A Little Adrift

A Little Learning… Authenticity and a Town I Just Shouldn’t Like

I have a secret confession to make right now. I really like Antigua, Guatemala.

And I feel like I shouldn’t because the town seems so tourist-purposed and overrun by westerners; Antigua is such a marked contrast to the dangerous and grittier reality in nearby Guatemala City. When I mention to other travelers I spent a month total (split across three visits) in Antigua, I often get those judgmentally inquisitive eyebrow lifts.

Antigua’s cobblestone, almost idyllically pretty, streets are clean. The low-slung buildings are a rainbow of neatly painted cookie-cutter storefronts. Crumbling ruins dot the corners of the city’s small blocks at a regular interval — they clearly point to the town’s colonial past. It is, in a grossly simplistic word, cute.

Perhaps beyond cute; it’s also easy and safe. The city slowly and steadily built a strong tourism industry to cater to the droves of tourists passing through this Guatemalan hub. A variety of vegetarian food is also plentiful, and the local artisan’s market is well-stocked with something for just about everyone on my Christmas list.

My love of Antigua highlights one of those never-ending debates about experiencing the “real” heart of a country when you visit. Other backpackers so often make a pissing contest with me over who went further “off the path.” Who saw the “real” Guatemala. Is there a fake Guatemala?

To tell the truth, I had some of my best conversations with locals sitting at Reilly’s, a painfully westernized Irish pub in the center of Antigua. And does the fact that some of these conversations took place in English make a difference? I don’t think so.

Reilly’s turned out to be a perfect place to meet other locals my age; Guate City isn’t exactly a hub of safe partying. Local Guatemalans flood Antigua on the weekends, a mere 45 minute drive away. Antigua gave me a glimpse into a vastly different, and yet so very similar, middle class. These twenty-somethings sport slicked back hair, the women teeter through the uneven streets on pointy heels, which accent their trendy legging/long shirt ensembles. And all carry the ubiquitous smartphone.

And so many of the twenty-somethings I encountered felt like they have something to prove to the backpackers visting their country. Guatemalans are constantly working to avoid the stereotype that they are “lacking” what we have, or in anyway inferior because they’re Guatemalan. That was a very real issue in all of my conversations.

Travelers come to developing countries quick to dismiss the wealthier areas, the prosperous side of a country. They are looking to fulfil a narrative they wrote before they left home. They look for the poverty, for something to pity. And this isn’t my opinion along. This was the communicated opinion of the Guatemalans I met in Antigua. They meet many backpackers with this viewpoint, and they were eager to express this feelings and concerns. They were proud of their country and wanted a willing and receptive ear.

I would have missed a deeply real side of Guatemala if I had avoided these gringo-fied areas. I would have created, and thus received, a very different version of Guatemala if I had stuck only to the countryside; the off-the-path locations. I did “go local,” and I volunteered outside of Xela. I stomped through the forests and found remote regions too. But the lovely, cute, touristy little city of Antigua, Guatemala? Well it served me just as well in my efforts to understand this dynamic country. I will raise my eyebrows right back at those who want to start a pissing contest with me, because no matter where I go I am always able to learn something new, and at the end of the day, that’s why I travel.

Quick Tips for Visiting Antigua, Guatemala

I loved my time in Guatemala. In fact, it’s one of my favorite spots in Central America. I wrote a comprehensive Guatemala Travel Guide. It includes everything you should know before you go: responsible travel, book recs, what to see and do, where to study Spanish. A total knowledge dump from my months traveling Guate. If you’re just heading to Antigua, these tips will get you started.

Sleep: I recommend Three Monkeys Hostel or Yellow House. Both offer good amenities, help booking tours, clean spaces and Yellow House has an amazing breakfast.
Eat: I loved Bagel Barn. Go here for the breakfast and plan out the rest of your trip with their tasty coffee and fast wifi.
Read: Consider When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep for a beautiful novel about Guatemala, and I used the Lonely Planet Guatemala. It’s always nice to understand a place before you go. More recommended Guate readings.