I’ve visited Antigua twice. First time I arrived in a hot shuttle bus with 40 degrees fever and feet that could barely hold my weight because of horrendous muscle aches. Needless to say I didn’t really see much of the city the next couple of days, besides my bed, my hostel, the doctor’s cabinet and the panoramic view from the roof terrace. Second time though, I indulged myself into the Spanish language, breathing, eating and dreaming in Spanish while discovering the pretty picturesque colonial city called ‘Antigua’.
1. Look up & look down
Antigua is a colourful sight from above. Go and find yourself a nice bar with a roof terrace, order a Gallo beer or try the local Quetzalteca and enjoy the view. 360 degrees cramped with volcanoes, churches with crucifixes on top – yep, another Catholic Latin American country – and the brightest shades of red, yellow and blue. For the travellers who want to see more Antigua, a little hike up the ‘Cerro de la Cruz’ offers you a fine sight of Agua – yep, Antigua is encircled by volcanoes, this one called ‘water’ – and the city beneath it.
If you’re more a night owl who likes to discover stars and milky ways, don’t forget to search for Fuego – not by chance ‘fire’ in Spanish – in the distance. As a still active volcano, Fuego likes to spread his lava all over the place. That faint reddish glow on the horizon? Oh, wait, growing reddish glow on the horizon? Yep, you’ve found him! Want more? Why not hike to the top of volcano Acatenango and wake up as the sun sets, including panoramic view of Fuego before breakfast. Don’t underestimate the climb though, hiking upwards for hours isn’t for the weakhearted. – Sadly I couldn’t hike, even though I would’ve loved to admire the sunset on top of Acatenango. Being sick drained me of all my powers, so instead I watched Fuego on a roof terrace bar with a cocktail in the hand. It’s all about setting priorities.-
Walk around. This will always be my number one advice when people ask me what to do in a certain kind of place. Walk around. Explore. Steal with your eyes. Discover. Make sketches or write down what you see. Walk into a local supermarket and see how different and how the same life abroad is. Admire the latest piece of street art and buy juicy mango’s from a street vendor. Take pictures and remember.
3. Visit abandoned places
Not really abandoned. When I was wandering around the city, I visited tons of churches and convents. Not because I’m that religious – not at all –, but I know those buildings are the prettiest, most detailed and mostly most deserted places you can find. Ideal to escape the hustle and bustle of a city filled with life and cars and locals and expats. Ideal to find a little haven. A bit of rest. Time to hear yourself think.
Maybe inside the Old Catedral de Santiago, collapsed during the 1773 earthquake that ruined the city, offers big boulders and intricate sculpturing. Overgrown with herbs and flowers, peace and quiet lives only meters away from the buzzing Plaza Central. Or Convento de Nuestra Signora de la Merced, with mayan mysteries, fountains, a deserted roof terrace and the perfect view upon Cerro de la Cruz. Best of all, the Convento de Capuchinas. Damaged by the 1773 earthquake and abandoned by the resident nuns. High arched passageways, gardens filled with butterflies and a labyrinth. Once the cells of the nuns, now a place to get deliciously lost.
4. Go Mercado-hopping
Markets in Central America are my absolute favorites. The freshest fruits, cheapest vegetables and absolutely the best street food are on the market. As in Antigua. Not everyday as big as Monday, Thursday and Saturday, when farmers from the neighbouring villages sell their goods at high speed, but a sight to see nevertheless.
Not only the food, also the artisanal market has seen me more than once. Hell, even more than ten times I think. Brightly coloured handmade blouses, following mayan patterns. Fine silver earrings, good to wear another pair for each day of the year. Leather bags and embroided bags. Small and big, and every size inbetween.
Or the second hand market. As a lover of second hand clothes, I saw quite some vintage stores and markets close-up. Never one as huge as the one in Antigua though. Everything, literally every single piece of clothing or shoes you can think about, can be found in one of the rows and rows of tables at the market. Which comes in handy when you need a pair of gloves for your ascent of Acatenango.
5. Learn Spanish
As I was in the beginning of my trip and my Spanish was a little bit non-existing, I decided to take some classes in Antigua. Already known for the huge amount of foreigners lingering in the city to brush up their Spanish, why not one extra small Belgian girl to accompany them? No need to book a school in advance, just walk around Antigua and ask their prices. Chances are big they’ll offer you a discount as well. My eye fell on the Antigüeña Spanish Academy, which offered a homestead during classes. – and a mention in Lonely Planet & Rough Guides seemed trustworthy as well. – With Spanish during daytime, conversations with my hosts during breakfast, lunch & dinner and random chats with strangers in the park, I managed to learn basic Spanish in a week. A huge thumbs up for Antigua.
6. Dance the night away
With the buzzing mix of foreigners and local Guatemalans, nightlife is thriving in Antigua. Take the time to learn a bit of salsa during one of the free classes and practise the whole night long. Plenty of bars to spend the evening chatting, socializing and learning the newest dance moves. Sundays are salsa nights in La Sala and also Las Vibras de la Casbah is a nice spot to dance the night away.
And still I haven’t seen everything. Spending a lot of time in Antigua enjoying life and still haven’t had enough to see it all, to live it all and explore it all.