, I had the better part of a month in Antigua, so I eventually got to know the town better and find out what makes it so appealing to visitors. In the end, I wished I could have stayed longer, which seems to be a common trend amongst visitors.
What won me over wasn’t Antigua’s ankle-eating cobblestones, pastel-coloured buildings or vibrant bar scene. Instead, it was the natural and man-made beauty and tranquillity you can find by venturing off the main streets.
Given Antigua’s popularity for all types of travellers, it can be hard to find unique experiences, but here are seven things to do that will see you breaking away from the crowds.
Plan your stay in Antigua
Visit Hobbitenango in the hills above Antigua
Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand. I know this. Everybody knows this.
Lords of the Rings was not filmed in Guatemala.
But don’t tell the Guatemalan people that, as for some reason, a place called Hobbitenango exists high up in the hills overlooking Antigua.
Head to the Hobbitenango Office on the north side of Antigua to purchase a shuttle pass and ticket for $75 Quetzals ($10 USD). Shuttles leave every couple of hours (check the times here) and the drive takes about 20-30 minutes.
It’s best to visit Hobbitenango on a clear day so you can soak in the sunshine and wander around the pristine grounds. Situated at 2,500m in elevation, Hobbitenango looks out over Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes of Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. It’s an ‘I hiked a mountain in Guatemala view’, without actually having to do any hiking.
Naturally, the area lives up to its name with several little Hobbit houses scattered around. You can also stay in these houses overnight which would be incredible, although a tad expensive.
In the past, you were able to pitch a tent overnight on the grounds. This isn’t the case anymore due to some construction work going on, but hopefully, camping is an option again soon.
There are a few restaurants around and heaps of games to play. I visited on a Sunday and there was live music on for most of the day. Food is on the pricey side for Guatemala with most meals around $60-90 Q ($8-12 USD), so factor this in if you are travelling on a tight budget.
Further up the hill from the main buildings are a couple of viewpoints and a nice area full of hammocks for the ultimate in relaxation.
To make the most of your visit, bring a good book, pack some snacks and visit on a weekday when it’s much quieter.
Don’t just hike to Volcano Acatenango, hike to Volcano Fuego
The hike to the summit of Volcano Acatenango is one of the most popular things to do in Antigua. There are not many places in the world where you can climb and camp on a dormant volcano (Acatenango), to watch the spectacular fireworks on the nearby active Volcano Fuego.
What I didn’t realise when I hiked Acatenango was just how close you are allowed to go to Fuego.
If you’re fit and committed, after hiking 5-6 hours and arriving at base camp on Acatenango, you can extend your hike by another three hours by continuing on to a ridge on Fuego itself.
The vantage point from the ridge is only a few hundred metres away from the summit of Fuego, but it feels much closer. Fuego generally erupts every 15-20 minutes so you’re almost guaranteed to see some action.
And as a bonus, if you go on this extra hike around the time of sunset, you will have a wonderful view of Volcano Agua and the volcanoes on Lake Atitlan way in the distance.
Being this close to an active volcano really makes you think, “Is this safe?!”. Especially because the only protection you have against an abnormally large eruption is a bright orange helmet.
Safe or not, seeing an active volcano spew out lava and plumes of ash is a magical and dare I say it, bucket-list experience.
I hiked Acatenango and Fuego with the tour company Wichos and Charlies and they were well-organised and had a very comfortable set up at base camp.
The tour to Acatenango cost $450 Q ($59 USD) and then it was an extra $200 Q ($26 USD) to do the section to Fuego. Expensive on a backpackers budget, but worth it.
There are cheaper tours around in Antigua, so if $450 Q ($59 USD) is too much, visit a few agencies and you should be able to find one for $250-300 Q ($33-39 USD).
If you’re not up for the challenge of Acatenango and Fuego, then Volcano Pacaya is the next best option to get your volcano fix.
Every hostel and tour agency in town offers this hike for around $100 Q ($13 USD). It’s much easier than Acatenango and takes just a couple of hours. While you won’t see eruptions, you will be able to toast marshmallows on active lava.
Take as many free Salsa classes as you can
Free is good. Especially as a backpacker.
While my dance moves are best reserved for a dark corner in a bar or nightclub, I couldn’t pass up giving Salsa a try in Antigua.
New Sensation School has free beginner classes from 5-6 pm every Monday and Tuesday. And when I say free, I mean free, no tip expected.
I went to two of the classes and they were both a whole lot of fun. The instructor spoke Spanish but it was easy to understand everything and the atmosphere was relaxed and enjoyable. The majority of the class were fellow travellers so it was a good place to meet other people.
We would learn a few moves, practise them, and then add on new moves to the sequence. By the end of the lesson I was still awful at dancing, but everyone else in the class looked like professionals.
If you like the lesson then there are more group classes on offer during the week for a fee.
Eat where the locals eat
It can be difficult to find cheap eats in the centre of Antigua, but thankfully, there are two areas designated for street food that will help keep your budget in check.
And both areas are located right next to some of Antigua’s historic buildings, so it’s easy to combine sightseeing with stomach-filling.
In the morning, head to the palm-tree lined Tanque La Union which is near the centre of Antigua. Here you can find baked goods, tamales, fruits and a variety of other breakfast and snack foods.
