Last updated on August 7, 2021
I have a secret confession. 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 a judgmentally-inquisitive raised eyebrow .
Antigua’s cobblestone, 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.
Is Antigua, Guatemala Safe?
I take safety as a solo female traveler seriously, and I felt safe on the streets of Antigua. This safety felt absolute during the day, and at night I felt safe in a group. There are few places in the world I ever think it’s wise to walk alone at night, and that does include Antigua. Pickpocketing is the biggest threat here, but I don’t weight that against my big “should I travel here” lists because it’s mostly opportunistic crimes versus violent, thus not really affecting my core safety.
That said, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t keep my wits about me in Antigua, because I did. Traveling Guatemala is not inherently safe—there are more risks than other places. But I never felt unsafe, and even locals from Guatemala City admitted that they drove to Antigua for drinks and nights out because it’s safer than the capital. I have travel insurance through World Nomads, as well as gear insurance when I am on the road, so I generally rate places against the threat of real bodily harm. If you are aware of the main concerns, then both Antigua and the many other parts of Guatemala can be safe for travelers. (My Guatemala Travel Guide more deeply covers the core safety concerns for Guatemala as a whole.)
Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your time in Guatemala—a great policy provides coverage in case your personal effects are stolen or lost, in case of medical emergencies, contains adventure sports rides, and more. I’ve used World Nomads since 2008 and highly recommend it!
All There is to Love About Antigua
The city has 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 artisans market was 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 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. Visiting Antigua for weeks gave me a deep 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 backpackers visiting their country. The Guatemalans I met worked hard to avoid the stereotype that they “lacked” what we have in the West, or that they felt in anyway inferior because they’re Guatemalan. That was a very real issue in my many conversations with locals.
Travelers come to developing countries quick to dismiss the wealthier areas, the prosperous side of a country. Many travelers look to fulfill a narrative they wrote before they left home. They look for the poverty, for something to pity. And this isn’t only my opinion—this was the communicated opinion of Guatemalans I met in Antigua. They meet many backpackers with this viewpoint, and locals are eager to express their feelings and concerns over this worldview that paints any place different as inferior. Many locals I met were proud of their country and wanted a willing and receptive ear. To a person they also acknowledged some of the deep poverty, crime, and other issues that affect pockets of the country (and drive a mass exodus for some to see refuge in Mexico and the U.S.). But just as living in South Side Chicago is a far cry different than a wealthy suburb in Orlando, Guatemala has a diverse peoples.
I would have missed a deeply real side of Guatemala if I had avoided the 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” when I volunteered outside of Xela. I stomped through the forests of Tikal, and I found remote regions, too. Like the sweet Rio Dulce and the adventure waterfall destination of Semuc Champey.
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. At the end of the day, that’s exactly why I travel and what has formed my most transformative travel experiences.
Visiting Antigua, Guatemala
I loved my time in Guatemala. In fact, it’s one of my favorite spots in Central America. I wrote a free and 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.
Best Things to Do in Antigua
- Hiking the Pacaya Volcano is an absolute highlight because you will get up close and see real lava—it was my first time ever doing so and it was memorable! Usually, if travelers do one thing in the city, it’s this activity.
- You can also visit social enterprises in Guatemala—most are located right in Antigua and this a great option for responsible travelers.
- An offbeat activity is to visit a macadamia nut farm.
- Or you could visit a nearby coffee plantation, which is an excellent way to spend half a day if you want a short day trip near the city.
- Most travelers will best enjoy wandering the streets and getting a feel for the town, as well as shopping at the main market, so don’t overplan your time in Antigua with too many things to do. It’s a lovely city and you’ll enjoy just soaking in the vibes.
Where to Sleep
For backpackers, I recommend Three Monkeys Hostel or Yellow House. Both offer good amenities, help booking tours, clean spaces and Yellow House has an amazing breakfast. And even if you stay elsewhere, ALA receive a discount off their first booking! Alternately, if you’re traveling in a group, look to Airbnb for the best options.
Where to 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.
What to Read
Consider When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep for a beautiful novel about Guatemala, and I used the Lonely Planet Guatemala to navigate the country. It’s always nice to understand a place before you go. Also check out my additional recommended pre-trip Guate readings.