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.

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

  1. Troy Benning July 31, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    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?

    • ShannonOD July 31, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

      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 :-)

  2. Jen Laceda June 2, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    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 :)

    • ShannonOD June 3, 2010 at 7:15 am #

      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!

  3. Nomadic Chick June 2, 2010 at 3:32 am #

    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!

    • ShannonOD June 3, 2010 at 7:11 am #

      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 :-)

  4. BeersAndBeans May 29, 2010 at 6:09 am #

    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.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

      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!

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

      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!

  5. Johanna May 28, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    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!)

    • Johanna May 28, 2010 at 6:23 am #

      Clearly all the rock climbing is going to my head.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

      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! :-)

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

      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! :-)

  6. Audrey May 27, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    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.

    • ShannonOD May 29, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

      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 :-)

    • ShannonOD June 4, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

      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 :-)

  7. lainie liberti May 25, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    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!

    • ShannonOD May 26, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

      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! :-)

  8. Melissa S. May 25, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    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.

    • ShannonOD May 26, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

      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. :-)

  9. Candice May 25, 2010 at 3:35 am #

    Wowww, Antigua looks STUNNING. Screw authenticity, good travel is all about those experiences that stick.

    • ShannonOD May 25, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

      Couldn't agree more! Adding Antigua to your RTW now?! ;-)

  10. Laura May 24, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    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!

    • ShannonOD May 25, 2010 at 5:19 am #

      Glad to hear that you liked it too Laura! Such a pretty little town :-)

  11. Andrew May 24, 2010 at 5:42 am #

    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.

    • ShannonOD May 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

      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 ;-)

  12. Gourmantic May 24, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    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 :) )

    • ShannonOD May 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

      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 :)

  13. Kyle Crum May 24, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    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!

    • ShannonOD May 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

      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!

  14. Anil May 24, 2010 at 12:27 am #

    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.

    • ShannonOD May 25, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

      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! :-)

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