Last updated on March 9, 2022
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.
Things to Do in 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.
Hike Pacaya Volcano
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. One of the more fun aspects unique to this hike is the roasting of marshmallows. Because you’re so close to real lava flows, the steam coming up from the rocks is hot enough for some toasty warm marshmallows—most tour guides will bring a bag and pass them out to participants.
If you plan to hike Pacaya, you must dress appropriately, and that includes wearing the right shoes—wear hiking boots or shoes with a thick sole. If you’re not wearing the right footwear you may very well injure your feet because the hot rocks will melt the soles of your shoes down to your sock—this happened to a woman on my hike who was wearing sneakers. The rocks even melted a bit of the side of my hiking shoe, but at least there was a lot of rubber to get through. Also, wear long trousers since the heat seeping up from the rocks is no joke.
If you’re a more serious hiker, book a tour to hike Acatenango Volcano—it’s a much harder hike and should not be done casually.
Support Sustainable Tourism Businesses
You can also visit social enterprises in Guatemala—most are located right in Antigua and this a great option for responsible travelers.
Visit the Macadamia Farm Outside of Antigua
An offbeat activity is to visit a macadamia nut farm, which has amazing pancakes. It’s a fun day trip from the city and really under-visited by travelers in Antigua considering it’s a mere 10 minute bus ride outside of town. It’s best to visit for breakfast so that you can enjoy fluffy pancakes made with macadamia flour, smothered in the creamiest macadamia butter imaginable, and topped with a dollop of blueberries from the blueberry farm they also own in own in a nearby region of Guatemala. The owners are very embedded in the local community so your money is also going to good work employing locals and helping conserve the local enviroment.
Tour a Working Coffee Plantation
Visit a coffee plantation just outside of Antigua—this is an excellent way to spend half a day if you want another short day trip near the city. The tour is well done demonstrates the entire process of making coffee, from picking the coffee cherries to roasting the beans and then serving up a fresh, hot cup ‘o joe.
Shop at Antigua’s Main Market
While many travelers wait to do their shopping at Chichicastenango, the main market in Antigua actually offers a fantastic selection of locally made textiles and souvenirs. I bought my dad a gorgeous striped blanket at a great price. Because I bought it my last week in the country—after I had already traveled in Guatemala for a good amount of time—I knew what I should expect to pay and how hard to haggle. Waiting to shop at the market on my way out of the country also meant I didn’t have carry extra souvenirs with me as I backpacked Guatemala (down the Rio Dulce, waterfall hopping at Semuc Champey, exploring Tikal, learning Spanish in Xela, and more).
Go to Church and Explore Ruined Buildings
San Francisco Church is one of the most notable in the city, and it’s worth penciling this into your itinerary of things to do. You could spend a day exploring the city’s churches and interesting ruins—because Antigua is an earthquake zone, there are many photogenic ruins around town. Most notable among the earthquake-damaged ruins is the Catedral de Santiago, Roman Catholic church originally built in 1541.
Wander Antigua’s Cobblestone Streets
Most travelers will enjoy wandering the streets and getting a feel for the town, 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. You’ll have your fill of Baroque architecture and charming, low-slung buildings. There are also many shady squares begging for you to cozy up under a tree with a good book. When in doubt, end a the main square and grab an ice cream from a street food vendor and hunker down on a curb to soak in the pace of life.
Plan Your Antigua Trip
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. 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.