A Little Learning… Finding Authenticity in Antigua

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antigua guatemala travel

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 judgmentally inquisitive eyebrow lifts.

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 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.

One of the main churches in Antigua
a street mime performs in the downtown historic area of antigua
A gorgeous chicken bus passes by a crumbling wall

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 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.

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” 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 adventurous 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.

Quick Tips: 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.

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. 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.

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 are here.

Things to do: 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! You can also visit social enterprises in Guatemala—most are located right in Antigua. Other than that, there are offbeat options like visiting a macadamia nut farm, but most travelers will best enjoy wandering the streets and getting a feel for the town, as well as shopping at the main market.

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost luggage, adventure sports riders, and more. I’ve used World Nomads since 2008 and highly recommend it!

38 thoughts on “A Little Learning… Finding Authenticity in Antigua”

  1. Enjoyed your insights. Wondering how a youthful 70 yr old would adjust to Antigua for a month or so, maybe more. The cost of living has gotten so high in Sarasota.

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    • I think you should give it a try! There are certainly expat communities there and you could get to know them, they would help you get the lay of the land. I definitely recommend it, and I think a youthful 70 year old would thrive. :) (Also, I was born and raised in St. Pete, but live in Spain for similar reasons—love the food, culture, and it’s affordable!)

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  2. Do you think it is absolutely necessary for a healthy individual to get vaccines coming to Guatemala for one week with a charity organization who is going to plan out each day and provide bottled water as well as strictly provide all food you will eat? I’m looking into hepatitis A and typhoid but the trip coordinator I talked to from the charity I’m going with said she can’t recommend anything but that her personally she does not get vaccinated but just maintains good hygiene, washing hands frequently and using common sense, no street food. I’d love to hear your experience, never traveled abroad.

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    • Hi Shannon, that’s a good question and I have to say, I do think vaccines are a good idea. These are illnesses we can actually prevent. And in the case of Typhoid, it’s not your hand-washing that’s a concern. You may be diligent, but it’s passed through water and other peoples’ hands, and a lot of people may interact with your food before it reaches you. I have all of my vaccines and I stay updated on them because I see it as proactively addressing the preventable, because you already have a whole host of things you could also get that do not have vaccines (food poisoning, Zika, giardia, etc). If you chose not to get them, I totally get it, and in that case I would assess it based on time of year. Many illnesses spread more easily in rainy season and very wet conditions, for example. Hope that helps!

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  3. For hardcore backpackers, it can be quite a turn off. Some travelers really to visit places that are raw and not adulterated or tourist-centered.

    But hey, if you love the place, “Touristy” or not, you just need to appreciate!

    By the way, have you ever gone to the Philippines?

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    • Thanks for weighing in on the debate – I definitely think that you can get trapped in your own thinking if you tell yourself that “touristy” places suck – some can have their own charm!

      I actually haven't yet been to the Philippines but might go when I make it back over to Asia next month :-)

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    • “Hardcore backpackers”. The name is a contradiction. As an expat, most I have met who would adopt such a monicker are self-indulgent and insufferable. The blog is right. Backpacking for many has simply become virtue signalling and about denying agency to the people in the country they are visiting. Most have a “white savior complex” in which the only correct locals are those in need of saving…by them of course. So what if the locals enjoy being able to drink starbucks and eat KFC? We have deemed it improper. They should live in such a way that reinforces our notions of them being innocent primitives, helpless in the face of crushing consumerism and in need of our guidance. To the “hardcore backpacker”, what guatemalans want is irrelevant.

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    • Love your article on Antigua and I go quite often and every time I have beautiful experiences and I have made friends from all over North America and Europe and other places in Antigua Guatemala I love this place and it does feel safe

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  4. I didn't know people viewed Antigua that way, but this is not the first time I've heard that this town is too touristy / not the real Guatemala, etc. However, I still want to go :)

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    • I definitely think you should! (obviously) :-) There is no denying the tourists, but there is also no ignoring the pretty architecture and fun vibe. Let me know when you make it that way, I've got some fav spots!

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  5. I wouldn't even call it *normal* per say as just another side of the country. Some developing nations have a middle class – one who travels and is exposed to Western culture. Obviously the Irish bar stands out, but there should be no guilt involved. I'm starting to get weary of this argument between authentic or not. All of it is!

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    • Couldn't agree more! It also just points to the fact that travel is highly personal – what one person loves could be a real dud to someone else…but through it all, dud or not, touristy or not, it is all real :-)

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  6. You are not alone my friend. I once sat at Reilly's too and wondered “Is this right?”
    It was. Sometimes it's nice to have a little slice of normal life when traveling even if it comes in the form of an Irish pub in the middle of Guatemala. Antigua is beautiful but I didn't fall in love with it, not sure why. We ended up going to ChiChi as well and I really loved it there. Have you been there? Overall though, I absolutely loved Guatemala and would go back again in a heartbeat.

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    • It's so funny how highly personal travel can be – I fully loved Antigua, and went to ChiChi and was fully ready to leave within a few hours! :-) Glad you liked Guatemala too – it ranks as one of my most enjoyed countries!

      Reply
    • It's so funny how highly personal travel can be – I fully loved Antigua, and
      went to ChiChi and was fully ready to leave within a few hours! :-) Glad
      you liked Guatemala too – it ranks as one of my most enjoyed countries!

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  7. Great post Shannon! Travel is all relative. My boyfriend and I are currently in Yangshuo, China which is definitely a stop on the backpacker trail. We are here for the rock climbing and many people tell us to go elsewhere to see the “real China, but we hop onto our bikes and ride 10-15 k into the rice paddies and karst towers, chatting (or at least smiling) at the farmers along the way—don't think you can get much more real than that. (Photos will soon be up on our blog if you want to check them out!)