Find a spot on the lush grass to enjoy your meal. At the far end of the park, you can see a large basin where locals have been coming to wash their clothes for many centuries. In close proximity to the park are the Baroque Merced Church and Convento Santa Clara which are both worth having a look at.
When you’re feeling peckish in the afternoon or evening, go to the Iglesia de la Merced which is right near the Santa Catalina Arch. Out front of the dramatic church is where the street food will be set up. You can find all types of typical and not-so-typical Guatemalan fare here, from pupusas and tortas to ice-cream and other sweet delicacies.
You can also find street food, along with local handicrafts and second-hand clothes, near the main bus station.
Visit the Santa Catalina Arch… at sunrise
Visiting the iconic Santa Catalina Arch is not a unique thing to do. It’s easily the busiest attraction in Antigua and the street is always packed with selfie-stick wielding tourists and local hawkers.
But if you visit at sunrise, you’ll be guaranteed a crowd-free and peaceful experience. Plus, the air is normally less hazy in the early morning so the dramatic backdrop of Volcano Agua is clearer to see.
The Arch was built in the 17th century to connect two convents. Despite Antigua’s devastating history with earthquakes, the Arch has remained standing which is why the locals are so fond of it.
I stopped by the arch at around 6.00 am on a weekday morning and was the only person there. By 6.30 am, a couple more tourists had turned up, and then by 7 am it was business as usual with the street very crowded.
So take my advice and arrive early to the Santa Catalina Arch if you’re after a photograph to remember, or just want to appreciate it without the crowds.
Clear your head at Earth Lodge
Located just below Hobbitenango in the rarefied air above Antigua is Earth Lodge. When the crowds in the centre of Antigua get too much for you, escape here.
There’s tasty food, cool drinks and more board games than you can even contemplate playing in a lifetime. And hammocks. Lots of hammocks.
You can visit for a day or stay overnight in a variety of different accommodation types, from dorm rooms and tents to more luxurious options.
To keep active, there are yoga classes, hiking trails and other wellness activities. However, if you’re like me, once you arrive and see the view, hammock time will win out over being active.
While you can walk to Earth Lodge, it’s easier just to grab an Uber there and back. It should set you back around $30-40 Q ($4-5.20 USD) each way. Earth Lodge has free WiFi which you can use to call your Uber back down the hill.
Get quality without the price
Antigua is blessed when it comes to quality restaurants and it can be overwhelming trying to decide where to eat. To make matters simple here are two places that are affordable and delicious.
For what I would consider Antigua’s best well-priced meal, head to Toku Baru. Serving up a diverse mix of Indonesian, Indian and Middle-Eastern food, paired strangely enough with European beer, Toku Baru is renowned for super fresh food and gigantic portion sizes. Most meals are around $40 Q ($5.20 USD) and you won’t need to eat for a while after going here. Plus it’s vegan and vegetarian-friendly.
And then for one of the best-value restaurants in Antigua, stop by Rincon Tipico near the main square. For only $30 Q ($4 USD), you’ll receive a massive chunk of chicken, salad, potatoes, tortillas and a drink. You could easily share this meal between two people. There are supposedly other options apart from chicken, but I never saw someone with a different dish.
Looking for more things to do in Antigua?
Then try these…
Go on a free walking tour around Antigua
A free (tips based) walking tour is a great way to learn more about Antigua’s history and to familiarise yourself with the town centre. The tour goes for around two hours and the guides speak decent English. Sign up here.
Splurge at the chocolate museum
Visit Antigua’s chocolate museum for a tour and to buy some goodies from their store. The chocolate is a bit expensive but the staff give out free samples so you can be sure you’re making the right purchase.
There is also a chocolate cooking class here that looks interesting, although expensive at $45 USD.
Antigua’s easiest and most popular viewpoint
Antigua’s famous viewpoint, Cerro de la Cruz, is a spot you should visit for sunset at least once. The lookout is only a 20-30 minute walk from the centre of Antigua, or you can catch a Tuk Tuk there.
Cerro de la Cruz did have a reputation for robberies in the past but it’s much safer now as the tourist police maintain a constant presence during the daylight hours. Try and visit on a weekday as the weekend is often very busy.
The pool party
Antigua’s infamous pool party occurs every Saturday night. Don’t let the name trick you, this isn’t a traditional pool party, it’s an all-night rave in an abandoned pool on the outskirts of the town.
I didn’t attend but was told if you like “techno/trance music, crazy people and hard drugs”, then this is the party for you. Ask any hostel in town and they can provide you with more information.
Hotel Casa Santo Domingo
Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site and by walking around the grounds of Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, you can easily see why.
Here you will find a five-star luxury hotel, multiple museums, an art gallery, a chocolate factory and more. You can easily spend half a day here, or if the budget permits, a night or two.
The hotel was originally a convent before it was partly destroyed by the Santa Marta earthquake in 1773. Most of the original buildings have been preserved and offer a glimpse into Antigua’s history.
While it may not appeal to everyone, Antigua’s Cementerio General is a sprawling cemetery with an interesting assortment of tombs and mausoleums. It’s located right near the bus station and markets, so if you’re in this area, it’s worth taking a quick look at.
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