    Reply
    • Bike riding around is such a fantastic way to see a country – and you are so right, just 20 minutes from where all of the tourists are can be the most amazingly local little shops that few people visit because they stay within such a small vicinity around the tourist sites! I am jealous of your China travels and look forward to looking through your photos! :-)

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    • Bike riding around is such a fantastic way to see a country – and you are so
      right, just 20 minutes from where all of the tourists are can be the most
      amazingly local little shops that few people visit because they stay within
      such a small vicinity around the tourist sites! I am jealous of your China
      travels and look forward to looking through your photos! :-)

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  8. Antigua was our first stop in Latin America. We were fortunate enough to stay with a woman we had met hiking in Laos two years prior and she turned out to be from a family with money. As we walked up to the rooftop terrace of her place (with a jacuzzi) and looked over the volcanoes around, there was such a sense of peace. Sure, the streets of Antigua are touristy and there are touristy restaurants, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a beautiful place with “real” people and “real” experiences. Travelers who get into pissing contests about not visiting the “real” part of the country usually aren't savvy enough to find the “real” in the place they are in.

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    • Her house sounds like such an amazing oasis in the city, and I have to say that meeting up with people I've met previously on the road is one of my favorite parts – they show you around and it's even better than couchsurfing because you've already met and bonded and can just jump right :-)

      Reply
    • Her house sounds like such an amazing oasis in the city, and I have to say
      that meeting up with people I've met previously on the road is one of my
      favorite parts – they show you around and it's even better than couchsurfing
      because you've already met and bonded and can just jump right :-)

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  9. Shannon, Thank you. Thank you for articulating so well the beauty and charm of Antigua. I get it, because, well, my son and I have been living here for the last six months! He's 11 and we actually set out on a world tour, taking our time. After eight months of traveling through all of Central America, we decided to stop, stay here for a rest. It is easy and safe and does attract a lot of locals because of that reason. There are the daily infusion of typical backpackers, yes that's for sure. And actually, my son and I meet a good deal of them, since we are one of the only couchsurfing hosts in this city. I get to experience this city again and again through their eyes and always find inspiration. Again, thank you for this wonderful post!

    Reply
    • So awesome that you are a part of couchsurfing – I really should have been
      using it more during my Central America travels – then I would have found
      you guys! Enjoy the rest of your time in Antigua, I'm jealous that you get
      to still be there, I will be coming back there one day! :-)

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  10. I've been looking for the past few months (via the Internet and HGTV's House Hunters International television show) for a new place to call home. My conditions for the area are: it must have a cultural relevance of its country, be near the water, have a vibrant community, embraces the ex-pats living there, and must be easy to travel to and from for my elderly parents. Having lived in Asia for almost a decade, I am now looking for a home in Latin America. Your description of Antigua is now firmly listed on my 'check it out' list and I'll be researching cost of housing there. Keep up the good work Shannon and all you RTWers. Some of us armchair people are living through you and taking to heart your descriptions of places and people.

    Reply
    • Glad that I've added a place to your list – Antigua is definitely a great
      place to check out – and with Guatemala City so close, getting to and from
      is really a cinch! Also, there really is a great expat community there, so
      you would be in good company! You'll have to remember to let me know down
      the line what you think. :-)

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  11. Who cares if it's a tourist hot spot. How could you not fall in love with such stunning architecture and the cobblestone streets? I was in Antigua about 4 years ago and would definitely return!

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  12. A lot of people go traveling with pre-concieved notions of what they want to see and wha thte place will be like. Sometimes if these aren't initially visible, they declare it as “not real” and go searching for what you want to find. Every city, country, region has poverty, why is it any more interesting in one place or another; because people expect to find it and go looking for it.
    Great post, Irish Pubs are my favorite place all over the world to hang out.

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    • I have to admit, an Irish pub will rarely let you down! Cheers to the rest, it's managing expectations and going with an open mind that could be the key to travel…”pre-concieved notions” should just be a dirty word ;-)

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  13. I don't subscribe to the setting of rules for travel and being judgemental, in the name of going off 'the beaten track'. Whatever happened to an open mind… I think too much analysis goes into something that can be simply enjoyed for what it is.

    Good post, Shannon! :)

    (Sorry for my absence. Your RSS feeds suddenly appeared in my reader over the weekend, all at once! I've missed catching up with your travels :) )

    Reply
    • Thanks! I love that travelers are supposed to be really open minded and yet these debates still happen out there :-)

      (As for the blog…yikes :( must have been a result of the site hack…had to relocate to a new server….wires must of gotten crossed in the webi-verse :)

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  14. Sometimes there is a reason why there are many tourists in one place and that reason may just be that it is a good place to go. At this point, I usually stop all pissing contests by telling people that I am a tourist and I like to do tourist activities.

    Antigua's a nice city; enjoy it!

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    • Nice! I bet that stops them in their tracks :-) Anyway, as you said they are tourist activities for a reason and usually because they're pretty freakin neat things! Cheers, I'm a tourist too!

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  15. I'm with you – it's all real! Just because somewhere is poorer or more dangerous doesn't make it closer to any absolute truth or hidden culture. I think seeing the spectrum tells you more than anything about the variety that exists within every culture and location.

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    • I remember that you did a piece similar to this as well, and it's the same issue that seems to crop up – thanks for weighing in Anil! :-)

      Reply

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